Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Juliana Spahr, _The Transformation_

IN THE LAST few years I've been coming across examples of poets' autobiographical prose taking surprising forms. There was Under Albany by Ron Silliman, a memoir in the form of a commentary on the first section of his poem The Alphabet. I'm about halfway through Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, which surprises by its Edwardian detail and amplitude. And there is this, The Transformation by Juliana Spahr, a memoir which dispenses almost entirely with proper names and even with first-person pronouns.

"This book tells a barely truthful story of the years 1997-2001," Spahr tells us in her afterword. In the book, Spahr and two other women resolve to form a household and together move to Hawaii for a university teaching job (that is, one of them has the job; another I think is an adjunct, and the third has a non-academic job). They love the natural beauty and the perfect climate of the islands, but become increasingly conscience-stricken about the ways their being in Hawaii involves them in the legacy of imperialism. Their politics tend to align them with the Hawaiians who want to restore the cultural and political autonomy of the islands, but their livelihoods connect them to an institution firmly cemented to the cultural and political power of the imperial interlopers. Eventually, the sense of living in bad faith drives them to relocate to New York City (perhaps Long Island?) in the summer of 2001, where they become eyewitnesses to the attack on the World Trade Center, prompting further reflection on what James Baldwin called "the weight of white people in the world." Furthermore, the world is warming. On the other hand, there is the community of writers, a countervailing source of hope and joy.

The thing is...The Transformation is really nothing like the book I would imagine after reading the above paragraph. First of all, there is the avoidance of proper nouns. Hawaii is referred to as "the island in the middle of the Pacific" (later in the book, Manhattan and Long Island are designated as "islands in the Atlantic"). Academia is "the complex," and the University of Hawaii at Manoa is "the local branch of the complex." Native Hawaiians are "those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived." Spahr even avoids phrases like "avant-garde poetry" or "experimental poetry"; this kind of writing is always identified as "writing that uses fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on." Persons are not identified by name (though some are identified in the afterword), not even the other two women in the household. The collective identity of the household is so crucial that Spahr does not refer to herself as "I." She rejects even the cozy comforts of "we." The household is always "they." Whenever it becomes necessary to refer to a single member, the designation is "one of them."

My problem of description is deepening, for The Transformation is nothing like the book I would imagine from that paragraph, either. It sounds unreadable, doesn't it? Trying too hard to achieve some politically correct purity, stiff as cardboard, bleached-out, flavorless? I don't know why, but that's not what happens. Somehow, a phrase that would be clunky and ungainly if used once gains a peculiar balletic-hippo kind of grace by dint of repetition. Something like this also happened in the This-is-the-house-that-Stein-built repetitions of This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. Spahr knows what she's doing -- she writes at one point, "they refused to get rid of any of the awkward repetitions or the weird turns of phrase that they heard in their writing as musical but they knew those in the complex often heard as just weird and awkward" (62). Like a dancer that has for some reason decided to perform with five-pound weights on each ankle, the Spahr's prose is graceful with a different grace.

Graceful -- and purposeful, too. Hers is a language continually alert for what it may be complicit with , not unlike the household's anxiety over its (I would say) very attenuated links with imperialism. That alertness leads to détournements and anomalies aplenty, but as I read I became increasingly confident that Spahr always had a good reason to insist of her chosen designations. Also worth noting is that even though the book often touches upon the controversies of high academe and the most rarefied flights of aesthetic theory, the vocabulary stays resolutely on a plain-language level. There's scarcely a word in here that a smart 8th grader wouldn't know.

This will sound odd -- one more failed attempt at trying to describe this utterly singular book -- but it often reminded me of the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. (A book I admire, I ought to say). The household's painstaking self-scrutiny of its complicity in imperialism reminded me of Teresa's continual examination of her own conscience for traces of pride and vanity. When the household begins to feel "uncomfortable among their friends who did not think about colonialism all the time [...] so uncomfortable it was hard to hang out with them" (112), I thought of Teresa finding it harder and harder to talk with people who did not share her pursuit of union with God. Like Spahr, Teresa develops an idiosyncratic language with a certain amount of sprawl and repetition to it, but so deeply hers you wouldn't alter a word.

So -- St. Juliana of Spahr. She would bridle any such suggestion, I'm sure. For all I know, she curls up on the couch with Cheetos and a beer to watch the Oscars just like the rest of us. But there's something inspiring about this book. The account in chapter 4 of trying to fit into what Spahr calls "the complex" is perhaps the most painfully truthful I've come across.


Susan M. Schultz said...

I would hope that Juliana herself would not endorse the following precis (let alone the idea she came to Hawai`i with two other women!)

"Their politics tend to align them with the Hawaiians who want to restore the cultural and political autonomy of the islands, but their livelihoods connect them to an institution firmly cemented to the cultural and political power of the imperial interlopers. Eventually, the sense of living in bad faith drives them to relocate to New York City"

and the rest of us who remain and work hard here are full of "bad faith"? Let me simply suggest that things are more complicated than this review suggests. The language, yes, the language.

Theobald said...

I'm sure you're right -- that is, that things are more complicated than I was able to express.

The closing pages of chapter 5 and opening pages of chapter 6 are what gave me the impression that Spahr & co. relocated partly because they were finding it hard to answer the question of what they, as people of European descent, were doing in Hawaii. But the book contains no accusations against those who are still working on that question. If anything, Spahr suggests that the people of European descent living in Hawaii are addressing this question much more critically and conscientiously than those of us living in the Americas are.

I don't know why I jumped to the conclusion that the whole household was composed of women. On re-reading, I see my conclusion was wholly unwarranted. Rather peculiar of me, really. Sorry.