[This is Tarpaulin Sky’s second review (of sorts) of Spahr’s new book. The first appears as part of an omnibus review of the first three Commune Editions titles. — Eds.]
That Winter the Wolf Came
Commune Editions, 2015
Poetry, 120 p.
Review by Jeff T. Johnson
I. Back on the Poetry Commune
Poetry shows us how to read it, or points to its forbears: Like that. Meanwhile, so much poetry today looks and acts like better prose, prose that cares how and not just where it goes.
So when poets write prose that doesn’t announce itself as poetry but talks about poetry, we take note, and we tend to proceed from that impression.
After all the collaborative texts produced by Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, in which perhaps long-time readers of any or all of these poets might recognize each voice as it interleaves with the others, taking leave and leaving, the impulse to review Commune Editions books as a whole is understandable.
Lost in this approach is an important distinction: Each book has a single byline. In a recent interview, Fred Moten points out that any piece of writing is a collaboration, even when one person’s name is under the title.1 And perhaps this is a condition we are finally prepared to recognize as we read.2
Anyway, as editors of Commune Editions, Bernes, Clover and Spahr have their names embedded in each book.
But the confusion of authorship is happily extended as books by other writers enter the series. So the initial tendency to write about Commune Editions as the poetry of Bernes, Clover and Spahr was abetted by the collective gesture of launching their press with their own books. This launch was also a savvy and generous way to draw attention to the press, and to the books by others that would be the foci of the press as it moved forward.
So perhaps this recourse to writing about Commune Editions books as a pack and, more troubling, as a brand, will pass before it becomes passé.
Though there is something appealing about thinking of poetry presses the way some of us tend to think of indie music labels: as a reliable stable of music we like. Certainly Clover’s background as a music writer, and the pop music references that have crossed over to his poems, plays into this.3
As well does the conflation of poetry as song and song as poetry in Spahr’s new collection play into this.
And maybe also the bands of buses in the middle of Bernes’ book play into this.
And of course there is a drawback to poetry presses acting like hip music labels: see the AWP bookfair where the cool kids cluster in an X. And of course this drawback—a market-driven barricade that both runs counter to poetry’s ostensible position outside the market and strikes the pose of that outsiderness—is also a strategy for seeking community, solidarity and relevance, which in themselves are positive things for art and poetry.
But this is an embrace that is also an alienation.
And of course there’s nothing new or antithetical about poetry striking poses—or striking out its poses, for that matter.
II. Notes Departing From a Review
I am a terrible reviewer because I don’t care if anyone buys books, which is only partially true. We shouldn’t have to buy anything we need and we need books, whether they have spines or file extensions. But I’m glad publishers and bookstores exist, especially small ones (that operate more like concerns than companies), because I like books with spines and textured paper, though I know paper is a Problem like scarcity (real, imagined and contrived) is a Problem.4 But also I am a terrible reviewer because I can’t hold or abide the reviewer/arbiter position.
So what am I doing here? Writing on the occasion of, thinking toward, doing poetics. Reading out loud. Less and less do I care to write about a book that I may or may not recommend, and more and more do I feel compelled to make the distinction between review and essay. This has something to do with writing with and for others, and the agreements made between writers and publishers, even when the roles are not all that formalized. So if for expediency you say, Sure, I’ll review that book even though reviewing for you is a Problem, you’ve done a thing with words that binds your essay to the review. We write with all our experiences writing (and reading), while concision and convention require lots of leaving-aside regarding the actual experience of reading and writing in order to present a generalized and recognizable format, as with the standard review that answers the question Should I buy this and maybe read it?
III. FORM IS NEVER (ANY)MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF LAYOUT
All three of CE’s inaugural printed volumes have an evident preoccupation with form: See Clover’s stepped lines that recall William Carlos Williams’ variable foot (which I recall learning to call The American Foot but no one seems to do that anymore) as blown up by Ginsberg (whose still-fresh classic “A Supermarket in California” gets riffed in “Spring Georgic” a few poems after AG’s mentor WCW’s Spring and All gets a nod in part 3 of “The Fire Sermon,” which also cross-refs Buddhism and Eliot), Bernes toggling old-school line-broken segments with forward-leaning italicized prose, Spahr extending the line to far margins of prose then breaking into iambic pentameter for grim-faced lolz (Spahr in Rumpus chat: “That dynamic positioning stuff is in a bad iambic pentameter, which I just wanted to use because it is the uber-western form.”5). And these forms are signaled (as form often is, particularly after graphic design) by layout. I am very much tempted to say that now FORM IS LAYOUT but I need to think much more about that and don’t want to keep you waiting.
