Prose Feature: Only Through the Body: A Review of Lisa Russ Spaar’s OREXIA by Peter Kline

July 31, 2017

Lisa Russ Spaar’s elegant and moving fifth collection of poems, Orexia (Persea Books, 2017), continues the densely lyrical approach of her recent books and takes up many of the same themes of longing and self-searching, though these new poems are somewhat more somber in tone and more touched by death and loss. “Orexia” is Greek for “appetite” or “hunger,” an idea that is perhaps most evident in the speakers’ hunger for clarity and illumination: How can we move beyond hardship and grief? What can we learn of ourselves and our souls from the natural world? How is faith possible? At the same time, this pervasive hunger never leaves behind its original, carnal form, as whatever questions we ask, we must ask with human tongue. This gives special significance to the Christ story; in “Temple Gaudete,” considering the idea of the deity-made-flesh, she calls it the “story that can save us only through the body.” And this embodied hunger also makes abundant place for the sheer pleasure of the sensual. As the speaker of “From Agitation” confesses in the face of her own mortality, “What I can never get / enough of is the body…”

Because of its strangeness in English, upon first encountering the word “orexia” we are likely to hear the ghost of its much more familiar opposite, “anorexia” – this is no accident. Such antithetical binaries are key to the book’s thematic explorations: body and spirit, sacred and secular, indulgence and abstinence, human and nature, child and parent, I and you, living and dead. While the book at times imagines a transcendence of these apparently irreconcilable oppositions – the human subsumed into the divine; a true communion with the natural world; sexual and marital union – it does so tenuously and contingently, with a clear sense of the limitations and mystery of human experience, its “endlessly unsolvable sum.” The most recurrent human limitation taken up by the book is the speaker’s thwarted desire for faith and divine union, an idea captured powerfully by the final line of “Crooked Light,” where she beseeches Paradise to “be a fiction I believe.” Notice how the speaker undermines the reality of the divine by naming it a “fiction” even as she yearns to believe in it. If Spaar offers consolation, it is the consolation not of easy answers or uncomplicated faith, but of the companionship of a keen and passionate and restless spirit asking the impossible questions that we all must ask.

All of this talk of theme, though, is somewhat misleading, as theme is never primary in Spaar’s work; the reader’s first experience of her poems is always the lush and intensely defamiliarizing experience of her language. Spaar has, like very few contemporary poets, developed a style that is wholly and uniquely her own. There is no mistaking her work for that of another poet. Spaar has powerfully taken to heart Charles Wright’s notion that “poetry is language that sounds better and means more.” Sonic beauty and lyric compression are the twin impulses that drive Spaar’s style. The first she achieves through a dazzlingly catholic approach to language and an ear schooled equally by the clamor of Hopkins and the euphony of Keats. There is no word that Spaar can’t use: contemporary slang, archaisms, pop culture, phrases from foreign tongues, neologisms, and medical and scientific jargon all unite with a pleasing and disconcerting virtuosity, an effect intensified by the frequent omission of articles. Here’s one fabulous example from “Ice Idyll” evoking the aftermath of a winter storm, though you could turn to any page of the book to find another:

Old boxwood cloven overnight by storm,
sharp storax ambar & hoar-caped steam

lingering like that elusive dream,
What was it?

To read Spaar’s work is to luxuriate in a strange extravagance of language.

The second hallmark of Spaar’s style, lyric compression, she achieves through a dense layering of metaphor and a comma-rich syntax of elaboration and redefinition. Adjectives and appositives stack up in ambiguous lists that require careful parsing and sometimes resist any single definitive reading. Here is the start of “Plum Hour,” in which a fallen piece of fruit quickly takes on a cosmos of associations:

Brought beneath my instep by storm,
orb flung to wet sand path this morning,

you wreathed, sheathed verb,
you hold uncharted, turquoise, filmic,

sugared by treasons, ocean
tissued as the eye of the she-robin

that pelted door-glass yesterday,
then lay, twitching, for hours in my gaze.

The plum is a planet by its “orb” shape, and can thus be “uncharted.” By punning (“plumb”), it is a “verb” for searching, feeling out the bottom. By etymological pun (plumbum), the plum is a lead “sheath,” an image reinforced by its skin. By the “treasons” of its internal chemical changes, it is a “sugared” thing. By its juiciness, planetary aspect, and “plumbed” nature, it holds an ocean. By its shape, wetness, and the circumstances of the speaker’s encounter, it can become a dying robin’s eye. These are poems that reward multiple readings, as their punning, allusiveness, flights of fancy, and descriptive density require time and careful attention to unfold, while still holding their mysteries. Which is another way of saying that these poems are inexhaustible, as all great poems are.

While the ode (as in “Plum Hour”) is perhaps the dominant poetic mode of Orexia, with the speaker addressing a variety of creatures and objects of the natural world as a way to find commonality of experience and evidence of the divine, the true heart of the book is elegy. Death and loss attend nearly every poem in the collection, often simultaneously, as in the poems on Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare, both of whom spent decades in the living-death of dementia and insanity before finally giving up their bodies. These stories take on anguished significance in relation to the poems on the decline and death of the poet’s mother. Here are the delicate lines on her mother’s final days from “The Wind Wears a Red Leaf,” which powerfully capture the self-estrangement of mental illness and the flight of the soul:

Did it move in the brain, what ranges

incarnate, then departs, Dementia the cat
astray at the ankles, then at the door,

vapor spark-rocket, Bede’s brief sparrow…

Bede’s sparrow, an allusion drawn from his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, takes on a double significance here. It is, first and foremost, an image of the brevity of life, fleeting as a sparrow that darts into the king’s hall then swiftly flies out again into the storm. But, in the context of Bede’s book, it is also used as an argument for faith. If, the king’s minister argues, religion (in this case, Christianity) can tell us more of the soul than we can know from that brief passage, we should subscribe to it. Orexia lacks the certainty and evangelist bent of the king’s minister, but shares his yearning for faith and truth.

Yet for all the book’s somber, clear-eyed focus on death, Orexia is finally an affirmation of life. The work and pleasures of the garden, the intimacies of family, the joy of language, the mysteries of the world and self – Spaar celebrates them here in all their troublesome beauty and complexity. The hungers of the body and spirit are sufficient, for now, to keep despair at bay. This affirmation of life and self brings the book to its moving conclusion in “How I Might Sound if I Left Myself Alone”:

Annul the self? I float it,
a day lily in my wine. Oblivion?

I love our lives,
keeping me from it.

 

*

peter klinePeter Kline teaches writing at the University of San Francisco and Stanford University.  A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he has also received residency fellowships from the Amy Clampitt House, James Merrill House, Marble House Project, and Kimmel Harding Nelson Foundation.  His poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, Poetry, Tin House, and many other journals, as well as the Best New Poets series, the Verse Daily website, and the 2015 Random House anthology, Measure for Measure. Since 2012 he has directed the San Francisco literary reading series Bazaar Writers Salon.  His first collection of poetry, Deviants, was published by SFASU Press in 2013.

Previous post: