SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University
ALICE: Good afternoon. Thank you for being here. And I want to thank the Zalaznicks, Barbara and David Zalaznick, who are funding our Reading Series, and doing such a great thing for our program and the community.
So today, it's my honor to introduce Lisa Russ Spaar, a poet whose work, in the tradition of Emily Dickinson, is a gift to the language. Spaar is Professor of English at University of Virginia. And she also served for 11 years as Director of their outstanding writing program.
Through it all, she somehow managed to work in three demanding capacities. She's poet, critic, and editor. She's received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her poetry, among other honors. And her work has appeared in Poetry, Boston Review, Yale Review, Harvard Review, Best American Poetry series, and many other journals and anthologies.
In addition to being one of the finest poets writing today, Lisa is also one of a very few who have taken on the formidable task of writing about poetry. Her essays on poetry are inventive, generous, intelligent, and deeply informed. Her critical writing has appeared regularly in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other venues.
She was shortlisted for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Reviewing. And I can think of no one more deserving of that honor. Now I'm actually going to talk about her poetry, which is such a pleasure for me. I'll talk for maybe, I don't know, five minutes, six minutes.
One of the higher functions of poetry, perhaps the highest, is to call the reader back to experience the poem again and again. Spaar is the quintessential lyric poet who reinvigorates the classic lyric subjects, nature, love, desire, mortality, spirituality, time, through the brilliance of her language and thinking. Her poems pose the largest questions, and sometimes even answer them.
But my point is, repeated readings never diminish or deplete Spaar's work. Her poems continue to reverberate freshly, allowing the reader to see more, feel more, understand more with each reading. This resonance, or depth, reminds me of a quality called umami in cooking.
As you might know, in addition to the five basic tastes which are sweet, sour, bitter, or salty, there is now this sixth thing that's been proved by science, umami. It's the property that gives certain foods, such as ripe brie or shitaki mushrooms, chocolate, coffee, gives it a lingering richness on the palate. In addition to all the other qualities that one expects from poetry, Spaar's work has this quality of umami.
It is brothy, fleshy, tangible, tactile, and deliciously slant, or oblique. Like the greatest lyric poetry, it is irreducible, un-paraphrasable, or as she writes, "--unrelayable. As the choked perimeter of a prayer."
The titles of Spaar's poetry books hint at her Dickinson affinities. Glass Town, Blue Venus, Satin Cash-- which is a phrase from Dickinson-- Vanitas, Rough, and her latest volume, Orexia. Orexia means appetite, hunger. And we most often hear it prefixed by an, anorexia.
Spaar's Orexia opens with the lyric forceps of "Wishbone," the bone from a bird's body that is literally torn by human appetite and desire. There's self-reflexive questioning, as Spaar speaks to both the darkness of remorse and the light of creativity.
Loosely thematic recurring threads shimmer throughout the book, spellbinding the collection with a continuity that constantly widens. There are poems called "Owl Hour," a series with Hour in the title, "Baroque Hour," "Friday Night Hour." And they create a temporal thread.
Then there are three poems called "Celibacy," that reflect on solitude as much as sexuality. "Going alone, with song for company," or the company of fellow travelers, such as John Clare or Dorothy Wordsworth. And there's a weave of temple poems, "Temple Gaudete," "Temple Solstice," "Temple Moon," and more. And those poems create contemplative spaces.
Temples, after all, are both holy sites and anatomical sites, part of our heads, our skulls. Spaar's temple often is the body. And her poems sometimes serve as shrines of transubstantiation, converting the mundane to the transcendent.
The temples hold the joys and the anguish of consciousness, including the cerebral acts of writing and reading. There's a great deal of spontaneity, as well as control, in this work. The poem's trajectories and inclusions are refreshingly unpredictable, yet utterly right.
They're surprising. And that's a trait that I cherish in poetry. In a nuanced, original observation of feeling, Spaar notes that "It is impossible to will surprise, that particular other invading the inside."
Finally, there's nothing facile in this book. Instead there is mutiny, accident, registers and rhetorics both lofty and low. "Is love the start of a journey back? If so, back where? And make it holy," Spaar commands. But in "Celibacy I," the tone changes to something more acerbic.
