“Sum me up as ecstatic”: a reader’s response to Elana Wolff’s Shape Taking

Shape Taking by Elana Wolff (Ekstasis Editions, 2021), 80 pages
Shape Taking by Elana Wolff (Ekstasis Editions, 2021), 80 pages

What we prize in poems, the absent birds 
already own: canny rhythm, cadence, vision,

ambit open         space—

                                      (Tear Near the Knot)

To experience this sensuous and bright book, I had to dive fully in and swim around the poems as in a vast coral sea shot through with rays of light and currents from the dark depths beyond its edges. Elana Wolff’s work had me exploring, full of curiosity, wondering… wandering in and around a world rich and resonant with image, colour, dreams and stories… a world of creatures and memories evolving and shifting, acutely observed phenomena and quotidian drama, conversations, ideas and references, flush and fragile yet polyphonically powerful. No poem suspended itself in solo. Each shape swam with me. I am still moved and haunted by the encounters.

Shape Taking, Wolff’s seventh book of poetry, is an ecology of poetic practice and life that hits home, straight to the heart. It is a journey through seasons, in time and in life. I felt I had to learn to be a translator of all I encountered—a concept she explores pervasively in this subtle and interrogative lyric work.

The author invites us to examine a myriad of wonderful words, both known and unfamiliar, and to play with them as she does, exploring how they interact, split apart and reconnect—sometimes with ferocity and friction, sometimes with wry, sly humour. From beginning to end, there is a slipstream of a journey through time and season—but as in life and in language, our dreaming and thinking, feeling and perceiving are not linear… we grow, we reflect and we evolve through retrospection, resonance, variation and sudden shifts of awareness.

This is poetry as a way of life. Human experience is a process of continual translation, with all the harmonic meanings that the word implies. Past, present—our relationships within the dense natural and intellectual world are rendered in language and form that explores itself as it is taking shape. And that shape taking—giving and taking, both—transforms us and our experience of the ever-emerging world.

No single poem can stand for the whole. Images and ideas surface and submerge, are breathed in and out as if one can breathe underwater like a magical water creature, an undine. This is a book of transformations, a kind of willed magic, a conjuring of our ability to perceive innate enchantment in the natural world.

Wolff plays wonderfully with form and reference. She treats words like living creatures. We are drawn into her life of inquiry and interactions with artwork and literature, with artists and writers (both directly and indirectly), and with pop culture (Netflix!). She has a powerful metaphoric engagement with fairy tale, mythology, and scientific concepts, leading us to engage with Franz Kafka, James Schuyler and Diane Arbus, with Stanley Kubrick, Kazuo Ishiguro and Robert Frost, with Hebrew literary forms, epistles, the art of “Angelotomy,” and Chinese vases…

We travel to India and cannot help but think of William Blake’s Tyger, given what happens to the poet there and how she inverts the subliminal reference (in Game Drive). We find echoes and currents of Emily Dickinson, too—her idea of telling the truth but telling it slant—and all the many birds! There are poems of family, both present and gone, poems of childhood, vestiges of memory and time. As if we can still feel our lost tail. Visceral memories… “Sisters window-/ gazing from a blue vestigial seat” (the last line of Wolff’s last poem, Vestigial).

Things appear and disappear, are translated; life grows and erodes in the elements, yet every departure can be green with egress. And love is always potential. Death, or what we learn of it, is portico (an opening or portal), whatever its shocks—a ghostly fertile presence flowing beneath and through this life. And our dead “hover sotto voce now, invisibly, like presence.” (Sotto Voce)

Wolff is as open to the uncanny as to the canny. People are twinned and twined, including the poet herself. In the very funny and touching poem, The Day You Called Me Flashbulb Head (and wow, what a hilarious image of a poet’s mind!), I discovered the word chalazae—the “chicken spit” embryonic cord knot within all eggs. There are many exquisite images of eggs and yolk throughout the book: “Like last night’s Scorpio Moon—/ a yolk through dirty-/ purple stratus clouds—”; “… her own blah blah speeching […] a citric/ tone of yolk,/ a squelch—” dripping down her chest. She plays upon how we carry within us a capacity for teasing and disgust, a kind of Kafkaesque humour about what connects us to the long line of life, to ourselves.

There are moments almost suspended by their power to touch us, to touch each other. I continue to be moved by the vulnerability of bodies in this poetry. The hands of a stranger “kneading my skin/ which reads the hands as sweet./ I don’t know how she knew to press my temples” (Mulling It from a Room in Ranthambhore). The speaker’s husband’s legs, “so long / she almost hears them ring, / smooth and steady / as bells,” in Lap to the Sky.

