(Orchises Press, 2012) 

The opening poems in Terri Witek’s lyrically textured Exit 

Island establish the collection’s “Premise”: a sleepy Ariadne arrives by cruise in Brazil, a place where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. Like her mythological counterpart, she seems to have been abandoned by a lover, but rather than leaping into a Dionysus’s arms, she attempts, in turn, to abandon herself. These poems meld memory and myth, dream and text (including fragments from a cruise brochure, a 1938 merchant seaman’s manual, a girl scout handbook, Fernando Pessoa’s poems, and vintage comic books), collaging a “Naxos” where Ariadne feels at once invisible and other. The isolation allows her to move into a kind of posthuman state in which she becomes part of this new world, connected to its palm and palmetto, burlesque theater and post office, swimming pools and city traffic. Witek plays fast and loose with language, using her speaker’s imperfect Portuguese to make associative and homophonic leaps. Thus to be “disembarked” might imply removing one’s “strange wooden skin” and becoming “desemboca” like a body of flowing water, then learning to “disse sem boca,” speak without a mouth” (13). As her wordplay implies, this Ariadne wants to leave her mother tongue behind. She stands in for the aims of the book itself, which seems at every turn intent on communicating beyond language. From diagram poems, to shaped trails of language, to tapestry-like grids of aerated text, to vacated comic book panels whose bodies have left their dialogue behind, these poems ask to be looked at as much as read. At the back of the book, a series of photographs by Witek’s long-time collaborator, Brazilian artist Cyriaco Lopes, draws out key themes: water, the body, and language as delicate vessel (an origami boat) between them. Part of the impulse to speak beyond words, it seems, comes from a desire to marginalize the self, to avoid the tourist’s exoticizing or colonizing perspective. Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne provides an escape hatch for this speaker, who begins to identify not with Ariadne, “torqued for motion” between the departing and arriving lover, but with the “inexplicable objects in the charged zone between”: e.g., the pair of cheetahs more interested in one another than the unfolding human drama. Just as her speaker is decentered by the experience of this new landscape, Witek’s appropriative and visual strategies help map Ariadne’s trajectory from ship to island, and from woman to animal. The sequence “Night Sky Plus Heteronyms” erases the bodies from panels of 1950s comics, leaving behind the apparel and accessories of a man and a woman, who gradually merge into one cheetah-printed figure. Drawing on the comic book trope of the buxom gal in the animal-print bikini, Witek lets the clothes wear the woman, revealing her in her absence through the curve of hip and breast. This beast leaps off the pages of Teenage Temptation and Thrilling Comics to emerge a new monster: a minotaur freed from language’s labyrinth. Despite the maps and diagrams throughout, Witek’s book resists easy traversal, and it is in that resistance that its greatest pleasures lie. The visual material helps the reader thread a narrative into this fragmentary, polyvocal, heteronymous text. If the book’s title evokes a theatrical command, instructing the island to disappear from view, it also evokes an island of thrilling exits, passing through which Ariadne might eventually lose herself. 

                                                                     —Amaranth Borsuk 

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