A Lily Lilies, a collaboration between poet Josie Foo and dancer Leah Stein (Nightboat books, 2011 isbn 978-0-9844598-5-8), is a choreographer’s ledger. Replete with black and white photos which punctuate and expand the reading experience, its lines transport the reader, shift and slide them through spaces on and off stage. As the authors write over and over, this book is “mapping” both physical and textual space, that of the world and the self.
Formally, A Lily Lillies is an exciting experiment in movement—both for Stein and Foo. Thus Stein’s notes on dance vary from long descriptive passages annotating dancer’s movements with precision (especially at the start of the book) to becoming poetic almost gestural dashes—notes which are themselves poems embodying dancer’s movements:
Arms long and pointed toward the sky.
Part to make roads.
To make shadows.
Two layers of people: fish and cliff (p.60, italics in orig.)
Foo’s poetry also shifts from short-lined short poems at the book’s start to longer, denser prose-poems expanding to dominate the page, as in the book’s final poems or “Place” and “Sounds” in section II (p35 and p36). Stein and Foo’s texts thus dance with each other, trading off dominant space on the page, giving way to the other’s voice, body, their texts and language in dialogue. As such this collaboration is not a layering of one self over into and through another, but rather is two writer-dancers speaking (singing?) to each other where each voice is delineated with italics for Stein and non-italics for Foo.
But Foo explores form in other ways as well. For example, she dissects movement on a visual linguistic plane with the typographical scrambling in “Sunset”. Here, the spaces between the letters in the word “w i d e n i n g” expands drawing the word out across the page to where it meets the scrambled letters of the word “scattered” jumbled into an almost unreadable mass. Similarly, the concept of “the gift of spaciousness” which ends her poem “Immersed” (p37) is visually echoed by the way the lines in this poem drift away from the left hand margin, rhythmically floating down the page. Even her punctuation use demonstrates a keen attention to visual-cognitive detail. For example, the visual echo of the long dash links/binds/attaches and connects the body parts to dance and to each other with the visual parallelism in these lines from the poem “Antelopes”:
Feet—defy and dance.
Feet—sway a little. (p42)
Most importantly, however, is the way this book appeals to the ear of the reader. As Foo announces in the first poem, “She is mapping the flint (sun) for whom the mound is a texture in the air. // Mapping the earth//and it is the shape of an ear.” (p7) The ear hearing dancer’s movements as visualized in language is strongest in the parts of the book where the text sings, often because of startling sound echoes or word plays, such as in the book’s title poem:
The swallow swallows, the lily lilies.
That’s all there is.
Horses horse and objects of definable shape
define each other.
Living beings, in a manner,
keep living. (p14)
Here, one of Foo’s greatest strengths as an author, as evidenced in her two previous books, to make the evident somehow excitingly new and mysterious in its simple being, is apparent. Yet it is the song in these repetitions that elevates that revelatory space to an even more enticing level, as she writes in “Gravel”: “Rock flight saffron saffron caught singing./ Rock flight saffron saffron caught singing.” (p13) Her musicality weaves in and out of these poems as true and off rhymes, alliteration, assonance and anaphora come in and out of play in no discernable order, keeping the reader wonderfully on their feet, moving dynamically through sound space. This also takes place in the work of Leah Stein.
This said, Stein’s strength as a writer is located in her descriptions’ synesthetic suggestiveness. Take for example the dance description:
Four women in a line, smelling—ginger, swaying wheat and
breath—like air and mud. Each of their faces appear and
disappear. (p 9)
In the first sentence, the reader is jolted between the moment of seeing the four women and the idea of watching someone inhaling the air, taking in the smells around them. The reader, too, is likely to lift their nose and take a whiff, seek out the enticing scents of ginger and wheat. But they will at once imagine both smelling and seeing the swaying wheat of fields because of the visual verb choice “swaying”. The less concrete scent, that of “breath”, interjects like a foot stomping down on stage. Its dull thud resounds throughout the auditorium. This feels purposeful. It is like the wet earth of “air and mud”. Unlike ginger or wheat, the scent and image of mud is less discernable. Mud contains many odours, sticks to the feet, the body.
This passage of seeing four women in a line is both light (air, scent, spices) and dark (mud, breath, the abstract blurred thus shadowy-ness of the unseen). Its duality is echoed in the second sentence above. In this line Stein describes the stage light catching on the women’s faces one by one. They are becoming visible then falling back into darkness. Stein simply describes in this second sentence, without any forcefulness, what takes place before the spectator. Combining these two sentences, movement in a resonant space is shown, suggestively.
