On Jillian Weise's "The Book of Goodbyes"
Jillian Weise's compelling and energized second collection of poems, The Book of Goodbyes, winner of the James Laughlin Award, is loosely structured as a theatrical performance. There are four sections: parts One and Two, separated by an Intermission and followed by a Curtain Call. Parts One and Two include voice-driven, dramatic poems, many concerning a love triangle between poems, many concerning a love triangle between a male partner, playfully named Big Logos, his unnamed and unknowing girlfriend, and the speaker. In the Intermission we are greeted with a trio of longer, allegorical narratives, delivered in unrhymed quatrains, centered on the relationships between several finches at Iguazú Falls in Argentina. In the Curtain Call we find a collage-style lyric essay/associative prose poem doled out in several dozen small paragraphs, structurally reminiscent of Bluets by Maggie Nelson and The Balloonists by Eula Biss. The Intermission's three allegorical narratives provide a break and a shift in perspective from the one offered in the voice-driven poems of the preceding sections in terms of their language, tone, and pace, yet there are thematic connections—it's almost like looking at a diorama of the human world of romance in which the reader was immersed a few pages earlier.
Many of Weise's poems are persona poems, but they're also infused with dialogue. In "Café Loop" (the title is a pun on the New York City restaurant Café Loup, popular among writers), Weise brings to life a couple of venomous young poets who are having an envy-filled go at the author herself. Louise Glück has a series of poems in Meadowlands where an internal heckler rushes out onto the page for a few lines (like a streaker on a football field), hurls a few jabs at the author, and then vanishes. Weise, however, gives her hecklers their own poem. There's something so darkly delicious and incriminating about the shifts in tone, when the sniping poets break out of their mean-spirited mode of discourse to switch seamlessly into a polite one when addressing the waiter. Weise is an expert at such sudden shifts in address and tone. The line: "My friend said she actually believes // her poems have speakers" is full of irony, as the young poets themselves have become speakers in a Weise poem, a clever move indeed.
Some of the other speakers we encounter in this book include a jeering moth ("Ha, little cripple"); an appropriated academic voice; a random man named Pete; the speaker's mother; a 911 operator; the father of Zahra Baker, a ten-year-old amputee who was murdered by her stepmother; and an unnamed ex who makes unannounced visits. But even as this book is multivoiced, in the end there is really just one speaker—a poetic variation of the author herself. It may be a slightly skewed, fun-house-mirror version at times, but this is her story. A heckler asks: "How can she write / like she's writing for the whole group?" Weise does not pretend to be doing that, but the book does illuminate potential innovative paths and strategies for poetic storytelling. These poems are not delivered as a sincere first-person narrative that we might associate with the second generation of Confessional poetry popular in the 1980s and '90s, where the speaker is clearly the hero (and perhaps also implicitly the victim), and others are clearly the villains. There is a hero in this book, and there are villainous characters, but it's not so cut-and-dried; this is a complicated, witty, vulnerable, adulterous, edgy, smart, multilayered hero.
One especially interesting aspect of the book is the speaker's fascination with the other woman, Big Logo's main squeeze, who is evidently also a poet. Weise's poem "Poem for his Ex" is a pleasing and sinister endeavor. It's both perverse and enthralling, yet also a nearly traditional love poem. This is not the clenched fury of Anne Sexton's "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife." This is the other woman brazenly and unapologetically addressing the dupe who has had the proverbial wool pulled over her eyes. It's as if the speaker has ripped the Scarlet Letter off Hester Prynne's chest and is boldly donning it for kicks. The speaker doesn't just address the hoodwinked girlfriend, she mocks her: "Last I read your poems were lower case // with capital content." This is romantic hardball. If I were going to edit an anthology of cold-blooded poetry, I might start with this poem. But the poem is more than just mockery. Underneath the dark humor are shards of sincerity, as the address swerves away from the girlfriend to the self: "Does it make you feel better / to know he cheated with a handicapped / girl? I wonder if you have // any handicapped friends. / I don't know why I'm using that word. / It demoralizes me." Suddenly the sarcasm has vanished, and we've been let into the inner chamber of the speaker's mind and heart.
After the Intermission, the relationship with Big Logos has hit the skids. If the relationship was fertile territory for poetry while they were dating, the break-up is even riper. One cannot read the poem "Be Not Far From Me" without thinking of the answering-machine scene from the film Swingers, as Big Logos impotently leaves a string of obsessive messages on the speaker's office voice mail over a period of months. His verbal missives are more nuanced than the messages in Swingers, but ultimately no less pathetic. It takes courage for an author to slow down and let a character dangle so helplessly. We almost empathize with him as he confesses his creative dysfunction: "I'm not writing. I haven't written since / I saw you. I can't write." The irony here is that he is in fact "writing," as he is being written into Weise's poem but just doesn't know it, so the joke is on him. Unlike most stories about adultery, in this case the other woman wins. Not because she ends up with the guy; she doesn't. And not because she has moved on, though that is satisfying. The ultimate victory here is not romantic, but artistic.
If the whole book has been a theatrical performance up to this point, then the last poem, "Elegy for Zahra Baker," is less a curtain call (as the section heading suggests) and more of a humanizing visit backstage with the speaker: makeup wiped off, the bright lights of the stage replaced with a simple lamp, the tone more introspective. We rise about the speaker's life as the poem shines a spotlight on the world at large, specifically on an actual website called Gimps Gone Wild and a commercial that uses "a potbellied man with a missing leg" to advertise a video game. At times, the speaker directly addresses Zahra Baker. And then the address swerves and the reader is addressed directly, in a way that may make some think of Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus," as Weise's speaker says: "How much would you pay me to say the name of the condition I have? Would I just need to say the name or would you require an examination? How much for the box of legs in the attic?" Then the address shifts inward: "I start calling myself a cyborg." There are numerous moments in the book when we get glimpses of the speaker's navigation of the external world. For example, the line "when I am in front of twenty-four legs in a classroom" uses synecdoche to convey a sense of jarring alienation.
One of the ideas coursing through Weise's The Book of Goodbyes is how hard it is to make a real connection with another person, and how technology makes it harder for people to connect, even as it paradoxically makes it easier to share information. Yet despite the book's title, there is a subtle, deep connection that is made in its pages, as the text is in fact dedicated to "Josh," and a Josh gets referenced several times in the final poem. His is not a two-dimensional, caricature name like Big Logos. He has a real name. And the speaker shares her deepest, most honest thoughts with him, humanizing herself even more in the process. So if this is a painful book of goodbyes, it is also a triumphant journey toward intimacy.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2014 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2014 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.