Buy cloudlife at Amazon.comStefanie Marlis
Apogee Press ($12.95)

by Eric Elshtain

Few poets today twist with language like Stefanie Marlis; almost to a one, each poem in her latest book cloudlife adds yeast to the thinking mind with syntactic, semantic, or semiotic puzzles.

“[T]hat ghost has climbed into my bed again / with its seely smile,” Marlis says in the poem “twine.” That pun on the Sealy mattress company and a used-one-time-by-Spenser spelling of “silly” is typical of the linguistic heat that leads to other such gems as “a woman turning in her bed / like fire catching on” (from “green flame”) and “come gleaming metamere / meta-night-crawlers for sale” (from “darkness surrounds”). What is so dynamic here is the dimensionality of the language: “like fire catching on” is the transposition of “catching on fire” (lent weight with the fact of the phrase “on fire” in the word “bonfire” a line below); it is also a play on the phrase “to catch on,” as in to puzzle out; but then we also have to deal with the original simile—how exactly a “woman turning in her bed” is similar to “fire catching on.”

Perhaps the answer(s) lie in the ethical investigations and propositions that also fill and fulfill this slim volume. Amidst the variety of poetic forms—from splashed-across-the-page phrase-oriented poems, to aphoristic prose, to narrative and lyric, and on to what I'll call “prose sonnets”—Marlis tries to trace the Miltonic conundrum that so plagued Melville: “Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute.” “[W]hat doesn't rhyme?” Marlis asks in “cycle,” wondering whether or not everything is doomed to dry, unedifying repetition. All this, though, while the language itself is kinetic and unpredictable, bringing free will to the fore in the above trinitarian equation.

And Marlis comfortably and effectively dwells in paradox. The book ends with a series of prose-pieces-in-form called “choices.” The prose poem, long touted as freedom from form, in Marlis' hands shows that we write poetry perhaps with freedom to, not freedom from. This “poethic,” as Joan Retallack might name it, informs the queries here into the very nature of personal and world history—how much choice do we actually have to shape our lives and our world? The dynamic between form and content deepens this dilemma.

The centerpiece of the book is a long series titled “Peter's crystals” which tracks the movements and thoughts of an old man, a Holocaust survivor (an appellation he refuses, since he spent “only three months” in Dachau), in a small American town.

he asks for a synonym for sabbatical
he says meatus, not meatus
that's an opening
says trifling
in light of Afghanistan
forget it


nearing ninety
in his second language
war-torn from his first
a soft bristle         Peter

The poem wickedly mimics the tear from meaning at its end, which leaves itself open, gives us a space but no hiatus from wondering on the “art” within “worn” that makes “war-torn” and if the Latin pilus is the word meaning “a soft bristle,” while also meaning “trifle.” And we wonder about the man himself, what meaning he has lost, whether or not he's petering out while still having a say about our political world. Like the figure of Peter, Marlis' poems are restless. Chaos skids across each carefully planned page in the pursuit of the right words to describe what “distance and dharma conspire” to do with “what we feel we know.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005