Henry Gould

Lissa Wolsak
Pen Chants: or nth or 12 spirit-like impermanences
Roof Books, 2000, 70 pp., $9.95

The book title reveals something of this poet’s fusion of playfulness and integrity. A chant is a kind of prayer in song; but a "pen chant," while partaking of both, is also something in-between, something else. The way the self is something in between soul and body. The way writing is something sui generis. (And the way a penchant, or "liking," fuses the arrow of desire with the image, or "likeness," of its target.)

"Spirit-like impermanences," again, is a careful description. Wolsak, a jeweler and metalworker by trade, knows how to lift individual words from the dictionary as well as the air, and with a musical ear, make each word’s inherent quality ring-shine with a facet-like brilliance. However, this is done without any feeling of heaviness in pursuit of monumentality. In fact, one of the key characteristics of these poems is the way they combine an ironworker’s attention to the specific weight and unique properties of each word — a single-minded focus which produces strange alchemical neologisms as well as occasional intentional misspellings, as if the words had been scuffed or carefully UN-polished – with an insouciance, an evanescence, as of little songs sung offhandedly and carelessly (what careful carelessness!). I am reminded of some of the short pieces of composer Henry Dixon Cowell.

The impulse for this unusual conjunction seems to stem, in part anyway, from Wolsak’s individualism. The poems are permeated with an irony toward "literature." There is an awkwardness here about what passes for conventional literary engagements. It’s as though Wolsak has found a place to stand outside writerdom: a possibly temporary, possibly eternal self. There is a judgment in these poems on the illusory enchantments of art, a Dickinson-like ironic intelligence, and also an animal quality — a ferociousness barely tamed. Such forces lend a primitive severity to these evanescent lyrics: they challenge the reader like the growl of a lion or the call of a whale. Here self stands apart, partly independent of body and soul; here spirit stands apart, slightly independent of self; and the insufficiency of the worldly self, feeding off its mundane entertainments and distractions, is brought to the bar of a lyric judgment.

Finally, however, these are songs, not decrees – pen chants, not penitentiary terms. In other words, as the reader engages them, he or she is brought round again in a slow circling movement to the original gift of the individual words. Their strange beauty begins to suffice: the insufficiency they declare is mended or healed by the sufficiency of the unasked-for gift of the words themselves. In this movement of completion, finish, and fulfillment, Wolsak demonstrates, again, a very unusual fusion of opposites. An existential realism, the hardened hands of a metalworker, unite with a soft, humble and loving heart. Humility is expressed in these poems by an awareness of the mysterious conditions of life: our unknowingness in the face of both permanence and impermanence.

Here is one "chant," chosen at random:

But in a journey

which I made

hurried forward

battling against a breeze

which caught both the wis

teria and skirts of her kimono

crickets, wasp and praying mantis

carry flowers and a small cage

a secluded fisherwoman

trailing her foot in the water …

partook, in suss-chordal


the samurai’s desire

to adopt a child

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