Travels to Tartarus: Tourist in Hell by Eleanor Wilner

Tourist in Hell

Tourist in Hell
BY Eleanor Wilner
(University of Chicago Press, 2010)

So, your black roller bags are packed, your Tartarean, I mean tartan, ribbons tied to their handles so as to readily identify your own from all the other black roller bags on the airport luggage belt to Hell. You’ve double-checked for your passport and Air Hades tickets. You’re ready to go. And halfway into Eleanor Wilner’s seventh collection of poetry, Tourist in Hell, you find yourself at one of the most memorable stops on the trip. “Encounter in the Local Pub” opens in a pub that is not only in a foreign land, but also a foreign time, as signaled in part by the sixteenth-century “lanthorn” and reference to a play written by the fairly well-known playwright of that era:

As he looked up from his glass, its quickly melting ice,
into the bisected glowing demonic eyes of the goat,
he sensed that something fundamental had shifted,

or was done. As if, after a life of enchantment, he
had awakened, like Bottom, wearing the ears of an ass,
and the only light was a lanthorn, an ersatz moon.

— p. 66

Strong, surprising images such as these abound throughout Wilner’s book. In any other collection, “bisected glowing demonic” goat eyes might seem a little far-fetched. But in Wilner’s masterful care, they push us just short of the limits of suspended disbelief, where we stop in awe of what has moved us there. Naming the book Tourist in Hell certainly goes a long way toward laying the framework for no-holds-barred images. Moreover, things are not as they seem in this collection, and the poet employs a number of elegant techniques to keep us right along with her, never losing a traveling companion. One such technique is to concretize the abstract, as she does, for example, later on in the same poem:

his thoughts only a sagging bundle of loose ends,
and the heart a naked animal in search of a pelt,
that once fell for every Large Meaning it could

wrap itself in, as organs are packed in ice for transit
from one ending to the next, an afterlife of parts —

— pp. 66-67

These metaphors are right on. I, for one, know exactly how it feels to have thoughts that are “a sagging bundle of loose ends” and am not ashamed to admit that my heart has often been “a naked animal in search of a pelt.”

Another technique this passage illustrates is Wilner’s use of line breaks to hook the reader into the next line, the next stanza, the next poem, keeping us traveling right by her side as she tours the tropical land of eternal damnation. The heart “that once fell for every Large Meaning it could” sounds like one that sits in the pub promiscuously trolling for tall dark and handsome meanings. But read on to the next line, and the meaning of the sentence changes: the heart “that once fell for every Large Meaning it could / wrap itself in, as organs are packed in ice for transit.” This is no big heart blazoned with an “A.” Rather, it is a small animal in need of protection and sustenance.

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