December 05, 2013

FIELD WORK: Juliana Spahr

On the occasion of Mark di Suvero at Crissy Field, SFMOMA curator of public programs Frank Smigiel and poet and playwright Kevin Killian co-organized a small chapbook of poetry, beautifully hand-produced by Andrew Kenower and Lara Durback. We are posting selections from FIELD WORK on Open Space throughout the fall.


The Brent geese fly in long low wavering lines on their migrations. They start in western Europe, fatten in Iceland, then fly over the Greenland ice cap to Canada. They sometimes breed on the Arctic coasts of central and western Siberia and winter in western Europe, some in England, the rest in Germany and France. What I have to offer here is nothing revolutionary. They learn the map from their parents, or through culture rather than through genetics. It is just an observation, a small observation that sometimes art can hold the oil wars and all that they mean and might yet mean within. Just as sometimes there are seven stanzas in a song. And just as sometimes there is a refrain between each stanza. And just as often this sort of song tells a certain sort of story, one about having something and then losing it. Just as sometimes the refrain of a song is just one word said four times. Just as sometimes the word is huge, sometimes coming from a machine and yet hitting in the heart; uplifting and ironic and big enough to hold all these things in its four syllables. Just as sometimes, often even, it contradicts, and thus works with, the stanzas. Just as the police clear out yet another public space and yet another camera follows along behind. Just as the stream has no narration, only ambient noise. And the police move slowly, methodically in a line as if they are a many-legged machine. They know what they are doing. It is their third time clearing the park and they will clear it many more times and then they will win and a building will be built where there once was the park. In this song, as is true of many songs, it is unclear why the singer has lost something, maybe someone. In this time, the time of the oil wars, there are many reasons that singers give for being so lost. Often they are lost because of love. Sometimes they are lost because of drugs. Sometimes they have lost their country and in their heart it feels as if they have lost something big. And then sometimes they are lost just because they are in Bakersfield. Really though they are lost because in this time song holds loss. And this time is a time of loss. The police know, as they move through the park yet one more time, that they will win and a building will be built on the space. But right now, the building is not yet there. All that is there are the police and debris and the police deal with the debris. They push over bookshelves, open up boxes and look inside, tear into tents, awkwardly, the poles springing. They are looking for humans. Tomorrow the bulldozers will push the debris into big piles and load it into trucks. The police wear white helmets and short sleeves under their kevlar vests. For many years the Brent geese ate eelgrass, but once the eelgrass was gone to the wasting disease and the estuaries filled, they moved inland to agricultural lands and began eating grasses and winter-sown cereals. The Brent geese are social, adaptable. They fly around together, learning from each other, even as these groups are often unstable, changing from season to season. Songs in their most popular versions tend to be epiphanic, gorgeous with swelling chord changes, full of lament too. And this song, like many, expresses the desire to be near someone who is now lost. It travels as something layered, infiltrated, unconfused with its refusals to make a simple sense. I want to give you this song sung in a bar in Oakland one night after the oil wars, one night before the commodity riots. The singer had so clearly been lost once, but they sang as someone who eventually got in the car and drove out of Bakersfield, perhaps early in the morning, the sun just starting to rise, or perhaps later after sun-up, the light washing out everything in Bakersfield as the sun is wont to do there. Eventually they arrived to sing this song. This might have taken them many years. There was nothing that implied that the lostness was recent. But the lostness, it was clear, was huge and had been experienced fully by them. It probably doesn’t matter where the sun was that day in Bakersfield when they got in the car. It probably just matters that there is a sun, still, and they got in the car and drove, drove through the oil fields with their wells pumping out amber colored oils and their refineries with tall towers that heat the oil so as to sort its various viscosities, and drove through the black cloud that is the slow constant burn that is the ongoingness of the oil wars. Then at some point they were in Oakland. The oil near Bakersfield is heavy but it often benchmarks against the Brent blend. Brent blend is a light crude oil, though not as light as West Texas Intermediate. It contains approximately 0.37% of sulphur, classifying it as sweet crude, yet not as sweet as West Texas Intermediate. When the park is cleared