A poet turns to the essay to consider the role of the individual in contemporary American democracy.
Portland, Oregon–based Willis (A Long Late Pledge, 2017) worked as a public defender and law clerk before transferring her energy to poetry, and her best essays combine rigor with sensory observation, ranging widely among varied interests. “Reckoning with the Bros: Donald Trump, Robert Bly, and Swimming in the Sea of Grief” may take a predictably appalled attitude toward Trump, but it also articulates the author’s complicated feelings toward Bly, whose combination of poetry and social action inspired but differs from hers. This essay, like several of the others, includes passages of poetry that illuminate the discussion. In “Where the World I Know and the World I Fear Threaten to Meet,” Willis uses passages from the work of Walt Whitman, Tracy K. Smith, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to support the argument that we ought to “face up to our fragility rather than shun it—or worse—hide it from one another.” Willis also exhibits a bracing, wry sense of humor. One especially intriguing section, “A Gnostic Bill of Rights,” considers several of her favorite rights from the Bill of Rights in her “own idiosyncratic order.” The Third Amendment, for example, she translates as “if a guy in camo and combat boots shows up at your door demanding pizza and a pull-out couch, you're free to refuse.” Because many of the essays collected here have been previously published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, and elsewhere, certain key ideas repeat frequently. Some of them, written for a decidedly liberal Portland audience, can be parochial, but for the most part, Willis resists falling for any pat agenda. She is as likely to call out her friends and neighbors as her political opponents for their close-minded reactions.
A compassionate, measured voice that serves as an antidote to strident pontificating.