So I’m going to leave a space here for an ill-conceived and highly ambivalent take on contemporary book design that at its worst is petty and ungenerous and at its best, I hope, suggests that perhaps what we gain from smart, clean, catalogue-ready modern(ist) book design comes at the loss of the weirdness and awkwardness and clumsiness and disorder of poetry, so we end up with tasteful, branded objects instead of aesthetic challenges (and/or challenges to predominant aesthetics).
The unified design of the first three Commune Editions books (courtesy of Font Group) both participates in contemporary poetry design trends and bucks them ever so slightly with its italicized serif title fonts, spine-amplified cover illustrations and standardized template. On one hand, there’s something dated6 and earnest7 about it. But also this design inflects the work. Although Spahr, Bernes and Clover make distinct (if all clearly lyric-inflected8) decisions about form, CE’s book design smooths over those differences just as it blurs form and format.
And this is maybe just a part of being contemporary poetry at this moment.
IV. Play Forward
And here I want to briefly relate an illuminating moment from an indie-publisher panel ca. 2008 in Providence, RI to a gag from Spahr’s book about poets contributing to kickstarter campaigns. As part of the Providence panel, Christian Peet said small publishers do community service, giving back to a readership that might support their own work. I took this to be a modest way of saying indie publishers run by writers make the world into which the weird stuff they write can have a home, or at least a place to crash. No wonder then that poets tend, in Spahr’s account (from the well-titled poem “It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked,” currently providing all my mantric needs), to kick their invisible dollars into dream projects (even while they’re conflicted about neoliberalism).
V. The Pitch
In August I caught a Twitter announcement that Christian was looking for someone to review the new books by Juliana Spahr and Jasper Bernes, both of which I was chewing my hands to get hold of. I inquired, offering to review one or both and maybe also Clover’s book, which I’d already enjoyed, and Christian good-naturedly challenged me to say why my “review [would] be amazeballs. But no pressure. Ha.”
So I cranked it way up, which was easy to do because, well:
I’ve been reading Juliana’s work since Fuck You Aloha (a personal favorite, and I love all of her work) and got to know Joshua in the Bay Area when his first book came out. Have closely and repeatedly read all of their work since then. I’ve read all or most of Bernes’ books and chapbooks, and read the title poem from the new collection several times in the chapbook edition. I’m guessing my review would be more of an essay focusing primarily on Spahr’s book and triangulating it with Bernes and Clover, in that order of focus. I also want to think about what they’re doing with Commune Editions. I already have Clover’s book but would appreciate if you can send the other two. Loved Spahr’s “Turnt” on PEN!
BTW, I’ve been thinking about how Clover’s poetics have changed while his poetry is still recognizable and consistent (thought I’ll have to do some poem-to-poem comparisons on my own to verify that impression). Was struck by his #howiquitspin twitter saga, and how it really connects the dots between the writer and person I met in 97 and his 2015 poetics persona. Again, his book will likely be a tertiary focus, but that line of flight, and the way the three of them have been writing collaboratively (as with their Jacket2 series) might help me think about where they’re at collectively.
. . .
I’ll want to be immersive as I read, so it might take me a couple months to finish it up. Also, you know, the semester begins. But I’m serious about writing something substantial.
It worked. His reply:
Damn, I’m sold. I’ll get Bernes and Spahr to you ASAP.
Super stoked now —
As was I.
And I’m still stoked, which is my preferred mode of being. But like, it’s creeping into December now, and I’m still reading and writing, and thinking I want to re-read that 15-part series Bernes, Clover and Spahr co-wrote at Jacket2.9 I should probably also revisit their previous books after I read the new ones a couple more times. And now that the reviews (eh ehm) are coming in, I probably ought to (re)read those too.
I am a terrible reviewer.10
VI. Transitory, Momentary
Two things I want to do are talk about how exciting it was to read the first poem in Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came, particularly when the poem starts talking about songs as poems rather than poems as songs, and especially when the poem says “The refrain is the moment when the singer makes it clear that they understand something about what is being lost.”11 And the other thing I want to do is renew my pleasure in the moment from Joshua Clover’s Red Epic where a poem takes all of page 25 to say “I like the Canto where Ezra tries to fuck a rock.” And another thing12: I want to say that after reading the Tenured Ninja chapbook version of Jasper Bernes’ We Are Nothing and So Can You many many times because happily I could never get to the bottom of it,13 getting my bitten-down hands on a book-length version of doubled length feels like a miracle of surplus joy even though the poem makes me melancholy, as do all of these books, because the world we have is not the world we want and these books know that, even while they also know love and communion even if the commune is always always fleeting.
1 “I feel like all the work is collaborative work, it’s just that it comes out under an individual name so the other people you’re in collaboration with are subordinated in a certain kind of way to one’s own name, even though all of those voices are constantly with you and in your head.”
