Monday, April 3, 2006

this connection of everyone with lungs, by juliana spahr

OK, so for a while now I've been wanting to talk about Juliana Spahr's new book, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, as an example of what I've been calling an "Everything Device," a structure, framework, or system which positions disparate information into a meaningful relationship.

We can get a sense that the book is going to do this from its title alone, a phrase drawn from the opening poem: "Poem Written After September 11, 2001." This poem's central task is to articulate the model of radical interconnectedness upon which the rest of the book depends. Over its eight pages it performs this task through what essentially amounts to a slow zoom-out, from the microscopic level ("cells, the movement of cells and the division of cells") all the way out to global scope ("the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands"). To call oneself a "global citizen" is slightly pollyanna-ish, but this poem still functions as a lovely vision: the way it is made elegiac by its positioning as a "post-9/11" poem feels slightly predictable, but that makes the elegy no less real. One of the more "important" poems in recent memory (let's set aside, for now, the question of whether poetry should aspire to importance).

More interesting and important still is the book's remainder, a single long poem (broken into discrete chunks), entitled "Poem Written From November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003." (The first bit of it lives over at Shampoo, you can go check it out if you're so inclined.) I think this poem is more interesting because it's doing the thornier work of dealing with the consequences of the first poem: if "everyone with lungs" is connected in a "lovely [and] doomed" global matrix, then what does this mean? If we can successfully expand our consciousness to the point where it encompasses the whole earth as a system, then what does it mean when part of that system (including but not limited to "our part") is attempting to kill another part of that system (including but not limited to "their part")? Is it possible to love humanity all-encompassingly when some of the humans that we're connected to behave so, well, shittily? Is a person killed in the Burij refugee camps important? What about someone killed in the Monoko-Zohi civil war? What about Justin Timberlake? How important is the weather? If you can make your own bed a place of "connected loving" and "pleasure" and "agency," what relevance does this have to the rest of the world, if any? How can you consider these questions seriously in a world at war without going insane or succumbing to crippling grief?

I don't think that the book answers these questions, but I think they're the right ones to be asking, and any book that represents a sustained attempt to address them (lyrically no less!) gets my recommendation.

PS: When I first wrote about Spahr's project I said that the high lyrical voice and the sometimes "newsy" details made it seem like "Walt Whitman doing NPR's Morning Edition," and it still seems possible to say that Spahr's project is to represent the newspaper in the form of a poem. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, and it has its own storied tradition: the avant-garde has been attempting to beat the newspaper as a model for radically discontinuous juxtaposition at least since Mallarme.

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