blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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An ABC of Reading the Poems of Liana Quill

R.H.W. Dillard’s selection of sixteen poems from Liana Quill’s Fifty Poems appear in this issue of Blackbird.

Read a selection of sixteen poems from Liana Quill’s Fifty Poems or follow the footer link after reading Dillard’s introductory essay.


Yes, you’re right. That title is a steal from Ezra Pound, but, as you’ll see, it isn’t purely from lack of inspiration that I have chosen it for my introduction to this selection of sixteen poems from Liana Quill’s recently published prize-winning book, Fifty Poems (Hattiesburg: Mississippi Review Poetry Series, 2010, $9.00). What first brought it to mind as a title was Pound’s warning in ABC of Reading that the “reader will often misjudge a condensed writer by trying to read him [in this case, her] too fast.” And certainly the poems of Liana Quill are condensed (radically so), and certainly they will be read too fast by too many readers and misjudged by those same readers. So my ABC will briefly be an effort to urge readers to slow down, to savor these poems, to understand how they may be read, and to appreciate their depth and complexity.

To begin, I’ll stick with Old Ez, a great poetic thief himself, for just a moment longer. His friend, the great, if often underappreciated British poet Basil Bunting, found in a German-Italian dictionary the German verb dichten (to write poetry) translated as condensare (to condense, shorten, abbreviate). Pound leapt upon this serendipitous discovery to produce one of his poetic dicta (“DICHTEN=CONDENSARE”) that, along with “make it new” (which he also lifted, from the washbasin of the Chinese emperor Ch’êng T’ang), became one of the founding principles of modern poetry. It is a principle that, alas, too many long-winded neo-surrealists seem these days to have forgotten or ignored, but not Liana Quill, nor many poets of her rising generation, who are engaged in an aesthetic reexamination of the poets of the generation before them and finding their inspiration not in those poets, but in their modernist predecessors.

Quill seems the living embodiment of DICHTEN=CONDENSARE as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stated belief that “All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.” Her tiny poems, seldom longer than eight words, are the result of a long and considered discarding of those words unnecessary to the essential mission of any given poem. As critic Renee Branum put it, “There is a feeling of immense paring down, as if every other word in the English language were passed over, found unsuitable, and these eight words (or however many the case may be) were chosen, combined, married to reflect a completely unique, one-of-a-kind perspective.” The result is a new kind of poem, carefully composed in such a compressed language that it renders them as dense as diamonds—and as brilliant. The poems of Liana Quill are not, then, post-modern—what one might expect of a young poet at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century—but rather a logical recovery and extension of modernism.

But, of course, all that I’ve said so far is merely assertive, opinion without supporting evidence as is, sadly enough, usually the case with critical writing about poetry these days. So to support my assertions, I offer you now my ABC, my beginner’s guide to the reading of this new kind of poem:

The first step toward an understanding of Quill’s poems is, as I’ve said, to slow down. Read these poems slowly and carefully; listen to them, to their sensuous language. Hear how they take advantage, despite their brevity, of the full range of sounds that we have become used to in the long history of poetry in English. Readers of her poems have mentioned hearing in them, among others, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. Whether Quill is or is not consciously aware of that kinship, the richness of sound these three poets share is certainly an important factor in the workings of her poems. At this level of understanding, the purely sensuously pleasurable, the poems take on meaning with an almost Franciscan simplicity. I am reminded of Roberto Rossellini’s account of his meeting with a poet of this kind of simplicity:

A very wise old monk, Brother Raffaele, who was a servant, not a real priest, said he was a poet. I asked him what kind of poetry he was doing. He said, “I wrote a poem about a rose.” I asked him to tell it to me. He closed his eyes and lifted his face toward the sky and said, “Oh, Rose!” and that was the whole poem. How can we have a better poem than that?

Thinking of Quill’s poems at this level may also remind one of the poems of the Imagists and Amygists or perhaps of certain Asian poetic forms (the haiku, the tanka, etc.), but, as we shall see, they are really quite different in profound ways from these, their poetic cousins.

Oh, and I should add here that her poems are not at all kin to the defamiliarizing and essentially abstract verbal behavior of the language poets, despite what quick and lazy readers may think at first (and in their case, last) glance.

