Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Juliana Spahr, _This Connection of Everyone with Lungs_

THE GENERALLY ADMIRING notice paid to Juliana Spahr's most recent book reminded me that this one had been on my shelves for a while without my getting to it.  So I got to it, and I'm happy I did.

Only two poems: "Poem Written after September 11, 2001," about ten pages long, and "Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003," a sequence of dated poems, about sixty pages altogether.

The first poem contains the phrase that gives the volume its title, and is built around the idea that everyone breathes, a simple enough idea, which Spahr elaborates in a way that's a bit like Gertrude Stein writing "The House that Jack Built," but by the end...well, imagine how difficult-to-impossible it would be to write a poem about September 11th that is true to the horror of that day, but is also just, dignified, honest, and in a grieving way hopeful.  But the poem accomplishes that.

The longer poem is about the drum-beating prelude to the invasion of Iraq, and once again I am reminded of Whitman, of all people, as I was reminded of him by Lisa Robertson. Here, I think it's the simultaneity of the intimate and quotidian with the public and historical, the Whitman of "When Lilacs Last...," perhaps.  This makes for some startling tonal jumps ("During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual"; "When I reach for yours waists, I reach for bombers, cargo, helicopters, and special operations").  Whitmanian too are the catalogues, in this case the avalanche of information the poet finds herself under as she earnestly tries to keep up with the news ("I speak of David Letterman's shingles..." and of Christie Brinkley, Rachel Corrie, Gisele Bundchen, Elizabeth Smart...).

Spahr is trying hard to understand, to determine the right thing to do and do it.  This is political poetry, but it isn't poetry of witness, quite, unless watching th enews is a kind of witness -- Spahr repeatedly reminds us that her own personal situation is pretty nice, living in Hawaii with a couple of people she loves (her solution of the problem of the English language's lack of a second person plural is simple but effective, I think).  It isn't the poetry of exhortation, either.  And it isn't even the poetry of "I sure am a damn sight more sensitive to the world's suffering than you are, you big oaf" -- naming no names.  

She does seem to be asking a lot of herself, and the poem does in some ways foreground how much she is asking of herself, how hard she is trying to grasp her degree of complicity, as an ordinary U. S. citizen, in the approaching war, and I did feel often enough that she was setting an example I should be trying harder to live up to. But she didn't seem to be trying to make me feel that way -- and she was honest enough to admit that in many ways she is in as lucky a situation as a person could be in.  Well, I need to read the new one.

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