Elizabeth Willis: Turneresque


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The title plays off the style of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings and media mogul Ted Turner’s revival of B-cinema as two competing versions of the sublime. Like Turner’s painting, the book embraces both figuration and abstraction. It can be read as repeated acts of “turning” — between visuality and sound, lyric and narrative tension, the sheen of popular icons and the shadow of literary obscurity, the celebrated and the invisible worlds.

Each of the three anchoring sections of prose poems engages in a dialogue with aspects of visual composition: with Turner and other artists, with film, or with the “moving picture” of American culture as framed by the car window. The lyric sections are composed as counterpoint.

Elizabeth Willis was born in Bahrain and grew up in the American midwest. She holds a Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo and teaches at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. She has published two books of poems: The Human Abstract (Penguin, 1995: National Poetry Series winner) and Second Law (Berkeley: Avenue B, 1993). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Aufgabe, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, The Germ, How2, etc.

“She succeeds…in reinvesting language with the uniqueness of origin: the breath gesture of each letter.”

—Joshua McKinney, Denver Quarterly

“Elizabeth Willis recovers the originating lyric impulse into a haunting contemporary song. This is poetry of amazing intelligence and grace.”

—Ann Lauterbach

“…the poet reformulates the passage from innocence to experience in a consideration of both the limits of lyric and the worlds alive between the pronouns I and you.”

—Claudia Keelan, Poetry Flash

“Thanks to Willis’s skill with language, and the deftly undercutting humor, the potentially awkward juxtapositions make poetry…. Intrinsic to her poems is a basic wonderment at the world, but rather than be surprised that it exists, she ponders the common force that holds everything together. While her speaker is not afraid to admit that she “cannot describe salt,” she discovers something essential in the intricacies of thought.”

Publishers Weekly

“What drives Willis’s incisive commentary into stunning poetry are her gorgeous lines…. Despite a distinctly noir atmosphere and the unsettling quality that always attends the sublime, Turneresque comes off as affirmative, even jocularly courageous. It seems—to borrow one of its own phrases— “to imply or intone whole possibility of human sun.”

—Cole Swensen, Rain Taxi

“a luminous balance—reflected points of precise resemblance—between the blending of poetry and painting in Pre-Raphaelitism… and California’s twenty-first centry car culture, with its sense of dislocation and eerie technocratic beauty.”

—Susan Howe, American Poet

“Willis explores permanence in motion, the differences between a frozen and internalized moment captured in a painting, and the motion of film…. a brave and generous work, deftly attuned to the dirt, air, sea and light of the world and sharply aware of its own cultural make-up. That the “I” of the poems is an “abridgement” of cultural influences never interferes with the intensity of the speaker’s experience of living in a physical world.

—Lisa Smith, Double Room