I resist reviewing books as I think my view might narrow the reading/rendering for others. In fact, Juliana Spahr’s new book, THE TRANSFORMATION, relates to that notion of languages’ limitations, the ways languages have been limited & eliminated systematically, while she somehow simultaneously attempts to de-limit her own language throughout the book. Simply, this book takes very difficult, nearly monolithic themes/ideas/understandings we are aware of in the daily living but don’t imagine handling, putting them on paper, discussing and exploring them, getting a historic and projective handle on, as it were.
Poetry allows us to deftly touch these themes sometimes, fiction lets us narrate the specifics in storyboard format, and memoir gives us a way to try to name the ubiquities we inhabit separately together, in a smaller “true-to-my life” kind of way: but Spahr’s work here melds all three genres, opening her narrative/poetic options with a kind of weaving of three lives in nearly-nameless fashion, though the specifics could apply/be entered into/empathized with by most any breathing human. I’m only just reading THE TRANSFORMATION, but some overarching issues dealt with are relationships beyond the standard insular monogamous scope, the multiplicity of community, the nature of imperialism, geographical ‘belonging’, economic connections / constraints / concessions, etc. Nathan Austin has already done a preliminary analysis superior to my tiny enthusiasms here.
Anyway, the text is one of seeming ease in that Gertrude Stein way, but don’t be fooled into a quick read: the ideas are profound & complex; you’ll need time to process — I do after just a few pages each sitting. I read somewhere that writing this book took a good seven years or so, and the investment is apparent just a few pages in. I’m telling you, with a run of 1200 copies, you’ll do well to get one right away to spend some of your remaining summer months with. It’s an important book. But really, all of this rambling o’ mine is just a build up to an excerpt to whet your appetite for more of THE TRANSFORMATION (& keeping this short is going to be difficult because the connections, the rolling sentences are simply gorgeous):
They knew that the problem with the expansionist language was not just that it could be a cultural bomb. It was not just the expansionist language that was the problem. After all, culture happened even in the expansionist language. They themselves were fine with how the language they had learned from birth was the expansionist language even though they had no genealogical ties to the people who had felt that this language was their own. They had not wished that their lullabies were in another, truer language when they were a child. They had never felt that they could not love their mothers or each other enough because the various names by which they called their mothers and each other were in the expansionist language. And if they looked at the histories of any location they saw poems and songs thriving and surviving any change of language. The culture might change, the poems and songs might rhyme differently or form different patterns to better meet the sounds of language, but no matter what, any language was fully capable of expressing the special emotions that tended to come with having to negotiate an oppressive and foreign government on one’s own land, an intense anger towards those from afar combined with a love of those near, plus a love of the land and a love of the things on the land, a love say of how the kukui clustered in veinlike streams down the crevice of a ravine, a love heart-shaped velvety leaves that undulated from graceful stalks in a soft breeze, a love of the varieties of squeaks, whistles, rasping notes, and clicking sounds of teh ‘i’iwi. But they understood still how this did not mean that they wanted someone to come from afar and make them train their children in a language from afar so that their children would whisper in their lovers’ ears in a language that was the language of those from afar. They understood that no one wanted this. They knew that people felt cultural loss in different ways and for different reasons. And that their not feeling loss might have a lot to do with their feeling that most of their grandparents had chosen to move to this place where the expansionist language was spoken and then had chose to speak the language not because anyone made them with laws or with guns but because they wanted to, because they recognized the financial rewards of doing so, rewards that they themselves now reaped two generations later. And they also were concerned that with the loss of all the different sorts of languages, with the loss of the pidgins and the creoles, with the loss of the resistant languages, with the loss of the local languages that refused to travel or were not interested in travel came the loss of specific and unique and stunningly beautiful and meaningful local information. Not only were certain specific cultural traditions lost, but particular, deep, and specific information such as the many names of the winds or the characteristics of the over three hundred different varieties of kalo were lost. The expansionist language did not have the vocabulary that let it carry this information. There was no way that the expansionist language could carry all the local knowledge because the expansionist language was only able to be expansionist because it claimed to be universal, neutral, objective, because it did not name the winds so specifically.
I’d love to go on as so much of Sphar’s book resonates with my own current thinking, even as I walk through a Brooklyn neighborhood that is being transformed by a gentrification I am part of: expensive condo buildings going up across from projects, local Puerto Rican and Dominican restaurants being replaced by costly ‘fine dining’ experiences, grocery stores implementing pricier organic foods, the conflict of personal friendliness versus what each colored skin, my own included, represents, etc. I’ll spare you the various sentiments and interactions on the street, but suffice it to say, none is cut and dry, no matter what ’side’ you’re on or sympathize with; we’re in it together, however apart and divided we are. Apropos, one more from Spahr, “Yet despite this, they realized that when they wrote their poems, their essays, their software programs, even their grocery lists in the expansionist language, they immediately became not only a part of the expansionism by the accident of birth but they became willful agents of expansionism. When they wrote, the wrote as war machine … They wrote as colonial educational system. They wrote as the bulldozing of the land and the building of unnecessary roads. They wrote as the filling in of wetlands with imported sand to build beaches…” Just brilliant stuff to take in here. At 223 pages, $13.50 is not only a bargain, it’s a necessity.
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.