Thursday, December 01, 2005

Juliana Spahr—This Connection of Everyone With Lungs


I must admit that I am confused about Juliana Spahr’s book This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. Is the speaker supposed to be pathetic or sympathetic? I’m not really sure. I’ve read the book twice with several spot readings of some passages, and I want to do my best to meet the speaker honestly and be generous to it. However, I’m pressed to find value in the book beyond its portrait of a person who is battling information sickness.

I’m sure you know the feeling—the slight nausea, the vacant stare, and thickheadedness that arises from crunching innumerable data sets, from surfing endless waves of web pages and taking notes on all of them.

Spahr couples this obsession with information with an ecstatic plea for belonging in the world and community. However, for me, despite her ecstatic passages where she invokes the beloved,

But I say it’s whatever you love best.
I say it is the persons you love.
I say it is those things, whatever they are, that one loves and desires.
I say it’s what one loves.
It’s what one loves.
It’s what one loves, the most beautiful is whomever one loves.
I say it is whatsoever a person loves.
I say for me it is my beloveds.
For me naught else, it is my beloveds, it is the loveliest sight.
I say the sight of the ones you love.
I say it again, the sight of the ones you love, those you’ve met and those you haven’t.
I say it again and again.
Again and again.
I try to keep saying it to keep making it happen.

I’m left gnawing on my wonder at how someone who is pleading for the beloved has so little interaction with it/them. It’s curious to me how the people she has met never interfere with her involvement with the lead-up to the war. And then when they do, talk of the war starts to encroach on every conversation with them, even that of the birds’ nest building. If I kept bringing up the headlines and imminent war while I was at the beach with friends or my kids, my wife would kick my butt, and rightly so.

Too often obsession is championed as concern. Spahr’s concern has been lauded as expansive. In a private e-mail I received, the writer of the e-mail described Spahr’s outlook in This Connection as “expansive despair” (a term I like very much, and one that is apt). He went on to say that he preferred Spahr’s expansive despair rather than, say Louise Glück’s limited one. With that, I would concur. However, I would add that my biggest problem with Spahr is that her vision is not that expansive. Her life is downplayed, negated by statements like “This is the stuff of the everyday in this world” after rehearsing a litany of violence around the world. It’s not the stuff of the everyday. The maintenance of relationships, small touches, roles taken on that are unpleasant but effective, etc.—whatever flavor of the quotidian that strikes a person. This is the everyday that is glaringly absent in Spahr. In this way I say the speaker in This Connection is not expansive.

Information and fact without imagination mixed in equals nothing.

But perhaps I am missing the central point of the book. In some way as I look at the book again, I see that perhaps the real focus of the book is not how the overtly political and mediatized vision of the world meshes with the quotidian. It is about how the overtly political and mediatized vision of the world swamps and drowns out the quotidian. In her one statement on page 62, “It is an uneventful day overall as we sit here waiting for the news” the circumstances of the war are taking precedent over everything else. On the next page the speaker goes further to say that “the military-industrial complex enters our bed at night.” Clearly the speaker is portrayed as helpless in the face of political events taking shape on the TV and computer. The speaker claims its status as victim. Indeed, it is. I can recall feeling helpless in March of 2003 also, but I held no illusions about my concern holding sway over those who had made “decisions.” [I can also remember thinking and telling everyone I knew that there were no WMDs and that all of that talk by the Bush administration was a politically useful tool. I got a lot of strange stares when I went on that diatribe.] It seems to me that Spahr’s speaker is portrayed as almost hypnotized by events to the point where the gaze is unable to be broken. This kind of tunnel vision seems avoidable to me, perhaps even regrettable. This is what I mean when I say that Spahr’s speaker seems more pathetic than sympathetic.

Perhaps it is counterproductive to become so passionate about politics in that it destroys one’s perspective on what is fundamentally important, and also in that it brutally colonizes the imagination and leaves it flailing.

But if one accepts being “stunned” by events as the given that this book is dealing with, then Spahr’s depiction is masterful. As it evokes the beloved and attempts to connect with it, it is heartbreaking to watch the speaker squirm in her sensibility. The speaker struggles to make a mark on the political map by playing the ultimate sorter of information. It is almost like watching Maxwell’s Demon hopelessly sorting electrons in order to bring about a global effect in the macrosystem. One wonders what kind of benefits package it gets for taking on such fastidious work.