and the building is built, it will headquarter an oil company. When this oil company named their oil fields off the coast of Scotland, they choose the names of water birds in alphabetical order: Auk, Brent, Cormorant, Dunlin, Eider, Fulmar and so on. Brent is also an acronym for the Jurassic Brent formation that makes up the Brent oilfield, for Broom, Rannoch, Etive, Ness, and Tarbert. The Brent Crude Oil Spot price is set in dollars, maintained by force. The refrain is the moment when the singer makes it clear that they understand something about what is being lost. It was obvious they had lost their country once. Then lost faith in the next country too, it being taken over by bankers and all. They had clearly been rejected. Loved too much and gotten too little of it back in return, many times. But none of this matters, it was obvious, in comparison to what is now being lost for that night even though the song is about a minor loss, about the loss of tongue on clit or cock, the singer seemed to understand something about the other things that are lost. While a formation of police clear the far side of the park of the debris of its occupation, another formation of police on the other side shoot the new gasses, the ones we do not yet know by name, into another part of the park where people are now clustered. This camera has sound and every few seconds there is a pop. It is unevenly steady. The song is just about two people who are not near each other, who have probably chosen not to be near each other any more. The song reflects and refracts the oil in ways both relevant and trivial in how it tells about what happens when one lets love go, when one gives up the tongue. It might be that only through minor can we feel enormity, for what is epiphany if it does not hint at the moment of sweaty relation larger than the intimate? What is epiphanic song if it doesn’t spill out and over the many that are pulled from intimacies by oil’s circulations? The truckers, the sailors and deckhands, the assembly line workers, those who maintain the pipelines, those who drive support in the caravans that escort the tankers, the fertilizers, the thousands of interlocking plastic parts, the workers who move two hundred miles and live in a dorm near a factory, alone, those on the ships who spend fifty weeks circulating with the oil unable to talk to each other because of no shared language and so are left only with two weeks in each where they can experience the tongue in meaningful conversation. A life that is only circulations. Before the police come, before the building, in the middle of one night, a group of people forms a line leading to the entrance of the park. Or several groups form several lines, all leading to the entrance. Some wear medical masks. Some wear glasses too. All pass bricks, one by one, down the line so as to make a pile. They are silent for the most part, silent enough that it is possible to hear the bricks make a chink as they fall. The pile gets bigger and bigger. It is waist high. Then chest high. Some get out of the line and climb on the pile, hold both their hands in the air because they know now is the transitory, momentary triumph and it should be felt. Others continue passing brick after brick, from one hand to another hand, arms extended, torsos at moments also going back and forth with the bricks. When they run out of bricks, the pile is topped with fencing. Then they gather behind it, waiting. Back there, someone might possibly be singing to a child, singing the epiphanic song that alludes to losing the moment of tongue on clit or cock over and over because the child cannot be comforted, because the singer knows only loss. The child might have colic. It might be other things. The room will be dark. The light will be on in the hall. There will be shadows, in other words. And the singer will know about these shadows at this moment and know they had agreed to be with shadows when they had the child. They had gambled in a sense on a question of sustaining. They had agreed to exist from now on with a shadow. A shadow of love and a shadow of the burning of the oil fields that has already happened and is yet to come and yet must come and a million other shadows that might possibly disappear in the light at that moment.

Juliana Spahr edits with Jena Osman the book series Chain Links, with nineteen other poets she edits of the collectively funded Subpress, and with Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes she will begin editing Commune Editions. With David Buuck she wrote Army of Lovers, a book about two friends who are writers in a time of war and ecological collapse (available from City Lights). She has edited with Stephanie Young A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism (Chain Links, 2011), with Joan Retallack Poetry & Pedagogy: the Challenge of the Contemporary (Palgrave, 2006), and with Claudia Rankine American Women Poets in the 21st Century (Wesleyan U P, 2002). And several times she has organized free schools with Joshua Clover: the 95 cent Skool (summer of 2010) and the Durruti Free Skool (summer of 2011).

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