A Cool Radiance: Carol Muske-Dukes on Lisa Russ Spaar

By Carol Muske-DukesJanuary 28, 2013

A Cool Radiance: Carol Muske-Dukes on Lisa Russ Spaar

Vanitas, Rough by Lisa Russ Spaar

A CRITIC RECENTLY NOTED that the poems in Vanitas, Rough, by Lisa Russ Spaar, have “become more muscular, more erotic” — more (one presumes) than her earlier poems. Yet her poems have always been tight-knit and languorous at the same time, and they’ve always given off a cool radiance, a chill coming on at dusk, after the spent heat of a scorcher.

I have been an admirer and wondering reader of Spaar’s collections of poems — from Satin Cash to Blue Venus to Glass Town. I read her the way one reads Hopkins (Gerard Manley) — riding head-on into the sprung rhythms, the heft and dervish of the whirling emphatic syllables. The poems in Vanitas, Rough dance in this familiar fashion, but the power of what Hopkins called “inscape” overtakes all. From the title’s inescapable bow to the memento mori, the skull-and-ugly-lush fruit still lifes of the Flemish masters to the “All is vanity” of Ecclesiastes — the driving force of the language reveals itself as meaning edging toward meaninglessness. (This is the “modern” translation of the word vanitas: “meaninglessness” or “futility.”)

The poems are, in the author’s own words, “unstill still lifes.” It is the “unstillness” in what we “capture” in paint or poetry, in what refuses to be depicted, in what is “still moving,” that gives these poems their uncanny contradiction. The urgent lushness, the hot opulence is celebrated in its utter futility, its embellishment of a dying moment, a minute past giving up — but then (again, as the author says) things whirl up in a Keatsian ecstasy bordering on annihilation and despair. The hard truth of mortality, that diamond, that rough. Yes, the poems are bruised, but they are still moving. Eerie, in fact. They are battered into opened symbols of bliss, over the top, then they travel on, in death.

From “I Have Drunk and Seen the Spider”: “But rather know a force // that seethes into your heart, / not mine, but mine.”

And from “Dead Moth” — “In every lonely place, / an altar, / gulf between adjective / & noun, uncurling.” Or, in other lines, “Tomorrow rhymes with sorrow / as a co-ed on a cell phone crosses the cemetery.”

Vanitas, Rough is Lisa Russ Spaar’s insistent portrait of what escapes death by living in death, a dying so accurate we are opened with it into crazy despairing birth — this is the work of a master.


LARB Contributor

Carol Muske-Dukes is an award-winning author of nine books of poems, four novels, two collections of essays, co-editor of two anthologies, and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book of poems, Blue Rose from Penguin, was a long list finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (2018–2019). She also founded USC’s PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing and is a former poet laureate of California.


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