To my thinking, it is more productive, especially when one is charged with shaping the minds of the young, to invoke an America from a different time so that the young will not grow up with a distorted notion of what America is supposedly about. Copious amounts of Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Ben Webster are antidotes to war (or perhaps the music of Naseer Shamma or Munir Bashir or Anouar Brahem to make it possible to wander the night . . .).

I’m sure that residing in the aesthetic will aggravate the inner activist who points out that this line of action is going into hiding. Perhaps. I am not always so anxious to make my mark upon the world. It seems to me that one can sum up the role of the responsible and informed adult as one that brings to bear one’s individual talents and will on his/her community, but it can also be withdrawing one’s mark when its incidental effects might be calamitous (advice I wish the Bush administration had heeded itself).

Perhaps it is that Americans are so mad for power in the form of making one’s mark on the world (and recognize that any vulnerability equates to a loss of power) that the dilemma of powerlessness as depicted in Spahr resonates so deeply. Spahr’s depiction of the responsible and informed adult as utterly powerless is discomfiting. But only if one buys into the notion that the assertion of power is the only way out of this dilemma. Let us all hunker down in our blogs and plan a faith healing!

Ultimately, perhaps Spahr is posing the question of whether political experience can be an aesthetic one also. My bristling at this central premise is related to my doubts that the political can be completely equated with the aesthetic. Politics is not sublime. I fail to grasp the importance of being a purely political animal.


In This Connection of Everyone with Lungs Juliana Spahr has witnessed the world in full dress rehearsal and given it a bad review. Except for a few brief cameos from the parrots who get high marks, the rest of the production is doomed. There is nothing joyous emanating from the human realm. All of humanity is teetering on the brink due to the fact that there is a lot of depressing news out there.

Even when optimism is invoked, it is only in irony. The speaker retorts “Such optimism, beloveds, such optimism” (p.65) in response to mynas collecting dried grass and napkins for their nest. After this the speaker admits to going “to the beach yesterday not in optimism but in avoidance and we spoke about the birds” This is the classic retreat into nature. This is the archetypal move to make for a middle-aged woman who is childless (I presume she is childless because I can’t imagine an entire text written about the “state of the world” without some contemplation of how the child one is raising is going to fit into it . . . this seems too great of an omission). While I agree that gloom is a peculiar burden for the informed to carry, there is no reason one must linger in it.

I’ve just received word from a private source that the alternate title for this book was The 12-Step Program to Losing One’s Humanity.

The larger project of the book seems to be how to inhabit this gloom, but the insistence on dwelling within it does not provide any great insight into existing within the contemporary malaise of information paralysis while yearning for connection to the world. The speaker’s voice is flat, flatter, flattened and making great appeals to some über-collective. Is the point of this book anything other than to illustrate that such a mindset exists?

I don’t want to belittle any intellectual involvement in the world. That’s laudable, but Spahr’s antidote to information sickness is to imagine everyone in bed with her, establishing skin contact with all her beloveds. While this vision seems plausible, it never seems to happen in the places I’m living. Of course, Spahr means this in a metaphorical sense. She means connect in any meaningful way possible. Yet the book is suspiciously devoid of any meaningful connection to humanity at all, nothing specific at least. The closest I could find to actual involvement in the world of humans is when the speaker talks of 136 people dead by politics’ human hands (p. 39) and how these 136 had pets and plants that needed watering, had food to make and eat, had things to read and notes to write (notice that absent mention of children again). Surely, one can find more joy than this in the world. Is there any joy left over for the living? I guess for Spahr and her ilk the real joy in life is getting together for a spirited kvetchfest.

This is what seems to be happening in most of the scenes with friends. In the scene mentioned above with the friends on the beach, the topic turns to Bush’s summit with Britain’s leaders. Perhaps the speaker and the speaker’s friends were strategizing about what Bush should say. I hardly see how that would matter except as an idle exercise in how to perform pointedly political acts of speech. Certainly it’s not something to take too seriously. But “take things seriously” is what this book does unabashedly. It seems to validate the seriousness as the newfound path to the examined life. It is the new pathos.

