Magic Without Tears in The Poetry of Lissa Wolsak

     Though I have written considerably about my own poetry, I have not been able to
derive, in writing, a poetics therefrom. But it seems that I cannot so much as read a few
phrases of Lissa Wolsak's poetry, than I am at it—thinking poetics, writing poetics,
declaiming a nature of poetry I hazard to aver that I perceive there. On the other hand, I
am not inclined to interpret or unpack particular poems or poetic events. No sooner have I
worked what seems the sense of one of her remarkably suggestive phrases, than the event
shifts from under my cognitive gaze. It did mean thus and so—but having said that,
another significance rises into view, another sense of the phrase's en-nested-ness in
phrases gone before, another set of significant relations. There is a movement here of a
most significant sort, that will not lend itself to precise determination, if only (but not
only) because it is each determination that sets the thing in motion. How is one to
illustrate such a hesitant chimera? I can't, so I will simply go with what has been
happening as, over the last few months, I have been reading her poems with a view
toward writing something for these pages in honor of them, namely—I will write what
comes to mind by way of actualizing a very real association of my thinking with them. 

     In Union of Open Sets, Ms. Wolsak's essay on Madeline Gins and Arakawa's
Architectural Body, Ms. Wolsak finds occasion to ferret out this remark of the authors:

“[…]an organism that persons lives as a community.)” (Arakawa and Gins, p.98)

I hear "persons" as a verb, neglect the context, as she does, and report, in what follows,
how the totality of Ms. Wolsak's writing, ambient in my thought, conditioned an
avalanche of self-correcting  reflection. Perhaps this might exemplify the cascade of
cognitive attention that utterances in Ms. Wolsak's work (but also under her attention in
the work of others) causes to arise.

     “[…]an organism that persons lives as a community.” That is: I do not live top down. The
activities and emergings of my various self-configuring members [but what are these
members? I am finally no more a multiplicity than an entity—this "self-configuring" does
not happen as if the "self-" in the "configuring" were just an auto-reflexive structure,
some sort of homeostat or cyberloop—but it also isn't the case that there is a conscious
entity or field that by its own magic calls an inchoate or  multiplicitous swarm into
determinacy]—The activities and emergings of my various self-configuring members
precede my acts as a whole being. My wholeness floats upon a swarming, inner
multiplicity and rarely imposes upon it. [Nor does "wholeness" afford relief from the
relentless streaming of the cyber-swarm—there is no possibility of abandoning
consciousness  or possessing it at a single bound.] My wholeness floats upon a
swarming, inner multiplicity and rarely imposes upon it, and then only with uninterrupted
openness and sensitivity to the activities that continue to occur on their own among the
members. [As if there were "members" in the person; not "parts" or "segments" or
"subdivisions" but sub-moieties whose own swarming identities already organize around
a principle that belongs to the person, as if I blew down into the boonies of the soul an
effluence of my personhood—that, but not that—but also as if the boonies of the soul blew
up the germens of identity to be gathered by the "fielding" of the person—that, but not
that—rather as if the category of person were an after-thought no person need ever
concern herself with—that, but not that—as if none of these considerations make any
sense at all except in the living processes and particularities of circumstance, social or
meditative, physical or ethereal—that, but not that.] There is a posited constancy, a
rumor of a vast and happy sphere in the intuition of which and in the happiness of one's
orientation toward which, integration of contingency and optimization towards harmonic
opulence might thrive. Some texts or images exude the rumor of it. Some persons in their
presence, the character of their attention, the modulations of their energy, also, make it
seem—make that which cannot come to appearance, nevertheless come to seem.

2. On Being Had

     The time has long gone since the monumentality of the written text, having found
its niche in the great halls of literature, could experience such achievement in proxy for
its poet as ultimate bulwark against the flotsam of history and the underlying tussle and
torque of time. Neither Keats' Urn nor Yeats' Singing School nor even the dusty Owls of
Robert Duncan's grim museum, can hold out any longer against the utterly transitory
character of even the most heartily well-wrought artifact. The artifactual nature of reality
itself is now felt to be so keenly ensconced in its fleeting identity, that "the work of
time's" subjection to time's ravages hardly evokes a whimper. You must find a way to
live with a moment's grace and let the matter of durative identity take care of itself as it
     A certain professor, after "studying" a text of Ms. Wolsak's, imbibed the final utterance,
"got it," and exclaimed to the poet in his mind, "You almost had me there."
What could he have meant? No doubt but that he hadn't "gotten" the sense of the text until
he "got" that final utterance; that in fact he had been had, in his own estimation,
until now. And now he was no longer had, but had his precious comprehension to
walk away from the poem with, professional identity intact, the challenge of the
"difficult" text satisfactorily dealt with. The poem after all has its density, its enigmas, to
be faced like some hybrid animal from no man's land, to be solved at last, the entity
stunned and now capable of eternal storage among the other artifacts of eternity. 

