Book Review

R. Virgil Ellis, Recess, Woodhenge Productions, 2009.$14.95

Reviewed by Judith Swann

In the pictures on his website, R. Virgil Ellis doesn't seem old enough to be an Emeritus Professor of Literature and Media at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, but the book jacket of his latest volume Recess (Woodhenge Productions, 2009) says he is. That's a big loss for the students. Recess is a skillful, diverse 43-page book from a person who should be standing before students. Since his 1985 residence with peace activist and Poet Laureate William Stafford, Ellis has published four books of poetry, released numerous audio and video performances, played in bands, and created his own psychedelic cover art. The sound man for Ellis's band, Fuzzy Logic, also worked with King Crimson. If that's not enough to gold plate his hippie bonafides, there's his 2005 appearance at the EPIDEMIC PEACE IMAGERY EXHIBIT in Madison. He's the academic Wisconsin equivalent of New Orleans's Dr. John, possibly without the drugs. In “Two Happy Pears” he says:

Nothing led from paradise to those alleys of entropy, those eddies of murphies, before sam and tom laid margarita to rest in an alcoholic haze of hollyhocks and stumbling burros that braid like a pigtail.

On the other side of Ellis’s jazz half is stillness itself. The word "wisdom" even comes to mind, not the smarty-pants knowledge of big fancy words and funny syntax, but the object-grounded knowledge of things over a continuum.  In the "End of March," Ellis compares the last few flakes of winter to "white-haired hippies who know / their time is gone but still float around / insisting 'Each one is different.'" Please confirm for me that you too have insisted on this, either when the snow starts in December or when it ends in March. In "Nurse Logs" he sees waves on the forest floor. In "Tai Chi and Me" he says, "I am thinking I can no longer think."  He finds the tension in ordinary things and strings it out for us, like Dante in the lower end of Paradise. "Above the overcast we barely / glance at the glare / that stretches to the blinding rim," he says in "Flight 789."

Still, Ellis honors Stafford's dictum that "a good poem should have early and frequent verbal events." One way Ellis does this is to crack jokes. He puns on "OM sweet OM," in a poem that begins so:

If Form is Emptiness

and emptiness is form then
no syllogism holds water like
a disorder of the bladder just when
you've gone you have to go again.

In another piece, he makes scat verses, questions whether the blessed:

is the bud of thy
w om b
and om and om and omnip
and omnip and omnipotence
om nip portents, om buds woman,
portion, potion, potence in her smile?

For all that, it is the quiet poems that are the volume's true strength. If you do nothing else before tomorrow, I beg you to listen to Ellis's Canto 27 at After hearing it, you can imagine Ellis making the jazz poems in this book come alive. Ellis knows sound, Reader, but you know stillness. Read the still poems in this volume for yourself, for example, “Sitting in the Middle of February”:

In such a dark it doesn't matter
if my eyes are closed.
Furnace and refrigerator both
talk at once, or one shuts down
to let the other make its case.

Judy Swann lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY in a small house painted in Frida Kahlo colors. Her poetry has appeared in Lilliput Review, Verse Wisconsin, Soundzine and other places both in print and online. She is an Iowan who often visited Wisconsin in her youth.