Perhaps the “excruciating life of the political observer” is the point of the book, and I am just failing to address it on its own terms. The question raised and the psychological terrain presented is that of a person who has reached the end of enchantment. The despair and disappointment is the main operating mode. While Spahr seems to want to legitimize this flatness as the mode which any concerned individual is likely to inhabit, it doesn’t leave any lasting impression on how to deliver any relief from it. Unless one posits the calling of everyone “beloveds” as a way out of the morasse. This, for me, seems akin to me (white) expecting to be able to pass as black by referring to every black guy I see as “brother.” How long is that ploy likely to last?

Joshua Clover in his New York Times Review of Books review championed the book as “political poetry the way it’s love poetry: how can it not be when you go for the everything?” Everything? One glaring omission is any sense of humor. And political? Well, yes it does inhabit the blank stare of someone who has propped himself/herself up in front of the screen for four hours, but I would argue its political pretensions fall short as well. A political poem that doesn’t deal with the quotidian presents a shallow view of politics. I got the sense that the book was championed by Clover because of its “stance” (read as utter capitulation to paralysis?) on the Iraq invasion. While the speaker may have captured the tone of despair that many felt in the days leading up to war, generally speaking, the speaker failed to meet the circumstance head on with anything more than a certain pleading and whining and obsessive need to accumulate ephemera about the war effort. Ho hum. I have my collection of war ephemera collected obsessively at 2 AM. You have yours. My datastream isn’t going to be the same as somebody else’s, but how do you get the datastreams to overlap?

Perhaps I am just sensitive about all this because as a father of two, I don’t have the luxury to mope and bathe myself in an avalanche of data from the computer. I don’t really see how rehearsing the notion that the world is a difficult and scary place, full of insanity and intolerance does much good for a five-year-old’s attitude and mentality. This book seems to be an argument for how morally superior one is for not bringing any children into this messed-up world.

I mention this only because in my life recently I was voted out of the living room, so to speak. My family took a vote on whether Iraq commentary should be present during dinner. I lost 3 to 1. I got huffy for a while, unable to participate in what I thought to be my obligation as informed citizen. I eventually learned that I would be allowed back into the fold if I listened to baseball over the Internet during dinner. While baseball wouldn’t be the choice of many who pursue an aesthetic life, it worked for me. It worked because it made me focus on human struggles that, no matter how insignificant compared to the altering of history in Iraq, were important to someone, important to affirming that the realm of the human matters. They inspired passion. In that, they weren’t a distraction. More than that, in some strange way, it made me feel connected to being American (in my opinion, baseball and jazz are the best reasons to be an American). In the face of my discontent about abysmal American foreign policy, our monolithic validation of Israel and negligence towards Palestine and our current Middle Eastern shenanigans, and my discontent about popular culture (which, admittedly, is no longer being produced for me) and its effects on the average American, spurring him/her on to greater consumer abuses, baseball can be the badge any American is proud to wear. [Of course, admitting anything other than disinterest in sports to an academic/aesthetic crowd is like admitting to finding deep spiritual significance in watching “Barney” with your kids.]

But not everybody grows up with the game, and many people find its scandals and inequities frustrating, emblematic of America gone awry. Not to mention the fact that many feel slighted watching the exploits of a bunch of tobacco-chewing galoots. Fine! I might suggest community service or any number of different kinds of dance. Take up a passion for food preparation. Sing in the choir. Start up a local branch of Diane Knorr’s Wonder Inc. If you don’t like this decade, then pick another and revisit it for the joys you think should be represented in this age. Etc. Jeez, if all else fails, in your darkest hour read some Billy Collins for relief.

I can imagine that my manic reaction above is a testament to the success of the book. My getting worked up about the paralysis and malaise of the speaker could be the reaction that Spahr is looking for. Her successful depiction of the life of the paralyzed intellectual is supposed to prod the reader to some sort of passionate involvement. However, I suspect the book’s aim is to provoke empathy for the speaker because of the speaker’s pathetic condition. I didn’t find myself going to empathy very often though. I’m sure this is indicative of one of my many personal failures.


