Juliana Spahr

Juliana Spahr

As the author of eight books of poetry, a volume of literary criticism, and several university posts, Juliana Spahr is one of the better known of contemporary American poets. Though the term ‘political’ is applied rather vaguely -anything from being concerned with politics to being a feminist activist – a deep interest in language, sociological and ecology issues is evident in her poems, which above all aim to be accessible:  ‘communal, democratic, and open process’. {1-3}

I look at poems published in the Things of Each Possible Relation Hashing Against One Another (2003), {5} and This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), {6-8} which illustrate these themes. Representative poems can be read on the Internet, and are discussed in Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell’s survey of American poetry. {9}

Spahr’s open style is probably best introduced by looking at a particular poem. Her Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache starts: {6}

We come into the world.

We come into the world and there it is.

The sun is there.

The brown of the river leading to the blue and the brown of the ocean is there.

And continues in like fashion over several pages. Section I, part of which is quoted above, simply presents the colours of the world and notes we start to move between them. In section II that world has become the unnamed stream in the unlovely Chillicothe, Ohio, where Spahr grew up. We look at the freshwater denizens of the stream, the foliage, birds and matter the stream collected with the keen eyes of childhood, but also candidly, unromantically.  Spahr did not identify with the English Romantic poetry tradition because the nature she saw was not in any way uplifting or beautiful.  Nonetheless, we grow to love the scene, and sentences expand to include the details, e.g.

And we couldn’t help this love because we arrived at the bank of the
           stream and began breathing and the stream was various and
           full of information and it changed our bodies with its rotten
           with its cold with its clean with its mucky with fallen leaves
           with its things that bite the edges of the skin with its leaves
           with its sand and dirt with its pungent at moments with its
           dry and prickly with its warmth with its mushy and moist
           with its hard flat stones on the bottom with its horizon lines
           of gently rolling hills with its darkness with its dappled light
           with its cicadas buzz with its trills of birds.

That love is expanded further in Section III, and the sentences also grow enormously long to accommodate a litany of observations as we immerse ourselves in that world. The ‘gentle now’ motive is introduced:

We immersed ourselves in the shallow stream. We lied down on the rocks on our narrow pillow stone and let the water pass over us and our heart was bathed in glochida and other things that attach to the flesh.
And as we did this we sang.
We sang gentle now.
Gentle now clubshell,
don’t add to heartache.

Section IV notes the industrial and agricultural pollution of that stream, and the consequent loss of wildlife and – most importantly – its interconnectedness:

We let in soda cans and we let in cigarette butts and we let in pink
           tampon applicators and we let in six pack of beer connectors
           and we let in various other pieces of plastic that would travel
           through the stream.
and whoever lost her wartyback lost her ebonyshell

Section V laments the loss, as we grow older and look to others for that connectedness:

That I would turn to each other to admire the softness of each other’s
           breast, the folds of each other’s elbows, the brightness of each
           other’s eyes, the smoothness of each other’s hair, the evenness
           of each other’s teeth, the firm blush of each other’s lips, the
           firm softness of each other’s breasts, the fuzz of each other’s
           down, the rich, ripe pungency of each other’s smell, all of it,
           each other’s cheeks, legs, neck, roof of mouth, webbing
           between the fingers, tips of nails and also cuticles, hair on toes,
           whorls on fingers, skin discolorations.

We become a wage slave to the industries polluting those memories, and in time surround ourselves with material possessions:

I bought a Gulf Stream Blue Polyester Boat Cover for my 14-16 Foot
           V-Hull Fishing boats with beam widths up to sixty-eight feet
           and I talked about value stream management with men in
           suits over a desk.

We don’t even say a formal goodbye to those memories, but simply stop celebrating the natural world. The poem ends with:

I did not sing groaning wounds.
I did not sing o wo, wo, wo!
I did not sing I see, I see.
I did not sing wo, wo!

