Addressing the Envelope



This Connection of Everyone with Lungs by Juliana Spahr
Weather Eye Open
by Sarah Gridley
[University of California Press]

This Connection of Everything with Lungs comprises two sequences of free-verse / prose-poetry: 'Poem Written After September 11, 2001' and the longer 'Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003'. Still reading? Good. The latter is quite wonderful, but I feel ambivalent about the collection as a whole, so I'm going to give it the Good Critic/Bad Critic treatment.

In a note on the text, Spahr says:

...on November 30, 2002, when I realized that it was most likely that the United States would invade Iraq again, I began to sort through the news in the hope of understanding how this would happen. I thought that by watching the news more seriously I could be a little less naive. But I gained no sophisticated understanding as I wrote these poems.

The bad critic is wondering if, that being the case, I really want to read said poems - if maybe I shouldn't spend the afternoon wrestling with the London Review of Books
instead. But actually I've been approaching the print and broadcast news with a new kind of earnest recently and it's got me precisely nowhere save for a little closer to needing bifocals and even more cynical about journalists. Spahr continues, 'I felt I had to think about what I was connected with, and what I was complicit with, as I lived off the fat of the military-industrial complex on a small island [Hawaii].' This strikes me as a fine and noble pursuit and what's more, the poems are good.

We live in our own time zone and there are only a small million of us in this time zone and the world as a result has a tendency to begin and end without us.

Spahr's poetic prose is meditative but discomfiting, consistently, insistently locating the political in the quotidian:

We get up in the morning and the words 'Patriot missile systems,' 'the Avengers,' and 'the US infantry weapons' tumble out of our mouths before breakfast.

It may be worth adding that one only has to watch an American news broadcast for two minutes before feeling really rather blessed with the BBC, ITN and Channel 4; suffice it to say, The Simpsons
is closer to documentary than satire. The poet's own disillusionment with reported news is aptly justified through the juxtaposition of catastrophe with flimflam:

While we turned sleeping uneasily a warehouse of food aid was destroyed, stocks on upbeat sales soared, Australia threatened first strikes, there was heavy gunfire in the city of Man, the Belarus ambassador to Japan went missing, a cruise ship caught fire, on yet another cruise ship many got sick, and the pope made a statement against xenophobia.

While we turned sleeping uneasily perhaps J Lo gave Ben a prenuptial demand for sex four times a week.

I've always loved wilful undercutting. In fact, the poem is all about juxtaposition. Parrots and the Dow Index; Zoe Ball and AS90 self-propelled guns; David Letterman's shingles; the Sri Lankan Navy sinking a Tamil Tiger ship. All is intricately connected, everything happens at the same time.

The juxtaposition also works as inversion. In Spahr's vision, the lyric directly clashes with the brutality of the world; it founders on the glut of information, the glut of injustice. 'I mean to speak of beds and bowers and all I speak of is Barghouti's call for a change of leadership and the strike in Venezuela against Chavez and the sixty-six ships on the fleet of shame.' She skewers our reactions - easy cynicism - to global events precisely:

Oh sure, we say, oh yeah, we say over and over while watching some general talk about something, as if mocking inarticulate expressions of dissatisfaction from childhood will save us.

Bad Critic:

Juxtaposition of catastrophe with flimflam? Could it not be said that the newspapers illustrate this rather well by themselves? That the comical page-sharing of invasion, insurgency and suicide attacks with the collapse of the Pitt-Aniston marriage contains its own absurdity that everyone was pretty much aware of anyway?

Perhaps 'During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual.' is not such an original thought. What does it mean, really? That we should feel guiltier for having breakfast and reading novels, unperturbed by the explosions? Is there really any moral superiority in being a victim? I guess when one's uninterrupted breakfast is thanks, in part, to a multi-billion dollar military machine, then yes. We should at least feel grateful. Or racked with culpability for not marching on the useless protest. Or something. So yeah, sure, Spahr is good on pointing out how one thing leads to another, and she's right: we could all stand to be a little more global in our outlook. But I could have got the same message from any one of a thousand amateur-politico weblogs or, like, a wrist-band
or something.

Furthermore the insistence on pluralising 'you' as 'yous' starts to grate after a while, and coupled with the sporadic absence of punctuation, can get downright clumsy: 'And when I say this what I mean is that I am attempting to speak to yous of these things...' It's just so bloody Poetic.

These things notwithstanding, the September 11th poem is comparatively poor. You know when you're seven years old and you address an envelope:

Luke Kennard
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe

and feel quite pleased with yourself? Well, poetry hasn't quite got there yet.

