Anxious and Paralyzed: On Spahr, Gordon, Moschovakis and Ossip
T.S. Eliot, writing in 1919, warned poets not to seek “new human emotions.” The “business of the poet,” he continued, is “to use the ordinary ones” known to centuries past. When you compare the poets of earlier centuries with Eliot in his active years, and then compare his years with ours, you can detect anger, hope and loneliness, among many other long-familiar emotions. But you might also sense what seem like new ones, or new compounds made from old ones under the pressure of historically new conditions. Take the “astonishment and fatigue…activated in tandem” by repetitive, illimitable systems, a description offered several years ago by the poet and critic Sianne Ngai as a diagnosis of the “stuplimity” found in the work of Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein. Or take the “new depthlessness,” along with “complacent eclecticism,” that Fredric Jameson identified in 1991 as part of the giddy postmodern sublime. Take the helpless, angry, guilty sadness you might feel when thinking about man-made climatological doom, or the anxious dedication (nose to the keyboard, glance over the shoulder) you might bring to a fascinating but insecure and fairly technical job.
All these compounds of feeling color new books of poems by Juliana Spahr, Noah Eli Gordon, Anna Moschovakis and Kathleen Ossip. All four poets are reacting to big modern systems, above all to the system called capitalism, whose results and failures seem inescapable, from the swells of the North Pacific (where miles of plastic collect and glaciers decay) to the American flag on the moon. Their poems look like disrupted systems, fractured but conveying information nonetheless. In paths through and under and around those systems, economic, environmental and linguistic, these poets address what the critic and poet Christopher Nealon calls the “matter of capital,” the built-up stuff (facts and texts) that our social system manipulates and accumulates, treats as fungible or attempts to discard. The poets pursue reportage, or take stabs at abstract argument, and their work incorporates, adopts or deforms blocks of expository prose; their books are part essay, part catalog, part collage, and yet they possess the oddity, the density and the emotional resonance of the language we still seek in poems.
Juliana Spahr taught at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, from 1997 to 2003. Her autobiographical novel The Transformation (2007) remembers how she and her closest friends became excited about Hawaiian ethnic nationalism, despite its efforts to exclude them, because it held some “possibility of escape from large systemic limitations. They too were trying to escape from large systems, from limitations on relation…. And while they had never indulged in the misunderstanding that art and music and literature could be independent of politics, [their] goosebumps were a reminder that they had a lot to learn.” In Well Then There Now Spahr shows what she learned. She is now a professor at Mills College in Oakland, California, but most of her new book dwells on her time in Hawaii, and it is by far the most detailed and satisfying of her four collections of poems. Five of its eight works concern the islands; all eight speak to the mixed emotions, or new emotions, that Spahr’s insistent attention to large systems—money, language, climate, geography—recommends.
“Some of We and the Land That Was Never Ours,” the book’s opening work, is one of three non-Hawaiian works. Its pages of prose depend on intense repetition (it owes a lot to Gertrude Stein) and on aggressive allusion, responding to Robert Frost’s sonnet “The Gift Outright.” Frost’s famous—in some quarters infamous—lines, recited at JFK’s inauguration, considered how Europeans became American: “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” Frost began, portraying a land “still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,” despite, say, Algonquin or Hopi stories and arts. “Some of we and the land that was never ours while we were the land’s,” Spahr writes, “Started from us and of the ground which was never with we while we were the ground. Some of we wore the land. Some of we carried the ground. Some of we planted grapes.” Spahr’s bizarre substitution of “we” for “us” mixes up subjects and objects, agricultural, ethnic and political boundaries, converting evoked labor into imagined hope: “To we are all in this world together. We all the small ones are together in this world.”
* * *
Spahr also writes poems called “sonnets,” fourteen-line units with iterations meant to replace the personal depth—the “I”—sonnets have long offered with a flat, more democratic, collective voice. “Things should be said more largely than the personal way,” Spahr avers in a sonnet whose awkwardness nonetheless makes it feel “intimate” (“Intimate confession is a project…. There is in this the thought of home”). Each sonnet occurs on a recto, or odd-numbered, page; each verso page conveys statistics about human blood, “glucose at 111 milligrams per decaliter/creatinine at 0.9 milligrams per decaliter.” The body, like the household and the economy and Hawaiian ecology, is a system; whether or not we see it on its own, or as a set of interdependent parts, or as one part in some larger system (a city, a species, the earth) depends on our purposes, our angle of view. “Who authorizes so one is not single,” Spahr asks, without question marks; “who empowers so one is not alone.”
