Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Aimless Reading: The S's, Part 42.1 (Juliana Spahr)

The Transformation
Spahr, Juliana
The Transformation

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

This is one of my favorite books by a poet in the last five years. I bought it on my way out the door for a month of writing in Florida, probably in 2008. I had begun trying to work autobiographical material into my poetry and I was looking for interesting models.

What struck me about this book was how effectively it tracked the obsessive, sometimes neurotic, attempts of a mind to align itself with a political ethics. Whereas Juliana's writing always foregrounds its artifice, here that artifice seemed to find an objective correlative in these very intimate and personal strivings toward a set of ideals.

At times I found this maddening, as I am often resistant to overt political statements in art. I don't seek out expressions of my politics in the writings or performances of others. I don't know why this is exactly, as I am generally politically inclined in my thinking.

I think what most frustrates me is the certainty expressed in such writing. There is often an assumption that the reader, the audience, humanity in general, is living in the dark, while the person speaking has seen the light and is going to shine that light on the rest of us, like it or not. The tone is often cold and shrill. This tends to piss me off.

At first, the politics of this book had that same effect, but the incredibly complex rhythmic structures enticed me to read on. I guess I went through a kind of 'transformation' myself when I realized that this was not a performance of ethical certitude, but exactly its opposite: the performance of a mind uncertain of its truths, one that wanted those truths to be actualized so strongly that it seemed willing to shred itself apart in the process of making them come to be.

Rather than being told that I hadn't seen the light, so to speak, I became witness to the process of a mind attempting to reach the light itself. It's a book about the excitement of trying to change oneself while trying to change the world. The final chapter culminates in a kind of breathless, heart-thumping exuberance that left an impression on my mind that I associate with great literature.

from The Transformation

Then back around to another heart, through the pulmonary veins they pumped long sentences and lists of connections, both paranoid and optimistic. Pumped with the left atriums attempts to map things out through writing so as to understand them. Pumped through the mitral valves the words of others. Pumped with the left ventricles the admission that they didn't have any real answers, only the hope that if they kept writing others might point them to answers. Pumped through the aortic valves changes. With grief, with worry, with desire, with attachment, with anything and everything, they began listing, inventorying, recognizing in the hope that a catalogue of vulnerability could begin the process of claiming their being human, claiming the being human of the pace that their little and ring fingers made when they held a pen, the space that when they were learning to write in first grade they had been forced to fill with a small cool marble so as to learn the proper way to hold the pencil.

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