Review of Lisa Allen Ortiz's Guide to the Exhibit (Perugia, 2016)

Field Notes to Guide to the Exhibit by Lisa Allen Ortiz

a review by Amie Whittemore

Exhibit A: First poem of the collection, “Admission,” in its natural habitat.

Exhibit B: “Patois,” unlike some species of poems, which shy from view, wants you to look at it.

  • Writing field notes to a collection of poetry that purports to be a guide but is also itself an exhibit is like sketching a painting at a museum while your friend photographs you and posts it to Instagram. It’s a double-exposure, a layered haunting.
  • We must toil between knowledge and experience. Sight is dangerous, Ortiz warns us. Blinding even (see Exhibit A at right, but also, the poems, “Identification” and “Beginner’s Guide to Birding”).
  • If Field Notes are a translation of witness, if every language is local, if the exhibit includes us, if notes are inherently incomplete—
  • My guess is you haven’t read this book. Perhaps because it is not overtly political in a politically charged climate. Perhaps because Ortiz stays out of the self-promotion game, a Google search picking up a sprinkling of poems, her website, but few other sightings of the poet in her natural habitat.

Exhibit C: Excerpt from “Cyanotypes of Anna Atkins” where we see how we see what we see and make it so

  • In a blog posted November 2016, Ortiz writes, “we [poets] more than others are comfortable with the incomprehensible, the obscure, the vague, the wildly emotive, the disingenuous, the cruel, the fanciful, the ignorant, the willful, the victimized, the helpless, the wounded, the misunderstood. In poetry we support the multi-vocal, the plural.” The plurality of experience rests at the center of Guide to the Exhibit, as it examines attention—how do we direct it, and in doing so, what do we nurture?
  • See Exhibit C (below, right): what do you feed with your gaze? What is the self, and its accumulations, but a hall of forgetting—what is the point of remembering, when everything will leave? What is the point of making, when everything will fall apart?
  • Ortiz unfolds such questions gently as cloth napkins laid across your lap.

Exhibit D: Excerpt from “At the Friend Level.” Not shown: how I imagine the friend level, fathoms deep, plumb line sinking into ocean, touching every current.

  • To exhibit is to publically display. Every exhibit directs a gaze, knows it is meant to be gazed upon. Channeling Rilke, Ortiz continually examines the act of perception, of witness, of (in)sight, what it renders, how it renders us.
  •  Her magic rests in form as well as content. In Exhibit D  (below, left) we see the poet’s dexterity particularly clearly in this syntactical move,  “verb: pronoun, verb: pronoun.”
  • Such fine tethers between “you” and “me” in Exhibit D, the punctuation barely joining, slightly dividing—like the drift of my eyes following birds as they flee your mouth (see Exhibit B).
  • Marked: you, erased: me.
  • If to exhibit is to publically display, it’s important to note that Ortiz exhibits private geographies, of the heart and mind—love, its playfulness; how we are all microbiomes; what it feels like to lose a parent, to contemplate paradise while drinking Mai Tais; she attends to quiet liminalities, slippery in-betweens.
  • Yet, she is also looking (always, with the looking!) at what is public, though we don’t often associate that adjective with glaciers and bowerbirds, with beakfish and turtles; in short, the world, the self—we’re all exhibitionists. Who’s looking at whom (cue Rilke winking behind the curtain of every poem)?
  • What’s (mostly) absent from these poems: social media, pop culture, political references.

  • What shadows the edges: war, climate change, the many ways we wound each other.
  • What is often at center: curiosity, splendor, grief, the art of lov(s)ing. Is it a privilege to not write directly about war? About identity? About traumas of the body and mind? Surely. Do we need more collections by a diversity of writers about war, identity, and trauma? Of course.
  • However—
  • While Guide to the Exhibit may not feel of this sociopolitical moment, it nonetheless reminds us that what we attend to, we feed.
  •  Looking: you, fed: me.
  • As Jack Gilbert writes in, “A Brief for the Defense:” “To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
  • Gilbert again: “We must risk delight.”

Exhibit E: Excerpt from “Microfossil Exhibit” asking us what we’ll handle, see, and note in our brief time, with our failing sight.

  • What happens when you do not attend to Trump’s latest tweets, when you do not attend to coiled debates on social media, when you do not attend to anything that happens on a screen—are you feeding something else?
  • What is it? Attend to it. Exhibit it.
  • There is a difference between resistance and persistence. Both vital, but one is formed in relation to the enemy (resist) and one toward your own devotions (persist). Guide to the Exhibit may not be a book of resistance, but it is one of persistence.
  • Persisting: you, nurtured: me.

 Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press, 2016) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.