on Vanitas, Rough, poems by Lisa Russ Spaar (Persea Books)

“A given, inconstancy. / If only I were wired for that gypsy // restless affair …”

So begins Lisa Russ Spaar’s poem “Solo Moon” in Vanitas, Rough, her fourth collection of poems. It’s an elevated kind of regret, agitated and sustained by anything that changes suddenly, or challenges the mind with its ineffability, or embodies antithetical qualities, or sways between near and far. Not wired to renounce the sober solidity of herself, Spaar works strenuously – she doesn’t obscure the effort, she flaunts it – to pack an entire world with all of its incommunicable essences into sparking utterances.

SpaarA.jpegYet the poems suggest a mind flayed of the more familiar psychological tonalities that reflect on personal relationships and selfhood. She has sought alternatives to the plain-spoken, narrative and epiphanic poetic modes that have defined the mainstream – while retaining the identity of the individual striving to speak in ways that comport with the renegade qualities of the world. Sheer existence is Spaar’s obsession -- the sense of everything-happening-at-once creates an aspiration in a human: to break open, to give out. “The stimulus of Loss makes most Possession mean,” wrote Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law Susan in 1871. Consider the exquisiteness of that word “stimulus.”

Spaar’s work is inspirited by her predecessors. The fearless syntax and aberrant spirituality of Dickinson, the excruciating examinations and ecstatically lush phrasings of Hopkins -- these influences have been noticed by readers of Spaar’s earlier books. The fevers are in full bloom now. There is a procession of personal saints.


Objects withstand the gaze
better than words.

This rush of leaves, for instance,
in copper light: how they persuade

with the squandering love can make
of days, ample spilling fistfuls.

I could look closely at removed.
But who would choose to return

that stare? Something beautiful
in the unusual arrangements

at the Corner lot. I try to park my car.
An argument of ice-felled limbs

obscures the painted spaces.
Clink. Laughter, voices coupled on a hot-house porch.

Sometimes I begin a train of thought
I am unwilling to pursue.

The lapse of the mind and the elapsing of time are favorite topics, the collapsing of strength, a wariness of the very powers she wields. The leaves may be ample evidence of some omnipresent sufficiency. But there is a feint: she does peer at (or at least seriously considers) the state of removal, and so do we. The poem is a hot-house, growing the “rush of leaves.” The speaker may or may not be able to park her car, but this poem of “unusual arrangements” fits snugly in the space of itself. (Even so, “St. Volition” isn’t as sonically unusual as many of the other poems in the collection.) Then, several poems later, another saint appears along with a repudiation of stylish failure.


With a route in voguer, to sail –
as longing is root to Lent --
so the glamour of failing is again in season,

Gothic vanes – cocks, ships –
in a bully wind.
Junket, sortie, sashay, leaves

Too on the runway, umbrella bones,
as cold reminds the soul,
unplunderable word, to awake,

preside. But where? Harvested cuffs
& pelts of fur?
The signature bag, vellum abyss?

Or in this harem cobweb that captures
the face before the swipe, the tear,
the alas already outmoded away?

SpaarVRCover.jpg“Alas,” one of the many anachronisms in the poems, obtains a complex utility. The gothic artifacts, the runway’s anorexic figures, and designer bag fail to awaken the soul – yet Spaar loves a gothic gesture and thrives as a stylist. In remarks provided by Persea Books, she notes that “ ‘Vanitas’ is a term for visual art that refers to a tradition in painting in which objects – skulls, unstrung musical instruments, blown flowers – suggest a world achingly beautiful and yet ephemeral, vaporous, on the verge of ecstatic saturation and demise, the romance of oblivion.” But “vanitas” is also the bottom line of Ecclesiastes, the pointlessness of piling up earthly goods, the surrender to the ephemeral, the pensive and plangent “alas.” Vanitas, Rough wires up and electrifies the outmoded.

“Solo Moon,” quoted at the top, also includes these lines: “But is to long for something // the same as to believe / in its abiding?” Spaar’s questions seem to lean slightly toward a gathering affirmation, but her generosity includes allowances (and under-the-table foot poking) for negation. In another of the book’s lovely rhythms, “Solo Moon” gives way nine pages later to “Blue Moon:”

Drop a coin into the poor box
of the dead doe stalling the road’s portal.

Way out, yule cog, sear as bone, turn night
into day, the dream my old father told,

decanting hoar sod, beguiling winter
by shovelfuls & singing

despite the mustard seed of his waking,
his wife’s forgetting an albino naught

all its own, endless amnesiac clearing,
endless sift, drift. The dead owl

of it swings, splayed, nailed
to a warning gate; dark has its way.

A candle socket weeps wax.
Keep the dying year as ye might,

yet here’s time’s seeping jaw;
woe’s iris, looking on.

Without exultation, we’re all dead
before an uppercut can do us wrong.

The old man and woman, father and mother, could be living in a hut in the Black Forest or a condo on the Jersey shore. The medieval is modern. (Spaar is a connoisseur of moon poems -- this I learned from one of the weekly pieces she wrote for the Chronicle.) She has always been more attuned to pitch than tone, a characteristic of a poet whose passion is for the out-reachings of language more than for the single-mindedness of attitude. Of course, there is tonality here, a dispassionate burn. End of life as poverty, memory sheared away, the wick of praise snuffed, woe spilling down. The question posed by “Solo Moon” is for solitaries – “Blue Moon” cancels it brutally, perfectly. Dark has its way.

SpaarBWB.jpegSpaar has invoked William Carlos Williams’ “structural warping” to describe the kind of breakages she invites in the work, mainly executed through her play with syntax. She says, “Where things are broken, there is a site of possibility, even mending.” The intention is for different ardors to intermingle – erotic, spiritual, familial, creative -- by snapping off their summations, arranging co-existences on the page and in the mind. Contradictions, too. Through it all, the unstated belief that nothing is perceived or deserved without disruptive effort. The ethos of an idiosyncratic saint.

This “vanitas” is “rough” because Spaar is “more interested in the poem that is bruised or scarred, than in the poem that feels completely polished, answered, or addressed – a text, perhaps, with flaws, but also with compelling torque, ellipses, edges.” Rough as in a rough patch – but with readiness and humility for whatever must follow, compassion for the other, and a taste for strangeness. Spaar ends the poem “I have drunk, and seen the spider” (taken from The Winter’s Tale) with these lines:

To abandon
a dream, a hope? No. But rather to know a force

that seethes into your heart,
not mine, but mine.

[Published December 20, 2013. 62 pages, $15.95 paperback original]

Lisa Russ Spaar’s Chronicle poetry essays are collected in The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry, published March 1, 2013 by Drunken Boat Media.

the poetry reviews

Your poetry reviews are illuminating. I have two of Professor Spaar's previous books and just happened to discover your site a while ago while looking for essays on John Berger. I didn't know this new collection is available so thanks for that, too. I've just now picked up the Janet Foxman book per your recommendation. Is there a way to receive word when you post a new review? Thank you for your efforts. DS

David, thanks for your

David, thanks for your readership. If you're on Facebook, you can 'like' the Seawall page and then be notified when I post there (all my reviews show up on that page). Or you can reach me via the "Contact" link on the Seawall homepage and give me your email address. I have an email distribution list that I send to on a monthly basis. Also, you can follow me on Twitter @ronslate where I tweet all the reviews and more.

Spaar et al

You're taking up space in my house!! I've got a shelf of books that you've reviewed and now I've got to clear out the shelf beneath it to make room for more. So I'm giving away a pile of paperbacks, good stuff too, to add the ones you're pushing lately. I want to recommend one to you, that being Dear Life by Alice Munro.