Older readers will recognize La Nouvelle Vague in this approach, {10} an apparently artless montage that constantly reminded viewers that a film was just a sequence of images. So is Gentle Now, where any referenced, in-depth analysis is replaced by collections of defamiliarized scenes. It’s an often beautiful poem, but of course the American continent has been continuously stripped of its wildlife since its discovery by Europeans, an alarming picture that may make Spahr’s lament, however well intentioned or heart-felt, disappointing to the informed ecologist. {11}

Gentle Now is an uncontentious poem. Far more ambitious were the poems in This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), written in the shadow of 9/11.  Siobhan Phillips put her finger on the difficulty with them when she wrote: {12}

‘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.’

Not so much bathos, I’d suggest, as expediency, avoiding the obvious truth that political problems need political solutions. Perhaps poets can be the unacknowledged legislators of mankind in some spiritual sense, but Spahrs’ poetry is more mundane, simple and level-headed than Shelley’s.  Spahr received her BA from Bard College and PhD from SUNY Buffalo, and academics are trained to analyze with care and detachment. It was hardly difficult to understand why American foreign policy should lead to those tragic events: a quick read of any middle east newspaper would have explained. Nor was it difficult to see what aims 9/11 would serve: costly wars abroad and erosion of civil liberties at home.  {13} Or even to doubt the official narrative. {14-16} I don’t for a moment blame Juliana Spahr for not jeopardizing her academic standing {18} – teaching positions in the humanities are increasingly difficult to come by – but This Connection of Everyone with Lungs does seem a monumental irrelevance, a rearranging of the deck-chairs as the Titanic goes down,

What was needed was some research in the established disciplines: political and military studies, foreign affairs, sociology and political economy. How could reducing generations of study to an individual ur-language of sense impressions give us what is needed to understand and live safely in an increasingly complicated world? Yes, there are many difficulties with words – as Language poets and postmodernists continually assert – but not insuperable ones or the rule of law, or even university governance and the issue of salaries, would speedily come to an end.

But how do we move from individual observations to social ideas and strategies? By finding the connections. As Kimberly Lamm observes: {17} ‘Shaping and tracing the connections within collectivities is the core ethos of Spahr’s work. It informs her poetry, literary scholarship and activist practices.’  But what are these connections exactly? The vocabulary of the established disciplines has been devised to handle all that can be reasonably asked within their ambit, but can the same be said of Spahr’s connections between her collectivities? Kimberly Lamm’s argument is worth following in detail.

‘In Response’, she writes, ‘Spahr develops an ethical vision that emerges from the fragile space between a detached and inflexible cultural symbolic and supple imaginary that testifies to the need for connection.’ There is much to debate in that sentence, but let’s continue.  Next comes a quote from the poem, and the observation: ‘Whereas this scene restages the rhetorical platitudes, genres and spectacles associated with the Russian Revolution, in the following lines, Spahr aligns a tableau of international multiculturalism in line with propagandistic clichés of the leader’s aura.
it is a ride in the country, the car crowded with children
{each child represents a different
ethnicity {name of nation}
it is a moment standing with light resonating around {major
historical figure}
Lamm continues: ‘In responding to these tableaux with such flat clarity, Spahr calls attention to their fixity.’ Then comes a brief discussion on Spahr’s poems testimony and thrashing seems crazy, which is followed by a note on dissociative personalities, and those believing they have been abducted by aliens – which ‘attests to multiple truths: the self is an other one cannot see or communicate with easily; gendered polarizations split the self unnecessarily.’  Another quote follows, with the deduction: ‘Together these statements attest to a panic about disaster and a desire for connections to things outside the borders of the body?  A paragraph on the social severing of AIDs sufferers follows, and we come to this statement: ‘Central to Spahr’s work of moving the poem away from poetry’s implicit emphasis on individuals and towards collectivities is the understanding that collectives are often composed against a constitutive outside. In Choosing Rooms Spahr grapples with the ethical questions this dynamic poses by placing images of suffering (and particularly gendered forms of suffering) at the book’s elusive center. Crucial to this process is highlighting the special dimensions of the poem, the page and the stanza, and making them representation of social spaces in which interactions can take place and ethical choices are made’. This rather elusive sentence is illustrated with several quotes, and we come to the poem This Connection of Everyone with Lungs.