"Fuck the heart. On the radio driving home, I learned the Brits are into all things Scandinavian. Sunlit schools, bare breasts, the Aurora Borealis, a scandi trance." So you can see the tone, how she has the ability to do so many things. I'll end by saying that of all poets writing today, I think Lisa Russ Spaar is the one most closely allied with Dickinson, the one who carries the Dickinsonian tradition into this century.
Like her great progenitor, Spaar writes the language of infinity, which has no native tongue, so lyric poets must invent one, a native tongue found only in their poetry. Like Dickinson, Spaar is "Wife of Eternity." That's not Dickinson I'm quoting. It's Spaar. "Wife of eternity, inventing o'clock's pendulum, the endlessly unsolvable sum.
Even in windowless rooms," I see the sky. Actually, I'm going to say that again because I misquoted. "Even in windowless rooms, I see sky," Spaar writes. And that's the effect her poems have. They open sublime vistas, a cosmos in the mind. Listen.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Alice got me. She got me with that. Thank you, Alice, very much. I'm OK though. I really am. Thank you so much for having me here.
Dickinson has a poem, "There came a day at summer's fold just for me." And I feel like today is such a day. And the weather, and thank you for coming in from that beautiful day to be in this room with all of us.
Some thanks, especially to Alice, for inviting me, and Hank, for his good company. Lynn, for keeping the trains running on time. Elena, for the invitation in the first place. And Michael Pryor, who was the most elegant and charming guy they could have had today, and all of the English Department. And then this Barbara and David, is that right? Zalaznick, in case you're listening somewhere. Thank you very much for supporting poetry.
So umami, I love that. I have a son who's a chef. And I can't wait to share that with him. I wanted to just begin.
First of all, Alice set the book up so well. So many of the things I often have to say about it she's already mentioned, about the Temple series and The Hours. I'm so grateful for that.
And it's such a joy to be seen as a person, by a lover or a friend, and as a poet. And I just feel like I was. And so I feel a little naked or nude, depending on how you think about that. Because we talked about that this morning in a group of graduate students.
But anyway, I just wanted to say that about two weeks ago at UVA, I took part on a panel of Arts Fellows. And we had to do something to sort of show the Deans that the Arts Fellows had accomplished something.
So we decided we would have a little talk. And we were trying to think of a title that would lure students in. And so I came up with "Art and the F Word," thinking that that might draw students in, and that we would surprise them by talking about failure, art and failure, art and fame, art and futility. You know, other kinds of F words.
But I decided that I probably should talk about the F word, and did. And since this may be recorded and I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to say it, because I know that, I won't say it. But one thing that I talked about was how happy I am that in the English language, which is the language I know best, that if I wanted to say the F word, I have at my disposal this whole arsenal of other words I might say. And here are a few of them. I think these are OK.
Bonk-- some of them are very dated-- lay, screw, ball, shag, bang, copulate, mate, hook up, "know," as in the biblical sense, Roger, which is an 18th century term, make love, make the beast with two backs, and so on. I looked on the Max Planck Institute's World Loanword Database, which exists. And English has the most loanwords in it.
We take into our language more words than any other country. And there's no board determining what kinds of words we allow in and out. And I love that, although there are extremes of nationalism and usurpation and marginalization sometimes account for these words coming in. So it's not all share and share alike.
But I'm excited about that. And even last year, when the Oxford English Dictionary didn't even name a word as its Word of the Year, it was the emoji, which is the one laughing and crying at the same. So that was good.
But anyway, for this panel-- and I just thought I would share this with you-- I decided to look at the languages from the seven banned countries, the original seven Trump-banned countries. So Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya, and just made a short list of some of the words that are really important to me that I use a lot.
From the Arabic satin, candy, chemistry, alchemy, coffee, admiral, algebra, almanac, mattress. From the Persian, caviar, chess, jasmine, julep, kiosk, magic, pajama, paradise, shawl. And from the Turkic, caftan-- I don't use that a lot, but I like being able to say it-- mammoth, quiver, and yogurt.
So I just thought I would start off reading one of The Temple poems. And just for fun, I kind of went through it and just got some of the etymology. So this is one short little poem, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10.
Yeah, it's a little sonnet-haunted poem. It contains a lot of German words. So among those are-- well, I'll get to them. But satine is from the Arabic.
The word loss is Old Norse. Flush, from the Middle English, arm from Dutch, from the German, mouth, sill, wilt, and thank. From the Old English, sleeve, from the Sanskrit, summer. From the Old French, doctor. From the Greek, scar. And from the Latin, obliterate.
