PRONOUNS ARE TRICKY THINGS. How far does “I” extend? How particular is “you”? How distant is “them”? And then there’s “we,” which seems to reach from cozy, particular partnerships to vague, wide allegiances — thereby risking a slide between intimate and universal. How and why do I separate my affection for the familiar body lying next to me and my compassion for the unknown citizen living halfway around the world? Does one relationship model the other? Should they be related?
Yes, Juliana Spahr suggests, in her strange, often beautiful, frequently pronoun-deranging poetry. But the task isn’t easy. Well Then There Now, Spahr’s latest book, is a welcome reminder of this necessary effort. Her poems seem particularly vital at the moment not just for the pleasure inherent in their forms of language, but also for the challenge posed by their focus on community. Spahr tests and rejects any separation between intimate passion and general policy. In her poems, love does not resist the world beyond; love lets it in. Politics demands feeling rather than denuding it. The basic dilemma is evident in “Switching,” an earlier, characteristic work, where she worries about the movement between table and bed, or “public” discourse and “private” feeling; how can we find a way, she asks, to think “all together”? This poem ends by imagining a life of “listening and / changing…separation and / joining on the flat planes of this, / our world of daily occurrence”. Her means and mode come at the moment of suspense after each of those “ands,” poised at the edge of a break, as they confront separation by pushing toward union. This push is the drama, for Spahr, of what would otherwise be mere “daily occurrence.”
Not for nothing, then, did this poet edit a journal called Chain. Spahr recurrently worries about the fact and need of a link between self and others. And if this seems a standard liberal prescription, even a sappy Disney piety — we know, after all, just how small the world is — the particular medium of Spahr’s work makes connection seem freshly urgent. She writes in an avant-garde line of post-Language poetry which traces its heritage from Gertrude Stein’s modernist experiments and Ezra Pound’s dancing intellect to Lyn Hejinian’s avant-garde life-writing and Ron Silliman’s “new sentence.” Read a bit of Stein’s The Making of Americans or a section of Hejinian’s My Life and you might recognize something akin to Spahr’s incantatory, recursive, verbal accumulation, which lets words become tones and patterns as well as meanings and premises. (This sort of verse feeds the childlike wonder that everyone discovers at some point for herself after repeating a familiar world until it loses its original meaning—and finding that the word becomes all the more fascinating for that.) “We come into the world and there it is,” Spahr writes in one passage. “We come into the world without and we breathe it in. / We come into the world and begin to move between the brown and the blue and the green of it.” Such word-spirals...read more