The Poetry of Second Thoughts
Susan Gillis articulates in-betweenness in Volta
By Carmine Starnino
Volta begins with the warning of "widespread damage." It's never made clear what the damage is, but the calamitous mood is certainly everywhere in these new poems. Swimming Among the Ruins, Susan Gillis's debut collection, showed readers that she had a fine eye for instability, be it the world's declension into ruin ("The young pines are windlashed and broken/We enter under the headless lions/their permament roar.") or moments broken down into their alienating particulars ("Love. Don't think I'm thinking of you./Anything but you.") Volta not only resumes this sense of unease, this recognition of impermanence, but also resumes its expression through Gillis's two major themes: the unpredictability of travel ("Of all towns, that I should lose everything in this/minor hub en route to the coast, place/to set out from, not to settle, Seljuk") or - as in "The Condition of Love" - a powerful love constantly amended by indecision:
If love stand behind falling water.
If love were crammed into rock at the world's birth.
If my hands shook as I neared you in the café, sloshing my hot desire.
If to see, to be seen, if seen, my mistake.
The conjugation is not simple.
If to speak, spoken.
If silence be a useful life.
If a useful life be a knife in the heart.
The heart, divided.
If I live in one chamber, you in another.
If a recess in a rock be a chamber.
Here the speaker's uncertainty is forced to ride alongside a confident flurry of assertions and conjectures. The tension this creates - that of a consciousness fitfully observing itself, a mind forever caught in that moment of catching up - can be said to be the signature effect of Gillis's new book. "Volta," for instance, is a sonnet term which literally means "turn" - the change in direction in a sonnet's argument which occurs between octave and sestet. Gillis thus seems to have filtered out the volta's direction-adjusting trait and allowed it to fully flourish in her poems, generating a strange, anxious poetry of second thoughts. Her poems revise, revisit, review, and return to particular moments and memories. Even the book's boldest venture, experimental adaptations of sixteenth-century sonnets, extend this borderline thinking, creatively trapping the "translations" in a condition of in-betweenness - not the original sonnets, not exactly Gillis's own poems.
Gillis's sonnet-remaking scheme thus becomes a fascinating trope for life suspended in a state of liminal decipherment. It is but one of the many good new things Gillis brings to her poetry. There is now a stronger sense of atmosphere in her scene-setting. Gillis often finds the strange corners of a narrative, angles of vision others poets may not think about or know how to use. And her love of language has led here to a terse, detail-alert music ("and on the floor a dark/shock where a wind has come in and blown over/the vase of peonies"). Gillis loves the challenge of putting words to those emotions that never stay long enough to be described. (Often, Gillis's poems don't describe a feeling as much as find themselves waking up inside of one.) Done badly, this sort of thing can feel as though one is always trying to get to the point and not succeeding. Done well, it can capture a subtlety of a sensation in transition. And in Volta, it's done very well indeed.
CS: Volta is organized around a group of poems which your endnotes describe as "radical translations or permutations" of a sonnet series penned in the 16th century by the Earl of Surrey. Why did you start such a project?
SG: I was intrigued by the smooth Surrey surface. I wondered if the sonnets had something to say to me here and now or were interesting mainly as artefacts. Closer and closer reading got me interested in their undercurrents, the way language and form both concealed and revealed the subject and the subjective voice, which seemed to be where the true excitement of the sonnet's idea was located. I wanted to find ways to play with the things that concerned Surrey in the sonnets, to interpret those ideas through a 20th/21st century consciousness. As I worked I found that it also helped me think about other things I wanted to write about generally. Also, trying on various personae as I went through the sonnets, which are not written as a series, in contrast to many sonnet groupings from that period, was a good imaginative workout.
CS: At the end of your collection is an essay called "Gossiping with Cassiopeia" in which you reveal - using a mix of literary criticism, myth, history, and memoir - some of the thinking that went into your "translations." It's unusual to publish these sorts of clarifications, much less something so hybrid, in a poetry collection. Why did you write it?
SG: I wasn't quite finished with Surrey. So much of the playing I did with those poems involved paraphrasing, prose writing, researching Early Modern English usage and pronounciation, history, etc. that I was left with more to say about his sonnets than what his poems say. The questions then was what form that would take, and what did I want to include in it. I didn't want to write an "Introduction" to the poems, or a set of instructions on how to read them or an explanation of my process. Partly I wanted to provide a bit of context - some of the 16th century sonnets, and bits of how I was interpreting them - and partly I wanted to organize what were at first much-too-extensive notes into something else, something more interesting as a free-standing piece than notes. The essay is a mode which I think benefits from being manipulated in ways that veer from the standard argumenation models. And so it sort of fit with the project as a similar kind of endeavour.
CS: "The world/is noisier now" you write in "Love Poses a Question," "and depleted/of explanations." There's a fair amount of attempted emotional and intellectual problem-solving in your poetry, but while your poems confront the world's explanation-depleted state, they always pull back from providing any kind of answer.
SG: That's probably because I'm not interested in answers as much as questions. Later in that same poem, for example, I call the earth "a question/that swallows sense." My greatest challenge when working on a poem has always been clarifying my thoughts, pinning down what it is I'm actually thinking or, more specifically, what it is I'm trying to get a hold of when I'm thinking about a particular subject. Writing, for me, is a process of giving some kind of vivid form to a vague uncertainty, or identifying some bewilderment. So I guess when I work a piece up what I'm trying to do is bring more and more into focus, or get rid of the stuff that's working against that hoped-for focus - once, that is, I understand what the stuff is! Because it's not always what I think it is. The truth is, I'm still trying to understand what it is I actually do when I write poetry. Let me give you an example. Every morning I spend about an hour looking out my window at the same tree. I recently realized that what I'm doing is not looking really closely at that tree, een though I might notice, say, that yesterday there was moss and today it fell away. No, what I'm really doing is the opposite - trying to stop separating things, trying to stop categorizing this as "branch" or "bark" or "twig." To let go of all that and look at the tree in other ways.
CS: You're learning to suprise yourself?
SG: I suppose so.
CS: Is that why travel is such an important subject in your poetry?
SG: Well, I consider travel to be an ideal state in a way, one that has something to do with - and forgive the jargon word - disorientation. That is, a kind of deep defamiliarization, a state of being in which things are surprising again, yet in a context that is familiar enough so that you're not completely lost, where you still have some sense of yourself in relationship to a place, even though you're struggling to understand what that relationship is. I think that state reflects some internal questioning that seems to be with me constantly. The moment I begin to get really comfortable and stop being surprised by things then I try to find new ways to get surprised again. Maybe I'm most comfortable that way. I know that I'm often happiest when moving - when I'm on a ferry, say, or on a plane. But make no mistake, I'd also be perfectly happy not to travel. I'd be really happy to live in one place and look at one tree for the rest of my life. But there are times when I feel that I need to resolve something and that's really when the act of travel - being in a strange place and on the move without ties to a routine - helps me clarify things.
By By Susan Gillis