So I'm glad that our language is borderless. And there's a lot of crossing. "No wall, Temple You." "What is mysterious about loss, flush of arm pulled from a wilted sleeve, summer's yearn tang and winter leaves.
Let John Keats light another fag, or Bronte refuse the doctor on her black sateen satay. For whatever part of you may be taken away, you said, is the scar, the place I will visit first with my mouth each time, as gold visits the thieved till, sun the obliterated sill saying, thank you for leaving me this you, this living still."
So as Alice said, you'll here maybe a couple of more of these Temple poems. There are several of them threaded through the book. And I think for me, that idea that your altar you carry with you is the impulse behind those temple poems.
And as Alice said, a temple is a site of worship. It also is the part of the body, of the skull, that goes gray first. So aging is in there somewhere. And then I also learned that Roget's Thesaurus, the old one, the one that sort of thematically based, begins with existence and ends with temple, which I think is pretty cool.
And then this summer I taught a group of Chinese students. And they showed me the Mandarin character for poem. And it's two symbols. And it means word poet-- word temple, rather. And I thought that that was wonderful, that a poem is a kind of word temple.
Orexia, the title, does mean desire. And when I first conceived of this manuscript and had a working title going for it, that was "Anorectic's Book of Hours." And it was sort of troping on the Medieval Books of Hours and occasions for prayer.
And I saw a really beautiful Book of Hours at the the Johnson Museum this afternoon. But my friend Charles Wright said, you know, that's-- no. That's too many words for that title. He said, why don't you just call it Orexia?
So anyway, I have Charles to thank for the title. I also learned from one of my children that Orexia is the name of a female lubricant. So you can enjoy that detail. Apparently, when you look it up, you'll see. Apparently there are some danger warnings about it. So don't use it.
But anyway, I thought I'd read another Temple poem. Alice mentioned this poem, "Temple Gaudete." Gaudete means rejoice in Latin. And it has a little-- I can't sing, but wish I could. But but I think poets want to be singers.
And there's an old, old hymn, a carol really, that has these lines, "Deus homo factus es Natura mirante," which "God has become man to the wonderment of Nature." "Temple Gaudet,"
"Is love the start of a journey back? If so, back where? And make it holy. Saint cerulean warbler, livid blur, heart on the lam, courses arterial branches, combing up and down, embolic, while I, inside, punch down and fold a flow of dough to make it later rise.
Recorded medieval voices, polyphonic. God has become man to the wonderment of nature. Simple to say, there is gash, then balm. Admit we love the abyss, our mouths sipping it in one another.
At the feeder now, back to the cherry, quick. Songs burden, rejoice. Rejoice. Oh sav and knife. Two simple to say, we begin as mouths, angry swack, lungs flooded with a blue foreseeing, story that can save us only through the body."
I read this poem at my church, at a service at the winter solstice that's for people who don't like the holidays. And feel very depressed about them, and so forth. And my youngest daughter, who went to the University of Chicago, was at Chicago at the time.
And she came in. She was picking up a friend at the train station for the holidays. And they came in the back of the church just as I was reading this poem.
And my daughter's friend said, how is that poem not about sex? And I was reminded that what I read at Chicago, my daughter, well, she followed me as I was going into the auditorium. And she said, mom, and she took me aside.
And she said, please don't read any of those middle-age sex poems. So I'm not going to read any of those, I don't think, or late, middle-age, sex poems, as I should say. But anyway, what I told Susanna was that they're not sex poems.
They're religious poems. And for me, the Beloved with the B and the beloved with the small b are the discourse I use to write about both are probably kind of interchangeable. As your guy Ammons said, "Touch the universe anywhere, you touch it everywhere."
Here is a poem that is an elegy for my friend, the poet Claudia Emerson, who died two years ago, in December. And it was December. And this was maybe February, after she died.
And I was walking my dog in the yard. And that's the time of year in Virginia, anyway, when the snowdrops come up. I don't know when they come up in Ithaca.
But they're beautiful little white flowers. And they they're very stalwart. And they come up through the snow. And they can be snowed upon and snowed upon again, and they still look beautiful.
