Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Manual of Woody Plants

24 Dec

Manual2 With a title like Manual of Woody Plants (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), one might reasonably expect–before reading the book–that Phil Cordelli’s first full-length collection of poetry might be some sort of verse field guide describing trees and shrubs, etc. Although in some instances true, this would be a reductive manner in which to conceptualize the book as a whole.

For, indeed, Cordelli’s poems move through many modes and styles, creating a multivalent experience that forces the reader to continually alter their interpretative strategies. At times, like in Manual’s opening piece “Larch (Tamarack),” the poem predicates itself primarily upon a brief image:

each winter needles
on the edge of the pond
keep the regular form
by dark swells (11)

At other times, such as in the book’s closing piece “Lonicera hispidula (Pink honeysuckle),” there are fragmented personal narratives:

as I approach, no longer believable
in my suit of sweat and my curdled pompadour
a casualty of the civil war

of dry brick and sullen heaving
and crimped hair of woman, glassy-eyed
outside the bar

My Brother’s Place
Chicopee, MA
May 9 (178)

And, occasionally, the poems forward meta-critical investigations about the nature of language and the purpose of the poems:

Suddenly the country is old, no longer forming
we need to learn strange languages, like math

littering or lining pages with number and letter
connected or separated by line (56)

             Language is a rude ruler
the world is contracting rapidly (118)

                    of the line

set in space, upon the vast page
laid out as in or on
a table (160)


you only words come
you do not create even eat
what you make shit you just sit

at least until the world ends (171)

These, of course, are only three modes that the poems work through; rest assured, Manual of Woody Plants contains many more (for example, there are textual ruptures throughout the collection wherein the poet includes visual images, diagrams, and formally inventive use of text and typography). With the wide range of styles, registers, and rhetorical strategies that these poems employ, one might be curious as to what binds these various poems together.

To this end, the poems contain a superficial resonance with regard to their titles: each is the Latin name for a particular woody plant (with common names in parenthesis), nominally demonstrating how “families are based on generic names” (33). But these titles do not intend, necessarily, to identify; instead, these names are a “doubled language, like metaphor” (33) through which the writer attends to the subject matter of a poem indirectly. In this sense, the “antecedent” of each poem’s title (i.e. the woody plant) “will have long / since ceased” (44) to be the sole focus of the poem. These titles, rather, are evasions that, through their indirection, recognize how “Difficult [it is] to look at anything directly” (74) and, thus, allow for us to “forget / the title” (107) in order to access something else entirely.

And what is its that these poems enable us to access? Cordelli best explains in the poem “P. acerifolia (London plane)” when he writes:

I had intended to get out of the planted bed
lose discretion but this wide and searching tree drew me
much as this drawing may be actual or factual to some
sense of likeness or form it does not interest me any longer
much as it is beautiful in its way its language or marks
which closed upon the bound pulp will enter a sort
of sleep and begin another objection upon the folds
and wires in more or less stable form
until both body and impression are disarranged
there is not a dome but more or less knit elements
of finite variety of which will live on and recombine
having perhaps an impression of their once combination
into tree or pulp of tree which carried an inked impression
or hand which impressed thus or eye which saw or mind
which intervening guided thus the hand
and thought for a moment could form (82)

This excerpt would seem to indicate that what these poems offer will exceed mere description of the perennials’ “planted bed.” Instead, Cordelli disarranges the world around him, then knits the disparate elements back together into strange little poems. By recombining elements of the aesthetic, intellectual, and natural worlds, he creates new and compelling combinations “inked” upon the page into verse “form.” Yes, despite their best efforts to escape the “planted bed,” these poems end up entwined within the foliage, thriving within a symbiotic relationship wherein all the elements flourish.

Echoing these sentiments in the acknowledgments section, Cordelli mentions that he wanted his poems:

to be fixed, to stop growing
and have cut them back accordingly,
but these here present have returned

perennially. I’ve twined them ‘round myself,
I’ve grown into them, into relative pulp, into slices of the same. (180)

The urge to create resolute poems of a “fixed” nature that have ceased to grow—at least in the creative sense—gives way to an understanding that the writing included therein, in fact, returns like a perennial: dying with each winter, only to return once again during the spring to renew itself. Yes, these poems might have temporarily ceased to grow after their moment of conception, but they return once more with their publication in book form. Moreover, the poet himself has “grown into them,” signaling a double flourishing wherein word and flesh are “twined” together as one.

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