[Everything In and Out] [2.11.08]

This piece was published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Pitkin.

The first poem of Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs concludes with the observation:

How beautiful and how doomed this connection of everyone with

This statement summarizes well the buildup and breakdown that is at the core of the poem, a treatment of the events of September 11, 2001 and a prologue to the speaker’s reactions to the resultant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The main section of the collection, “Poem written from November 30/2002 to March 27/2003,” deals with and speaks in terms of the specific machinery of war; the imagery and subject matter of the first piece, “Poem written after September 11/2001,” is much more organic and excepting the title is hardly traceable to its main spur.

Writing the shape of a human from the cellular level on up, the speaker begins by delineating hierarchical ranks of inclusion and connection within the human body. Initially, the words on the physical page mimic the divisions between each part or system, seven triple-spaced lines to the first page:

There are these things:

cells, the movement of cells and the division of cells

and then the general beating of circulation

and hands, and body, and feet

and skin that surrounds hands, body, feet.

This is a shape,

a shape of blood beating and cells dividing. (3)

Progressively, the lines condense and the stanzas grow with a slowness that takes the first six of the eight pages of the poem. For comparison of the cumulative effect, the reader might recall the children’s story of the old woman who swallowed a fly, or that of the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea. This technique of accumulation leaves the preceding parts in situ, unchanged even as more parts accrue, changing the whole.

In a deft stylistic allusion to the lungs of the book’s title, the scope and structure of this first poem expands, and then contracts. Moving beyond the body without abandoning it, the speaker’s frame of reference swells in concert with the growing stanzas. What began with individual cells soon includes the room a body inhabits, then the building, the neighborhood and city, eventually encompassing everything within the several layers of the earth’s atmosphere:

as everything with lungs breathes…
the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere
and the space of the mesosphere in and out. (8)

As all things with lungs must breathe in, so too must they breathe out. So too the poem eventually deflates, with perhaps as much deliberateness as in the buildup but without any of the same slowness. What took several pages of accumulated imagery to show takes the speaker one stanza to undo. The micro- to macrocosmic trend of the poem contracts so that the planet’s outermost layers collapse into and equal in importance the merest particles of organic matter:

The space of everyone that has just been inside of everyone mixing
inside of everyone with nitrogen and oxygen and water vapor….(9)

It is as in a turn of exasperation that the speaker comes back down to earth, as it were, expelling a great, unpunctuated breath.

Up to this point, there has been no hint of the tragedy for which the poet has named the poem, no exhibition of the day’s terror. At the same time that the scale of the poem diminishes, though, the natural relations of the poem also disrupt. Just when the speaker notes “how connected we are with everyone” (9) in that we all breathe the same air –- the same spaces that surround and suffuse us all -– those very same organic particles that enter in and out of the lungs of everyone make way for harsher elements. In the absence of, or, worse, in the same space as, life-giving oxygen are many poisons, spores and bacteria, along with denser, heavier molecules:

titanium and nickel and minute silicon particles from pulverized
glass and concrete. (10)

This final list foreshadows the second, longer sequence and its speaker’s attentions, which tend toward a catalogue of the seemingly arbitrary names of firearms, artillery pieces, tanks, jets, helicopters and other human-made methods of destruction. At last, in those last three understated words –- glass and concrete –- the poem’s meaning coalesces and the towers that fell under attack miraculously reconstitute, and then just as quickly disappear into the toxic clouds of their destruction. “How beautiful,” the speaker says, and without holding her breath she then sighs, “how doomed.”

[1] Spahr, Juliana. This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 10.


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