So this poem is sort of addressed to Claudia. And the snowdrops sort of stand in for her. It begins with a description of the snowdrops. [? "isum, ?] still inhabit, full drooped and greeny, as you were first shouldering, weeks ago, the very night winter; pinched, sodden; dropped its overcoat; sooty chilblains, chins of snow.
And yet this morning, just shy of equinox, in wake of melting, you, pagan, drunk on sky's milk, find me. Temptation of sadness, bracht scape, dilator of death's fisted rooms, you sing your blue, your worried note, as though you suffered for me, kneeling in pine snuff, in brackish corde of your light, incurable."
So I'm so glad some of my former students are here. And Alex will remember my coming to the soccer game with my little girl. And anyway, I mention her in this poem. After your kids grow up and leave the house, then sometimes-- I haven't turned any of their rooms into a gym or anything like that.
But every now and then we have a guest come. And I have to go in and clear out things. And so I was in this particular daughter's room. And I found this thong. They're not very big. That just reminded. So there's that in the poem.
It's about other things. It's really about the empty nest. But that's a moment in the poem, reminded me of finding the vodka bottle in the closet in high school.
But anyway, this poem is called "Mystic Toys." It does mention some dolls, some dolls that were put in a box and put out on the curb. I didn't do that.
That was done to me, by my parents. While we went to school, they took our toys and put them out for the junk man. But you know, it's a poem. So I just appropriated it for my poem.
And I think that's all you need to know. It's raining a lot in this poem. So you can just picture a mother going through her daughter's room while it's raining outside.
"Mystic toys, balconies of green unrefrained rain, steaming ungirdled in culverts, whelming gutters' spouts. Sun, an amnesiac, erased imprimatur. And what reigns in this house is the musk of abandoned warrens, ammoniac carpets spores, dank closets emitting sweet scarlatina, hem, towel, infant-receiving blanket, the absence of fat dewed cheeks, foreheads mouthed with wishes.
None of them is here. Enchanted bodies, hefted, fed, sponged, sung to sleep in a museum of dolls. Those eyes would fail to close later on their backs and boxes beside the curb. And looming creatures rubbed to fever schene rooms made wavery by slaked windows, silvering a shoe left behind, stiletto faux leopard with turquoise sole. And this remnant thong, unlikely fret, amethyst, spider floss, hardly daughterly. And yet, stooping water recalls palatial ice, the larger space it took. The weight impossible, it held."
I thought I would read this poem, one of the John Clare poems. A few times I've been invited to the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, to read and meet with students there and everything. And one year I got to go in May, which was kind of like coming to Ithaca at the end of April.
I'd already gone through spring in Virginia. And then I went north. And I got to do it again, which was really beautiful.
So while I was on this trip, I was reading John Clare's poetry and reading about him. Most of you probably know who he is. But people think we're all insane, right? Hello, Zalaznicks, poets are all crazy.
But he really was. He was somebody who thought that he was-- he was a beautiful poet too. But he was in several asylums. For a while he thought he was Shakespeare. He thought he was Lord Byron.
He thought he had two wives, one of whom he thought was still alive. And really, I recommend to you, if you haven't read it, this beautiful piece of prose that he writes about this walk that he takes from an asylum outside of London all the way almost to Scotland. And he does it with no food and on foot.
And he's really in a fugue state. And it's just a beautiful, ecstatic piece of writing. So this poem is called "Reading John Clare, Heading North."
"Going alone with song for company. Homeless at home, homeless at home. Though sometimes time drops from the shoulders into hedges with low-darting creeps, escape ways. And who are we then?
Skirting the labor in vain, public house, eating grass to humor hunger, getting up as famished as you lay down. Oh gypsy, pilgrim in fugue state, on the lam from lunacy, trekking a long way, only to be locked away again after years of poetical prosing.
Gravel in the shoes recalls the body to every soul chasing ignis fatuus Fryer's lantern. 'I'll bend down for a dime,' Saint Charles Wright said. 'I won't for a penny. But I will for a dime.' In truth, I'm traveling not on foot, but by air, minute crosshairs sketching the coast's asphalt amalgam below, then opening, lowering over green-loping switchbacks capped with ice.
How large a shadow wings must make, keeping small things hidden in another story. A second spring here, swards and flush, long purples, blue bottles, peepers cronking, a red mill shouldering the river, it's small current of rapids, rush and throssell.
'I am in a mad house and quite forget your name and who you are,' wrote Clare. But also, I can be miserably happy in any situation, in any place. As he was, watching starnals swarm at dusk, waiting for death to bring the bill.
