Chris McCreary

Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You

Juliana Spahr
Wesleyan University Press
$12.95, ISBN 0-8195-6525-3

The tension contained within Juliana Spahr's latest book is immediately apparent in the provocative ambiguity of its title: its six poems are a study of things cyclically coming together and falling apart. In these poems, the individual struggles to be productive within communities of varying sizes. This, then, is a book of circles within circles, about trying to determine one's place within a larger whole. "Everyone is connected in the thrash," Spahr writes, yet even when describing mosh pits, acrobatics, and complex sexual acts, it seems that situations are always in danger of becoming uncomfortably tangled in knots.

Spahr establishes the perspective of the book early on in "things":

Like the claim made by astronauts
that when they see the world from
space perspective shifts.

There are these things and they are
da kine, they are the world seen from
space as whole yet complex.

The astronauts claim realizing da
kine, overwhelmed by emotion,
an epiphany that things are fragile
from far away and thus all the more

The speaker in these poems is something of an astronaut, orbiting an array of human interactions, even while simultaneously participating in some of them as part of a "we." (As in her "Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism," Spahr's use of pronouns here is slippery, and their referents are often elusive.) Like an astronaut, too, the poet here turns a highly trained eye on subjects, viewing even emotional facts and events from a deliberate distance that allows them to be carefully documented and studied.

The poems build through repetition and incremental progress, and these elliptical patterns of turning and returning come to suggest struggles that are simultaneously specific and universal. In "gathering: palolo stream," a fenced-in parking lot—which has no road leading to it—blocks the way to a community local gathering place, and the community's struggle against this supposed progress is at once absurd and yet all too familiar.

Interactions between much smaller communities are analyzed as well. A meeting between two lovers is dissected:

A bed is soft and we, the two
people in the hotel room, run our
hands over each other's bodies
while reclined upon it.

We like the feel of each other's

This is pleasure.

This is also speaking.

There is no language here normally associated with sensuality, nothing traditionally erotic within the poem, no hint that the participants are actually lost in passion. Instead, the scene is intellectualized, presenting a vision of humanity that's more mechanical than animal.

Coming together with clothes on proves to be no easier. Describing a group gathered around a conference room table, Spahr writes that, "We are similar to each other. We/ look like each other. We understand/ each other even in argument." Despite the positive aspects of this interaction, the group is "unable to get comfortable/ around the table." And while attaining some level of collective understanding may be a positive, the image of clonelike thinkers cloistered in a sterile, airtight environment certainly represents something other than a model community.

At many points in this book, the voice is aware that "I am part of a we and then not/ part of a we." Ultimately, then, "The problem is how to we all/ together now." Make no mistake about it: there is an urgency to this concern, even as the voice speaks with a certain reserve. Spahr writes:

There are these things.

Words that flip switches.

I am trying to say how they work
in a world that I am close with.

I am in a place called there and I
am trying to make it into a place
called here.

Striving to move from "there" to "here," writing becomes a tool for reaching toward a sort of closure. There is an uneasy tension as the poems pull the reader into their insistent rhythms yet push back at the same time with their clinical distance, replicating the aggressive hello-goodbye contained within the book's title.

In "a younger man, an older man, and a woman," Spahr describes a gymnastic sequence in which the three performers explore a variety of complex positions. Instead of coming together in the name of intellectual theories or sexual gratification, the emphasis here is on individuals literally constructing a society with their bodies: "In culture we reach out to build / ourselves. // In culture we interact." While this poem presents what may be a more positive take on human possibility, the piece is still tempered by a sense of temporary accomplishment:

In balance a single position is
obtained and maintained for a
number of seconds before it is

Most heartening, perhaps, is the fact that if progress is temporary, so is failure; when balance is lost, "we tuck / the head and go into a forward / roll."

These poems are unrelenting in their depiction of struggle, and the consistency with which Spahr sees her project through is impressive. For all the clarity of its straightforward diction, this is a difficult work that renders familiar landscapes as simultaneously bleak and yet offering previously undetected possibilities.


© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review