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.”