Balance, Opposition, & Interconnection: A Review of Elana Wolff’s Everything Reminds You of Something Else by Kian Vaziri-Tehrani
Though Elana Wolff has been a contributor to Vallum in past issues and a highly decorated poet in her own right, I myself am a relative newcomer to her work. Guernica Editions’ Everything Reminds You of Something Else is the first of her collections I’ve been fortunate enough to read.
As per the title of her collection, Wolff’s poems sew clever webs of interconnection between the mundane and the mystical, joining together seemingly incongruous notions while also pairing more universally acknowledged associations. Spread across subjects ranging from faith to nature, “Altarpieces” to “Air”, Wolff’s poems explore the oppositions found within differing states of existence. Though this characterization is admittedly abstract, one line encapsulates the essence of her collection, and it comes from the poem “Theory of Dreaming”:
“Here I sit awaiting a car, there awaiting the war.”
The speaker posits herself in two liminal states, in anticipation of two very different situations. Though the words themselves differ only by a single letter, their meanings and connotations could not be any farther apart. The almost contrarian use of articles is noteworthy. Why the speaker would await “a” car and not “the” car while awaiting “the” war and not “a” war raises interesting questions. Does the speaker truly know what they await? What is the relationship between the “here” and the “there”, the “car” and the “war”? One expects more so a sort of familiarity with their ride than with a mass conflict that has yet to pass; a war does not become “the war” until after its historization. This article reversal suggests commonality in difference; it places side by side two differently charged yet orthographically similar words while complicating the expectations that are typically attributed to them. In this sense, Wolff’s poem, and her collection as a whole, speaks to opposition and balance.
Likewise, in the first stanza of the same poem, Wolff’s speaker indicates her love for “the garden,” calling it “[her] solace” but complicating the notion as she writes “especially in winter”. Her preference for a cold and snow-covered garden over one with sunshine and blooming flowers elucidates a divergence from poetic tropes while suggesting a love for the unappreciated, more inaccessible state of garden. Much like her article reversal, Wolff’s love of the garden in winter is unexpected. It comes as a welcomed surprise because it does away with the anticipated perception of this “other” state as less favorable; the garden is just as captivating covered in snow as when it blooms in abundance.
In one of the earlier poems called “The Bestiary”, an allusion to the medieval book of beasts that goes by the same name, Wolff associates predominantly human characteristics to a series of animals. Three of them were especially noteworthy and appear consecutively in the middle of the poem:
“The dog embodied the sad devout,
the mouse—the dutiful doubtful.
Conjugal life produced the spider-and-fly.”
Each association possesses tension within it. While a dog’s loyalty is expected , its sadness is perplexing due to the characteristically happy and excited nature of the animal. Likewise, mice are known to tread hesitantly under kitchen tables and into crevices, but is it their duty to do so? Notice how the words describing the mouse look and sound similar, a common trend within her collection. But most strikingly, with the third line, Wolff marries predator with prey, subverting both the expectations of marriage and the spider fly relationship thereby creating balance and harmony between opposing forces.
In “Grenade” Wolff’s fascination with the impact and importance of individual words is on full display. Once more, she places side by side two nearly identical looking and sounding terms, writing “Rudiments of colour/ split & spilt.” In the preceding lines, the speaker searches for a certain word, writing:
“A word escaped me yesterday. Its image came up vaguely in the
painting I was painting and I aimed to put it graphically in black.”
This desire, both beautiful and impossible, strikes me deeply. For, while certain words conjure universally common images, such as fire or cow, others are enigmatic, changing, or unrepresentable.
While Everything Reminds You of Something Else is a complex and enchanting collection, some of the poems, at times, lost me. This is most apparent in “The Innocent Spin of Dreaming Real”. The poem begins with the lines:
“I fell asleep on my elbow once and woke up
on a donkey that I rode into a monkey
sitting jauntily on its back. See me as a rabbit,
it said, believing it could speak”
I appreciate the dreamy qualities of the poem and understand that it applies a distorted dream logic. Though purposefully disorientating, the images feel inaccessible and the significance of the three animals and their actions eludes me.
The collection picks up momentum once more with the title poem “Everything Reminds You of Something Else.” Its lines are jumbled, and I use that term positively, with associations and interconnections, some of which are magical, imagistic:
at the foot of the page springs into a walking stick, lifts its
insect wings and flits away.”
Other associations seem to have more sequential series of action , but possess the same otherworldliness:
his light on the wilds, a great white rhino startles and stops>
a football from the jeep.”
The surreal nature of the poem comes to its crux with the haunting line:
“Voices trespassed speech, surfaces failed colour.”
Wolff’s poems draw connections and seek to find balance through opposition. Every force of nature, every state of existence is dependent on its opposite. As Wolff puts it, among all things: “Eventually/ the differences collapse.”
Kian Vaziri-Tehrani is a Canadian-Iranian writer living in Montreal. He is currently in the third and final year of his B.A. in English & Creative Writing. He works for Vallum.