There is something refreshingly austere about these inquiries, but there is also something both unsatisfied and unsatisfying about them. They are like frames awaiting their pictures, or hypotheses awaiting the test of facts. Spahr elsewhere supplies some facts in understated prose. “Dole Street” follows a Honolulu thoroughfare, the features of which show the contradictions, depredations and “connections between humans and humans or between humans and the land” that have existed in Hawaii since Europeans arrived. Mapped and traversed, Dole Street demonstrates “how power clusters in close patterns on top of geography, as in the topography map of a volcano crater…or like those images of the various human circulatory systems” whose arid statistics her “sonnets” contain.
In the long, incantatory verse of “Things of Each Possible Relation,” the system examined comprises plants and animals, along with our attempts to explain them: “analogy from analogy/analogy of analogy/caterpillar of the moth/ant of the dragonfly.” Spahr is not the first, nor the fiftieth, poet to turn her attention to extinction. (I wonder what she thinks of W.S. Merwin.) What stands out is her way of addressing the islands’ ecology, or any ecology: her perspective is apparently demystified, saddened but calm when working at the level of words and phrases (“it was consequently and consequently is it”; “fly-catcher, turnstone, a’u, a’o, plover, snipe”), but grand, astonished, horrified beyond reason when caught in the slow swell of the whole. Another overtly ecological piece, “Unnamed Dragonfly Species,” returns to the mode of The Transformation—alienated prose about an anxious “they”—but with a difference: after each full stop, Spahr inserts an imperiled species in bold type. “They learned that all this melting [of glaciers] began to accelerate in 1988. Eastern Sand Darter That the rate of ice lost had doubled since 1988. Eastern Spadefoot Toad That 1988 was a sort of turning point.” It looks like a stunt, but it sounds like a dirge.
All these parts of Well Then There Now, in proselike verse and stylized prose, seek to convey how it feels to imagine oneself as a small part—a self-conscious, self-critical part—of benign or malign worldwide systems. “The stream was a part of us and we were a part of the stream and we were thus part of the rivers and thus part of the gulfs and the oceans,” she writes in another verse poem, with an echo of Whitman (“There was a child went forth every day/And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became”). The lines recall hopes that Spahr later inflects, or deflects:
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….
We let the run off from agriculture, surface mines, forestry, home wastewater treatment systems, construction sites, urban yards, and roadways into our hearts….
These things were a part of us and would become more a part of us but we did not know it yet.
Still we noticed enough to sing a lament.
To sing in lament for whoever lost her elephant ear lost her mountain madtom
and whoever lost her butterfly lost her harelip sucker
and whoever lost her white catspaw lost her rabbitsfoot
The catalog of flowers, a traditional feature of elegy, grates against a slightly later catalog of pollutants (“Snuggle Emerald Stream Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets”). All these became part of her; they, too, were what she beheld.
Geography, economics, ecology, hydrology, local and international history; repetition, flat limited diction, lengthy chant; intersections of incompatible discourses, such as a field biologist’s checklist plus memoir, medical record plus ode, incantation plus site report: Spahr draws on these resources and procedures to make poems that feel like bizarre, careful essays, and essays that feel like sad, extended poems. They all consider the vast and hard-to-change systems that organize place, class and language from Hawaii to Appalachia, which is where Spahr grew up and also where the jarring love scene that opens her final poem, “The Incinerator,” takes place:
Chillicothe says, “This is my first
time.” I laugh. I say, “You’re kid-
ding.” Chillicothe whispers back,
“I’m sorry.” I look down at Chilli-
cothe, my grin fading, marveling at
flatness giving way to rolling hills
flatness giving way to rolling hills.
Chillicothe lies beneath me, embar-
rassed and vulnerable.
The duplicate phrase is no typographical error but an estranging device (the start of each verse repeats the end of the last). Chillicothe is not a person but her hometown: there she was “middle class on the block, and lower class in the nation,” but “upper class in the world, or in other words, the terms were so relationally slippery they were hard to define.”
