“Even in Windowless Rooms, I See Sky”: Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Orexia”

February 20, 2018   •   By L. A. Johnson


Lisa Russ Spaar

TO ENTER THE WORLD of Lisa Russ Spaar’s Orexia is to enter a world of lush lyricism, where time is marked by the hands of a strange clock that reads “Mynddaeg Hour” and “Venus Hour” in place of noon or midnight. These baroque lyrics are knitted together with repeating series of poems, such as the aforementioned “Hour” poems, as well as a “Celibacy” and “Temple” series. In this way, Spaar creates lyric temporality — the book seemingly moving by both hours and temples, allowing her to approach larger questions about sexuality, death, devotion, and accident. The suspended spaces of these lyrics allow for greater, and stranger, ruminations beyond what the poems appear to address on the surface. As Spaar writes at the close of one poem, “Even in windowless rooms, I see sky” — and so, too, is the reader transported from these pages to profound landscapes filled with light.

The title Orexia, which comes from the Greek word for “desire,” is a word more commonly seen in its opposite: “anorexia.” Spaar’s poems are alive with this tension, the poems are desirous and searching while also aware of desire’s danger. The orexic expansiveness of these poems is located in Spaar’s baroque, layered language. The poems frequently engage with the lexical origins of words or otherwise bring the reader’s attention to words that live inside other words: “the burr in worry, ‘r’s’ like hitchhiker seeds.” She often engages in wordplay through rhyme and repetition, lending her poems a highly formal quality despite their free verse. One particular formal technique that is wholly unique to Spaar is the way she extends her descriptions by stacking lists of adjectives, which gave way to other discoveries of language. This technique gives a feeling of the words, and the emotions, escalating toward new horizons, as seen in “The Whales”:

I felt the whales before I saw them, gorgeous

foetal continents, lost, glittering, parental,
mare-blue beneath sediments of stellar silks,

planktal glass, moving the wrong way
up a narrowing, inland stream.

In Spaar’s singular vision, the whales are a source of empathy and beauty. They are made of continents of outer space (stellar silks) and of the ocean floor (plantal glass). They are both childlike and parental, glowing and geological. Spaar enfolds what interests her with language — not to obscure, but to amplify. Through these layers of descriptions, she reveals the complexities of her subjects, encountering them with wonder.

Spaar allows the reader to witness her mind at work, her mind in motion. In “Orexic Hour” she writes: “My body, made to be entered / & exited. Almost wrote ‘edited.’ / Eaten. Odd to be so direct.” In these lines, we see how the poet’s mind works in tandem and tension with her body: after beginning with the physical and erotic, she moves to “edited,” which we might understand as either creative or personal withholding, before ending on the notion of “eaten” which implies both consummation and decay. By tracing the iterations of the mind, Spaar opens up associations and new connections. Yet she counters this mental velocity by speaking outright: “Odd to be so direct” — when in fact, she has not been direct at all; her language has carried us to the sea of the possible, where we float in a current of language and image.

Sometimes the poet’s thinking mind is so overcome with ideas, with emotions and descriptions, it disintegrates in the most surprising ways. In many of the poems that address death and loss, we see the mind turn into fragments. In “Temple Tomb”: “I am garden. Am before. / Asleep. Then the changes:” and in “The Whales”: “They placental. They / in four-chambered beyonding.” At other points, the syntax seems to completely break down, and the lyric leaves out some anticipated word. In “Mynddaeg Hour,” in which Spaar explores a waning life and year, the couplets build up before seeming to shatter: “That voltage. How not die?” Here, the mind cannot quite ask, “how do we not die,” but instead asks, how do we avoid ending? How do we avoid time marking the body? How can language preserve us? In “Ice Idyll,” the syntax again loses itself while addressing death: “The dream, was it wondering, / is god the first memory, how die without something / to remember.” Death is an idea the mind cannot fully comprehend, where language slackens and all sense-making must be abandoned.

Although it’s easy to get lost in Spaar’s language, she pulls the reader forward with sharp and specific titles, such as the “Celibacy” series of three poems, some of the strongest in the book, which meditate on solitude, as well as “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Doves” and others titled after the poet and sister of William Wordsworth. Many titles locate the reader in a specific place or landscape, such as “From the Orison, River Stones,” “Morel Patch,” and “Weeping Cherry in Storm.”

Spaar also guides the reader through questions, sometimes rhetorical or unanswered, but other times answered within the poem. A few poems begin with a question, perhaps suggesting that it is what brought the poet to the page. These opening questions are usually broad, as in “Temple Gaudete,” which asks, “Is love the start of a journey back?” or “Abridged Hour,” which wonders, “All metaphor is death?” The most inventive version of this technique is seen in “Once in A,” which uses the opening question in a playful and associative manner: “Why blue? / Why blue moon, / lagniappe lens / drilling the blinds?” The opening question lures the reader with its address of the idiom “once in a blue moon,” but she continues by breaking down the lexical origins of the idiom before spiraling wildly:

Like the multiple orgasm
in which some never
will believe, the lexicon

yields up a trove
of speculation, tracing
the hue of the big O,

coming more than once
a month, to atmosphere,
an accident of ions and the eye,

like the sky, the argent
ridge of mountains.

This poem shows Spaar at her best — inventive, exacting, and curious. In the poet’s hands the quotidian idiom is transformed into a mischievous exploration of the orgasm, combining the “big O” of the moon’s physical shape and the slang for sexual climax. Even the enjambment of the lines, such as “coming more than once / a month” shows Spaar’s controlled and clever hand. The poems in Orexia are often erotic, but their sexiness is transformed by the greater questions and wonderment Spaar reaches toward.

Despite the serious nature of many of these poems, Orexia is often playful, as in the amusingly titled “Worry Yoga,” which takes the reader to the scene of a yoga class. In this poem, we see the speaker struggling with the class while the instructor loftily coaches that “the heart opens.” But Spaar pivots to address the mind racing through painful thoughts, transporting the reader from a yoga class to a different site of introspection.

Another aspect of Spaar’s original approach is perhaps best seen in the poems where she fuses her erudite vocabulary with gnomic colloquialisms. In “Celibacy 1” we see this dichotomy of diction in action:

Unmarried, the heart ejaculates
what it must, scarlet-purled, arterial,

away, away. Or conversely, married,
it requires all — venous, freighted with waste.

Fuck the heart. On the radio,
driving home, I learn the Brits

are into all things Scandinavian.
Sunlit schools, bare breasts, the aurora borealis.

A “scandy trance.” Maybe. Ice is a mystery
of whatever blue enchantment swiped

my view this morning. This is no allegory.
I’m north of myself these days

with a fist full of silver keys
I lose every night in my dreams.

What other poet can combine so gracefully a description of a heart as “scarlet-purled, arterial,” but just as quickly sneer, “Fuck the heart”? In these linguistic arrangements, the poet keeps the reader hurtling forward, excited to discover the questions and possibilities both raised and answered in these poems. Orexia is filled with the desire for life, for the world, for surprise. And these poems enact these desires, as she writes: “Say it: the world taketh. // But even its farthest reach is ours, / shed cuspid of horizon I pluck up & carry, wet, away.”


L. A. Johnson is from California. She is the author of the chapbook Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017).