blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Orexia, by Lisa Russ Spaar
Persea Books, Inc., 2017

spacer Orexia: Poems (Persea Books, Inc., 2017)

Lisa Russ Spaar is known for her poems and, more specifically, for the unusual music she makes by delving into words that have long been out of use or forgotten, even though they are English words. A reader must search out their genealogy or skip over them; either way, these words heighten our enthusiasm, since we are not only reading but also learning. In short, she captivates us, her readers, and obliges us to think.

But when I looked up "orexia," the title of the book, I discovered it is the name of a cream that heightens female pleasure. One rubs it on one’s clitoris. Did Spaar deliberately name her book after this product? I have no idea, of course, but it would not be out of place. Her poems sometimes refer to sex, more often to love, and what woman does not think about men? That is, until hormones leave us, and for most, they do. But Spaar is in midlife, which, for a lot of women, is a time when they feel sexier and hungrier, possibly because they no longer need to worry about becoming pregnant.

Orexia is also used as a suffix to mean desire or appetite. Consider the word “anorexia.” In fact, quite without writing that word, the opening poem in this volume, “The Wishbone: A Romance,” races swiftly through its triplets to butt up against this question: “What good / is loss starved forever after?” She goes on to point out that “to keep from freezing, / even a priest might commit / the Virgin’s statue to the flames.”

Well, that’s something like throwing down the gauntlet! She has made a statement: she is in favor of life, of warm bodies, of hope, of love. Perhaps most of us are, but she has also found wonderful ways to argue on behalf of being. Being, as in existing, as in living and doing. Meanwhile, the dictionary defines orexia as “the affective and conative aspects of an act, in contrast to the cognitive aspect.” Take the cognitive aspect out of anything and what you have is “appetite,” which is another definition of orexia.

With this information we can turn to some of her other poems—all of which, I must say, are musical and deft. One of my favorites is “Baroque Hour.” In only ten lines we travel from the baroque to, possibly, modernity. In the baroque hour, she tells us, “death yields to style.” That strikes me as an excellent way to describe the baroque. The second line employs the word “ruddled” to let us know the landscape has a red tinge to it—the landscape later described as a “cedar nave”—and mention is made of a “golden stall / prose gnaws the edges of.” She identifies herself with this scene, which is gorgeously conveyed and makes us want to dream upon it for a while.

In fact, her poems about weather are exceptionally convincing. “Crooked Light” describes a winter scene, and the cold made me shiver (on an August day!).

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

wincing in mid-day’s
cracked, cutlery glare.

What could be colder than that? At this point we are thoroughly inside this book, the poems carrying us from one to the next.

Spaar’s extensive vocabulary is a gift not only for the reader but also for other poets. (Of course readers of poetry are often also writers of poetry.) Yet the importance of her work lies, I think, in her strong and flexible syntax and the foci of her poems—finding the subject, figuring out what needs to be accentuated and what does not, and carefully placing each poem within the sequence of poems.

In regard to syntax, let’s consider her poem “Temple You.” She begins with a question: “What is mysterious about loss[?]” Quickly she provides two answers: “flush of arm pulled from a wilted sleeve” and “summer’s urine-tang in winter leaves.” These are not the usual answers, and they take us deeper into the poem, as if we were walking toward the temple: “Temple You” in this case. She then suggests we “let John Keats light another fag.” Did he smoke? Were there cigarettes in his time? Does it matter? Did “Brontë refuse the doctor / on her black sateen settee”? But these are playful lines in a poem that slides past them to the heart of the matter:

For whatever part of you
may be taken away, you said,

is the scar, the place, I will visit first
with my mouth . . .

Eventually arriving at the last couplet:

saying thank you for leaving
me this you, this living still.

My favorite of all the poems is “The Whales,” a poem that celebrates these large mammals. She speaks of them as if they were gods, gods in trouble—they have beached—and she longs to save them from “rasure,” a word meaning obliteration. I share her concern, and when she says her own heart is beached, my own heart, the reader’s heart, must also break—a whole species in danger of dying out, needing us to help them live.

I recommend Orexia to all who love the world, in all its corners, for they will suss out the highways and byways to be found in Spaar’s intriguing poems. Readers of Orexia will see everyone and everything the poet sees. In fact, all our senses will be gratified and grateful. Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet who can save us.  end  

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of several collections of poetry, including Orexia (Persea Books, 2017) and Vanitas, Rough (Persea Books, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her work has also been anthologized in The Best American Poetry series.

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