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Travels to Tartarus

Tourist in Hell (Phoenix Poets)Tourist in Hell (Phoenix Poets) by Eleanor Wilner

Reviewed by Christina Cook
Cerise Press

So, your black roller bags are packed, your Tartarean, I mean tartan, ribbons tied to their handles so as to readily identify your own from all the other black roller bags on the airport luggage belt to Hell. You've double-checked for your passport and Air Hades tickets. You're ready to go. And halfway into Eleanor Wilner's seventh collection of poetry, Tourist in Hell, you find yourself at one of the most memorable stops on the trip. "Encounter in the Local Pub" opens in a pub that is not only in a foreign land, but also a foreign time, as signaled in part by the sixteenth-century "lanthorn" and reference to a play written by the fairly well-known playwright of that era:

As he looked up from his glass, its quickly melting ice,
into the bisected glowing demonic eyes of the goat,
he sensed that something fundamental had shifted,

or was done. As if, after a life of enchantment, he
had awakened, like Bottom, wearing the ears of an ass,
and the only light was a lanthorn, an ersatz moon.

-- p. 66

Strong, surprising images such as these abound throughout Wilner's book. In any other collection, "bisected glowing demonic" goat eyes might seem a little far-fetched. But in Wilner's masterful care, they push us just short of the limits of suspended disbelief, where we stop in awe of what has moved us there. Naming the book Tourist in Hell certainly goes a long way toward laying the framework for no-holds-barred images. Moreover, things are not as they seem in this collection, and the poet employs a number of elegant techniques to keep us right along with her, never losing a traveling companion. One such technique is to concretize the abstract, as she does, for example, later on in the same poem:

his thoughts only a sagging bundle of loose ends,
and the heart a naked animal in search of a pelt,
that once fell for every Large Meaning it could

wrap itself in, as organs are packed in ice for transit
from one ending to the next, an afterlife of parts --

-- pp. 66-67

These metaphors are right on. I, for one, know exactly how it feels to have thoughts that are "a sagging bundle of loose ends" and am not ashamed to admit that my heart has often been "a naked animal in search of a pelt."

Another technique this passage illustrates is Wilner's use of line breaks to hook the reader into the next line, the next stanza, the next poem, keeping us traveling right by her side as she tours the tropical land of eternal damnation. The heart "that once fell for every Large Meaning it could" sounds like one that sits in the pub promiscuously trolling for tall dark and handsome meanings. But read on to the next line, and the meaning of the sentence changes: the heart "that once fell for every Large Meaning it could / wrap itself in, as organs are packed in ice for transit." This is no big heart blazoned with an "A." Rather, it is a small animal in need of protection and sustenance.

Such powerful, meaning-twisting line breaks can also be found at other scenic stops in Hell, such as in the poem, "Site Visit":

(...)above on His throne of clouds

sits Majesty in burnished robes, below
the fires roast the burning flesh of those
who must be guilty of what was done

to them, agonies it took genius to describe --
didn't we understand that the punishment fits
the crime? -- though the damned were from a distant

time: we had to search the footnotes for their names.
Hell is the dungeon where God's shadow falls,
cast by the monumental, obdurate cliff

-- pp. 20-21

More than a line break, the emphatic stanza break between "who must be guilty of what was done // to them" is nothing short of brilliant, in terms of its collective use of word choice, word arrangement, line break, and sentence structure. The sentence is our Virgil, in this case guiding us into deeper questioning of the standard beliefs about "sinners," which constitutes the object of the sentence. "The burning flesh of those" leaves off with a line break which invites us to finish the sentence in the expected way: The burning flesh of those who sinned. As the sentence moves into the next line, however, it invites us to question this traditional judgment: the choice of "must" in "who must be guilty" is far from a judgmental "who is guilty," and the semantic arrangement of "what was done," does not assert the blame that "what they did" would. When the sentence then continues onto the next line with "to them," the shade of doubt grows into a shadow as large as God's indisputably Miltonic "obdurate cliff." The question that arises is: done to them by whom? The answer: by God himself. The sentence releases increasingly more doubt into the reader's received ideas about sin as it literally snakes its way down from line to line.

Shadows show up elsewhere throughout the trip, as one might expect in Hell, and Wilner conveys her vision of them in ways that continue to alter common perceptions, as God's shadow does in "Site Visit." For example, see how she retells the story of Jesus in "Magnificat":

When he had suckled there, he began
to grow: first, he was an infant in her arms,
but soon, drinking and drinking at the sweet
milk she could not keep from filling her,

soon he was
huge, towering above her, the landscape,
his shadow stealing the color from the fields,
even the flowers going gray. And they came
like ants, one behind the next, to worship
him -- huge as he was, and hungry; it was
his hunger they admired most of all.

The day came when they had nothing left
to offer him, having denuded themselves
of all in order to enlarge him, in whose
shadow they dreamed of light: and that
is when the thought began to move, small
at first, a whisper, then a buzz, and finally,
it broke out into words, so loud they thought
it must be prophecy: they would kill him,
and all they had lost in his name would return,
renewed and fresh with the dew of morning.