Same day, another bed. We're never beyond the rite of seizure. The moon, a flipped coin winking, in the water's scrawl marked with our names, though not a word spoken. Riding the sweet black tongue to the falls."
The next poem-- what I thought I would do is read a few more poems from Orexia, then a couple of new poems I've been working on. And then I come back and read one more poem from Orexia. So this is a poem that imagines a scene. It's a Temple poem also.
Imagines a scene from John, Chapter 20, verses 11 through 18. So if that doesn't mean anything to you, it's just a moment when Mary Magdalene goes to visit the tomb and it's empty. And then she sees someone she thinks is the gardener. And it turns out to be Christ.
"Temple Tomb." And the speaker is Magdalene. "In this marrow season, trunks tarnished, paused, I am garden. Am before asleep. Then the changes, placental, myrrhed, wet hem when you appeared.
What did your body ever have to do with me? In my astonished mouth, in skulled jawbone guest. Though as yet I didn't know you, you sprung. You now, intransitive, tense with heaven. Gardener, which of us said, do not touch? Which one of us was undressed?"
I thought because of umami, I thought I might read a poem about our Morel patch. We have a little dying ash tree in the backyard. And morels like to grow at the foot of these dying ash trees.
Mushrooms are tricky. There are these faux Morels. And so you have to really know what you're getting.
Because you die if you eat the others. But if you get the right ones, they're pretty amazing. And I wrote this poem for my son, the chef, who has used these unbeknownst to the people in his restaurant.
"Morel Patch." And as you can tell, there are a lot of words in these poems that you might not know. [INAUDIBLE] is a particular kind of headdress. A kiosk, there's one of those words. But it's OK, I think, just to let it wash over.
"Morel Patch." "Ghetto miraculous, tipsy monastery mysterious, embroidery erupting rashly in thatch behind the dying ash. Gnomic roofs of steep snows, bee skeps on hallow stems, blown honeycombed [INAUDIBLE] with whiff of kiosk. Cloister old-world sideshow, trousered intimacy, glassblowers, or the throat swollen in filigree by a swallowed key or a bee. Intoxication, Belle who's Nell, or tonic. Only time can tell."
So we have a dear problemo in Charlottesville. I don't know if you guys have it here. But once not that long ago, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, we'd put out salt licks to attract deer. Because we thought they were enchanting and poetic.
And now I have a herd of eight that live in my yard. And I've really tried everything I can think of from spreading that stuff out, why grow roses if they're going to smell like dog doo? Or there's another stuff that comes in a-- you shake it. And the chef said, that smells disturbingly like ramen noodle mix.
And then also cut hair, urine, whatever. Nothing seems to work. They'll eat anything, as we know.
So my father-- my mother died a couple years ago-- is a big gardener. He was a chemist for Merck. And then when he retired, he started making beer and growing grapes and had little orchard and a garden.
And he also has problems with the deer. It's like a narcotic, the tomatoes. Anyway, so I was also reading Thoreau's Walden.
And I was reading his bean chapter. And he gets mocked by his neighbors for growing miles worth of beans that he can't ever eat. And he also can't keep up with the weeding and stuff.
Because it's groundhogs for him, not deer. But anyway, this is about my dad. But you'll see Henry David Thoreau in here as well. And some of his language is in his poem.
"My Father's Dream of Thoreau." And there's the epigraph, "What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?" and the "he" in the poem is my father.
He doesn't know it, but he's in the long row with Thoreau. Decades behind him, boyish soul in an old body, bent over an ancient tool, Johnson grass and crab, already whispering, fool, fool, claiming, impatient, the mile he's just hoed.
Craven moon above glissered as the needle's eye, his dead wife mouths. Whiskery tale of thread, linsey-woolsey stitching of bean plants, moth eaten by deer. That step behind him, soundless. This time, a doe and two new fawns in voracious flow, tracks labial, in the fresh chop.
Why do it then? So much more than he can ever salvage, eat, or share? Well past 80. Though the holes he makes in cindered din are not for himself to lie down in?
A catch of rain hums farewell in a notched gauge. Netted by stars, wasp-gouged pairs drop, surreptitious. A visitor's footfall coming from the orchard, whether he's ready or not.
