Elizabeth Colen’s What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems, examines the decline of a relationship. We glean a story through a rapid succession of cinematic scenes, but also, in the spaces from which each scene ends and the next begins. Whether we read this book for its storyline, or for its poetry, the book is, most pointedly, a study of human nature.
The story’s conflict lies in the tension between desires for comfort, companionship, and stability and yearnings for freedom, self-gratification, and power. The book opens in the months following the death of the speaker’s parents, after he and his lover move to a seaside town. The first poem in the collection, “Low Clouds,” introduces us to the couple as they play with their dog at the beach. On the surface, in this pleasant setting, the couple appears full of promise and hope. However, this poem also introduces a number of ominous images, which foreshadow obstacles that occur later in the book.
We build a place to be safe, start talking in circles and so build that way. We start with small stones, then large. We work quietly. Our concentric circles grow. Wet sand cold under our toes. We move on to driftwood, again starting small: with what we might use for fire if we stay too long. Then the big ones: white logs as big as we can haul them. Fourteen circles in all, crabs lumber over them, dry kelp blows at one edge. The dog is careful, having been told. She goes back to the ocean, which is ruining the last, widest circle into a C. We lay in what we have made, minute and fleshly bullets in the target we have made.
When we see it from above we will know the sea is near, as is the grey, as is the end. When we see it from above the plane will be circling, destroying low clouds. When we see it from above we will be listening, we will be watching, we will go there as fast as we can.
Here creative and destructive forces move at odds. The speaker’s first endeavor, to “build a place to be safe,” illustrates his attempt to create a healthy relationship, a safe home. The concentric circles evoke images of positive ritual: cycles of creation, embracement, and inclusion. But an ocean current intrudes upon the couple’s outer circle and moves to erase what they have attempted to create. This ruin mirrors what they will view in the sky: the circling plane destroying the low clouds. We observe conflicting forces in motion, and recognize that circles may also evoke images of negative ritual: cycles of destruction, bondage, abuse. In this scene, the speaker and his lover lay as “fleshly bullets in the target [they] have made.” Through these images, Colen reveals potential danger in the couple’s vulnerability and propensity for destruction.
These compelling images echo throughout the book. The circle recurs as an image of ambivalence, in the world around the speaker and in his own relationship, which is depicted both in images of tenderness and those of brutality. Similarly, images of clouds, smoke, dust, smudges, stains, and blinding sunlight obscure perception and create a sense of ambiguity. The line between reality and imagination often blurs. For instance, the speaker and his lover perceive themselves as outsiders in town, where they seem isolated and unwelcomed. In “A More Supple Perplex,” the speaker appears to address his lover and the discomfort—or paranoia—she experiences.
You’re beneath the veil again, newspaper hatchery, wild with thoughts. We haven’t gotten mail in eight days and you want to say it’s conspiracy. The neighbors don’t like us, let’s leave it at that . . .
Does the town dislike the couple, or is this a misperception? And what is the source of tension in the speaker’s relationship to his lover? His vague references to conflict do not provide answers; instead, they invite us to question the speaker’s reliability and the true conditions of his circumstances.
Colen deftly establishes ambiguity, not only in her use of imagery and ruptured narration, but in the ways she employs second-person address. The speaker’s consistent use of the fluid “you” signifies discourse with “the other.” But whom do we identify as other? At times, the speaker may be addressing his lover directly, or interpreting her thoughts. At times again, the line between you and I—speaker and Beloved—appears more obscure. May the speaker’s ubiquitous “you” address a dimension of his own personality? Still, in other instances, may the “you” address the reader? This ambiguity of address suggests that the characters’ fluidity challenges our notions of gender identification and character role. In “Weightless,” the speaker reveals:
. . . What I etched on your skin became mine, became yours again when I let you. A name is just a room to live in; I call you anything.
Identity is indefinite. When the speaker finds the couple’s dog dead in ‘The Codes of Eventual Love,” he reflects:
I wake to find the dog dead, frozen to the porch outside. She wasn’t our dog, but something like a mascot and even saying wasn’t instead of isn’t when she’s still there paws to the step, fur matted to the screen door, is to admit there’s something unreal about us too.
In spite of the ambiguity of the speaker’s reality and identity, it is evident that the speaker and his lover are haunted by past acts of violence. Memories of violence replay throughout the book, in several pieces, including “Orders of Magnitude,” where the speaker recalls:
“Child abuse is a metaphor,” you say. Your father never hit you. But then this, too, is no longer true. It was the neighborhood kids who put pieces of themselves into your hair, it was them who made you bleed. Bullets of blood on your forehead, how the scalp will leech into a collar, red circle of love around your neck.
This poem identifies a violent, abusive past; however, repetitive images of bullets, bruises, suffocation, and binding suggest the destructive cycle of violence, dysfunction, and abuse continues. Interestingly, Colen refrains from depicting graphically violent scenes in the book. Instead, she makes subtle references to the violence. And as she reveals the story through a series of poems, which read like a succession of film clips, we can only imagine that violence occurs between scenes—in the interstices, omissions, in the white space between poems. For the speaker and his lover, the negative cycles of destruction prove to be formidable. In spite of their good intentions, their initial endeavor, to create a positive relationship, build a safe place, proves daunting in the shadows of obstacles born from destructive forces in their lives.
What Weaponry compels us to look closely at opposing forces that exist in human nature. As the speaker and his lover wrestle with their angels and demons, we can’t help but recognize our own. In such an instance, Colen asks the unsettling question: What happens when the demons win?
Marcene Gandolfo’s debut book, Angles of Departure, won Foreword Reviews’ Silver Award for Poetry in 2014. Her poems have been published widely in literary journals, including Poet Lore, Bellingham Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and december magazine. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and universities.