However, despite the many appeals of this book, A Lily Lilies begins weaker than it ends. The initial section feels as if it was still working out where it was going. Leah Stein’s notes on dance in section one are less enticing as written material than they become later in the book. This is simply because they are what they are—notes on dance, on choreography in progress where the narrative I, a dancer, puzzles out their work: “I am inspired to map a mound with my bare feet—to find a way for one dancer, eyes closed, feet bare, to be supported by the other dancers […]” (p7, orig. in italics) Here, this line has fabulous poetic weight, entangling the reader in the dancer-choreographer’s physical and mental processes. It resonates. Yet not all of the notes are as light or inviting. In fact, their overall effect is to clutter the book’s first pages with pedantic descriptions, flattening the reading experience, weighting it down instead of tossing it up into the air. While these notes seek to describe dance in a way useful to a choreographer or someone intent on writing about the experience of capturing dance in words, this leads to somewhat forced attempts and over-descriptions. The effort behind language is felt by the reader. Moreover, the attempt to chart, map, signal reveals its hand as the author attempts to describe in a way that might be more interesting than perhaps even the reality—as in the final passage on page 7.
Criticism of this reading should not be limited to Leah Stein’s texts, as weight is also present in the totem-like or chanting-related repetitions in Josie Foo’s poems. For example the poem “Imagined” captivates and pins the reader fabulously to the floor as it begins
Iron in bird’s wings,
bones on wires,
their grief isn’t mine (p10)
Yet the author, a few lines later, inserts her thinking self into the space of the poem, with the overtly self-conscious line “Their weight is determined by my mind”. The poem then returns 3 lines later to repeat “their grief isn’t mine” which is followed by the final line “You’re here as I imagined”. The poem’s entire focus becomes an I-you pull most likely related to a stage and movement as caught in the writers’ mind but which thus tethers the poem to a staged plane and prevents it from taking flight. Such mental interjections pepper the book, as in “The horizon isn’t straight—who cuts it straight?” (p12) “Tell me where the trees have gone. /No trace of where they’ve gone./ Where could they go?” (p22) and the “we” use in “as we expand our/ somewhat limited space.” (p24)
But it is also the new agey or native Indian language in Foo’s poems in section I which limits them. She accentuates this language as if it carried the weight of the poem instead of locating a more unique nexus of transformation, or transforming the language linked to Native tradition (as she does later in the book). An example of this can be seen at the end of the poem “Kindle”:
Our prayer cloth will not disappear.
All we imagine we will kindle
All we bend and bow
We will kindle. (p 11)
The future tense, clunky and slow, impregnated with a portent which is not particularly dynamic, and coupled with the double abstractions of “all” plus “we imagine” or “we bend and bow”, is particularly weak. This is doubly weakened by a sense that the reader should see this as significant on some religious or cosmic level, given the reference to “our prayer cloth”.
However, Stein demonstrates how these words and ideas can be used to greater effect when Foo’s lines are echoed farther down the page. Stein’s notes: “Center of the woodpile. She is the prayer cloth. She is kindling—without knowing it.” (p 11) It is suddenly more enticing, as the dancer becomes kindling. The noun instead of a verb coupled with a dancer unaware of her transformation into a bundle of small, burnable or burning twigs excites the eye and mind of the reader. And the dancer and prayer cloth both transmogrify: the person and the religious object transform into each other, into kindling, something small and burnable or burning, igniting greater or larger fires, serving perhaps some purpose in their strength to ignite. Our ideas of both are curiously altered.
Unfortunately, the reading experience of “Kindle” is again thoroughly disappointed when this line gets followed by “Movement of her hands direct intricate clarity” (p11). Like Foo’s choices above, in Stein’s line the impossibility of the abstract mental “clarity” and whatever “intricate” aspects of clarity exist are supposedly being directed on a physical plane by the dancer’s literal hands. Such vagary blurs and dissipates the exciting transformation that had taken place on stage and the page in the preceding line.
In short, A Lily Lilies takes a few stumbling steps as it finds its way onto and into these pages. Once it does, however, it is a startling, strong book where, as Stein concludes the text “all movements become one imprint” (p61). An imprint which marks the mind and body of its reader.