     Some years ago I had the occasion to spend time in the back rooms of a famous
museum where thousands of paintings, sculptures, archaeological fragments,
and other inestimably valuable whatnots, were carefully catalogued and cared for, out of
the sight of anybody but the meticulous custodians of these shadowy catacombs. Nice
place to visit, but I wouldn't want to . . .
     But the poem—and here I think there is a principle by which to rethink the nature of any
poem, apropos a certain newly intensified  loss of historical focus; 1— the poem will not be
fixed in its habitat of meaning; but 2.—no multiplicity of meanings, however harmonically
arranged, however referenced to their historical, social, or biographical
exigencies, however rigged with the prodigious feats of prescience, circumspection, and
erudition well-schooled sensibilities are called to provide—none of these qualities are
particularly impressive these days for reasons anyone capable of availing herself of
powerful search engines knows very well—even the data can be ordered by the exercise
of skills quite different from the quiet waiting upon emergent intuition once associating
both the composition and the reading of a poem with contemplative reserve and prayerful
solicitation. But for the poem, instead of all this, there is one thing that matters now, I
swear it: a tiny space, the size of a postage stamp, but dimensioned like a tesseract or a
hyper-tesseract—a multi-dimensional bauble, instinct with self-luminous oxygen, that
really does arrange itself inside one's readerly being, so that the poem does yield there,
for a moment, a fragile glasm of its unstable noetic possibilities. The more you see of it
the more you are had indeed.  And gladly that, or not at all. There is no hay to be made
by any of this Maying. The value is in the thing itself, again, or not at all.
The American imperative: ask of everything how money can be made from it—contrives
a certain contrastive atmosphere unhappy for such objects. And it isn't only money—
identity in the stalls and stations of artistic repute is itself a kind of currency,
unpropitious for the rising of the light, this special "glasm," like I say. There is no way
to compensate for its absence by some simulacra of the fact, so fragile is the gracious event
of the poem's ephemerata, which are no more nor less the victim of mere transiency than
any other event or any thing.  There is no where to go from here at all but to what the
poem, or indeed any moment, truly liberated by being lived, yields—not to you but of
you, as its living passage along oblivion.


     Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" has familiarly been misread as valorizing oral poetry
and the performance occasion at the expense of the written text. But this misses
the dichotomy that Olson actually articulates. The text itself is the reception of an oral
projection, and as such serves as a score for further performance. But the contrast is not
between live performance and written text; rather, it is a distinction within textuality
itself: texts that hold the energy proper to living speech versus texts responsive to an
essentially abstract universe of logical or logically-normed intellection. The projective
text stands between utterance and utterance, not between an external surface and an ideal

     The glory of it is that when utterance itself carries an intelligential act, that act in its own
vitality, color, topology, and rhythm can so qualify a text that the reader becomes the theater
of the originating event's further enactments. Nothing need be reduced towards any
universally legible discourse. It speaks the "impossible speech" of its authentic source and its
particular community. It registers the intelligence of its moment of projection and it arouses
the intelligence of its moment of reception. The space of its performance is a common one
on every side of its occurrence. It awakens in, awakens to, and, performatively, simply
awakens such a space, by the interplay of energy, thought, and consciousness that language,
carried as instrument rather than suffered as "prison house," sets in play.