How then, can our harvest fail? Henry calls back to him, cheery hail, in the 19th-century voice of his father's father, also a farmer. When a furrow has never cared one whit for its husband."
Another father poem. So I mentioned that he was a scientist. And I don't know what you think of the transmigration of souls, but about a week after my mother died-- and we live inland in Virginia-- my father was on a roundabout near his house, and this big seagull comes down and starts like, beating on his windshield. And started telling me about it, as though, and then I solved for x.
And I'm like hmm, so dad, do you think there's anything unusual about seeing a seagull, and mom's just dead a few days? And he's like, hmm-- and I thought it's mom. I couldn't get him to see.
This is called "Reading an Old Book." And really, the thing about old books is that many of you work with them. And they give off a smell that smells a lot like vanilla and almonds.
It's a chemical that causes that. And you'll hear some chemical names in here. I thought that was fitting for the chemist. And then also an old, the trope is the flapping book is a little bit like a seagull. "Reading an old book"
"Inside is a yolked tulip clad with snow. [INAUDIBLE], benzaldehyde, almond sleet, vanillin, a ragged span, like the seagull blown inland by dented storm. My father, a widower one week, stalled by its bluster.
Blizzard pages rappelling toward the windshield and back. Something leaking through the traffic, the roundabout, his scientists doubt, deciphering now a W, now an M, then away, [INAUDIBLE] breakdown of sky. Lignin, he might say, releasing chemicals, nostalgia. No, admit it. The neural mesh of being. The yielding vehicle that lets him go."
I think I'll read just one more from here, than read of a couple of new poems. Then I'll come back and read one more. So in this poem I've mentioned my son, the chef. And I have these two daughters.
And I don't know, is Cecilia's sister here? Just asking. One of my daughter's friends. Sorry, I might not read it if she were.
Anyway, Cecilia has this wonderful family, lives upstate. And my daughters were going to a New Year's Eve party at their house. And they were planning a mash-up of Adele's "Hello," and Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights."
And I don't know how many people listen to Kate Bush anymore. But a key line from the Kate Bush song-- and she is sort of an ancestor, I would say, of Joanna Newsom, just to give you an idea of her voice and everything, her performance. And so the key line is hello, Heathcliff.
It's me, it's Kathy. You know? So there's two kinds of hellos going on. And one is Adele's very dusky, sexy grounded "Hello."
And then the other is this really crazy shrill, wonderful Kate-Bush hello. So those are the two. That's the thing to think about, I guess, the background of this. I told you I couldn't sing. But I'm going to anyway. And this is a little bit duet.
"Two sisters, side by side, benched at the gleaming fin of the living room's out-of-tune baby grand. Work out a mash-up, Adele's "Hello," and Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights." (SINGINGI) Hello, it's me. Heathcliff, it's me. It's Kathy. Voices, by turns, treble, then cemetery dusked, meandering and hungry as the sinew tracks of moles sponging December's yard painted mouths of iced puddles, branch-less leaves snaring the window within human gale.
One daughter swallows this heavy beauty, rolls the mordant perfume back to bloom, as the other slips out of autumn's whale bones stave, descant. They sing as if still girls, as if before love's scarlet evidence and not like the year the trees, already moved, moved through."
So I mentioned today when I spoke with the MFA students that I have been afraid to read this book or to look inside it. This is actually my coming out with the book. And I don't know why that is exactly, but I think it's something like the way that actors sometimes don't want to see a film that they've been in. I think we're not sure what it adds up to. That was one great gift of what Alice said.
But anyway, one of the things that's important to me when I'm putting a book to bed is to be writing new stuff. And so I got invited by a friend to write a sonnet for a journal and it was one of those obstructions.
Like, five obstructions. I had to write it in an hour, and it had to be on one of four themes. And so I did that. And I really liked it. I liked doing it.
So I just kept doing it. So since, I have about 50 or so. Some of them are horrible. But that's just what I've been working on. So I said something to a colleague of mine about it.
And I said, I'm working in sonnets now. Isn't that funny? And she said, oh no, she said, have you looked at Orexia? No.
But she said, most of these are seven couplets on a page. You know? And there's a lot of rhyme and off rhyme. So in a way, she said, you've really kind of been moving toward this for a while.
So anyway, as at least one of you, Lisa, wherever you are, insomnia Lisa, no, I don't sleep well. And so it's ironic that I stay up every year to see the Perseid meteor shower. And I can never see them. They I stay up all night and they never fall for me.