We taste words in our mouth, we stroke the world with images… We transform and live through acts of metaphor. Such is our capacity to love. There is the urgency and green fire of Jejune love, and sensual ephemeral moments that are made indelible:

… Suddenly, your hand slips through
my skin like spider silk.
                                       Fine and light, diaphanous,
                                              already gone—
as if I’ve interrupted a snowball’s chance. (Watching Netflix)

I emerged from Shape Taking more alert to my own body, my own life, its past, its present, and to my own capacity to discover:

Every face an alien.
Alien, every one of us—the beautiful,

the ugly, and the innocent. (Some Days I Think)

Living and poetry require “Stamina-arms of lengthy love,/ plein air practice/ breathing in the fields” (Full Moon Romantic). Memory is vestigial life, and our ties of kinship with other beings, all beings, are vectors of connection and meaning, of imagination.

As a birdwatcher, musician and maker of song not accustomed to writing in prose, I want to convey something of the profusion of creatures that come alive in Elana Wolff’s book—the shrieking blue jays and elfin, skittish sparrows, the lacewing green jellyfish and startled baby badgers, the deadly red cardinals, blue Appaloosa and ants with compound eyes like crystal balls, the tigers and broken dragonflies. 

Shape Taking conjures up a menagerie of creatures acutely observed. There are poems of great intimacy, about intimacy and its failures, about separation and loss, and about how we regain trust that has been eroded or outright lost. One of Wolff’s great themes is that at the core of perception and connection, love in all its fragility and power lives within time—and we must live our lives ever tacitly aware that we are also in Time, ever translating ourselves and others and the kaleidoscopic world around us. “Every iteration a mosaic” (Relieved to Hear You Went Where They Said You Were Going When You Left).

The work and play of Shape Taking are ever altering. Blue is never only blue. It alters within our continually moving perceptions and memories of blue, our associations and the magic of words, as in the exquisite poem Blue Rider. We arrive back to Wolff’s opening poem, How Alteration Works, to the very first image in the book: “Fence and gate, the swing and hedges—blue:/ the biophilia-blue in green.” Biophilia: the innate genetic affinity humans have with the natural world. The word was new to me, but I recognized it on my skin and in my bones the moment I read it… the connective tissue of mind to the natural world, and of all beings within and without:

[…] this woman mirrored in the sink. She washes hands:

They feel like scales and fins, the
gills of kinship. (How Alteration Works)

The rifts of the world are healed and transformed through poetic action, by our recognition of kinship. “Every hurt reversed.”

And in the poem Timepiece, a secret beat:

Slow slurring rain
naïving an April landscape—rain
a fine and wiry fellow
turns his trucks in circles—as he is them.
His canny sense for singular
things that pivot:
the clock.

This morning he slipped into
bed beside me. Face to face
we lay there quiet—
he with his “sweetie,”
I with a cloth of my own
draped over my crown,
to block the light that enters
the head at night.

An inner clepsydra
clocks the body-waters,
the stillness of the pillow-slips,
the coverlet and sheets.
Secret beat of our organs
to the syllables of our names,
the musky scent of
mingling morning breath.
The giants on the boulevard
are noisy—taking rain:
sycamores and cypresses,
the Brobdingnagian ficus.
slices close to our bones
and glows in us—like calcite.
becomes sabbatical,
a flywheel.

I am compelled to quote this poem in full, as it flows through the water clock/clepsydra of my own feeling and cannot be stopped.

We are learning with Wolff about Painting from the Periphery, but also how to savour language and a plethora of perspectives. In the linked poems Prime & Shiny and Portions (a drama about mated cardinals), we twice witness the same small yet utter drama of nature’s twinned destructive force and delighting affinity… the same reaching out in a story of self and love withheld and then suddenly given to nourish the other. 

Towards the end of this book’s journey, Wolff writes:

Sum me up as ecstatic.
I saw myself

seeing myself

in the eye-buds of Shiloh—
speechless little fellow still

and mighty as a rose. (Some Days I Think)

Shiloh, the child’s name, means sanctuary; and I am brought back to her spare poem called Calf Love after FK (Kafka). It reads:

Instinctually you swim.

Yet only between the lines,

and after the story ends.

But I am still swimming in the lyrical depths of this book and its fifty enmeshed poems. And the story has not ended.

Originally from Virginia, Catherine Herrmann is a musician, singer and composer currently living in Singapore. She regularly visits Montréal, where she raised her family and continues to contribute to the medieval music scene.