Some thirteen years ago, when my book Opera was published, Juliana Spahr was kind enough to notice that in it, “The word ‘song’ resonates over and over and the poems here will often suddenly burst into an intricate, complicated melody.” Poetry not always but periodically seeks its upper limit — music, as readers of Louis Zukofsky know — and that includes Spahr’s. This might seem surprising to some who know the ethical and political fervor of her work; where’s the musicality in that? It’s a matter of technique, of course. On the opening page of “Transitory, Momentary,” the first of the nine poems in her recent book That Winter the Wolf Came, Spahr writes (sings) of how the referential or topical dimension of a poem (a song) is sheltered in its inner structure: “that sometimes art can hold the oil wars and all that they mean and might yet mean within.” The key word there is probably “all”: this actual and also potential “all” could never be encompassed by enumeration but only by synecdoche or some other such “standing in for” that is essentially poetic or, as she writes in another poem, “indebted to lyric” and eschewing descriptive enumeration (blazon) in favor of “a sort of generic atmosphere.” Spahr evades formalist reflexivity by reflecting on a form other than the one her poem takes. Her subject is a song in stanzas with a refrain that is “big enough to hold all these things in its four syllables. Just as sometimes, often even, it contradicts, and thus works with, the stanzas.” Spahr’s poem is not structured like a traditional song, but it does work with contradiction. Of the “all” that she wants to indicate, she can say — as the title of the book’s penultimate poem would have it — “It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked.” In that, of course, she follows in the footsteps of Whitman. One poem is titled “Tradition,” and tradition is something I hear a more urgent need to connect to in this book than in anything I’ve read by Spahr before — poetic tradition and the tradition of song. But whatever’s lyrical has to fight its way through a knot of language that is anything but — the lines of “Tradition” are partly a list of household chemicals commonly found in breast milk: “that cup of adhesives, / that cup of fire retardants, / of pesticide extenders.” But the poet must have had Pete Seeger on her mind when writing, toward the end of that poem, “I say let wisdom be your anvil and knowledge your hammer” — to hammer out danger, warning, love, once again.
Tonight at 7pm there will be a reading by Spahr and her fellow Oakland-based editors of Commune Editions, Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover, along with New York-based Commune Editions author Jasmine Gibson. The event will take place at Artists Space Books & Talks, 55 Walker Street, New York ($5 entrance charge).