* * *
Not all these new poems-as-essays, these cut-up systems, address economics and politics so insistently; not all end up so self-critical and austere. Noah Eli Gordon says he read “only page 26” in 10,000-odd books from a public library in Denver, then took his favorite sentences and altered them so that they might fit together, changing some nouns to “the Source.” The resulting pages of prose are a worried delight, a long and volatile tribute to the divinity of inspiration (the source of poems), the God of the monotheistic religions (the source of life) and the amoral center of worldly power (the source of money, fame and physical force). For example:
This is a true sense of the Source’s desire to replicate its likeness on targets scattered throughout the wildflowers of the firing range. We acquire perfection simply by merging with it. The light is on in the ladies’ bathroom to advance a less pernicious explanation. Would you agree with this and if not how would you explain it?
Gordon zips back and forth between idea and detail, exposition pursued and exposition retracted, solemnity and shaggy-dog story, koan and blank joke:
The encounter between the Source and philosophical reasoning has created interpretations so divergent that I’m obliged to indicate here the angle from which we shall view the problem: my premise is that no one is interfering with the marbles inside the cup, that all gifts are valid, but not all are equally good, and that the day is still far off when the Source might again guarantee enchantment, even after cat food and traffic.
If The Source is an essay created by collage, what the essayist, poet and critic Ander Monson calls an assembloir, it is also a long and lyrical prose poem, with obvious links to John Ashbery’s great Three Poems, a triad of long, slippery and yet somehow melodic prose works published in 1972. “For the time being only you know it for what it is,” Ashbery wrote in “The System,” “but as you continue to hold on to it others will begin to realize its true nature, until finally it stands as the shortest distance between your aims and those of the beloved, the only human ground that can nurture your hopes.” Three Poems almost immediately became an inspiration for some readers, while it served others as a good example of the undecidable postmodern. Gordon’s delightful, clever, smaller-scale work may find a similar dual audience. Yet far more than Three Poems, The Source pursues one thesis. The ineffable—or, if you like, the poetic—is something real, Gordon claims, which we want and deserve, and continue to seek, “above the ruck of current affairs.”
Read The Source too fast, or dwell on its procedures, and it might strike you as conceptual art, its sounds and meanings less important than its overworked frames. But Gordon’s book-length prose poem, or poetic essay, turns out to be a challenge to such art rather than an example of it. The Source rebukes any writer who insists that there can be nothing new under the sun. Instead, new works of art—like new human beings—emerge from the circulations and interactions of those that already exist. The Source emerges from sources, but it is not identical with them. Nor does it need a utilitarian justification for the way it comes into the world: “If anyone asks you what the Source is, send them to their own senses, because anything written can seem like straw.” One relatively new emotion here is an unstable reverence for the mysterious, for the apparently transcendent, that does not deny but instead depends on our awareness that we cannot prove what we believe. It’s a tradition of thought (credo quia absurdum est) with roots in Pascal, Augustine and Kierkegaard, but here it’s renewed, severed from Christian and Jewish dogma. “The Source has inflicted a wound on the compact flesh of the intellect,” Gordon writes, “and the only thing that can emerge from this aperture is levitating into the night sky.”
* * *
Anna Moschovakis began writing You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by raiding old books too. Her book’s four big parts incorporate passages from a 1925 polemic about labor and economic history, a 1970 tract against hunting, a self-help book published in 1908 by the novelist Arnold Bennett and a midcentury anthropologist’s study of wealth. “Language is borrowed,” Moschovakis explains, “premises are adopted or argued with, tones are emulated or thwarted.” Her favorite tones are quizzical, incredulous, self-defeating or mildly resigned. “Everybody should always have a position on everything,” her verse prologue suggests. “We take our positions with us, like folding stools to the beach.”
An ambivalence about the taking of positions persists throughout the book. Like Spahr, Moschovakis seems exercised by the politics and ethics of almost everything; like Spahr, she sometimes sounds imprisoned by the imperatives of postmodern social theory. “I have been attracted to the idea that naming is a form of violence,” she admits, “but does that mean we should go around calling everyone Hey You”? Moschovakis shows us how it feels to want answers to certain kinds of questions, to see processes and seek causalities, and then get stuck in hermeneutic circles instead:
There is no internal price system
Mother does not charge for frying eggs
nor Father for shaking down
A woodpecker is attacking the house
The sun is attacking the snow on the pavement
Everything helping itself
to everything else
The strongest poem in the book, and the most playful, allows Moschovakis some distance from economics and ethics, because the systems it samples are instead cognitive, biological and electronic. “The Human Machine” mixes phrases from Bennett’s eponymous book of advice with the life and ideas of the midcentury mathematician, computer scientist and gay martyr Alan Turing. The circumstances of his famous Turing Test—in which we are given nothing but language, and must infer or decline to infer from it consciousness—resemble the circumstances in which we read poems:
Anna is a chatbot designed to pass
the Turing Test. This is the language
of simple, obvious things….