Everyone with lungs breathes the space in and out as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands in and out

as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands in and out

as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room in and out

as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room and the space of the building that surrounds the room in and out

This continues all the way to the troposphere, the stratosphere and the mesosphere. The literary precursor to this is 'There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly' - or perhaps that game 'I went to the shop and I bought...' which is played on long car journeys to the chagrin of bad-tempered drivers. Thankfully, I got wise to Spahr's concept pretty fast and started skipping to the last line of each accumulating passage. For effect, I imagined the whole thing being incanted in a monotonous 'poetry voice'.

'Poem Written after September 11, 2001' was first published as 'Poem' - which is a universal, multi-conscious sort of title, implying that this is what poetry does
: raises a vague sense of unity with one's fellow man through a full detail of the respiratory system. The applied association with the terrorist attacks of September 11th adds little to this for me. 'How connected we are with everyone' the poem observes, and concludes, 'How lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs.' It's not trite, certainly, but neither does it strike me as especially profound. I think I've talked about preaching to the converted before. As a poet, your audience are people who buy poetry books. If you haven't grasped the whole Banality of Evil thing yet, you're probably a tabloid journalist.

Good Critic:
In interview with Michael Boyko, Juliana Spahr says, 'I especially like the list as lament. As a sort of recognising or call out of what is becoming lost.' In this case it seems to be our very connection with one another that is feared lost. The cyclical nature of the list in 'Poem Written after September 11, 2001' reflects the very process of respiration it describes: the way it repeats and doubles back on itself. Spahr places the reader directly in his or her own room and turns the focus outwards; if you have the patience and the wherewithal to follow, it is a powerful and disorientating meditation.

The relevance to September 11th is actually quite solid. There is a shift towards the end of the poem wherein another list of elements turns specifically nasty:

The space of everyone that has just been inside of everyone mixing inside of everyone with nitrogen and oxygen and water vapor and argon and carbon dioxide and suspended dust spores and bacteria mixing inside of everyone with sulphur and sulphuric acid and titanium and nickel and minute silicone particles from pulverised glass and concrete.

Claiming indifference to this seems to me nothing but wilful cynicism and a pretext for some snarky gags.

Bad Critic:
[Wallows in guilt and self-doubt.]

Weather Eye Open
is Sarah Gridley's first full collection - and she rocks. 'Cuckoo's Report' is one of the best opening poems I've read recently. Think Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley. Think Gertrude Stein. Gridley is simply much better at imagery than most poets you come across:

     The hero swims for two days. The sea appears
     a hammered surface...
From 'Likeness Is the Mother of Love')

     In the hall, fox-red ale surpasses cups, rivers into table grain.
     The musicians alone have not been drinking. At stiff strings
     they summon joy from little joy.
              (From 'What is Lost in the Fire Must Be Sought in the Ashes')

     ...A breeze is tampering with a chandelier.
              A crowd
     has gathered, all gloved...
              (From 'Swayamvara')    

      The sails like thundering lilies!
          (From 'Grist')

     An arrow rains in heaven, hanging its return in dotted lines.
          (From 'Noises in Annunciation')
The collection is full of great lines like that - and Gridley writes in an energetic free-verse that occasionally slides from one side of the page to the other, but never without a good reason:

     Diluted tortoise. The cat is gray as the clot
     thunder punctures, the perfect drop-cloth for a shifting

                              {shy red, fruit red, fraught red} The thought is red
     in a tube. Whose top is small and inscrutable. Whose walls
           are thronged as furnace?
                  (From 'Saturation, a Dwelling Place')

Here as elsewhere the complex and allusive qualities of Gridley's writing are rendered palatable by strong visual stuff. It doesn't always work: occasionally it gets a little po-faced and abstract for my liking. Check out 'The Eve Of':

     Red first touched
     or earth first damned
     the ocean

     brain? Radical
     pavilion, your broken spurs
     & lacquered flesh

You know what? This is why nobody likes poetry anymore: because it's annoying. Avant-garde scree, washed up on the shore first populated by Dadaists and Surrealists and other artists who did the same thing, but made it funny and interesting and thought-provoking. But that's just me, I guess: I'm an impatient, immature reader who likes to laugh.

Elsewhere, with robust lyrical poise, Gridley reminds the weary reader of what poetry is capable.

     When the cloudwork went down and was melted
     on the tongue, it was known that the work
     had neither feather, nor pinion. Exposure took
     quick root: the wingful idea of snow
     lay down in gray waves. Breath
     consented, tacked in the up & cross-drafts of winter.
     Better than feckless, it could stick on a tight-rope.
     And did it. And did it. And did it. A weather ever
     recruiting new camps: Love me, Loves me not, Loves me,
     Loves me not. So could indifference grow fond.
     And sweet were the uses.
          (From 'Cuckoo's Report')

              Luke Kennard 2005