Vanitas, Rough

by Lisa Russ Spaar
Persea Books 2012
Reviewed by Peter Longofono 


“regnant with a strange, godlike power”

Reading Lisa Russ Spaar, one can’t swing a stick without hitting Hopkins or Keats. Her chiseled diction and nimble command of vocabulary ennoble her subjects in ways reminiscent of both; she is equal parts sensual and cerebral. Furiously compact, classically restrained, her poems arrive at weighty moral fulcrums after astonishing flights of virtuosity. It’s all earned, and formally packed with such adroitness that her numinous, soul-destroying gestures gust backwards through the lines preceding them. Here is the complete text of the poem “Midas Passional”:

No one has touched me for weeks
yet in this drugged, gilt afternoon, late,

when nothing is safe, I’m paralyzed,
as though so wildly desired—passing solo through the garden’s

cinnamon, marigolds, famished roses, where a matted shingle
of the swept-up human hair I begged from a local beauty shop

& spread out fruitlessly among the blooms & canes
to keep away the deer might well be a satyr

passed out in the palace’s candied gold—
that something regnant with a strange, godlike power

could not help but reach out from the umbral blue
to tap my white arm. It is a day to die,

the light autoerotic, theatrical, with an unbearable listing,
stalled in cusp, in leonine torpor. Is courage artifice?

As though to answer were within my means.
Or to even move my mouth.

This is breviary poetry, prayer-taut and rite-prone. One look at the table of contents confirms her hagiographer’s bent—“St. Protagonist,” “St. Volition,” “Graven,” “Iconoclast”— if the term weren’t already so loaded, devotional poetry might even be the perfect descriptor. Spaar reclaims it, brimming with litanies, doxologies, canticles. Her talent for catalogue simultaneously claims American poetry’s obsession with objecthood and Baroque ornamentation. Strong accoutrement, at once worldly and other-, greets the reader front and center, as in this opening volley: “triangular glasses, brumal volts, gin, / frescade of pearls, plucked, sunned olives.” We’re reminded of pagan spreads, but also the Hagia Sophia.

This characteristic paradox lodges in most of her poems, spicing them, often an alloy of the final image and the words making up said image. It is important to Spaar, crucially so, to incorporate these troubling elements. For example:

On knees stained by the zodiac
I hold nothing back;

self in augend now, low tide—
a sky increased by subside—

There’s Dickinson in there, too: neat rhyme capped with dashes, the Self sharply apparent against the Eternal. Yet as often as things rise to sacramental intensity, she’s never unwilling to cut the pretty out. She’ll drop a “metafucked” or a “vagenda” disarmingly, willfully upsetting her own sense of procedural care. Self-abasement and doubt play freely with lust, resoluteness, and empathy. Nothing’s reducible, least of all God. And there’s Hopkins and Keats for you: the former’s sonnets, the latter’s negative capability and struggle with received spirituality. How to read her, then? She’s their great-granddaughter. She’ll floor you out of sheer whim and have you convinced, all in fishtailing syntax and Fabergé prosody. Read each terse piece three or four times—don’t worry, you’ll want to—and revel in a voice steeped in generations of delicious unease.