-- pp. 26-27

It would take several pages to fully explicate the poem excerpted here, and almost as many to tease apart the layers of the excerpt alone. Indeed, many of Wilner's poems are as dense in meaning as they are powerful in imagery. However, we may graze the meaning of the poem by pointing to the way she retells the common touch points of the life of Jesus from an entirely different perspective, from his time at Mary's breast through to his crucifixion. Just as God casts a shadow in "Site Visit," Jesus casts a shadow in the beginning of this poem, only to be replaced by an equally menacing shadow by the poem's end:

And who are we to speak, as if the world
were our diorama -- its little figures moved
by hidden gears, precious in miniature, tin soldiers,
spears the size of pins, perfect replicas, history
under glass, dusty, old fashioned, a curiosity
that no one any longer wants to see,
excited as they are by the new giant, who feeds
on air, grows daily on radios waves, in cyberspace,
who sows darkness like a desert storm,
who blows like a wind through the Boardrooms,
who touches the hills, and they smoke.

-- p. 27

Wilner uses the same Biblical language to continue the human story that began with Jesus. In our increasingly secularized society, there is still a huge shadow that looms over us: our own. Just as Jesus' worshippers "came like ants," earlier in the poem, "we... speak, as if the world / were our diorama," waging war as if our fellow humans were no more than "tin solders," living in a world where the "Boardroom" has become our god. Whereas Jesus grew huge from feeding at Mary's breast, "the new giant" is eerily far less human, feeding "on air... on radio waves, in cyberspace."

The above quote's reference to "desert storm" is not accidental, and brings up the corollary theme of war as a human-orchestrated hell that runs through the collection. The first stanza of the poem "Back Then, We Called It 'The War'" discreetly catalogs several wars in history, from ancient times through the Cold War:

And though, since that time, I have read many books,
have followed the smoke trail of countless thoughts
rising from the burning libraries;
though I have inquired in the ruins of many cities,
in the writing on the fallen walls,
in the blank stares of skulls in the killing fields,
in places hidden and open:
nevertheless, I do not understand.
-- p. 22

Wilner maximizes the impact of her references to specific wars by pluralizing them. Thus, while "burning libraries" will bring to mind the Alexandrian War, "fallen walls" the Cold War, and "killing fields" the Cambodian genocide which followed the Vietnam War, using plural nouns highlights the fact that these are far from isolated events in history. She further maximizes the impact of these horrors by framing them inside her mind, opening the poem with "And though, since that time, I have read many books... nevertheless, I do not understand." This framework sets up the speaker's internalization of these utterly nonsensical horrors, and through it, our own internalization of them. As a result, this poem is emotionally and intellectually demanding, as are many others in the collection. Indeed, midway through the book, the poem "High Noon" situates war as being directly inside us:

The soul is not so clean and white
as Kleenex; as old Faust dramatized,
it can be sold for a dram of power,

it wars within, and good
struggles with not-so-good, or vice
versa, the soul's creatures unsure

about what's natural in selection:

-- p. 41

One would hope that a moral imperative against murder places human instinct above the law of natural selection which guides animal instinct, but the war within the human soul is muddy, as the above quote indicates -- both in terms of being dirty ("not so clean and white") and unsure ("not so [black] and white"). Later in the poem, we see a place where "the sun is forever at noon, no shadows / intrude." In the absence of a higher power whose shadow attempts to delineate right from wrong, such as God's or Jesus' or the Boardroom's, our souls are left to find a moral equilibrium on their own.

This is a difficult truth to unearth on a short trip to Hell. However, the closing poem in the collection leaves us with hope, though not certainty, that such equilibrium may be arrived at. In "Tracking," the speaker postulates a place deep in the ocean where

...the giant Alba swims, ellipsis
of the deep, enormity, unseen, except on the sonar's

screen, bright shadow of leviathan or a merlin trick, for
at such a depth, such crushing pressures -- it could not
live -- and yet. The transitive exists, swimming the fissures.

-- p. 100

The poem continues through to these closing stanzas:

...while the great
Alba, scarcely a glimmer against the gloom,
swam on, its jaw wide, ingesting darkness like krill,
until it had swallowed all but its own glowing self,

and, tired of the conceit, shed its tons of matter,
rose in time to see first-light ignite the waves,
back in the blue delight of dawn, its ravishing until.

-- p. 100

The shadow cast by this huge peaceful being is "bright," and as the gorgeous course of language unfolds in these stanzas, we see its glow literally consume the darkness and the shadows we saw on our quite stunning tour of Hell. It certainly will give us something to think about while we unpack the charred remains of our luggage.

Christina Cook's work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Prairie Schooner, The Dos Passos Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Harpur Palate, Packingtown Review, and The Bitter Oleander. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a contributing editor at Inertia. Also a contributing editor of Cerise Press, she teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.

This review was originally published in Cerise Press.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Tourist in Hell (Phoenix Poets) New Trade Paper $18.00

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