Oh, so like the Temple and the Hour series, these are called Madrigals. And madrigal is a song. A very intricate song, usually tacit, poly-vocal. And I think the idea is that these are also very kind of intricate like sonnets.
"Perseid Madrigal." "We're always awake, but they never fall for us, nor allow us to see their stone iron gassy spectra and debris trails brooding the dark as a cosmic x-ray of the deepest secrets.
What still stands at the end of wonder? Is it our own demise, in which Freud opines, 'we put off and off believing?' why? Is it the way a wary child protects a parent, hiding all it really knows? And life, just an expansive field, a torched textual gloss, a humid summer foyer we expect across?
Let's not know our last days as our last. And this is how you'll know me after I'm erased. In anyplace you are, I'll wear your face."
I really tried at first to really stay with the pentameter and everything. So here's another one that tries to do that. And then I play with it a little bit more.
This is called "Gradual Madrigal." A gradual is also a kind of anthem. "Does God create desire so we'll loathe the aging body for its hold on us? Or does desire create God to hold all that wanting one another sows in us?
Either way, wonder, let's go slow as we can, closing in while not forgetting the generous pour of time's bartender, the one with the heavy hand, forgotten, whose liquid sutures eventually dissolve even the children we once were, like love held in dissolve, the disappearing decolletage of gravity-driven sand. Perhaps when love is greatest, we do die into whatever our bodies were, swamp, cell walls, travelers."
And maybe I'll read a couple of these short more playful ones. "Longing Madrigal." "Yearnings as far as I can go with you gone. It's fruit is prior to body, a proof of soul.
Your absent body's testimony divinity's got form. All afternoon, a nyad rain. I had a crave for oysters and all the world's fonts that hold your name. Signs to be swallowed whole and raw upon discovery, like a password or a battle plan. Now this sickle moon, which only seems apart."
And then I'll just read one of these other little short sonnets and I'll read one last poem. "Adolescence Madrigal." "Lyndon's in novel were what I wanted to be under. Angsty and fey." Beside the key-- quay-- I learned to pronounce as key, as I knew to say Yeats, not Yeets.
The clatter of wheels I craved was just my heart. Corseted ribs that only special hands might heal. Blame in the virulent jaundice of that autumn, brutal shiver to school on suburban sidewalks, lugging hunger, privileged as a heavy book. I dreamed you, even then, above my breasts, undreamed-of plot without an end." So thanks. Just sort of superstitious. I always feel like I should read something.
In fact, I wrote this the day before I came up here. It's just a magical thinking, like wearing your lucky socks on game day. This is called "Expectation Madrigal." "With the old, same ache, as though we'd never yet.
Or as if one minute swallowing the next, the next, the next, interminably, after mute but acute storm, the sky, weary spouse, comes out, unlouvered and wild with sorrow, aloom at dusk over Earth's broken dishes.
I vow to trust this secret blue, tunnel tugging, wrapping fists around the rope. Oh well, whose sunken hug I cannot always fathom, but whose weight, dram, I believe draw up a word, a mouth, an omen."
And then I'll just close with one of the Temple poems. This one is called "Temple on my Knees." and before I do, I just want to thank you again for coming in on such a beautiful day to be here. And I'm just really happy to be here. I'm grateful.
"Temple on my Knees." "When this day returns to me, I will value your heart, long hurt in long division, over mine. Mouth above mine too, say you love me. Truth, never more meant, say you are angry.
Words, words we net with our mouths. Soul is an old thirst, but not as first as the bodies, perhaps. Though on bad nights its melancholy eats us out to a person.
True, time is undigressing. Yet, true is all we can be. Rhyming you, rhyming me. Thank you.
ALICE: Q&A time. So we have a few minutes to take some questions for Lisa.
AUDIENCE: Hi, thank you so much for your reading.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] macro, this vast expanse on poetic language.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Are you talking about the "Mystic Toys" poem?
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Could you just speak to how you create so much distance between a person story and then the explosion into the literary poetic language that you start out with.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Yeah. I think that's what I'm always struggling with. And actually, we can talk about it tomorrow with the undergrads too. But what seduces me, what draws me, what I'm a suck for, I guess, is lyric language.
