by Katharine Ogle | Contributing Writer
Lisa Russ Spaar
Persea Books, 2017
Lisa Russ Spaar’s fifth collection of poetry, Orexia is a work that flies and crawls with creatures of all kinds—“mercurial cardinals” are accompanied by an “unflinching owl,” along with moles, deer, a thieving hare. (Not to mention human creatures.) It is vibrantly colored with “long purples, blue-bottles,” “gray glower,” “satin-black,” “ghost gold,” and “[g]reen in there somewhere, yes, // even red, if I hash around.” The poems that house these beasts and hues, often titled “Temple” of this or that, derive energy from occasions of contradiction and opposites paired: the dead and the living; the sacred and the profane; the light of day and the dark of night; the sky and the earth; the real and the fabricated.
The book takes its title from the Greek root –orexia meaning “physical desire” and “appetite.” In English, we encounter this word nestled inside its opposite: the term anorexia, which refers to a lack of appetite. Spaar’s work hunts for words hidden within others. The first line of a poem titled “Trust Hour” reads: “The rust in it.” Spaar calls our attention to “the etched in wretched” and “the burr in worry, ‘r’s’ like hitchhiker seeds, / arcing lures that bend, twist away[.]”
The appetite which is this work’s engine, then, is not appetite in the traditional sense—hunger, the desire for food—but rather, an appetite that acts as a driving force, like eros, a reason, a direction with which we seek the world. In her book Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Spaar calls this “the hungry wound of wanting.”
The sequence begins with a poem titled “The Wishbone: A Romance,” which exalts that strange, v-shaped bone of the dinner bird, the “furcular picked and dried // with earthy feints of sage / & fused with remnant gristle[.]” Spaar reminds us of the violence of splitting the wishbone for luck: “Why not, / then, after giving thanks, // break it, too—” and calls attention to her book- and career-length obsession with paradox. The furcula (do you hear the “fork” in it?) is another name for wishbone, and serves as a perfect symbol for Spaar’s orexia—a desire for that which is pronged, branched, that which is two opposite things at once.
Language itself is a furcular thing: historically, the poet’s primary obsession and greatest failure is the word. I think of these lines of Robert Hass, from his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”:
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies
There is nothing juicy, sweet, knobbed, or remotely physical about the word blackberry. It is just a word—made of ink (or pixels) and page, wholly symbolic, nothing berry-like about it.
Against this elegy, Spaar offers poetry that has dimensions of physicality. Not that she can conjure a berry any better than Hass, but by asking the reader to see and hear words-within-words, she reminds us of the letters and sounds which form words. We can apprehend words as objects, with our senses, and not mere symbols. For example, in the poem “Temple Moon,” Spaar writes of the “voweled vow of you,” reminding us that the word “vow” is nestled within the word “vowel.” And the word “you” is the pronunciation of an English vowel, “u.” The vow of “you,” homophone of the u, actually is a vowel.
Another way Spaar directs us to observe the relationship between the body and language is through articulation. For example, in the poem “Temple Surrender,” Spaar writes, “Tomb, womb, let’s not forget what we are.” By placing two rhyming words next to each other, the reader is asked to perform their likeness—after all, the voice and the mouth hardly changes in the pronunciation of the two.
So many of the poems in Orexia pose small, possible changes in language, demonstrating how words have the potential to slip into other words with the exchange of a letter or syllable.
Returning to the poem “Temple Moon,” observe how the speaker describes the act of the overheard as misheard:
Last night, downstairs, unbeknownst,
you dropped your lunar sharp
on a sleeping ivory key. Afraid to die,
I lay upstairs listening to ruin.
I thought rain.
Presumably the speaker mishears the [sounds of] ruin as the [sounds of] rain. And yet with the names “ruin” and “rain,” this slippage happens in the language of the poem as well—a reader could easily hear (or even visually read) “rain” as “ruin” and vice versa.
And what accounts for this mix-up? One might reasonably suggest the speaker is sleepy—she is up in the middle of the night, after all.
