Elizabeth Willis’s Meteoric Flowers is filled with lyrical, spare, image-rich poetry, all of which form a carefully structured and intelligent collection. Inspired by writings of Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather and precursor, the poems glean titles and themes from his 1791 manuscript, Botanic Garden, which approached a time period of political, social, and scientific change through poetry. In paying homage to the way Darwin’s poems perform, as well as narrate their intellectual discoveries, Meteoric Flowers approaches the twenty first century with Darwin’s attention to form as well as the ability to render the everyday wonderfully strange and new.
Taking the form of prose cantos with lyric interruptions at the beginning of each section, the poems of Meteoric Flowers often make sudden associative leaps from one idea to the next, creating a surreal dreamscape of evocative images. Willis’s poem “On the Resemblance of Some Flowers to Insects” exemplifies this aspect of her poetry, beginning with the image of a “smoky vessel” and arriving in the end at an armed narrator who is “like a chair leaving the scent of large things in the breeze” through a series of transitions and unexpected pairings (23). Surprising the reader at every turn with everyday images — ants, curtains, and moths populate this particular poem — Willis’s work is both grounded in the real and delightfully sensational.
These unusual links work well with the quirky diction and metaphors of the poems. Using phrases like “urgently chiffoned,” “like zeroism on the grid,” and “a less gratuitous tower,” the stylistic elements of these poems mirror the botanic subject matter upon which they are based. Each poem itself being like a garden or linguistic landscape, the poems are an enjoyable and novel match-up of formal elements and literary allusion.
Often mixing eighteenth century material with modern references and literary allusions, these poems are both complicated and enriched by these allusions found in “The Ghost of Hamlet,” which, like other poems in the book, find and draw their formal inspiration from Darwin’s Botanic Gardens. This poem about Hamlet, as well as Darwin’s writing, also becomes political commentary as Willis writes, “Flags are in stitches, factoring out the latest breeze, the `she’ of elation. Of further benefit, America owns the moon” (50). Gracefully weaving together several layers of literary and historical references, this poem exemplifies Willis’s ability to make unexpected connections across time and multiple texts.
Meteoric Flowers is a daring, intelligent, and engaging read. Anyone looking for a well-read and audacious new poet will definitely enjoy this book.