Of course every time I think I have a sense of what "it" is something reveals itself to me, challenges me to rethink my position. Not a bad thing, but not always easy, this habit of keeping one’s perspective loose…and if one feels too smug in one’s opinions, well then, a self-boot is good. But I go on, missing the mark which today is Juliana Spahr’s Gentle, published in the Subpoetics, Self-Publish or Perish initiative, Fall 2004. It may well be my favorite Spahr publication to date. I’ve talked about This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, and her earlier text, Fuck you Aloha I Love You (both of which are packed in boxes in storage and I can’t consult my notes). Suffice to say that Spahr is one of a breed of contemporary American women poets writing, teaching, and editing, who may well change the face of poetry as we know it. Certainly together they form a formidable force, mouthwatering, staggering, absolutely determined in a political/conceptual strand that can claim foremothers as diverse as Susan Howe, Tina Darragh, Joan Retallack, Cole Swenson, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian…and so on, and on. And as co-editor of Where Lyric Meets Language, Spahr (along with Claudia Rankine) has cemented that moment.
Gentle is not Spahr’s most recent book, as I said, but it's the newest to me. Part catalogue, part prayer—a word that seems sorely out of place in this context but in fact that is why I want to use it. Taking back the idea of prayer, which is after all, everyone and anyone’s business. As is nature. And now that "nature" is on everyone's mind, what are we thinking of? “We come into the world,” Spahr begins, “We come into the world and there it is./The sun is there.” The sun is there, and already the rhythm is there, already the lines like small springs, or coils ready to move through the poem’s machinations. “The brown of the river leading to the blue and the/brown of the ocean is there./ Salmon and eels are there moving between the brown/and the brown and the blue.”
How does one see? A thing in movement, a pail attached to a tall spiky wood, snow, spring, light. What is the beetle carrying? How banana a slug? What temperature mist? How glisten the leaf tremble? Who tells us nature has a tone, a note, and that tone is reverent and that note “sincere?” Who says nature poetry has a certain straightforward language? Who says what is accessible? How is accessible described by a given group of individuals encountering poetry? I suspect the average reader is more prepared to have his or her mind blown than we know.
Reminiscent of Robertson’s The Weather and Dionne Brand’s Thirsty, and No Language is Neutral, and others--Lilburn, Joshua Beckman, the poems in Gentle go in waves, carry the reader, summer day, lake, lying on an air mattress, or better yet, rock, spring, head tilted up, out, look:
Gentle now warmouth, mayfly nymph, don’t add to heartache.And doesn’t that seem a valuable poetic?
Gentle now willow, freshwater drum, ohio pigtoe, don’t add to heartache.
Gentle now walnut, gold fish, butterfly, striped fly larva, don’t add to heartache.
Gentle now black fly larva, redside dace, tree-of-heaven, orange-foot pimpleback, dragonfly larva, don’t add to heartache.
Gentle now purple wartyback, narrow-winged damselfly, spruce, pirate perch, threehorn wartyback, sumac, don’t add to heartache.
In Vis-à-Vis Don McKay, who won the 2007 Griffin Prize for poetry, talks about the wild, that poetry comes from a place of wild seeing (or pre-language sensing?). Lilburn too in both his essays, and his poetry. I think they recognize that seeing doesn’t imply a singular way of viewing, or of recording. Does nature insist on line breaks, for instance? How does form fit in nature poetry? “Our hearts took on the shape of the stream,” Spahr writes, they “took on the shape of whirligigs swirling across the water,” our “hearts took on many things.” And poetry is perhaps how we carry that.
And maybe language poetry, whatever or however one might try to contain that, is a similar place of wild, a place of things not immediately named, a place of remaining open. And when the lyric impulse, that honest voice, that vulnerable stretto meshes with language, with intention, with procedure—then whatever side of the border or gender, or political spectrum the project may originate, it knocks this reader out.
Download your own copy of Gentle, here.
On the table: Lilyfoil, Elizabeth Treadwell.