Katie Willingham's Unlikely Designs | K.R. Miller
University of Chicago Press (Phoenix Poets), 2017 (104 pages)
Katie Willingham's debut poetry collection, Unlikely Designs, finds itself caught between the history of knowledge and our age of information, asking: How do we know? Out from University of Chicago Press in October 2017, this book takes nothing for granted, orienting toward the world like a modern-day Charles Darwin, looking for patterns and connections that might hold significance, or at least a poetic resonance.
An epigraph from Darwin prepares the reader for the book's merged sense of the human and
These poems especially delight in information, and tempt readers with shareable factoids. In one poem the speaker asks of horseshoe crabs, "[D]id you know/their blood is baby blue like a lamb's/ear?" This book is written for a culture immersed in the internet, for fans of surprising facts and headlines strange enough to be clicked. The resulting poems are a kind of mental delight, rather than a sentimental one, and a satisfying juxtaposition of ideas compels the poems forward, rather than any confessional impulse.
Part of the brilliance of this book is the mix of references, from contemporary cultural phenomena like Pokemon and dream cycle apps, to figures from the history of science. When Willingham and I were students together at the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan, I could at best nod along when she talked about video games and internet forums. But even I, the exactly wrong audience, appreciate the poem in which she masterfully transforms Pac-Man into a metaphor for a human condition.
Charles Darwin is a central figure in this book, and many poems refer to his childhood, travel, and studies, as well as his unique logic, evolutionary theory, which stands as one of our foundational ways of knowing. Willingham has uncovered some incisive quotes of his, which she situates to speak far beyond their original context: "Great is the power of steady/misrepresentation." These poems draw on a number of historical and contemporary figures, especially men-Robert Cornelius, William Bligh, Ansel Adams, Bryan Nash Gill, Jimmy Carter, Eminem, even Wikipedia contributors-remixing their words and ideas, and revealing their efforts to understand and create as both flawed and intelligent, problematic and fascinating.
This book is curious about the sources of our knowledge, and how our methods of understanding might change what it is possible to know. In "Staying Power" the speaker uses the dodo bird to discuss how our attempts at preservation-of information, species, artifacts, humanity itself- is always flawed: "Even what's long gone refuses to hold still, refuses/to stabilize for the purposes of recording." These poems look for references, consult the dictionary, read the ever-changing flow of news. Wikipedia becomes a poetic subject, and why not? Admit it-poets these days don't stroll through the forest, they get on the internet and read about the trees. This relevant move reveals a truth about the layers of association and alienation within our mental spaces: "If you cry get out of the woods, the birds simply/move indoors." In another clever stroke she uses the Wikipedian idea of 'disambiguation' to parse language, as in her series of poems on the word "artifact," in which she finds connections across its multiple meanings.
Her poems frame, and discuss the idea of framing, wondering how the frame determines what we remember, what is preserved or not. As one piece insists, "We forget the photographer who takes/this shot, the camera inside it pointed/out into the desert." Here you'll find here early daguerreotypes, the first selfies, darkrooms. But the poems are equally intrigued by what we cannot see, and how technology aids our curiosity. As I started looking for this theme, I saw it everywhere in this book: In brain scans. In apps that track our sleep cycles. In computer modeling of dodo bones. In the computer program that scans radio data for alien life, but only when no one is watching. To interpret the book this way, of course, is to mirror how these poems read the world: pattern-making, marveling, finding ideas manifested in unexpected places.
These poems arrive as if mid-conversation, and appear at first to be casual, even playful, as in the poem that teases apart a line from Eminem. Other times they are quite delicate in their imagery: "wide-eyed like a window that lets the snow right in." They don't supply direct answers, but go somewhere else, away from their entry point, and may or may not return, although they never stop calling back. As one poem reminds us: "Internal logic means any rhetoric/with an echo." In the title poem the narrator discusses fake limbs, snap traps, Darwin's implements, and a botched scuba mission, and doesn't tell you, doesn't need to tell you, exactly what it all means-somehow, the pieces spark together. This book rewards a second and third reading, revealing crosstalk and connections that may have gone unnoticed at first.
These poems enact the ideas they discuss-they preserve, cohere, echo, transplant. Ideas are made "to dissolve, to cohere," and perhaps as a result, it is difficult to explain the pleasure and surprise of reading this debut collection. It is better that you discover these poems for yourself.