Rodney's Reviews > Well Then There Now

Well Then There Now by Juliana Spahr
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Mar 29, 12

bookshelves: poetry
Read in March, 2012

WTTN yokes together a decades’ worth of Spahr’s shorter works, linked by the locales (complete with street address and ZIP codes) in which they were written. The structure implies a thesis about place, and about the concomitant experiences of displacing and being displaced, but when I went to extract it to write this, I found less a thesis than a process: a process of trying to be placed, to create a sense of place in places where one is, or was, but doesn’t belong.

Spahr’s process involves snapping pictures, walking streets, researching histories, taking ethnobotany courses, pushing writing back and forth through translation machines, producing lists and catalogues, but above all thinking, which may be the book’s home gerund, as in: “As I am always walking on Dole Street, I am always thinking about Dole Street,” or “I was thinking about a story I had heard about a French grandfather,” or “I was trying to think about______,” in which “think” isn’t the gerund but “trying” is, and “trying to think” is maybe the better key phrase for Spahr’s writing anyway.

What attracts me most in the work is how it performs thinking at the level of syntax, building up larger, complex patterns of repetition from relatively simple and straightforward phrasal units, a technique which owes something to Stein but reminds me even more vividly of the way Minimalist composers restrict and re-cycle their tones. Because thinking for Spahr primarily involves connecting—this here to that there, the body to a landscape, the present to a past, things included to things excluded—grammar itself, which sets rules for connecting, takes on a heightened ethical dimension in her writing, so that ecosystem and language system and biosystem and social system all finally stand in for one another, or are seen to be part of one another, just as “Some of we are all eating grapes” expands to include “Some of we are all together in the grapes.”

A paradox in Spahr’s writing for me is that as direct and inclusive as the mode of address is, I don’t finally feel a part of her “we,” except in the most general terms (which may be exactly the point) of having a white blood cell count or breathing or belonging to the set of beings included in a statement as broad as: “We are in this world.” What I sense instead in the work is a powerful mind thinking through serious questions in a unique and highly personal way, with the thinking, or the moral imperative of trying to think, being theme, virtue, and obstacle all at once:

“I wanted to end this piece with a scene of metaphoric group sex where all the participants were place names, but the minute I attempted to do this I got bogged down in questions of which places would penetrate and which places would be penetrated.”
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