|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Siobhan Phillips on Well Then There Now by Juliana Spahr
A Catalogue of Us with All
February 22nd, 2012
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 promote a moment-to-moment awareness that makes “there it is” into revelation: “daily occurrence” becomes creative happening.
One might rest content with such happening, and defenses of avant-garde poetics often do: any heightening of consciousness, in this view, is a consciousness-raising. But that’s too easy, and Spahr knows it. She uses experimentalism, specifically, to awaken the energies of affiliation, then to undercut any assumption that would limit our links and bonds. Her critical study sets this out in theory: in Everybody’s Autonomy — a book that is clear and learned and too little known — she argues that disjunctive poetics establish community by demanding readers’ engagement. But her poetry shows this in practice, with passages of linguistic repetition that chip away at false divisions. Consider “Some of We and the Land That Was Never Ours,” a gorgeous inquiry from Well Then There Now, which closes with the question of “how to…speak. To speak. To spoke. With the spoke. To poke away at what it is that is wrong in this world we are all in together.” In this linguistic probing, speech itself becomes an assertion of togetherness, a presumption of indebtedness and investment that cannot, by definition, happen alone. Or consider “Sonnets,” which upends the conventions of the sonnet genre — all that love-ridden talk and heart-ridden symbolism — with 14-line sections on the biochemistry of blood as a paradigm for interconnected systems. “Things should be said more largely than the personal way,” Spahr writes in one section; any “catalogue of the individual” should be “a catalogue of us with all.” For this writer, lyric selfhood dissolves in its acknowledgement that “we couldn’t tell where we began and where we ended.”
That inability, then, is at once philosophically potent and linguistically concrete. It gets back to those pronouns — Spahr’s most important stylistic tool, as she blurs the lines between “I” and “you” by testing the capacity of a first-person plural. One poem can thus play with “certain of we” versus “certain of us,” for example, when it tests the rules for who exactly gets access to natural resources. Another poem can venture only a bracketed place-holder — “[gendered pronoun] wanders in this place” — before wondering whether “we [move forward.” Indeed a “we”-dependent progress moves throughout Spahr’s work, culminating, perhaps, with a 2005 collection fittingly called This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, which brings together the long poetic catalogs that Spahr wrote after September 11, 2001 and emphasizes the heartfelt associations of her calls to any and all readers. “Beloveds, how can we understand it at all?” she asks — “it” here meaning everything from celebrity pre-nups to endangered salmon to the bombing of Iraq. Her answer comes, again, with the loving association of a public-to-private, bed-to-table “switching” — and with a concomitant estrangement of familiar pronouns. “Angry” that “how we live in our bed…has no relevance to the rest of the world,” Spahr would “lie with yous in resistance to the alone, lie with yous night after night.” The linguistic oddity of Spahr’s “yous” presses the poet’s now-more-than-ever goal: a general love for specific others, a particular affection becomes general principle, a global citizenship of intimate force. Spahr wants a link among everyone who draws breath.
The results are not entirely successful; Spahr’s post-9/11 book still seems equivocal, by the end, about “how connected we are with everyone.” Universal affection is not only difficult to credit: we might only “believe that we want to believe that we all live in one bed of the earth’s atmosphere,” she writes, with her attenuated phrases demonstrating the effort of almost-faith. Universal affection is also difficult to imagine: when Spahr describes how “in bed, when I stroke the down on your cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the guided missile destroyers,” her statement teeters near bathos with its conjunction of women and warcraft. Both historical and personal events of the last ten years, it seems, test the plausibility of connective ardor. It was in fact “a time of troubled and pressured pronouns,” as Spahr recalls in a memoir called The Transformation, a time of a rigid “us and a them” rather than many porous “yous” and “we”s. The Transformation details Spahr’s experience of this period, as she navigates between households in New York and Hawaii—the former clouded by unsatisfying responses to the terrorist attacks and the latter by uncomfortable extensions of postcolonial stereotypes (a previous collection is called Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You). The unease of both locations, moreover, is compounded by Spahr’s decision to live with two partners in a “transformation” of household intimacy; when others suspect this unclassifiable “perversion,” their reactions emphasize how difficult it is to apply the emotions of the bedroom to the relations of the table, or vice versa. Spahr’s memoir’s prose, then, eschews the expected “I” or “we” to apply instead a threatened third-person plural: “They were in this time defined by heart-thumping anxiety,” she writes. “…How they were torn between philosophies of coming together and staying apart.” The honest indecision in passages like these makes The Transformation a more powerful book than This Connection of Everyone With Lungs in that it is more provocatively aware of what it seeks and lacks.