It’s difficult to know quite what is being said here, but I hope the following is not an unfair summary (or the above infringes copyright). The argument seems to boil down to this:
Individuals need to understand themselves, but are more complex creatures than our platitudes about community suppose. I can put on paper examples of an individual’s thoughts and observations. To avoid clichés associated with social generalizations (‘constitutive outside’) I will allow readers to substitute (e.g. {name of nation}) their individual examples, and will also arrange the typography so loosely that settled or fixed interpretations are  not easily made. Since I’ve taken these from reported texts, or from one could reasonably imagine individuals actually saying, what appears on the page also applies to the outside world. The connections or relationships appearing on the page duplicate those in the real world. Voila! I have developed the connections needed to employ connectivities.

That’s is about the best I can do with Lamm’s text. These are not unusual strategies of contemporary poets, but the difficulties at every step are too obvious to need comment: i.e. lack of evidence and reference, explanation of terms, representative sampling, and/or tested deductions. Still, if anyone does feel I’ve missed some crucial aspect of the argument, or not done Lamm and Spahr full justice, then please add a comment to the post.

End Notes

1. Juliana Spahr. Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/juliana-spahr
2. Juliana Spahr. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juliana_Spahr
3. Interview with Juliana Spahr. The Argotist Online. http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/Spahr%20interview.htm
4. July 2, 2002 by Juliana Spahr. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16959
5. Juliana Spahr’s “Well Then There Now” Reviewed by Siobhan Phillips. Los Angeles Review of Books. February, 2012. https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/a-catalogue-of-us-with-all-juliana-spahrs-well-then-there-now#
6. Juliana Spahr: Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache. (full text) Tarpaulin Sky.  http://www.tarpaulinsky.com/Summer05/Spahr/Juliana_Spahr.html
7. This Connection of Everyone with Lungs
by Juliana Spahr. Reviewed by Alexis M. Smith. Tarpaulin Sky. http://www.tarpaulinsky.com/Reviews/this_connection.html
8. Gentle Now, Spahr. Lemonhound Blogspot, July 2009. http://lemonhound.blogspot.com/2007/07/gentle-juliana-spahr.html
9. American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
10. French New Wave. Wikipedia.
11. Paradise Found: Nature of America at the Time of Discovery by Steve Nicholls. Univ. Chicago Press, 2009.
12. Juliana Spahr’s “Well Then There Now” Reviewed by Siobhan Phillips. Los Angeles Review of Books. February, 2012. https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/a-catalogue-of-us-with-all-juliana-spahrs-well-then-there-now#
13. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. 2004.
14. Where did the Towers Go? by Judy Wood. The New Investigation, 2010. A detailed inventory of 9/11 destruction that goes beyond the contrary arguments presented in the Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy site to show the official account is false, indeed impossible.
15. 9/11 Truth Movement. 9/11Truth.org. Controlled explosion theories: regarded by Wood’s supporters as a government-sanctioned ‘misinformation’ site.
16. The Terror Conspiracy Revisited by Jim Marrs. Disinformation Books, 2011. One of several books presenting unpalatable but persuasive evidence that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’.
17. All Together Now: Writing the Space of Collectivities in the Poetry of Juliana Spahr in Rankine and Sewell 2007, 133-47.
18. “9/11 Truth” and the Failure of the Academic Community to Explore the Events of September 11, 2001: Academia’s Treatment of Critical Perspectives on 9/11 – Documentary by Elizabeth Woodworth. Counterpunch, September 2014.

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