Book Review: THE SECOND ELIZABETH by Karen Lillis


Karen Lillis {lives here}
Six Gallery Press, 2009

Rather than talk about myself, expose the underbelly of my brain, I’ll talk about someone else this morning.

But first a description of the clouds over my brain:

Ok. Karen Lillis wrote a book. THE SECOND ELIZABETH. It’s a brave legion of letters and spaces that has the power to hypnotize. Thumbing through the pages it’s clear this is a book that knows how words can be made to squirrel into my brain. Of course every brain is different. Mine, however, is highly susceptible to block prose, and that’s mostly what THE SECOND ELIZABETH is made out of, blocks and blocks and blocks.

Music is important to Karen Lillis, the sound packed into each word, more important than plot, which is how it should be. Music, emotion, not structure, plot. I read silently but still my ears hear a driving rhythm. Reading this book is, for me, like reading sheet music. I see people reading sheet music on the bus, their heads swing, maybe they hum at times, a low hum from the voice box in their throats, but all they’re looking at are combinations of notes, and all I’m looking at are combinations of letters, but still I hum. This is language.

When linking together this kind of prose the opening note is, for me, critical. The opening note breaks the vacuum. The opening note is a shout into the empty canyon. As the text develops this opening note becomes more and more magical. It is a place meant to be revisited. You run into the ocean and swim out as far as you can before coming back to shore. You stand ashore and catch your breath. You set out again into the ocean, finding new waters, hitting new sweet spots, and then you return, re-energize, regroup, and set out again. Karen Lillis returns to this opening note throughout THE SECOND ELIZABETH, she goes out as far as she can and then comes back, scans her expanding territory from the beach, and then she goes back out again, always finding something unheard of.

It’s the tonic. Something Mozart played with. Something Thomas Bernhard played with. European literature largely depends on this tonic, this home key. It’s the pathway into a person’s middle, at least it’s the pathway to my middle. I love it when something connects with my middle. I know when it happens. I’m tuned into the magical times when my middle is connected to everything else around me through a person’s book. It’s when I feel alive, appreciative, willing to stretch my arms and unleash the sound of my birth.

My secret noises are so happy that I am dancing, my blood is so happy that I am dancing, my heart is so happy that I am dancing, my belly is so happy that I am dancing! As my secret noises leave my windpipe, other noises leave my head. For there are other noises in my head, they are always there and they stop my blood from flowing exactly as I want it to. They are noises of other people trying to write the language that runs between my ears, it is a daytime language that fills up my head and I can’t find the language of the second Elizabeth. When I am dancing I remember that the language of the second Elizabeth is already written, when I am dancing and singing and I let some of the secret noises out of hiding, and then I listen closely to the language inside my blood, and not the language that the daytime people wrote between my ears, and not the story that someone etched onto my body, and I hear the language of the second Elizabeth, deep inside my blood.

With song comes dance. It makes sense that dance is redemptive in THE SECOND ELIZABETH. Surrounded by kudzu and gently bending railroad tracks, in the middle of treed Charlottesville, Karen Lillis discovers her language and dances. Two forms of self-expression colliding, making an explosion. Or is it more like two forms of self-expression lining up, making an eclipse? I feel like, in this particular case, it’s an eclipse. While THE SECOND ELIZABETH maybe wants to explode into life-affirming vibrations, the release at the end, after filling me up with exquisite tension, isn’t as frenetic as it could be, and maybe this is what Karen Lillis wants, a serene departure, a cooling of her blood.

This book kicks off with her middle name and ends with her middle name, Elizabeth. Elizabeth. In the end THE SECOND ELIZABETH stays true to its pattern and touches the tonic, brings the reader back to the beginning, back to safety, to remember how far we’ve traveled, and for that I’m thankful.


December 17, 2011 12:30 pm

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