by Maggie Helwig
PHYLLIS WEBB IS a poet of conceits, one who prefers to work within the self imposed limitations of a concept. In Hanging Fire, she bases each poem on a "given" word, "words, phrases, or sentences that arrive unbidden in my head," and attempts to explore the hidden connections, the "subrational rationale" behind these drifting verbal pieces (which we all know, all have our own).
The results are somewhat mixed. The book is divided into three sections, of which perhaps only the third is entirely successful -- though certainly Webb`s work is interesting and evocative throughout.
The first section, "Tour de Force," seems to me the weakest. It is largely preoccupied with a sort of epistemology ("The syntax of deep structure composes on the harp, strings along"), which is a tricky thing to attempt in the first place -- the tracking of a mind`s inner workings. There are brilliant effects here, but this section seems scattered, decentred; very much a tour de force, in fact, and somewhat lacking in solid substance. Or, at any rate, a solid substance that is available to an outside reader. The language is splendid, certainly -- "I cannot surprise you. Not with the blue jay`s / return. Not with the velvet yellow of pansyface, / not with my held-back fire..." -- but it seems too much like a mere linguistic game.
The second section, "Hanging Fire:` might be called political, or at any rate the poet`s attempt to come to terms with the political world ("I practise tangential existence"), and does have strong and moving passages (and a clever collagepoem called "Lenin Skating"). The two prose poems that conclude the section, "To the Finland Station" and "Long Suffering:` are particularly effective:
The Pools of the damned reflect a bloodstained eye, it stares, bulls-eye, I say, an target, as usual ... the old Dad`s Cookies factory where I first read Marx: friable proportions -- or that`s the way the cookie crumbles ... That nature is a dialectical fire. That nature is ... long suffering.
However, it is the final section, "Scattered Effects," that is most successful. Here Webb is dealing with fellow poets, some of them also her friends, living and dead; and with "the poet," "the artist:` as a kind of idea ("Who is this I infesting my poems? ... I devise. You devise. We devise. To be together briefly with the page, the fallen timber ... I hear the Shadowy Horses, their long manes ashake..."). There is an extremely powerful prose poem for Smaro Kamboureli called "Anaximander" -- "I want to die. I want to die again. The good doctor, they say, for your own good ... His One substance. Opposing powers. Those
silly wheels of fire, the planets orbiting"; there is the moving "Messages" -
Now it is night. I have locked her in this
of my own free will She toys with the unwinding
sheet of a mummified king, paws at royal
How to get out of the poem without a
The ramp of the poem folding against
the Power of the cat.
Possible use: to hold the bones of little ones
who cannot speak for themselves.
The book concludes with a four-part poem, "The Making of a Japanese Print," which deals both with the making of art as felt/thought by the artist, and the experience, so to speak, of the artwork itself. Webb`s language, in this final section, is both precise and evocative, and the "subrational rationale" is strongly felt, the connections falling inexorably into place, She continues to be an uneven but distinct, and always intriguing, poetic voice.