Lise Downe does it This Way

201117_LLise Downe. This Way (BookThug 2011).

Blurbed about as ‘an alternative take on the genre of detective fiction,’ the poems in This Way do contain ‘an assortment of clues’ etc, but any expectations that there might be some kind of playful take on a mystery story here is quickly undermined.  Yes, the first poem, a kind of Prologue, ‘The Influence of Complete Darkness,’ takes us to ‘a November evening / somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century; where, nevertheless, ‘nothing is concealed or conveyed.’ And those lines do deliver clues: in that ‘somewhere’ in time rather than somewhen’; in that (non)choice between ‘concealed’ & ‘conveyed’; & in the possible narrative that seems to follow, in Japan or somewhere else. Despite the specific details, all is left uncertain, & that is the mystery of all these poems.

The sequence, ‘Small Mysteries,’ that follows, derives formally from Wallace Stevens’s ‘Theory,’ but if it shares Stevens’s concerns it does so in an errant manner, playfully shifting from particulars to abstractions, never quite saying what it may just be saying. The 1/3/3/1 form keeps readers on their toes as the poems meander through various representations that aren’t quite present: ‘A towel folded on the handrail. // Suspicion planted / in things of the spirit / and things of the world.’ The writing voice here shifts between ‘I’ & ‘we,’ as it assumes the reader’s complicity in whatever might be occurring: ‘Unsure whether the receding waves.’

The poems collected in ‘The Range’ offer what seem to be more conventional appeals. Each one stands alone, yet they accumulate a kind of sensibility, a tone of wary apprehension. Some pay homage of a kind, as ‘Please’ does, with its borrowing of a line from Elizabeth Bishop, yet the result strays from Bishop-ness, insisting on ‘flying / out of our old arrangements.’

I especially like the final section, ‘Then,’ where Downe uses a 3 line stanza of carefully constructed sentences  to explore the ‘This because of because of’ qualities of asking questions, seeking always deceptive answers. There’s a wry insistence to this sequence:

 Ah, the difficulties. Not everything works.
For every small step we take, there is usually more song
than dance. “Did you hear, dear?” Here. Tap into.

All in all, then, This Way lives up to its front cover illustration of a sign pointing in both directions. Downe demonstrates wit, savvy rhetoric, & a talent for the unexpected image. This Way’s two sequences do the most work, their accumulations effecting the greatest power, but the whole book is well worth a visit.

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