     A certain Tibetan lama remarks somewhere, "On the fifteenth day of the month the moon
sets simultaneously with the sun's rising—there is no intermission." The instantaneity of
meaning is actually like that. There is no time to think, to have beliefs, or
elaborate one's hermeneusis. The fabulous  Garuda Bird flies at once upon hatching from
his egg. "There is no time or space left" for any self-conscious hustling or jockeying, as if
the truth were a deal to be arrived at after due diligence performed and negotiations
entered into—negotiations with what, can you tell me? Why nothing but the Truth itself!
And yet it is the truth that by virtue of this very immediacy, the moment I am face to face
with a text, I believe what I read!
     Once we are no longer distanced from the poem as if it were a finished world of fixed
meanings—however complex or contrapuntally set-out—and hazard the concreteness of our
moment before the face of it—we are utterly at the mercy of what we
find that we ARE there—I am the Angel conjured by the text that addresses me—or else I
am the victim of the poverty of the writer's own self-apprehension: What she fails to feel
of herself as she writes, I am condemned to become as I read her. If  the writer conducts
himself  as master of some disembodied hypercombobularia—then that's how I find myself
posed before the work. If she has attained transparency of being so that her matter shimmers
as radiant objects draped in the gossamer tresses of her speech, I too am transparent to the
wonders of such an access. Thus a poem may materially deliver the goods of an esoteric
promise—acarna of subtle realms and transcendent phenomenologies—but only at the hazard
 of every tawdry condition of mind and soul ever projected onto poetic page.
     The ethics of this situation are yet to be developed, but we can say that under such
recognitions, writing and its qualities matter in a way not envisioned either by traditional
critical reticence, political critique, or post modern elaboration.


     To sever the quotidian with the immediacy of a text—to awaken the face-to-face of the
word-at-a-moment and its ineluctable belief-realm—any word or phrase will do. We have but
to recognize the radical impermanence of every passing instant to feel the radicality of the
magic that the temporary stasis of a single word on a page affords. For the page-word does
battle with impermanence, whatever it says it does by way of its meaning, its fragmentary tale
or image, its assertoric or suggestive force. It would thus be a singular virtue for a writer
to place her words with a feeling for this agony, this confrontation and/or sympathy between
radical time and would-be time-retarding word. Put the word on a page and feel the almost
audible susurration of impermanence rustle beneath what it conjures in the mind that hears
it there.
     Any word will do, but not any placement is sensitive to the ontology of all this. Now listen
to the Wolsakian phrase—as it tussles with the time of your reception of it; feel how its
meaning trembles on the tympanum of your consciousness, how its rhythm effaces "almost
successfully" the rhythmless current of momentary being, almost calling it into
consciousness, subtlety calling to subtlety…

6. The Configurative

     To pass from an ordinary condition of textuality to this sensibility of word against time
no doubt seems to be to an act of consummate abstraction, and yet it can be effected only by
a focus of attention more concrete than language (in the credulity that it demands
of its users) will easily allow. This discordia  concors of abstraction and concrete
attention is similar to that which abstraction in painting required of the art-reviewing
public in the early years of the last century when canvas after canvas appeared in the
galleries apparently having abandoned the representational will that had been the very
raison d'être  of painting since first pigment met surface. Blotches and
shapes—abstraction from or intention toward concrete optical reality? Fragments and
phrases—abstraction from or intention toward the concrete reality of page-word in time?
But abstraction in painting has recently yielded, in the canvases of Ipswich painter
Thorpe Feidt or the pencil drawings of poet George Quasha, to the vectors of another
story, wherein the non-figurative yields to the con-figurative. Slowly the figures return,
but now frankly caught up in the dynamic process of their own formation, whether under
brush and pencil of the artist, or the active regard of the viewer. Evanescent images, once
abjured by the stern will of the abstracting painter's eye arise, but with the newly radical
import of disclosing the transitory nature of the figurative act—that a representation is
never other than some eye's configuration in a concrete optical event. And here, in Lissa
Wolsak's work, is the analogy with poetry and language: for after the rigors of twenty-
odd years of "language" poetry, with its stern distraction from the primacy of narratology,
image, and signification by foregrounding  the materiality and abstract sociality of text
and speech—the configurative character of just these "fictional" elements begins to
return, and under the same stress as the return of the configurative in visual art. 


To attenuate a narrative
                                          (and what is not a narrative?)
                                                                           so that the threads of the textual fabric, drawn tight,
                    and thus stretched to tearing, might let some light in (through)
thus opened spaces—

stretched beyond the point of tearing so that as scrap-cloth, or like the tiny fragments of
"experienced paper" artist Seymour Kremin finds where he does and assembles into
"collages of [his] kind," in the service of beauty wrenched from the world—

"experienced" words fall on Lissa Wolsak's pages, redeemed as if from language, or, if
the open space and light thus liberated were more the logos than that tangle of anxieties
and devious consolations we have for speech

                                                                   —language itself.

Language itself
                           whose scatterings are not her doing, but whose isolations are attention's

These phrases and assemblages (assemblies)—these finely reinvented tales, are thus as
far from what might seem to be their literary neighbors—as—

     I mean, Lissa Wolsak has not taken the hammer to more constituted verbiage. The
damage precedes her. Apparent fragmentation is but the refusal to suture what rather
shows to her affective intellect something other than morbidity—something whose
injuries only attention heals.