Anna is a fork
of ALICE, which won the competition in 2000
and 2001. Anna is written
in a special, easy-to-learn
To teach a child obedience, tell it to do something.
Then, see that that something is done.
People are economic units, taking part in systems of exchange, and also animals, using up energy in a food chain. We are also systems of information, processors of data, “walkers, talkers, wailers, travelers with fellows and without,” “touring and testing and turning and testing and turing.” This not quite resigned sense that we have been programmed, that we can be reprogrammed, might be another modern emotion. “Dear Annabot: Let me tell you that human nature has changed since yesterday…Very Truly Yours, The Human Machine.”
* * *
These poets’ awareness of systems, their sense of being programmed by them, trapped inside them, may not be as new as their assembloirs, collages and interrupted chants can make it seem. The globe may seem smaller, the weather or the dollar more volatile, but the systems themselves—from cybernetics to multinational corporate sprawl—began to take shape no later than fifty years ago. Kathleen Ossip calls her new book of hybrid poem-essays and verse constructions The Cold War, and much of it suggests that the very recent past resembles the 1950s in ways we overlook or deny. Ossip aims ironies sometimes at Them Back Then, and sometimes at Us Right Now:
In those days, we had an acceptance of others that didn’t rest
on their achievements. Melancholia, we cherished.
But how is an individual built? On the theories of the past….
I looked in the family and there was Armageddon too.
Ossip’s anxious, excitable congeries of feelings—about freedom and happiness, about girlhood, womanhood, sex and domestic life, about terror, security and peace—arise from her regard for extensive social systems. They are the same ones that midcentury thinkers examined (Erving Goffman and Betty Friedan both come to mind), in which what we do and believe and become depends on what other people believe about us. Ossip’s poems have the fluidity of gossip, and they follow gossip wherever it goes, through dance clubs with club drugs and into tony homes:
You could be smart, you could be pretty, you could be athletic…you could be anything except free of the gaze of others.
(Amyl nitride just keeps your body working for five minutes until the toxins are used up.)
That crippling gaze.
It just keeps on spreading….
Schooltime, playtime, a knockout punch, rule your life.
Or nuclear bombs. I felt my future a dark blank unless
The cutoff after “unless” is Ossip’s.
You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake feels like a book of erasures and extracts: mysterious, haunted, terse. The Cold War also feels like a work created by operations on earlier texts, but the operations are not the same: it is as if thin slivers of sociology, psychoanalysis, chick-lit and popular religious verse had been cut up and thrown in the air. (Ossip’s endnote lists “borrowings” from, among others, Karl Menninger, Vance Packard, J.P. Marquand, Paul Verlaine, Roddy Lumsden and Will and Ariel Durant.) A sense of willful chaos, of disarranged sources, emerges even in self-contained first-person segments:
I wanted to be a holy girl, to sigh as if swimming in God.
In all games, I would be the one in shreds,
or straining to hit the birdie over the net and blast Jamie’s head right off.
In God and the ways of knowing. We were in thrall to the deep
and meaningless, and with great hope launched a fervent—
Let’s consider what is real: Do clothes last forever,
either in substance or in style? Can all ambition be for
this life alone?
Those lines come from the shorter of two poems titled “The Status Seekers,” after Packard’s book of the same name. The longer poem follows, fitfully, a bourgeois couple called “Bud” and “Joy” and their friends, who say things like “‘I want <insert entitlement>, and so will have it.’” Bud, clinically depressed (as we say now) or melancholic (as Menninger would have put it), commits suicide. It’s a classic, even a clichéd, cold war theme of white-collar anomie, one that Ossip reinvigorates by placing it in the American longue durée, asking with frantic sadness if anything’s changed:
We sailed to Ellis Island and were uncomfortable.
We found nothing but confirmation.
On the Mayflower, they were great lovers of themselves….
You can’t inside-out a soul. No one saw ours, it did us no good.
Ossip dovetails with Spahr, and with Moschovakis, in her uneasy backward glances at the confessional mode, in which hidden shames were revealed as the source of the self and as symptoms of cultural troubles. “It’s hard for me to write about unmediated experience, or the ‘real world,’” Ossip writes in a poem called “Confession,” “without thinking back through the writing of others.” No wonder she cuts up that writing; no wonder she offers to make its pieces her own.
