“Revived Again, Again, Again”: On Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Madrigalia: New and Selected Poems”

By Peggy EllsbergFebruary 17, 2022

“Revived Again, Again, Again”: On Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Madrigalia: New and Selected Poems”
“To write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others,” James Boswell said, referring to the great 18th-century person of letters, Samuel Johnson, “may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.” Exactly thus do I approach, with humility not unmixed with awe, Lisa Russ Spaar’s Madrigalia: New and Selected Poems. Not only has Spaar won many prizes and fellowships as a poet and teacher at the University of Virginia, but she is also a critic and anthologist much admired at the national level, who has been shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Reviewing. She is also a longtime observer of how poets develop their craft, and has for years contributed a column to LARB on second poetry collections. The latest entry looks at collections by Nathaniel Perry and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. In analyzing Perry’s Long Rules, which details in six longish poems his visits to Trappist monasteries throughout the American South, Spaar cites his description of “love” as “pure verb that is our densest noun.”

In Madrigalia, Spaar herself masters the dense noun. Against the entropic forces that always threaten us, Spaar carefully chooses nouns to locate purpose in the life of the soul, and then sets those nouns to baroque music. In an interview in 2017 with Waxwing Literary Journal, Spaar announced that she was writing “lots of sonnets I’m calling madrigals.” The resulting collection opens with a section she calls simply “New Poems: The Madrigals,” which includes 43 sonnet-length poems, one per page. They are arranged in alphabetical order by title, from “Adolescence” to “Zed.” All scan, some rhyme. Before the poems, she provides a dictionary definition of the term “madrigal.” Much of this definition I already knew: that a madrigal is a late Renaissance form, and is short, maybe a love song (like a sonnet), and Italianate (like a sonnet); and that it is intended for multiple voices. I did not know, however, that in Late Latin, matricalis is an adjective derived from matrix, meaning “from the womb.” These 43 poems do seem to proceed from a place located as much in the speaker’s body as in the maker’s imagination. Some of Spaar’s madrigals are, as the dictionary says of their original models, simple — if a 3-part harmony with counterpoint could qualify as simple. But others of her poems remind me of the exhilarating complexity of Double Dutch on the playground. And these, too, emanate from an intense inwardness, from a womb, as in “Bachesque”:

Mixed in this baroque, sonic nave
revived again, again, again…
a visitor might, exhausted
by the fever of this counterpoint, alight?

Likewise, this winter image from “Breughelian”:

Unwitting doves: scant meat, true.
Doll bones. Steep rooftop snoods,

black trees, vista latticed, un-baited,
single black crow bearing the weight

of thought, pre-modern, anachronistic.

I YouTubed a madrigal by Palestrina (1580), and discovered angelic voices trailing, following, and then resting atop one another in waves of harmony — and this did suggest to me the tenor of Spaar’s new poems. Madrigals, of course, are a cappella, intended for singing. If you go back into deep history (Homer or Beowulf or the Psalms of David), all poetry was sung, not necessarily a cappella, but often accompanied by instruments like harps and drums. Spaar’s own poetic instruments play in a well-established orchestra of pantheism, benediction, visions, epiphanies, creatures with wings, baptism, penance, asceticism, undertones of the Old Episcopal Hymnal, temples, naves, holy quest, a columbarium, the marriage of nature and supernature, an occasional stroke of heat lightning (like the crash of cymbals), covenants between words and subjects, and the vigilance necessay to write meticulously so that we may read with ease.

Poetry like this is something its writer has had to prepare for over a lifetime, gathering her past about her and speaking from her physical and imaginative centers. Offering a personal take on universal experience, Spaar’s poems attract us to a world where even stones and trees and artifacts have lives of their own, where we encounter the familiar shock-state of private failure, where we resonate with the quintessential facts and activities of humanity, like farming or fishing, surviving or dying. Generously, Spaar’s poetry catches and releases all that emanates from the universe.

Reviewers and blurbers have almost uniformly referred to her “lexicon,” and I agree that her personal dictionary overflows and overwhelms. But me, I am most moved by her dense nouns, which conjure her God-hunger, with the occasional apotheosis. And I love all of her dear birds, and her saints (St. Cerulean Blue Warbler; St. Brontë). In Spaar’s last book, Orexia (2017), almost all the poems were free-verse couplets. One exception is “Reading John Clare, Heading North,” my favorite poem in the collection, in tercets, into which she writes many of her own recurrent poetic motifs: a saint, a swarm of birds, hunger, pilgrimage, death:

[…] eating grass to humor hunger.
Getting up as famished as you lay down,
O gipsy, pilgrim in fugue state […]

As he was, watching starnels swarm at dusk,
waiting for Death to bring the bill.

For the selected portion of Madrigalia Spaar chose handfuls of poems from each of her five previous volumes: Glass Town (1999); Blue Venus (2004), which contains some insomnia poems Spaar published in a 1999 anthology of insomnia poems, Acquainted with the Night; Satin Cash (2008); Vanitas Rough (2012); and Orexia (2017). It is a pleasure to track these collections and, for me, to note how, like early baroque music, Spaar resurrects and re-introduces her autographic motifs amidst textured polyphony. The bird is her reliable muse and sacrament: in the madrigals alone, we encounter doves, pigeons, owls, a swarming starling choir, geese, a ruby-crowned kinglet, a wren, a catbird, warblers, and vultures, the unnamed but cruciform “taut scythe whooshing over us.”

The poems in Madrigalia seem assembled with the composure of Charles Wright but to contain the compressed energy of nuclear fission that we find in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both number among Spaar’s favorite poets. From 2010 to 2012, Spaar wrote a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, choosing and commenting on one poem every Monday. These columns were collected in her anthology The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations ofContemporary Poetry (2013). She opens with Edward Hirsch’s “Ode to Poetry”: “stalking poetry in foreign cities / […] / pretending I could describe you.” She says “Hirsch’s narrator is clearly speaking here as both a writer of and writer about poetry, and I admire his chutzpah. […] The narrator pulls his last trick — divine invocation — seemingly out of the core of his very being.” To my mind, Spaar here might as well be speaking of herself — like the distinguished Hirsch, she is a writer of and a writer about. Later in this anthology, she includes two poems by Charles Wright, with the assertion that he “is arguably the most significant, original poet writing in America. […] Wright, a master teacher, […] is well known for saying that each poet has five or so poems to write and must keep finding ways to get as close as possible.” She loves Wright. So do I. In Orexia, she calls him a saint. Here, too, she speaks for herself — master commentator, master poet, master teacher, pilgrim saint.

Etymology reminds us that madrigals belong to multiple voices. I want to end by praising the way Spaar shares her page and her inner matrix throughout this precious volume with a crowd of witnesses, among them Bach, Breughel, the Brontës, Dorothy Wordsworth, John the Baptist, John Clare, Keats, Donne, Thoreau, Thomas Merton, and Thomas Edison. Opening wide the doors, she here invites us to join the chorus.


Peggy Ellsberg is a poet and scholar who teaches English at Barnard College. She is the author of Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987) and The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough, 2017).

LARB Contributor

Peggy Ellsberg is a poet and scholar who teaches English at Barnard College. She is the author of Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987) and editor of The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough, 2017).


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