on Satin Cash, poems by Lisa Russ Spaar (Persea Books)
The signature gesture of Lisa Spaar’s third book, Satin Cash, is a shift of attention from circumstance to displaced reaction. A disinclination to be quite on top of actual things triggers a self-in-language, cloistered in memory and reconsideration, and making its way back to the actual through strangely routed observation and phrasing.
THE ICE HOUSE
When my daughter fights on the phone
with her boyfriend, even her side
of the story unintelligible as my pain –
altering the lit hallway
between our rooms—I think of the ice house:
pineal, subterranean light,
cave dug in a creek bank among a ganglia
of ponds, its snug, clapboard dormer
a white-washed disguise
of the wildness within, winter felled
beneath corbelled ceiling, slabs of ice
sawn from frozen stream and coulee,
tonged onto sledges, hauled & packed
among straw, sawdust—so that, in the heat
of rage, or age, or passion,
what shivers of sweet sorbet,
what unlikely shocks of whine-numbing joy
issue from its galaxy, its dipper.
Many of the poems mention distress – such as the “unintelligible … pain” above. But they refuse to divulge (or indulge) its source, preferring to honor its elemental persistence as a given condition. The specifics of hurt or dilemma aren’t critical here. Spaar is interested almost exclusively in the flight of the mind into its other voice. Beginning with “pineal, subterranean light,” the poem becomes as frigidly remote as the ice house of memory. What can come from this turning away? The alluring power of Spaar’s work is found in how adamantly it rejects the question – and passionately invests in the turning, an elusiveness that results in confrontation.
“Pineal” carries its glandular identity, pinecone-shaped melatonin regulator of drowse and perk, home of the soul’s third eye and the brain’s psychic powers. “Ganglia of ponds” then seems to extend from that cranial light. “Corbelled ceiling,” aside from its architectural Victorian nicety, suggests a ceiling requiring special support. The “heat of rage, or age, or passion” or any other provisional emotion for that matter in Satin Cash finds the missing, oppositional, “whine-numbing” essence of itself elsewhere. Some other ice-lugging labor of memory and imagination takes us to sorbet and a changed perspective on our fights and pains.
The first section of Satin Cash orients the reader to Spaar’s probing speaker and its self-regard. “‘Herself To Her A Music’” centers on a woman, “mouth unmooring her ideas // in off-key descant at the piano / as fingers tink the weird / stillness of silled wasp’s wings.” The title borrows a line from Emily Dickinson’s 1858 poem “One sister have I in our house.” Dickinson lived with her sister Lavinia, and next door, “a hedge away,” lived her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert Dickinson who opened the main portal to Emily’s social life. The first three stanzas read:
One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.
One came the road that I came --
And wore my last year's gown --
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.
She did not sing as we did --
It was a different tune --
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.
The other sister, keeping her distance, produces an entirely different sound from the domestic. She is separate, animate, self-kept. From Dickinson, Spaar receives permission to distort her syntax, expose nature to the violence of language, traffic in looming forces, and spell out the provisional nature of one’s self. In “Weird Sister” she writes, “Work is a series of self / -interruptions, perverse turnings, // like the old year becoming new,” and then ends, “If I were not divided / from you, how would I know // my self, becoming, in these great offices, / both lover & beloved?”
The poet obsessed with bringing everything human to bear at once on language is usually more attuned to pitch than tone, and Spaar is no exception. Her voice is consistently rapt; the speaker’s experience spreads out sonically. Her poems aren’t about subjects so much as what she may make of them in an instant of imagination. The explicit awareness of one’s own voice as “other” requires her to be forthcoming about its role as performer. But completely given up to the linguistic staginess, she concentrates all of its pressure on the most exquisite considerations.
Even shadow can be a dwelling.
Just so the shinden tea house
pavilion – marrow-cold white wine,
simple, cornered sandwiches,
diamond lattices and Asian conifers
beside the jade-fat pond –
& then after, in dormered intimacy,
satiny sounds of you,
I felt the lone snapping turtle,
in the cedar-stained water,
floating island of privileged,
inlaid parquet geometries,
mysterious to the mind.
