Needled by the thorns of flowery 19th century poetry and its grip on the first years of the 20th century, Ezra Pound made a now-famous pronouncement: “Poetry should be at least as well written as prose.” The monster that this concept inadvertently spawned is in some ways a friendly monster. There are plenty of contemporary poems that mirror in skillfully executed lines the authentic beauty of, say, Marcel Proust’s sentences, or employ a straightforward rhythm/plain voice combination that, in its own way, is stirring. But watch out: There are also countless contemporary poems that seriously threaten or even annihilate the fact that poetry and prose are separate art forms.
All this brings us to Charlottesville poet Lisa Russ Spaar. Her work is a rarity because it operates several steps away from the basic tension the birth of modern poetry created. Here, for example, is “Womb,” from her new book, Satin Cash (which is a phrase from Emily Dickinson):
for this intramural void,
my native, deep-seated
sulking place, finger-
slip of truancy, of minus—
if not this cave above:
bludgeon of boudoir stars,
negative, vernacular, & lone?
There’s so much going on here, all as a result of Spaar embracing, and not distrusting, effects that are largely unique to poetry. In addition to how the whole poem extends beyond the idea of extended metaphor, there’s the startling syntax of the opening two lines, alliteration (“bludgeon of boudoir”), assonance (“this intramural void”) consonance and internal rhyme (“cave above,” plus “native,” and “negative”), daring word choices, and a gleeful shunning of Pound’s advice to not mix the abstract with the concrete (“quixotic hourglass”).
With Spaar’s commitment to the pyrotechnics of poetic devices, it’s sometimes apparent in her work, as in performances of expert jazz or classical musicians, what’s pure inspiration and what’s dogged perspiration. But all that really matters is that the house of art she occupies is never less than splendid.
To say that Satin Cash is an affair of language alone would be a complete mistake. While the book begins with poems whose essential subject is the individual power of the artist, it soon becomes a moving chronicle of attempts at using language to comprehend both the presence and absence of others (“the shivering keel of his tongue/makes of our mouths a winged lung”; “night a translucent, colostrum blue/of goodbye”), as well as to explore a delicate compromise between those two realities, as in the intricate metaphysics in a poem near the end of the book, “Adult.”
For poets and non-poets alike, Spaar’s over-riding theme—how the “one” figures in the “many”—is the stuff of life. And for anyone in Charlottesville interested in the politics of contemporary poetry, Satin Cash offers a chance to muse on one of our local treasures.