I am left going back over the earlier threads of my thinking on Spahr’s book, and I have come to the conclusion that what Spahr is dealing with in the book is making the political the aesthetic. Beauty and truth (outdated concepts for sure, but ones I feel compelled to hold on to) only rear their heads when justice has been meted out equitably. In the face of the build up to the war, this was impossible. One was left with the feeling of helplessness at the sight of one’s own country standing up ready to distribute more suffering in the world for some rather nebulous ideal, which even if it had been fully comprehended, would still have been offensive.

The moral question in the book seems to be about disengagement versus engagement. When the engagement can only be intellectual, is there a neurosis that ensues? Is the comfort taken in exile the only rational way out left? Spahr hints at this on page 63 when she says, “I try to comfort myself with images of exile on this small piece of land in the middle of the large Pacific.”

To her, the formula is physical disengagement but intellectual engagement. Is that ramrod intellect effecting a ping on the drawbridge of the brutal world? I would say (after a while) not. It is leading, seemingly, to the “expansive despair” of the speaker. Is that a legitimate place for intellectual engagement to lead a self? I somehow wonder if Spahr’s speaker might have been better off calculating earned run averages rather than taking stock of protest crowds on the Internet.

Yet, many times in my ranting and raving over the years in the classroom about Rwanda, I have been accused by my students of exactly the same thing. I am accused of “bummerdom” and asked to sing a few choruses of the Beatles’ “Don’t Bring Me Down.” My standard retort is that the world is a brutal place and that turning your back on its brutality does not eliminate it. I realize that my resistance to “expansive despair” may be a bit greater than my students. But I must concede that I can’t hold up to the dentist’s drill the way Spahr’s speaker can. However, neither is my despair so totalizing (primarily because I can’t afford to be or I’d give up the hiding place of my stash of chocolate to my 5- and 7-year old, all the while shrugging my shoulders and saying, “What’s the point of hoarding chocolate in a world so tortured by suffering?”).

I have championed the need for a psychological buffer from the news, the need for a psychic fallout shelter when the news of the day encroaches in a totalizing manner. Is the alternative to this happy idiocy the point in the book where Spahr’s speaker says,

“It is an uneventful day overall as we sit here waiting for the news.”

When one’s whole life is parsing politics, the other nuances of the human condition tend to get lost in the shuffle. People whose political views one doesn’t agree with become solely opponents or evildoers. Scarcely does the world seem that black-and-white, that devoid of complexity (I fully admit I don’t have the mindset of the activist).

To exile oneself into the quotidian reinforces the status quo, and in this way one is complicit with the powers-that-be. That hurts. It’s as significant a burden to carry as assuming the mantle of chief parser of events in the news. But I also realized that short of personally going to Washington and splattering the brains of Dick Cheney on the wall of his private bathroom, the decision had been made. Clear signs of saber rattling were in the works since November of 2002. If one thought that somehow the US was going to stand down in March, then they were foolish. The machine to manufacture consent for the war was well in place prior to this.

Perhaps the burning question for me that begins to rear its head in Spahr’s book is what the moral thing to do is in the face of insane judgments made by those whose decisions will adversely affect millions of lives. My impulse is to acknowledge the insanity, prevent one’s own mental collapse, and hang on. Spahr’s approach seemingly is to fastidiously gather enough information to fill a small hard drive and then use this accumulated data as a security blanket. It serves as the proof that one hasn’t gone insane too.

Several years have gone by now since those fateful days in the run up to the war. One thing that This Connection does is it serves as a record of the events in the days prior to the onset. As I read the events, I remember them — Turkey’s about face regarding their participation as launching area for US troops. It is a record of complete insanity for sure. Tracking it all makes one fall prey to the same. Going back over it all again evokes the same old feelings and incomprehension. While it is important to have the record there, reading This Connection as an American is like replaying the scene of a horribly shameful event one was involved in over and over again. Such a replay starts to become damaging unless one confronts the replay with the notion that “that’s not my America.” Following this train of thought leads one to isolation again.

That Spahr gets me to endlessly meditate on the relationships involved in all of this is a credit to the book, and it is the reason that the book has been getting a lot of word-of-mouth attention in poetry circles.

That I would like the book to offer a more hopeful outlook probably reveals much more about my own views than I might like to admit. The resolve to stave off the poisoning of one’s life and tempering of one’s outlook on the world with cynicism is the story I should probably get busy in writing . . . even if it is inevitably a failed story due to the ever-imposing force of current events.