2 Even if we have not reached the speculative post-revolutionary moment Bernes, Clover and Spahr describe, where “poetry is likely to emerge as the creation of these unique conjunctions of singular individuals, under conditions where social interactions are animated by collaboration and cooperation rather than competition.”
3 Here I’m making connections between pop and indie music that aren’t always clear, but I intend to suggest pop and indie as categories are in flux, and this relates to the current status of poetry in the world of small publishing. At one time, closer to Clover’s early days as a music writer, we had a semi-coherent if debatable notion of indie rock as a genre, and perhaps now we can see indie music labels as defined less by a (slightly off-kiter but tuneful, guitar-oriented) sound than a small-scale corporate mode of production related to a broader range of music (including hip hop, which always relates to poetry (or vice versa), though this isn’t evident in every poetry—or indie music—community).
4 “cf” Brix the cat just typed, so she probably needs a reference point, so: Let’s not pretend everyone has a computer, but computers make it easier for us to circulate texts, but also many of us still covet book objects, which we can’t all have because we have shitty bookstores or no bookstores or no place to put books or no money to buy them and the ones with poetry in them are extra scarce, etc. Cf. Commune Editions provides “free” (which always anymore demands qualification as nothing was ever free, &cf. aforementioned structural economic access restrictions) downloads of chapbooks like Christopher Nealon’s The Victorious Ones and Jasmine Gibson’s Drapetomania, both of which are worthy additions to the commons, as well as print volumes (“books”), which are for sale, so scarcity is both remediated and perpetuated.
5 Also: “Thinking that maybe that term ‘prose poem’ that used to be the bastard or lesser form of poetry might be going away? Because it might not matter as much. Which would be good.”
6 Think Black Sparrow Press.
7 Illustrations include a wolf, a balaclava and a lit match.
8 And this is part of CE’s literary mission as I read it through the work: to assert that lyric can be formally, critically, politically ambitious and engaged.
9 And I want to think a lot more about what Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, Tim Kreiner, Joshua Clover, Chris Chen, and Jasper Bernes wrote in Lana Turner, which echoes things I’ve heard Clover and Spahr in particular say for years: “[W]e don’t think you transform the world by transforming literature, we think you transform the world and literature comes with it.”
10 Sometimes the poem says I was there, and so were you, or I wish we were there, or it says we passed on the street, and sometimes it says we stopped to embrace or you said this funny thing that helped. We need poems like these just as we need the ones that remove us, that remind us we are not always there. We pass in and out of the poem as we pass in and out of the city or the crowd and the poem passes through our hands and minds. Poetry can do many other things than tell a story or reveal a set of relations but one thing it is often (when it works) doing is being read again and again and handed person to person and not being owned by anyonea or tied definitively to any set of associations even when the poem invites them. We can disagree about what poems do or do not do and poems do this to us and this is part of our pleasure in them. And it is a pleasure when poems make us think of other poems but it is also a pleasure when poems make us think of other people and other days and days to come. And an important part of reading and writing poems is to ask why they are the way they are, why they do or do not do what they do, and why we write them in the first place. So to write a poem is sometimes to ask why one is writing a poem, why one should or how one can write a poem, without hoping the matter will be cleared up. Spahr in The Rumpus: “I also feel more and more confused about poetry. Or why poetry?”
a Even while as Bernes, Clover and Spahr suggest “Poem is one of the names we give to cultural material once it has become property.”
11 How much of That Winter the Wolf Came is about being on the way to something or somewhere! It opens with a migration of geese or actually it opens with an epigraph from Shelley that begins “When one fled past,” and in the penultimate stanza of the book, “A group of women walk by” and then there is a final note of reflection on love and names and, yes, movement. And throughout, the sense of not wanting to miss any of it (though being late is being there).
12 Speaking of epigraphs and pleasure, it is a delight to see Clover spread love to and make such good use of Diane di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter No. 19,” which sets Clover’s “Haecceity” on fire. The book from which di Prima’s poem comes remains essential.
13 And because I wanted to return to the part at the end of the chapbook where everyone is on a bus, but not the same bus, and the city becomes a circuit of buses, and after a great, long sentence there are a number of short ones and then a marvelous medium-sized sentence that almost takes us there.
Jeff T. Johnson’s writing has recently appeared in PEN America, Jacket2, On Contemporary Practice, and elsewhere. With Claire Donato, he collaborates on Special America. His open-field concrete digital poem THE ARCHIVERSE is documented at archiverse.net, and will be anthologized in Electronic Literature Collection Volume 3. A chapbook, trunc & frag, is at Our Teeth. He is currently a Visiting Instructor at Pratt Institute. For more information, visit jefftjohnson.com.