Shape Taking: Poems by Elana Wolff

In her seventh collection of poems, Shape Taking, Elana Wolff continues to display the strengths of her voice and vision. Her title points to the process of creation, resonance, and transformation: a poem takes shape from earlier writing that echoes in the mind and ear. The epigraph from Rabbi Tarfon, “You are not obligated to finish the work; neither are you free to desist from it,” instructs the reader in open-endedness and multiplicity of meaning. At every turn, Wolff shape shifts and takes stock of the mundane and metaphysical. Her cover design is rich in implication: amid swirls of colour a ghostlike bride levitates, while another darker figure with a rutilant heart witnesses the veil, and a deer below gazes innocently on the scene above. Edenic flux and fall lie at the heart of Shape Taking.

“Wolff continues to swoon and soar in the falls and flights of Shape Taking.”

          Her first poem, “How Alteration Works,” moves from nature outdoors to a domestic interior. “Fence and gate, the swing and hedges – blue: / the biophilia-blue in green.” This perfect-pitch syncopation hinges on monosyllabic alternation, caesuras of comma, dash, colon and hyphen in Wallace Stevens’s turquoise colour scheme. If that is how liminal alternation works, then alliteration works equally throughout the poem, stamping “biophilia-blue,” “Conscience can you cogitate,” and the final “flannelled flesh.”

          Wolff’s playful palette moves to “Bird-poop white as eye in edelweiss.” Eye shifts to a submerged personal pronoun, the omnipresent super- and alter-ego: “Conscience, can you cogitate on personhood / dispersed: identity with any eyes.” Alterity works through dispersed identity of shifting personal pronouns: “this woman mirrored in the sink. She washes hands:” There is nothing narcissistic about this domestic mirror; the poet washes her hands and cleanses the “gills of kinship.” The “I” (dis)appears in the middle of the poem: “Can’t tell you quite how alteration works.”

          Towards the end of the poem the subdued “I” pluralizes to “We take to reading K aloud in various translations.” Kafka is embedded in Wolff’s verse, which metamorphoses and translates sublime and subliminal dreams under “rumpled lumps of flannelled flesh.” The mirror in the sink and echoes of allusion and alliteration take shape in each poem. Her expansive eye and ear reach inward and outward, upward and downwards, directing us toward spaces between and beyond stanzas. In her earlier collection, Swoon, she quotes Kafka: “swooning counts as believing.” Wolff continues to swoon and soar in the falls and flights of Shape Taking.

          She rereads Kafka in “Before the Door,” which is preceded by “Portico” in her poetics of the threshold or in-between spaces where alteration works and alternation hinges. She replaces Kafka’s “Law” with the assonance of “Door”: “In a story of parameters, a man from the country / comes to a door that’s guarded by a keeper.” In a poem of pentameters, Kafka’s parable takes the shape of Wolff’s couplets that situate keeper and countryman in an allegory of alteration. Rhythmic alternation of caesura and enjambment heighten the dramatic standoff.

          “Calf Love” rewrites Kafka’s story, “The Judgement,” “As if by word association,” for Wolff is a poet of both the hypothetical and a soundscape of association where “calf love” sounds like Kafka – intergenerational likes and loves. If “The Judgement” is Kafka’s “breakthrough” work written over the course of one night, then the poet reimagines his protagonist lying supine in the river, “Held by the fevered / stream of breaking through.” The poet breaks through time, space, and line, “Under the bridge and out of sight.” The earlier writer resurfaces thanks to the poet’s bridging gaps and thresholds. Kafka’s protagonist swims against the current, “Yet only between the lines, / and after the story ends.” Enigma and anti-climax are never-ending, returning to Rabbi Tarfon’s task.

          “Tacitly / Translating” revisits Kafka through bilingual wordplay, shape taking from German to English with abundant alliteration and internal rhyme. The backward slash in the title is one way of telling it slant: writing through two languages, writing through Kafka and silence, writing on a threshold of “as if.” The first German word to appear is Seelenfreunde – a soulmate, whether Kafka or a squirrel that appears at the silent speaker’s window. Outdoors there are few birds and no minnesingers in the walking field and fallen wind. The poet tries “to bring them back with nuts and crumbs, instead / a squirrel comes.” The shaping of the lines imitates the squirrel’s trajectory, a translation of Kafka’s name (which means jackdaw) into birds and absent minnesinger enticed by nuts, crumbs, and words. The squirrel has half an ear, the other half provided by the poet shaping its “tattered coat” and colouring “his tail – / stripe lightning-white.” Like the slash that separates and joins the poem’s title, the hyphen suggests the hybridity of translation, not just between two languages, but between nature and the domestic lyric.

          The second German word Vermutung means probably: “He was probably actually struck,” which explains the squirrel’s tattered appearance. Each stanza is a shape taking that eventually becomes a snapshot. The squirrel reappears in stormy weather “and sat on the sill, eyed me deutlich through the Fenster.” Double German clearly highlights the fenestration of creature and poet at the kitchen sink. In the silent dialogue between eyes and I’s, “I photographed him – close-up on my cellphone. / — Geringfügigkeit is what he didn’t say to that.” The interplay between hyphen and dashes captures the distance between languages and silence. An insignificant German word is significant in the fugue of the fleeting moment. The poem ends with a tacit understanding: “I slipped him a bowl / of Hafer, / crumbs and nuts.” A bowl of oats and nuts reverses the earlier order of nuts and crumbs, as the walking field is transformed into a waking field stalked by Kafka.

          The eponymous “Shape Taking” consists mainly of tercets that take stock of the poet’s mood amid tragic world events. “So tired I could cry / and something flits, is / stuck to dust. Or is it dusk.” Sibilance dominates assonance and alliteration in this opening stanza to voice the lament and to grasp the dust and dusk that stick to the poet and her surroundings. Twilight carries over to the second stanza, as Wolff takes the shape of in-between times and spaces, a flitting process that fills Covid’s void: “already taking / shape of what’s contained …” Taking picks up the earlier something, while the long “a” sounds prepare for the relationship between container and its contents. Ellipsis pauses at the possibilities before giving way to surreal personification, the interface of mood: “I touch its face / and mind’s electric eye – a blur.” She blurs the boundaries between “I” and “eye,” persona and kitchen containers: “a blow-by. / I’ve stopped consuming myself / with (f)acts. The saucepan.”

          Even the parenthetical shape of words like (f)acts and (g)host give way to the larger disasters in the external world of bombs and slain, before the poet returns to her echoed lament: “So tired I could cry, my eyelids / flit, the vision sticks.” Wolff’s flitting eyelids yield a lasting vision of Kafka’s enigmas and the contours of Old World ways beyond doors and windows of perception. Sitting on the lyrical fence of ambiguity, while taking sides in moral issues, she betters the world through her words.

Elana Wolff is the author of seven collections of poetry and a collection of essays on poems. She has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently lives and works in Thornhill, Ontario. Elana’s sixth collection, Swoon (Guernica Editions, 2020), received the 2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry. Shape Taking is her seventh book of poems.

  • Ekstasis Editions (Sept. 2021)
  • ISBN 978-1-77171-444-0
  • Poetry
  • 80 pages

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.