After slowing down and appreciating the language of the poems sensuously, the reader should then pay close attention to what the words actually mean, one by one and then together. The reader will begin to notice how many of the poems concern birds, particular birds, and the more information the reader knows about these birds, the more any particular poem will open itself to meaning.

Here’s an example, a simple nature poem, “conifer wedged”:


conifer wedged

      with hickory nut

              walk down 

Any reader familiar with birds at all will probably recognize that this poem describes the behavior and habits of the nuthatch, its wedging of nuts into the bark of trees, its habit of walking down the trunks of trees upside down (from our perspective), and he or she may find hidden in the seedy hawkweed the name of one of the nuthatch’s accipiter predators.

Other of these nature poems have a more explicitly human resonance, a double coding, so to speak. The poem “left his” is on the one hand a description of an abandoned stonechat nest and, on the other, one of a series of poems having to do with abandonment: in this poem, “the nestwool, / unbound” and in the case of the plover in “Sistertwin,” who has been left alone in “boreal snow” by the rest of the flock, flown south for the winter. These poems, and others, accurately describe an ornithic scene or situation, but at the same time they have a very human undercurrent of shared loneliness, or abandonment, or promiscuity, or faithfulness, or, for that matter, simple aliveness.

Quill’s poems often also have a biblical texture as well as an ornithological one. I’ll just give you one example here, the poem “Cherith”:


knowledge   raven’s
          in flame

Whether the reader recognizes Cherith or must look it up, he or she will discover that the poem refers to Elijah’s being fed by ravens (which has been read as being fed with knowledge as well as physical sustenance, and by birds associated with sin and death to boot), the twelve stone altar he built, and all of the various overtones of Ahab’s bad governance, the sins of Jezebel, the crying out of John the Baptist, and even the fires of the apocalypse. The poem offers the reader a gateway to find in Cherith what wisdom the reader is capable of discovering, of bringing to it, of creating.

At this level of reading, then, the poems offer either a fresh way of looking at the natural world, giving to the reader the same thrill of discovery or of recognition that an avid birder might feel at finding an elusive bird in the field, or that any one of us might feel at a sudden revelation of meaning either in the natural world, in sacred texts, or in the human community, in the presence of all among which and of which we live.

The more a reader becomes acquainted with the poems of Liana Quill, the more depths they reveal. They are, to use a mathematical metaphor, verbal tesseracts—like Dr. Who’s “dimensionally transcendental” Tardis—much larger on the inside than they are on the outside. To keep that metaphor from seeming my most extravagant assertion yet, I shall again offer you a couple of evidential examples, both of which, like “Cherith,” rely on natural fact, mythical bird lore, and Christian symbology.

The first is “deep nested and”:

 deep nested and

                  resurrected to
mud made

There are many ways to approach this poem. One would obviously be to discover which birds make deep nests of mud, for example, but perhaps the simplest is to begin with the relatively unusual word “celandine”. If the reader does a bit of research, either on the Internet or in a readily available book such as Diana Wells’ 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, he or she will soon discover that swallows and celandine (Chelidonium) have been intimately linked for centuries. In fact the Greek name for swallow, χελιδόνι, refers to celandine and to the belief that swallows opened the eyes of their born-blind young with celandine flowers. Celandine is also believed by many herbologists, even today, also to clear human sight. Ezra Pound, serendipitously enough, uses swallows and celandine in just such a way in a number of his later visionary “light” cantos, especially XCI and XCII. In Quill’s poem, then, the baby birds are resurrected from the deep earthen nests in which they are, so to speak, buried to celandine sight.

We should not, however, stop here in our unpacking of this poem. The word “resurrected” might lead a reader, naturally enough, to Christian symbology. She or he might know (or discover) that it is believed in many places that swallows return in the spring from their wintry absence upon the blooming of celandine. This, in turn, might lead that reader to remember the widely held belief (well into the eighteenth century) that swallows spent the winter, buried in mud at the bottom of streams, and were resurrected into the open air each spring. One might then recall that Jesus made mud with his own saliva to open the eyes of a blind man, giving him a new ability to see, “mud made.” And this recollection, in turn, might lead one to the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus, at the age of five, modeled twelve sparrows out of soft clay on a Sabbath and, when chided for profaning the Sabbath, “clapped his hand and cried to the sparrows, ‘Be gone.’ And the sparrows flew off chirping.” The poem has then led a reader “who has eyes to see” from a bird’s deep nest to a meditation on the even deeper presence of spirit in the physical world, from mud to restored sight to resurrection.

