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Juliana Spahr

Response
Sun and Moon Press, 1996
97 pgs, $10.95

It seems inevitable that the generation of authors born in the 1960s will have to deal with the role that media and popular culture plays in their lives. The passivity and shallowness of most of that culture, as well as the seriousness of its power, makes it hard to challenge, especially by someone raised with its glittering imagery. But Juliana Spahr's first full-length collection of poems, Response, has managed to harness the power of popular culture and turn it against itself. In so doing, she's written one of the best books of American poetry to appear in the last year.

Response presents a montage of poem narratives that strike at the corrupt heart of popular culture--its manipulation of images in ways that capture the human imagination with capitalist fantasies. Taken together, the poems in Response constitute a thorough critique of attempts to control life with imagery. Understood throughout Response as an attempt to fix, record, and control experience, the image becomes the basis for the pathological culture that has always been hidden underneath modern media's flash and crash.

The book's opening piece, "introduction," introduces a question to which the rest of Response only apparently seeks an answer: "how to tell without violating?" I say apparently because the answer in much of Response is that telling itself is violation. The desire to represent one's experience, to tell it, becomes the means of extending a socially enforced confusion. The desire to hold onto oneself, through image, through language, through response, leads inevitably in Response to the splitting of one's personality into various image fragments.

Response[ Click to Order Spahr's Response (soft $) ]     Throughout the second poem, "responding," various fixed identities are labelled not with specifics but with generic markings indicated by brackets: "or [name of major historical figure] hails a cab." These markings suggest specific images, but more significantly suggest that those specifics are more generic than specific. Paradoxically, the desire to control experience through a narrative that can give all thing specific names leads to a circumstance in which the capacity to control through naming makes all specifics irrelevant.

Although one cannot isolate Spahr's poems without damage, nonetheless "thrasing seems crazy" and "testimony" are two absolutely remarkable poems, unforgettably shocking, revealing, comic, and terrifying. They both come directly from pop cultural sources, from pathologies that can be recognized by even the most unsubtle readers: self-reported victims of multiple personalities and of alien abductions. To Spahr, of course, the aspect of self-reporting is key. "testimony" does not explore whether individuals have been abducted by aliens; rather, it concerns the social pathologies involved in reporting oneself as an alien abductee.

That "thrasing seems crazy" is based on a story told on the Oprah Winfrey Show only adds to the lurid spectacle of its tale of multiple personalities. The reported story is as follows; a woman repeatedly was terrorized, and eventually stabbed, by a male stalker to whom she gave the name "the poet." Police were unable to find this man. Eventually, though, the facts were discovered; the woman was a victim of what is called "dissociative personality disorder," more commonly known as multiple personalities. The "man" who had stalked--and literally stabbed her with a knife!--had been herself, in a dissociative state.

In the poem, this story, while undeniably extreme, becomes a prime example of the pathological desire to fix one's identity in a singular image. Having multiple personalities is not the problem; rather, the problem is the inability to recognize that one has multiple personalities. "thrasing seems crazy" is remarkable not simply because the tale itself is astonishing. Spahr shows what the tale says not only about that particular woman, but about the larger pathology of the social itself. It is a world in which a woman thinks of stalkers and poets as similar freaks, in which she denies the parts of herself that act like a man, in which she makes frequent panicked calls to the police. But what's astonishing about these details is their double significance; taken outside of the specifics of this woman's story, they actually describe common social occurences.

"testimony" is divided into five sections. The opening section both seriously and ironically introduces the problem of the poem: that information, especially personal "testimony," cannot be trusted. Seriously, because it's true. Ironically because that lack of trustworthiness is one of the baits of popular misinformation; when people are interested in alien abductions, it's often because they want to believe in something, but feel like they can't.

The second section of "testimony" includes a long list of "reports" that describe images of abduction and define a world of violence, violation, and confusion. This world is intimately linked by those who report it to other, more clearly identifiable horrors, such as sexual abuse. But Spahr doesn't make this link to suggest that self-reported alien abductees are simply repressing human sexual abuse. The "facts of the case" are not the point; it is the desire to fix the facts of the case that is at issue. What Spahr wants to show is the similarity of language in all descriptions of abuse. She wants us to see the links between violence and the language of violence. She wants us to understand that the ways in which people talk about abuse are themselves often abusive because of their tendency to control and deny differences. Thus, descriptions of abuse often end up supporting abuse, becoming part of the problem rather than the cure.

The third section of "testimony" features language in quotes meant to imply that it considers itself direct testimony. Further self-reported links between alien abductees and other social horrors are suggested by the abductees themselves, in lines such as "It is just like Auschwitz, just like Auschwitz," and "I have recurring nuclear war dreams." A brief fourth section points out that "unreliability of information" is a social fact, but that belief in "reliable information" itself often reveals the pathological desire to fix reality.

In the poem's final section, the narrator speaks directly to the reader:

my point here is not the laugh
not the truth
not to merely explore truth's turns, information's conspiracies
it is:
what do we do?

Despite her unwillingness to impose her own conclusions on the text, Spahr does provide some possible answers to this question:

as we rethink ourselves, the political enters
and the issue twists to become about our 
           ability to touch 
                     information
to make our own decisions
which has been required of us all along,
           we've just slacked off
letting the advertisements speak a larger truth
letting others do our thinking and condense it 
           back to us as a 
series of dialectical issues

Of course, given the social dynamics of contemporary capitalism, one may not have the power to stop advertisements (and, by extension, all image-based ideology) from "speaking." But Spahr wants us to understand the ways in which people participate in their own debasement to languages of violence. One may not be able to stop such "advertisements," but one can openly and consistenly contest their power.

In the final poem, "witness," Spahr returns to the heart of Response--the way in which people try to fix responses to experience in images, especially when that experience is horrifying. Section one has only one brief line: "when terrible things happen they must be witnessed." The irony here is unavoidable; the urge to "witness," to tell and repeat scenes of violence so that they are not forgotten, also increases the power of that violence to control human life by turning it into a tale.

The rest of "witness" follows through on that insight with pitiless clarity. Whatever the terrible event in question, "witnessing" it is not a solution but an extension of various problems. The urge to witness, even when born out of the legitimate desire to have violence exposed, can turn quickly into an attempt to contain violence through representational images. Such false containment leaves the uncontainable aspects of violence to fester, with the result, undoubtedly, that they will emerge elsewhere again. In the last lines of this poem, and of Response, Spahr writes: "turn on the lights/one person urges another/turn on the lights." The paradox implied is exactly as harsh, and as revealing, as the rest of the insights in the book. The person (indeed the culture) in darkness, seeking to bring clarity and hope into the darkness, finds only the pitiless, naked bulb, which offers no solution to the pain that it momentarily makes visible and extends.

Guest Reviewer: Mark Wallace
This review previously appeared in The Washington Review.



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