It also makes the next step, for this writer, less than obvious: where do “we” go from here? How do we build, assume, curate a new “us”? That’s one big question for Well Then There Now, as it sets out Spahr’s writing in various modes from the past ten years or so — the range including paragraphed essays called “Dole Street” and “2199 Kalia Road,” complete with photographs, as well as lineated meditations like “Sonnets” or “Things of Each Possible Relation Hashing Against One Another.” One answer comes through Spahr’s renewed focus on the location of such varied relations. Well Then There Now continues to worry over the crucial first-person plural that haunts “Some of We and the Land That Was Never Ours” while continuing to deepen “our” attention to that very land: common ground, here, returns to its literal sense. (The well-designed volume includes a map and longitude/latitude coordinates before each poem.) “Unnamed Dragonfly Species” thus adapts a section of The Transformation where Spahr recounts “their” obsessive self-education about the facts of climate change, moving from anxiety about one’s place into worry about one’s environment.
“Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” goes further, suggesting how worry might be assuaged: returning to memories of a childhood stream, Spahr reinhabits a time of early nature love when “we learned layers and where we learned connections between layers.”These connections, too, are vulnerable: they rupture when commerce replaces ecology and an actual waterway yields to “Lifestream Total Cholesterol Test Packets” or “Snuggle Emerald Stream Fabric Softener Sheets” or “Streamzap PC Remote Control.” But these easy homophonic ironies suggest an original fund of ecological innocence when they imply the classic, simplistic story of nature corrupted by culture. The poem thus avoids that central challenge of Spahr’s poetry, the creation of human relationship: what about connections with people rather than allegiance to places? In “Gentle, Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” what Spahr calls the “narrow pillow” of a mature “I” and “each other” seems like a fatal constriction of some earlier, earthier communion. And this judgment seems less than sustainable for a poet with Spahr’s political hopes and personal investments. Ultimately, Spahr wants ecological responsibility to promote social renewal, and vice versa. Hers is a post-post-romantic, post-post-modern version of Wordsworth’s animating conflict between “love of nature” and “love of man.” Spahr provides her updated account of the project, perhaps, in her note to another poem of Well Then There Now: she wants to create “systemic analysis that questions the divisions between nature and culture.”
The final poem of the book, “The Incinerator,” makes that abstract aim into poignant poetry — in large part through admitting the difficulty of doing so. “I was trying to think,” Spahr writes again and again here, and “I was trying to write…” and “as I write this other stories keep popping up and I keep abandoning them.” The poem once more returns to Spahr’s past, but not for any easy affinity with a stream; instead, she maps ongoing ambivalence about the topography — natural and cultural — in her native town. Picking through the strata of economics and gender in Chillicothe, Ohio, Spahr follows the meanings of “working” and “middle class” labels from her family to her nation, her nation to her world. The results set Spahr’s own memories among histories of women’s labor in Guatemala and the Gaza Strip as well as Appalachia and upstate New York. Yet she suggests links only by doubting them, since she finds that any implied congruence invokes, too, an implied hierarchy. To put bed and table together, now, is to pollute both bedroom and boardroom with the power games of association. “I wanted to end this piece with a scene of metaphoric group sex where all the participants were place names,” Spahr writes in her penultimate section, “but the minute I attempted to do this I got bogged down in questions of which places would penetrate and which places would be penetrated.” Love is a matrix of natural-cultural domination as much as a means of natural-cultural affiliation.
This very realization, though, points back to the first section of “The Incinerator,” as does a final hope, in a beautiful coda, for the “desire I want as epilogue.” Spahr’s opening is hardly questioning or prospective: it is confident, audacious, visceral, as it presents a scene of teenage sex that is also a congress with Chillicothe’s landscape. It is a passage giddy with conquest and submission, aggression and serenity: “I pull the shirt open,” she writes, “exposing the roads we take through hilltops and hollows, as we travel the line between glaciated and the unglaciated and I look down at Chillicothe, grinning, unable to believe I am actually about to do / unable to believe I am actually about to do what I have dreamed of so many times…” Spahr’s lines conjure a knowing innocence that is alert to social difference but open to sensual union:
This sort of love poetry is both dizzyingly political and knowingly personal, as it hazards a searching, coupling passion consummated in the shadow of burning trash. None of our connections escape the heat.