I’ll offer you one other example from among these poems, lest you think I really have fallen prey to what Umberto Eco wisely calls “overinterpretation,” by examining briefly a poem, “brother’s keeper,” a poem that I am still very tentatively exploring, a poem which seems to open itself out like a tightly folded paper flower in the clear water of a still pond.

 brother’s keeper


The titular first line leads me directly the book of Genesis, to Cain’s guilty and evasive answer to the question of where his murdered brother Abel might be (Lord knows, one of the most interesting and most complex lines in the entire Bible). But then the poem shifts away to a reference to a bird, this time the kite, a bird known for stealing lesser linen left spread out on a bush or a clothesline to dry in order to line its nest. William Shakespeare knew of the bird’s habit when he had the rogue Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale compare his thieving ways to those of the kite: “My traffic is sheets. When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.”

There is another gentler (and far less scientifically accurate) version of the bird’s larcenous behavior in which the mother kite steals lesser linen so that some kind soul will free her babies that are sewn-up in their nest. The lesser-linen in this story may, then, refer to the clean linen in which Christ’s body was wrapped for burial, or this version of the story may even refer to the soaring kite’s becoming an emblem for Christ on the cross, halfway between heaven and earth, a saviour of all souls sewn-up in sin—a reading that may seem less strained or forced when one considers the word “repentance” in the penultimate line of the poem (and the colon that connects it to the word “cleft”).

I have so far found for myself six possible ways of reading those last two lines:

first, a simple reference to the cleft tail of the swallow-tailed kite;

second, a biblical reference to the clefts in the rock in the book of Obadiah in which the prideful dwell (“Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.”);

third, the cleft in the rocks where God placed the repentant Moses before revealing himself to him in the book of Exodus;

fourth, the rock that Moses cleft to bring water to the thirsting Israelites in the book of Numbers;

fifth, the Christian reading of the rock of Moses as analogous to the pierced side of Jesus in the gospel of John from which blood and water flowed out, in both cases emblems of salvation;

and sixth, the dove in the Song of Solomon “that art in the clefts of the rock,” a reference that looks possibly back to the dove that announces God’s forgiveness after the flood in the book of Genesis and that looks ahead to the dove that represents the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, as well as, of course, the Dove of Peace.

None of those six readings, it seems to me, precludes the others. They seem actually to show how this small poem conflates its birds (the thieving and soaring kite, the prideful eagle, the dove of forgiveness and peace), its nest, its cleft rocks, and its various and wide-ranging biblical references into a meditative account of sin and death, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation in a way similar to the meditative emblems that so intrigued Liana Quill’s knotty predecessors, the seventeenth century’s metaphysical poets.

I could now, having passed through A, B, and C, move on to D, E, and F in my primer for the reading of Quill’s poems, but I have done my part for the moment and have fulfilled my promise to give you an ABC. If I were to do a D, it might well be an examination of how the poems exist on the page as visual (as opposed to linguistic) objects, how and why they are arranged in lines and spaces as they are, or, as Renee Branum put it, “like a painting of a landscape transcribed into meticulous detail onto a grain of rice.” If I were to do an E, it might continue on from D to examine why certain letters are capitalized and others not, and how the minimal use of punctuation “works.” And if I were to do an F, I would probably explore the thematic undercurrents in these poems (and in the fifty poems in the book) to see just how they form an organic whole, or, to use an unlikely word, how they form a big picture.

The remaining letters of the alphabet are yours to fill in as you like. And for now, as George Garrett used to enjoy saying to his creative writing classes after they had finished discussing a poem or story in class, “the rest is up to you, to lucky you.” I hope that you will read these sixteen poems slowly, with your eyes and ears wide open, and that you will take the same pleasure in reading them that I still do after having already read them over and over—and, too, that you will continue your reading of Quill’s poems in her full collection, Fifty Poems. I find her debut to be an exciting one, and since I began this venture with a kite-like theft of my title from among the lesser linens of Ezra Pound, I’ll close with a similar theft from the clothesline of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his greeting to Walt Whitman upon the publication in 1855 of the first edition of Leaves of Grass: I greet Liana Quill “at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.” I hope (and believe) that you will agree with my faith in this young poet’s future.

Thus endeth my “ABC of Reading the Poems of Liana Quill.”  end

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