And so the challenge for me though, is to find a way for the reader to come in to the poem so that it's not just this brocade damasked textured surface. And so I found that the occasion for that poem really was not much happens in a lyric poem.
In all these poems, a woman makes bread. She's cleaning up her daughter's room. There's a bird at the feeder.
So this is not the big stuff of life. But what you hope is that by looking deeply into that one thing that's what Rilke talked about, right? That if you look deeply into a thing, a thong, a thing, a thong, whatever, then it'll reveal something to you about childhood and loss and so forth.
So the occasion for that poem, there really was this torrential rain. And that weeping that caused in me. And then to think about changes of state, so as the speaker thinks about her life as being sort of contracted, she thinks about ice and water.
I always feel like even if I have a lot of lyric language, I need to make it work. It has to be there for a reason. So all that torrential rain at the beginning, it can't just be a bouquet that you throw into the poem.
So at the end, I try to come around to it again to say, what I'm feeling now is this melting, in a way, of what was once this bigger thing. The children were there. The dog was alive.
The dolls were awake. So I don't know if that really answers your question. But I'm interested in poems that mix up different kinds of discourse and different kinds of registers. It keeps me interested.
So for me, the lyric language alone you really risk solecism and maybe making your reader feel outside of the poem, "The campaign inscrutable of the interior," as Dickinson would say. But then I also like to write about-- I mean, I want to write about my life. And so try to bring those two together in some kind of meaningful way.
I hope that the lyric language isn't just there as adornment, that it's there to somehow create an experience for the reader. But that's a really good question, and something I think about a lot. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: I liked your Kate Bush imitation. It was very good.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Oh no, thank you though. I love her, but--
AUDIENCE: It leads to the question. You mentioned Kate Bush as something that moved you from that song, from "Wuthering Heights."
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Yes.
AUDIENCE: How do you feel about Cohen winning the Nobel Prize?
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Oh, that's a really good question.
AUDIENCE: I'm sorry, I'm rock and roll.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Yeah, yeah, Dylan. Yeah, no, I know. Why not? Right? I know people have really have strong feelings about this.
This morning, it was funny. Because I was talking with some grad students about the only other reading I've given from this book I gave with my friend, Charles Wright, who has this deal with me where he will open for me, which I said was sort of like having Dylan open for Tom Petty.
So anyway, you know I don't know. I know there's a lot of-- But song is song, right? We've talked this morning with fiction and poetry-writing students about how the opposite of poetry isn't prose. And that today Joni Mitchell came up. Kate Bush came up. These singers are important to us.
And some are more poetic than others. And I think that at his best, I think Dylan is a poet. I don't know how you feel about it.
I've heard a lot of debate about it from my students. And I know that he was involved in some kind of plagiarism. You know that old cliche about great poets borrowing. No, good poets borrowing, great poets stealing, attributed to many different poems. Eliot, [INAUDIBLE], and whatever. But I was pretty upset about it. Anything else? Oh, yes.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much.
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned that you ended up liking the obstructions exercise for the sonnet. So I just wondered what happened, and have you tried that with your students?
LISA RUSS SPAAR: Oh my, yeah. Just ask any of them. They're sitting right in the front row. No, I'm a big fan. The obstructions, we talked about that today a little bit.
The wonderful movie, The Five Obstructions by Lars von Trier and how he gets Jorgen Leth to remake this really stylized beautiful movie from the '60s. And he wants to break you down and make you more human. But every time Leth remakes the film with all those different obstructions, he keeps making a better film.
The animated one isn't as great, but the other versions are wonderful. And I think obstructions are wonderful because I think art balance. You have to do something to resist. And you resist them, and sometimes I'm desperate in some of those sonnets, and in others I'm really trying hard.
I am [INAUDIBLE] it's hard to write until you figure it out. Because I think it becomes very trying. And so just trying to balance the two, keep refreshing my practice. I'm old. I'm in my 60's. Like, I don't know, I don't want to say I can't count.
But I've been writing for a long time. And I think that I don't want to keep writing the same poem over and over again. I want to keep trying. Maybe I can't escape that, but I want to keep trying new approaches anyway. So I enjoy the expressions of the sonnets. And it's still interesting to me. So I'm just sticking with it for a while. OK, thank you again.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University. On the web at Cornell.edu.
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Lisa Russ Spaar, poet and essayist, reads from her work on April 27, 2017 as part of the Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series at Cornell University.