     The names of herbs and flowers, lifted from the incunabula of what long has ceased to be
nature—where nature has long ceased to carry the tinctures of its infancy—the tinctures
are tinctured new. So nature, to update a Shakespearean itinerary, in spite of nature,
natures nature.

What instrument lifts a word? What places space? 

8. Magic Without Tears

     At some point in whatever I write, it seems, these days, I inevitably begin to speak
about magic. It is a curse I contracted decades ago, but no matter. Not magic in the
floreate sense—the miraculous quality of poetical manifestation; not the contrary of that
either: the dark and nasty character of a culture of curses and charms; rather, the
pneumatic miasma wherein image and thought transmit from soul to soul, compelling
grim entrainments, untoward participations. Politics, advertising, erotology—as usual—if
you will. The business of magic in our time is not so much to affect event as to compel
ontology. And herein lies its pertinence to poetry. Pound says that poetry is language
charged to the utmost extent. This charge is ontological / magical. The quality of
existence is at stake in it. The poet must assume responsibility for the focus and charge of
her behavior in the theater of poetic projection, and if she will spread over the
consciousness of her reader an umbrella of being determined as she knows it, she must
render the fact that she is doing so transparent, not compulsory. Otherwise, the poet's
business is to unmask, neutralize, overcome, the involuntary magic of language wielded
for coercion or gain. But obliviousness to the ontological dimension of the poetic act is
sadly the corollary of the common pursuit of poetic "expression." For the most part our
myriad poets simply abrogate the responsibility inherent in their condition, adopting a
weak, quotidian, and largely unconscious ontological position. Witness the proliferation
of workshop-bred verse that transmits the gray whimper of impotence before the
presumed-to-be-inevitable conditions of existence. Meanwhile covert magic sleazes
across the noosphere.
     The only prophylactic for magic is magic. You defeat a curse by exhausting its means.  It 
should have been Language Poetry's job to defeat such magic; and indeed it did
move half way in that direction, but by adopting an ontological stance that too
exclusively reified the sociality and materiality of linguistic being, it left matters pretty
much as they stand.  Ms. Wolsak takes up the work where the Language people left off.
Her words are charged with the task of unsticking language from either of two desperate
poles: the gray thralldom of speech, unconscious of its ontological provenance; the purely
nugatory rattle of the negation of meaning. Nor does her poetry rest at a point "between"
these extremes.  It doesn't rest at all, but takes up the work of deploying the charge of
poetry to reconfigure the very event of meaning, so that magic here, and sometimes in the
floreate and luminous sense indeed, can be engaged without magical harm.

     In manifesting his species of Panentheism—the doctrine that reality takes place within the
god—the Kashmiri Shaivite master, Abhinavagupta, imagines that any manifest universe—
as well as any individual thing—is a community of contemplatives, whose gathered attention,
holding the god in consciousness, embodies the god, in this case Siva. —A bit like a Dionysian
thiasos, the band of celebrants that embodies the Dionysian force. Beasts and hillsides
themselves, they roam the wilds outside the polis, ravaging beast and hillside—sustaining
their collective identity through the very violence that is their constitutive action. And that
action re-opens the commons—the common ontological grounds, seized by the enclosures
of property, propriety, private ownership, on whatever level of materiality or cognition.
(Not that Abhinavagupta's milieu practiced anything like the ancient wildness of his
Saivite or Dionysian forbearers—quite the contrary. But in regard to the figure of the esoteric
sodality, the analogy holds.)
     For Abhinava, wherever multiplicity hangs together as a momentary one, multiplicity does
not vanish in to the one. Rather, the collective multiplicity of contemplatives becomes a
configuration for any configured thing. The thing is a temporary accommodation of
dispersive forces that, like strife in Empedokles' magical ontology, effect the separation that
is its identity—while revealing identity itself to be but a phase in the concourse of manifest
     No fragmentary apparition loses this unitary property, for there are always component
sub-moieties whose simultaneous coalescence constitutes the entity. And no coherence,
however stolid or ornate, exceeds the property of the sodality; none can any more or less
embody the god, whose being is distinct from (though whose nature permeates and tinctures)
his embodiments, for the nature of the god himself gives form, but has no form.
     Let this serve as a "theory"—a "beholding"—for the singularity of Lissa Wolsak's utterances
and the communities they summon—some unknown divinity bespoken in each element,
each phrase.

Charles Stein
February, 2005