I considered the violence,
soul inhabiting the body
yet emerging from its stone,
velvet, vulnerable, apricot neck
wavering over the extremity
of the entombing sea.
Just as in “Ice House,” the tale of the turtle functions to clarify a sketchy human relationship, in this case what occurs “in dormered intimacy.” Perhaps more accurately, the existence of the turtle (its softer stuff emerging from a stone-like surface) clarifies and purifies in a mode the dormered experience couldn’t provide alone. Experience and memory offer up just enough material to trigger orisons from the weird sister next door.
Metaphor on metaphor, adjectives strung in tantras: this is the pitch of appreciation. The reach for unique adjectives becomes a predictable move in Satin Cash (the reader may often reach for the Webster’s). But it is also essential to the character of Spaar’s striving narrator, a figure extending the experiments of Dickinson, Crane, and Hopkins. When two or three adjectives suddenly emerge, they indicate not only a desire for exactitude, but the inability to get it right the first time, the sense that one must work hard and long to explain.
Her inflations of language are knowingly pumped – because just as she draws us into the withdrawals of her imagination, she has a twinned urge to push us out. These confusions and mixed purposes are subtle and expertly managed.
YOU, WITH GOLD LEAF
I grow impatient with spirit as alibi
despite each night, ecclesiastical,
more and more sky, the costal trees
in fierce defrayal,
fretting with kohl branches
the edges of the parking lot.
I stand by my car,
night a translucent, colostrums blue
of goodbye, & cocklebur Venus
reveals to me the truth
of your body as light source,
burning by mercy inside me still.
“I grow impatient with spirit as alibi” is a fierce confession, but not a repudiation -- since while growing restive with the internal life, the speaker still employs the lush language we’ve by now been tutored to associate with it. Satin Cash is an ingenious arrangement of work. Any poet looking for a model of how to build a book of poems would benefit from studying the flow here. In mid-book poems like “You, with Gold Leaf,” Spaar introduces the second-person, the distracting physical other. Yet even as this theme of intimacy is threaded, she keeps us contained in a language-world that in another sense won’t compromise with anything or anyone beyond itself. For instance, the facing poem is the wonderful “Executrix,” beginning “When my father turned / the shrugged plaid book / of his shoulders to me, bent // to the file drawer gliding / into his hands, folders / saying Will & Power // of Attorney, Extended Care Policy, / (“I tell you one thing, / I die first, your mother’s lost”), / I am a child again …” This poem repeats the narrative form of “The Ice House” – an interpersonal moment triggers a solitary thought. The last line is quintessential Spaar: “and oblivion declaring its worth,” an image drawn from childhood memory that ultimately aligns the psychological stance of the speaker with the fact of the pending deaths of parents.
The rhythms and gestures of Satin Cash soon become familiar, and Spaar has no interest in rhetorical elasticity. Yet the work never feels mechanical because her intention is so active and unrelenting. “The poem which mistakes noble utterance for perception, conviction for impassioned intelligence, has located a wisdom it means to confer on its readers,” writes Louise Glück in her essay for Best American Poetry 1993. “Although such a poem may be organized dramatically and will likely have its climactic moment, it lacks drama; one feels, too early, its intention.” The aim of Spaar’s desperate force of language is to ensure the quality of its motive. In this she is single-minded, even as she portrays the mind as a presence (or presences) abiding in two abutting zones. She confers something moving, perceptive and even devotional on the reader, but not by way of working up to an epiphany. Instead, Lisa Spaar insists that we follow her lustrous language through its cerebral oppositions.
These are the final lines of “Camera Obscura” which recalls a visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich:
When at last I turned from that enchanted chassis,
back out into the pact
of the ordinary hour, its source
in some impossible clock,
the pale exterior of sun and time
was old intimacy, lost to the lustrous,
immeasurable reach of the world within.
[Published August 2008, 72 pages, $14.00 paperback]