I PICK UP a Juliana Spahr with a certain eagerness and a certain trepidation. Eagerness because she is, after all, a worthwhile writer, even arguably an important writer (I wonder exactly how she would go about dismantling the notion of "an important writer"). I even assigned one of her books for a class I am teaching this coming fall. Trepidation because she is almost certainly going to want me to think about things I would rather not have to think about.
Spahr is like that valuable-but-tiresome, tiresome-but-valuable friend who is always asking you to sign a petition or come to a demonstration or make a few phone calls or...your phone rings, you see the number, you don't wholly want to answer, knowing as you do that you will wind up with some duty or another, but you do answer, because if you don't, what have you become?
The acknowledgements in the front of the volume record not only where the poems and essays first appeared, but the street address at which they were written, including the zip code. The zip code? Does Spahr imagine we want to write to whoever now lives at that address?
Probably not--but Spahr cares about names, cares about exactness, and furthermore cares how naming, marking, and identifying reveal the history and processes of power. "2955 Dole Street, Honolulu, Hawai'i 96822" marks the spot where the text "Dole Street"was written, first of all, but who is the Dole for which the street was named, and how did the place happen to be tagged by the U. S. Postal Service? Both questions are relevant to the text, it turns out.
In the book itself, the titles of the texts are accompanied by maps showing the spot in the world where the text was written, including its latitude and longitude--not because the reader will be undertaking to sail there, presumably, but as reminders that the places Spahr is writing are parts of the history of western imperialism, which devised this system of keeping track of where it had gotten to, where to go next, and how to get home.
In an end note to the poem "Things of Each Possible Relation Hashing Against Each Other"(the process for which poem, as one can glimpse in its title, involved translation software), Spahr writes:
And I was also thinking at the time about how poets need to know the names of things and I didn't really know the names of lots of things that grew in Hawai'i. I also didn't know where they came from. I knew that when I looked around anywhere on the islands that most of what I was seeing had come from somewhere else but I didn't know where or when. I was not yet seeing how the deeper history of contact was shaping the things I saw around me.
Some of the poems in Well Then There Now were composed during roughly the same span of years Spahr wrote about in her innovative memoir The Transformation (LLL January 14, 2010); that "deeper history of contact" she seeks to uncover begins with her finding herself in Hawai'i, but doesn't end there. Even when Spahr gets Wordsworthian, recalling her intimacy with the landscape of her childhood and the rivers that ran through it, that deeper history announces itself: she recalls too the factories that polluted those rivers, and the closings of the factories, and LBJ's War on Poverty and the possibilities it created for her to leave.
Spahr is the goad of conscience, the agenbite of inwit, but not just that.
For one thing, there's her formal inventiveness. Adrienne Rich sometimes left the impression (e.g., "Blood, Bread, and Poetry") that she found concern for form a distraction in her pursuit of truth and authenticity, but for Spahr (with an assist from Stein) form always seems a way to get there.
For another, Spahr knows as well as you or I how beautiful and pleasurable the world is--the struggle is always to stay mindful even as we take in the beauty, experience the pleasure. This is from the end of "Sonnets," one of the texts about Hawai'i:
But because we were bunkered, the place was never ours, could never really be ours, because we were bunkered from what mattered, growing and flowing into, and because we could not begin to understand that this place was not ours until we grew and flowed into something other than what we were we continued to make things worse for this place of flowing and growing into even while some of us came to love it and let it grow in our hearts, flow in our own blood.
That morphing of self-accustaion into a confession of love--that's when you know you're always going to read the next book Spahr publishes.