The Cold War also contains a more conventionally organized essay, “The Nervousness of Yvor Winters,” in which Ossip diagnoses the Stanford poet and critic’s defenses of order and reason, moral purpose and descriptive clarity as fears of contagion traceable to his tuberculosis. It’s a condescending performance (though less so than Winters’s own squibs), ad hominem and predictable, until it concludes as something more and less than a defense of Ossip’s open-ended, not-quite-argumentative poems: “Winters spent so much time wondering how a poem works. Is our how so transparent?… Do we want to understand poems, or do we want poems that understand us?” Ossip’s pieces invite our understanding, while her refusal to make wholes defies it; that defiance, too, belongs to our time.
* * *
And yet Ossip remains fascinated by earlier thinkers (but not poets, curiously enough) who thought they had seen life steadily and whole: psychoanalysts like Menninger; historical explainers such as the Durants; and Wilhelm Reich, the ex-analyst and charismatic quack who invented the Orgone Accumulator. Ossip tells Reich’s Faustian story, and the Durants’ quirky love story, in another multi-page poem-cum-essay, made mostly of stand-alone sentences. One of its verse passages admits the distance between the information that Ossip gathers and the sublimity that she (like Reich) may seek:
All the intense facts,
Crueler than violence,
Certain as moonlight,
Fascinate but can’t inspire.
Moschovakis’s epilogue, written in one or two sentences split up by white space, asks again about the relation between expository nonfiction, whose prose supposedly works as a window on facts, and that special business of poets, the inspiration or illumination of souls: “The window is what tells us we have a soul even in these soulless times because we can’t erase the picture though we don’t know where it came from.” We see these poets’ souls by standing at their windows, considering their points of view, and their place amid more abstract, economic structures too: “If it kills me I’m going to say it,” Moschovakis concludes, “but the textile workers shut their mouths when the boss strolls by.”
It’s tempting, sometimes irresistible, to divide poets into movements and schools, to slot any poem that seems mildly memorable into the category New Whatever and argue that it represents our time. You can do that with these four poets if you come at them from a certain angle, an angle that they sometimes recommend; you can do the same with other contemporary poets—Claudia Rankine, Mark Nowak, Craig Santos Perez and especially C.D. Wright—who have won praise for quotation-filled, reportorial, essaylike forms. (The poet and critic Joseph Harrington has done just that in the online magazine Jacket2, announcing the age of the docu-poem, of what he prefers to call “creative nonpoetry,” whose arguments, facts and incorporated quotations—Perez, Nowak and Ossip stand among his examples—break out of any and all generic frames.) You can also find earlier precedents for these kinds of forms, too, from Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925–69) to Muriel Rukeyser’s now undeniably influential U.S. 1 (1938); you can find poems made largely or wholly of source texts erased or altered in search of sublimity, like Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (1977), fashioned from Paradise Lost. Yet these new poems, from Wright’s to Ossip’s—unlike those older ones—function as essays, medium-length attempts at understanding some things without explaining everything: they do not pretend to predict the whole course of our history, nor do they tell us what we should do.
Instead they are partial takes—neither songlike nor epic—on systems more complicated and fragile, and less amenable to human governance, than previous generations of writers believed. Avowedly partial, attentive to the self and to something outside the self, the essay form—or the ghost of it, or the fragments of it—makes a bracing contrast both with the lyric compression these poets refuse, and with the giant systems they critique.
Finally, all these poets will be remembered—or forgotten—not for how they typify a historical moment, nor for whatever effect they have on the coral reefs or the poverty line, not even for how new their emotions still seem. Rather, they will be remembered for how musically and thoughtfully they depict those emotions, and by how much time we want to spend with the language they use. It’s a rare reader of poetry these days who will not see herself in Gordon’s quest for something, anything, that holds its mystery, and an even rarer reader who has not entertained the forebodings that Spahr’s “Unnamed Dragonfly Species” describes. “They were anxious and they were paralyzed,” she writes, “by the largeness and the connectedness of systems, a largeness of relation that they liked to think about and often celebrated but now seemed unbearably tragic.” And she notes earlier, “Glaciers are water. Streamline Chub And it was April and it was in the 90s. Swamp Darter How could they not think about things melting all the time?”