by Mary-Sherman Willis
CW Books/Word Tech Communications, 2013
Review by Rose Solari
I begin by admitting that I have particular interest in and admiration for the book-length poem or poetic sequence. It is not simply the ambition involved in attempting such a thing that appeals to me—though that is part of it—but the fact that such a work, when done well, can create for the reader a complete and otherwise unknown world. This is particularly the case with Mary-Sherman Willis’s first full-length collection of poetry, Graffiti Calculus.
As the title suggests, street art and mathematics are two of the central preoccupations of the narrator/author. The reason for the latter is teased out gradually in the book, but the reason for former is made clear in the first section, “The Phenomenology of the Name.” The poet’s teenage son is a graffiti artist who begins to spend more and more nights away from home before vanishing altogether. Throughout his slow disappearing act, his mother attempts to keep some kind of watch over him by tracking his graffiti tag, CONE, through the streets of Washington, DC and then other cities. Sherman writes:
In the parable, as the father sat waiting for his prodigal boy to return
to him, the mother surely
did not sequester herself in the tent, carving a hole in her heart.
You were avoiding home
and so began my hunt for you, to know who you were, inhaling
and tasting. Not just looking
but seeing. Like a cat attuned to the quick odd movement, a dog
nosing the trail, a dancer
stepping to her partner, I was a mother vibrating through the city
to your telling absence.
These ten lines not only set up the story to come, but are indicative of the rest of the volume in many ways. Willis is adept at switching from biblical, philosophical, or mathematical references to the personal and immediate. The parable of the prodigal son here allows her to tell us indirectly what she will not do, which is “sequester herself’ and dig that deep grief hole. Instead she hunts the missing boy, like an animal, she tells us, but also with the grace of a dancer, and humming with anxiety and longing, “a mother vibrating through the city,” following the seeming, and to me very moving, contradiction of an absence that also speaks.
The importance of math to the entire book is established most firmly in its very regular system and form. The individual poems are unnamed but numbered one through sixty; each consists of seven pairs of lines, or couplets, the second indented, for a total of fourteen lines per poem. These poems are grouped into six named sections. As is so often the case with deeply charged subject matter, the consistency of form serves as a kind of comfort for the reader, a sense that despite the tragedy of the lost son, the poet’s insistence on shape and form will ensure meaning and even resolution.
Within that tight net of form, Willis lets her content run wild. In the second section, “Kilroy,” named for a famous World War II era graffiti drawing, she dives into history, starting in her own “Cold War duck-and-cover American girlhood, in the bull’s-eye / of Washington’s nuclear radius…” and then weaving various imagined Kilroys, as well as references to Stalin, Strontium-90, Plato’s allegory of the cave, the study of calculus, and even Robert Rauschenberg’s famous erased de Kooning drawing, into her fevered ruminations. Subsequent sections swing from focused narrative, pursuing a “Paleoboy” who functions as a kind of first graffiti writer, to a wide-ranging verbal map of Washington, DC and its suburbs, where any spray-painted tag may be a clue or a key to finding the lost boy.
Caught up in her wanderings—physical, intellectual, emotional—I found myself deeply invested in a possible reunion of mother and son. But in her closing lines, Willis subverts her own narrative, finding a different sort of resolution at the Dupont Circle Metro Station, where a quote from Walt Whitman’s Civil War era poem “The Wound-Dresser” is carved on the walls:
…You’ve led me by the marks of your hand
to unspool my lines to their ends,
threads that are our beginning. I hold your name in my mouth like a
pebble. My hand filled with love
is empty. Lord of yourself, I crown and mitre you, under the wide sky
and the lone crow calling.
After so much imaginative energy has been spent on her failed quest, Willis finds resolution in simple, quiet connections, underlined by echoes and allusions to other great book-length poetry writers. First we have the presence of Whitman, whose own Leaves of Grass was his life-long evolving collection. Then, as Willis links her own lines of poetry to her son’s “marks,” their ends leading to their beginnings, we hear a subtle reference to the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” in which, famously, “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Acknowledging that her hand is both full and empty—an image I found particularly moving—Willis reaches for another epic poet, the Dante of the Purgatorio. When Virgil, the poet’s guide, leaves Dante on his own to continue his journey, it is with the words Willis quotes in italics above.
That final lone crow calling could be many things—the son, Willis, any or all of the poets she has invoked, or even the restless voice of history moving on and past her—but its solitary nature is unmistakable. For me, this is an emotionally devastating and an aesthetically satisfying ending to one of the best books of contemporary poetry I’ve read in a long time. Wherever Willis goes in her next collection, I’m ready to follow.
Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather, the one-act play, Looking for Guenevere, and the novel, A Secret Woman. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, The Columbia Book Award, and an EMMA for excellence in journalism.