Thursday, July 19, 2007

Gentle, Juliana Spahr

Nature, what is nature? What is eco? What is eco-poetics? What is nature-eco-poetics? How does feminism fit into nature eco poetics? What would a Vendana Shiva/Donna Haraway hybrid look like? Tim Lilburn and Juliana Spahr? I can’t help but wonder what, how, nature, or what we think of nature differs east, west, developed, undeveloped, with and without money, never mind north or south of our border, and more locally here, block by block, pulse by pulse, how we describe the leaf fluttering on our buffed shoulders as we raise our lattes and our poetic expectations. Obviously yes, it differs, it's the how that interests me, the exact quantity of more and less that depends on so many things: perspective, location, geography, the reading (and coffee drinking) tastes of the poet in question. Oh, didn’t I mention poetry? Yes, what is nature poetry...

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.

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.
And doesn’t that seem a valuable poetic?

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.


boutonstendres said...

Speaking of form, I was reading an interview with her on How2 a couple of nights ago. She said something I find interesting: that she writes in a clear manner because she does not want to be misinterpreted. She also self-deprecated and said she wasn't as smart as Stein, who offered herself up to being taken in many different ways. But who's to say Spahr can't be taken in various ways, even if her politics are often in clear view? This is interesting to read within the context of How2: a place where poets can be circuitous (for lack of a better word) and dead-on and life-changing at the same time.

I find the almost scientific prose intriguing. And yet sometimes she juxtaposes it with a word such as "beloved," throwing it off-base. That juxtaposition could be taken in various ways.

lemonhound said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, Spahr is always interesting, as is How2--certainly one of the best online sources for poetry/criticism...I must take a closer look at the latest edition.

unwritten said...

Juliana Spahr's writing seems to create a certain level of discomfort in the poetics community. Whether she is writing about nature, the political or the subject her engagement with the feminine/ communal/ continuum enrages, provokes, unsettles or “knocks out” her readers. Joan Retallack's article "The Experimental Feminine" in the online journal How2 seems relevant when thinking of Spahr's writing. Retallack has written about the “poethical” before and this particular essay has had various manifestations since 2003 but it still speaks to many of the issues surrounding the feminine in the experimental and this reaches beyond poetry to the visual and other arts. Retallack writes about the general discomfort that surrounds the experimental in the arts, throw in the feminine and a pinch of nature and the discomfort level almost flies off the richter scale.

Spahr's response to the world through her writing is overtly communal; this is glaringly obvious in Gentle. I think it was Retallack who said “it can be startling to hear a sentence beginning with we.” This makes the entirety of Gentle startling, as sentence after sentence, and paragraph after paragraph starts with we. This is the prayer or chanting quality of the work and this speaks to each one of us even as Spahr herself speaks to each leaf, mayfly and purple wartyback…gentle now. This is what I we are thinking of today when we think of nature:

It was not all long lines of connection and utopia.

It was a brackish stream and it went through the field beside our house.

But we let into our hearts the brackish parts of it also.

Some of it knowingly.

We let in soda can 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.

We let the run off from agriculture, surface mines, forestry, home wastewater treatment systems, construction sites, urban yards and roadways into our hearts.

These lines represent a valuable poetics as well. Spahr starts with the pretty but she gets to the real heart of the matter.

Maybe it is all the rage to speak of the fractal or chaos and there are sentiments associated with these theories such as incoherence and inconsistency that are given the label feminine. “Ironically, [as Retallack states] it’s been particularly courageous for women to work in the territory of the Feminine, insofar as it can be called distracted, interrupted, cluttered, out of control.” Yes, some of these apply to Spahr’s writing but I would also say that Spahr's writing requires time, and stillness so that "the emerging patterns in all the noise" are visible. Spahr inserts a pattern into the chaos.

“Spahr’s politics are plain so is her language. What is also plain is that Spahr is brave enough to compound her reader's discomforts and be feminine; write about nature; what it means to be connected and political; to love; to make love…

“And this was just the beginning of the list” (Juliana Spahr Gentle).

lemonhound said...

"Unwritten," this is a fabulous response, certainly a post of its own...where is your blog?

Is it pattern Spahr inserts, or a kind of emotional intelligence, a lyric intelligence? Not sure...