But to know anything about Lisa Russ Spaar is to know that she is a chronic and willing insomniac. Spaar edited an anthology called Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems (Columbia University Press, 1999) and much of her work explores the topic, including but not limited to a series of poems where she explores famous insomniacs like Hildegard von Bingen, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Merton.
I first encountered Spaar as a professor at the University of Virginia, and I—a sleep-bereft college student—would occasionally fire off an email at, say, 4 in the morning, and find a coherent reply in my inbox before 5. Many of the poems in Orexia take night as their landscape, and a sleepless speaker. The poem “Celibacy 3” boldly begins: “Sleep, why do it?” and makes a positive case for a wakeful night: the speaker doesn’t want to miss out on “night’s nada undressing / under dawn’s sway[.]”
From a 2010 piece in the New York Times on Insomnia, Spaar writes:
The insomniac is the one who is awake when a power line goes down and the humming house is extinguished to furnace-less cold and dark.
Like many insomniacs, I always feel a bit of bully pride in getting by on a few fractured hours each night while others complain if they don’t get a full, conked-out eight. For the insomniac Vladimir Nabokov, I think that sleep, which he called “the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals,” meant turning off, even for a few hours, his quicksilver, voracious consciousness. The daily nocturnal rest that presages the ultimate big sleep of mortality was for him a price both vexing and insulting, a “nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius.”
As a poet, I like being the one who is awake while others sleep — the watcher, the one who courts by choice that liminal space between sleep and waking, where “reality” and inner vision blur, and all the big questions loom with heightened clarity.
Spaar’s obsession with and defense of insomnia provides further proof that her interests, in Orexia and elsewhere, derive from the furcular. In that “liminal space between sleep and waking” lies, for her, without mistake, “clarity” and truth. The speaker in Orexia has appetite for these hours, wishes to grasp them.
The risk? In “Celibacy 1,” the speaker notes “I lose every night in my dreams[,]” meaning that without that orexia for night, she squanders it, night is lost to dreams. Further, it is “day’s demise that shows us we’re alive,” Spaar writes in “Friday Night Hour.”
The way these poems hoard words and their potential mistaken/overheard iterations continues to build the speaker’s sense of appetite—she wishes to consume all. Mistakes are not to be edited, but noticed, and collected. The project of this book, to record and enact the orexia of the speaker, is the project of poetry itself: the desire to capture the physical world, to record it in language and music.
The speaker in “Temple Gaudete” observes a bird on the lawn, a “livid blur,” as she works in the kitchen. Spaar writes, “I, inside, punch down & fold a floe // of dough to make it later rise.” This image—the domestic, familiar, basic fact of bread that it must be reduced in order to expand, that this process is crucial to the formation of bread—elucidates a reason for the poet’s obsession with contradiction. She’s no magpie (though a poem called “Hour Bleu-aille” states otherwise), by which I mean: she’s not interested in opposites just for the shine of them, as the magpie is attracted to that which glitters. Rather, she sees a necessary process inherent in juxtaposition. The luck of the wishbone depends on the act of splitting it.
In “Temple Dictionary,” the speaker wonders, “Can a word have a soul? How move / from one to the next without dying?” But even though the speaker warns us to see the death that is beyond “mere words,” and perhaps, in fact, between those words, the poet ultimately controls this fear for us, as readers. Desire, appetite, orexia, is decidedly separate from satiation. To reach is not to grasp. Hunger ends when digestion commences. Pure appetite is inconsummate. For Spaar, orexia is life itself, lest we fall silent to the “carnage always in any talk // of awe beyond language.”
Katharine Ogle is currently a Provost Fellow at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. She holds a BA with distinction from the University of Virginia and an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. She has worked as an Associate Editor of Poetry Northwest, as a writer-in-residence for Seattle Arts & Lectures, and as a lecturer for the University of Washington’s creative writing programs at Friday Harbor Laboratories and at the UW Rome Center. Her poems and essays have been published in Meridian, Quarterly West, Mare Nostrum, Pleiades, and at a public bus stop in Seattle.