Figment, Rebecca Wolff. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. 128 pp. $23.95

reviewed by L.B. Thompson       

As the title of Rebecca Wolff’s second collection suggests, the poet is obsessed with the alluringly elusive, with flashes of vision or imagination that are impossible to either possess or forget. These figments often manifest as scents: “A new subject? / quantifiable, not like my fragrance Or: the faint aroma of performing seals” Or: “the morning smells of tearless / smoke, street food on fire. Also a punctured / odor of mirror” And most comically, “the stink of the mid-eighties // is on you and there is nothing you can do.” It is clear that Wolff believes that both beauty and the wisdom disappear in captivity of the post-modern, making it an impossible task to capture in musical, meaningful language the crucial figments of poetic experience we long to possess. However, Wolff squeezes as much music and as much meaning as we can expect from any poet, ardently expressing her internal life with a constant, wry awareness of her postmodern condition.  

She does this through lyric poems that have a measured symmetry; rhyme progressions not only surprise our ears, but march from the surface into the depths. The poem “Mama didn’t raise no fools” gears up with the progression: “Detergent…emergent… deterrent… nascent… latent” then delivers a startling double entrendre followed by clever idiomatic play: “I put my tongue in the path // dug up some chestnuts.”

Wolff specializes in an echo effect in which we anticipate one word but read another. For instance, she writes “cross-breeze” when we anticipate cross-breed, and “experiential” gives us the ghost of experimental. The double entendre is perhaps Wolff’s favorite device, but she resists elbowing the reader in the ribs. The book is full of jokes, full of the pleasure of language, but again Wolff chooses her humor wisely — most often directing it at herself. “And now I finally accept,” she writes, “that a person is the sum of their accomplishments / as rendered in skills. I still can’t / ski.

These are feminist poems; it’s obvious that Wolff never loses sight of Rich’s famous line, “This is the oppressor’s language but I need it to speak to you.” The only overt reference to Rich is in the title, “Lamb, Willow: An Arch Dolefulness Has Taken Me This Far” which answers “A Wild Patience Has Taken me This Far.” But Figment goes beyond arch dolefulness, beyond fragments and word games and beyond post-modern poetic theory. Wolff pleads,  “I’m trying to make sense! / and it is barely keeping me alive. / For once you mustn’t snicker.”

There is real emotional risk in these poems, yet Wolff is careful not to participate in the lurid exhibitionism of self-revelation. In “Criminal Justice System” she calls attention to the “criminal” flaws in any of our systems of judgment: “I discover I have nothing to hide … I write in English within the confines / and that’s a big conflict // I advise you now to stand up and face me / within the structure.” We also see the poet standing up to face herself and her audience in the poem “Broken Sound Parkway” which concludes: “It is cold, literally, and literally / quite dark. I make it harder than it has to be. / The perfume of longing for elsewhere.” Figment delivers that literal cold so that our skin reacts, and a twitch, a restless sniffing, begins in our noses.

Wolff ends the collection, all joking aside, by asserting that the self is, in addition to being “in the middle of fucking nowhere,” also saying “the more songlike / the further we row / from our figmented shore.” Figment reminds us that at their best, and even in these post-post-modern times, lyric poems enter our ears, loop their rhythms around and around, and stamp their metaphors into long-term memory.

L.B. Thompson's chapbook Tendered Notes was published by Center for Book Arts in 2003.