On Leia Penina Wilson’s #mercy#mercy#mercy

Leia Penina Wilson’s poetry first arrived to me via a text to my phone. Knowing my interest in contemporary feminist epics, my friend sent a photo of a line from Wilson’s splinters are the children of wood. It reads: “epic is a wild thing” (3). The line, which closes the first poem of the collection, can be read as a statement of poetics from a writer who is re-visioning what the epic can do.

Wilson, a self-described queer Samoan poet, weaver, and educator, is the author of three books and one chapbook. Her second poetry collection, this red metropolis what remains, includes a series of #ALICENOTLEY poems. The section is titled “#mercy#mercy#mercy” and begins, epic style, with an invocation, an address to a muse for poetic inspiration.

The poem, in larger-than-standard type, gothic script, and centered on the page, reads:

in times of terror & magic & catastrophe &
wound & descent & red & cunt & desire &
manifestos & vision & witch & divine &
invocations & memes & fidget spinners &
handmaiden’s tales i turn to the prophet alice
notley who is of course not the real alice notley
but one of the ones i dreamt through i hope she
will pray with me nonetheless i dreamt we
were friends i remember you saying we have
nothing to live for except the approval of our
flesh-eating god so i turned to flesh-eating god
& ate it now i need to know if this was okay if
                 this too could be merciful (105)

I type Wilson’s words into my doc to get as close to the poem as possible. I practice embodied close reading, following spacing, line breaks, ampersands, and decisions to make all letters lower-case. Similar to my younger self hand-writing a song’s music lyrics on a folder or quotes from favorite novels into a notebook, I enter the language world of another. However, while copying lyrics and lines was often about connecting the words to my life, typing Wilson’s language draws me to her words and world.

As I type, I’m in motion with the poet speaker’s ampersand-driven list, words adding and extending the words that came before to describe “in times of,” which often are our times of. One word, the poet speaker implies, cannot contain such intensity. These times, they claim, are “terror & magic & catastrophe & / wound & descent & red & cunt & desire &” The descriptive list builds, with each ampersand line break compelling me to the next word, next line.

After the ampersand list, the poem’s line shifts to as the poet speaker turns. Gone are the ampersands (until the penultimate line). Without standard punctuation, the poem’s pace is created by enjambed line breaks and a reader’s breath where a period might be but is not. We continue to move and be moved by a call to another poet. Wilson’s poet speaker claims, “I turn to the prophet alice / notley who is of course not the real alice notley / but one of the ones I dreamt through” (105).  The poet speaker names Alice Notley, a poet of epics and a poet of dreams. When I typed the word, “descent” in Wilson’s second line, I heard an allusion to Notley’s The Descent of Alette, a book-length epic poem. I think about Notley’s essay titled Homer’s Art, which asks, “how could a woman write an epic? How could she now if she were to decide the times called for one?” (187).  

In Wilson’s conjuring, alice notley is figure, dream, poet, guide, comrade, interlocutor. The poet speaker recalls receiving advice: “i remember you saying we have / nothing to live for except the approval of our / flesh-eating god.” I’m still in the mystery of this pronouncement (who is this deity?) when the poet speaker turns again. Far from seeking approval from the god, as directed by dreamworld alice notley, the speaker, states, “so i turned to flesh-eating god / & ate it” (105).  With this act, the speaker defies both guide and god, consuming the latter. Given Alice Notley’s own disobedient poetics, I think the speaker’s exchange with the dream prophet alice notley makes a beautiful sense, as Wilson’s poetics also challenge what counts as epic and who can write one. The poet speaker expresses regard for the conjured dream prophet and disregards, at least in this instance, her guidance, showing how Wilson’s poetics listen to and radically transform even the more radical of epic inheritances.

Wilson creates a poet speaker who ingests and therefore transforms the “flesh-eating god,” which may be read as a figure for the patriarchy and epic lineages passed down within it. With the act of eating, tradition becomes transmission, metamorphosed from received themes and tropes into a visionary feminist poetics. The poem closes with lines that return to notley to ask, “if / this too could be merciful” (105). I read and hold onto Wilson’s conditional “if” (105). I hear the “if” as an inquiry that introduces the following #ALICENOTLEY series, epic poems driven by a quest for “mercy” (105).

Wilson’s work summons and furies describe, in unflinching terms, life “wounds” caused oppression, naming how race, gender, sexuality, class and ability affect lives lived in a racist-capitalist-patriarchy. By beginning with the hashtag phrase, the poems stage a public discourse between two poets, between Leia Penina Wilson (poet and poet speaker) and Alice Notley (poet and figure).  A one line poem reads, “ #ALICENOTLEY a witch is a poet who is struggling how 2 say this world” (163). Wilson questions by turn poetics, language, literary tradition, how and where the transmission of literary lineages takes place, and the limits and possibilities of poetry itself. Dream excerpts, family, daily life and political events occur alongside citations of writers including Audre Lorde, Julia Kristeva, Patricia Hill Collins and Gertrude Stein. Reading practice is not separable from life but is alive as a conversation taking place in and as the poems. So too do I enter the reading world of another. Wilson’s invocation calls me into a mode of reading activated by their language of “wound & descent & red & cunt &” (105). Not afraid to turn “to flesh-eating god” and eat it, Wilson transmutes god and epic into “vision,” “desire,” and “mercy.” (105)

Here is a poem, an invocation, the speaker declares, opening their mouth to sing.

Works Cited

Notley, Alice. Graves of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005, Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Wilson, Leia Penina. this red metropolis what remains, Oakland: Omnidawn Publishing, 2020.

Andrea Quaid is a writer, editor and teacher. Her work focuses on poetry and poetics, pedagogy, and feminist studies. With Gabrielle Civil and Allison Yasukawa, she is co-editor of the publication and ongoing pedagogy project, Migrating Pedagogies. She is also co-editor of Acts + Encounters, a collection about experimental writing and community, and Urgent Possibilities, Writings on Feminist Poetics and Emergent Pedagogies. Her work appears in albeit, American Book Review, BOMBlog, Entropy, Feminist Spaces Journal, Full Stop, Jacket2, Lana Turner, LIT, Los Angeles Review of Books, Manifold and Syllabus. With Harold Abramowitz, she curates RAD! Residencies at the Poetic Research Bureau. In addition to teaching at CalArts, she teaches in the Bard College Language & Thinking Program and Institute for Writing and Thinking. She co-founded and directs Humanities in the City, which hosts public programs committed to education equity and the transformational power of interdisciplinary humanities study in classrooms and communities.