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Jane Sprague’s The Port of Los Angeles

By Thom Donovan

theportIn the summer of 2008, I stayed with Jane Sprague and her family in Long Beach, California, where I gave a reading with Rob Halpern for Sprague’s series, Long Beach Notebook. Memorable during the trip was driving with Sprague to LA and passing the ports, which Sprague schooled me about. In LA, Sprague conveyed a comparable knowledge about the tar pits there, the inspiration for what she calls “dire lyric”—lyric at a boundary where cultural production and ecological crisis meet. Dire—both terrifying and urgent. Dire—of an hour when poetry must exceed itself, when literature and art must expand its definitions to accommodate the unthinkable.

Sprague’s The Port of Los Angeles, published this past fall by Chax Press, addresses the dire through its insistence on relation. That we are utterly screwed without an approach to the world (and ourselves within the world) through relationship is an understatement given the exigencies of our current environmental situation. Sprague’s book is painfully aware of this reality, and moreover of language’s culpability for producing this reality. How to assert relationship within autobiographical-‘lyric’ modes of writing? If relationship could speak—the relationship between ourselves and the things we produce, between ourselves and those things and more expansive cultural processes—what would it say?

“the goods awaited swift transport through many states and witnessed
many things” (8)

“the things saw this and held the memory of what they were into” (9)

“because the things knew of a use beyond the sound of their names” (10)

In the first part of Sprague’s book she tells a story. She sings herself, “Citizen Jane,” in conveyance (her family’s move from Upstate New York to Southern California), and in doing so speaks both of personal loss—a loss of feeling rooted in a place—and about conveyances far exceeding herself—“ourselves perfectly pitched at the edge of globalism.” (23) Global or international economic exchange is represented by the ports of which Sprague also sings (“container / as the staple / vessel of modernity” [28]). The ports encompass a local ecology of dockworkers and natural phenomena, drug and sexual trafficking, goods transported via shipping containers and other modes of transport. They are also the backdrop for the United States’ over-consumption; its consumption of world products and commodities at the expense of others within an international community—their labor power, their health/wealth, the security of their families and communities. “ownership or loss / and ‘no bordered sense of that’ / I do not know how we were to be (we) unbordered.” (32) Irresponsible consumption and waste as a result of exception.

I cannot help but think of Whitman reading Sprague’s long, anaphoric lines. Such lines form one of the principal shapes of her book. Yet whereas Whitman attempted to dissolve himself in cosmic multiplicity, Sprague would seem to dissolve herself into cultural processes. How something gets to be something else? How this transformation affects something or someone beyond itself? (“we became all over” [67])

The most moving section of the book to take up anaphora is the book’s final, boldly titled poem, “Fuck Your Pastoral.” Fuck your pastoral: as in, fuck your pastoral poem; or, the pastoral tradition of poetry just isn’t cutting it anymore. There is a tension in Sprague’s writing between working within a pastoral tradition, calling it into question (critiquing it), and transcending it (doing something else entirely). Foregrounding relationships between natural phenomena and cultural production—attending to these relationships both epistemologically and phenomenologically—enables Sprague to surpass a merely epiphanic or ecstatic encounter with ‘nature’.

The title “Fuck Your Pastoral” belies the poem’s tenderness, which translates subjects, objects, and pronouns effectively to arrive at an “I” subtracted from its identification with multiplicity (a manyness of beings and experiences). The biographical fact of moving from West to East coast (the scene of the poem is the reverse of the first poem of the book, “The Port of Los Angeles”) is allegorical. Seemingly a return to a more ‘natural’ lifestyle (a rural environment; a family farm), the speaker’s/I’s return to the East is in fact a return through processes of “unmaking.” The prefix “un” appears repeatedly throughout the book, but especially in “Fuck Your Pastoral,” where it indicates a desire to reverse a process of making. Not just ‘deengineering,’ but actively unmaking the world that one would refuse. Dismantling it. Removing from it our veiled awareness of how it came to be. “I” is in between things and beings in the world. “I” is also what stands between their having been made and their unmaking, undergoing both.

“I was undoing all of this as I undid the spool
the radio’s wheel unmagnetizing tape
zipping the case
I emptying notebook erasing the names
unwriting the manifest
unnaming the ship.” (59)

The Port of Los Angeles marks an ecopoetry as much committed to questions of human injustice as to human-animal interaction and interference with non-human natural phenomena. If the problem with “nature” poetry has long been that it exalted phenomena perceived as separate from ourselves, therefore keeping those phenomena at a remove from what we are doing, ecopoetry can counter “nature” poetries by foregrounding how perceived ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ mediate one another and how language (the language we give to nature) is instrumental in this mediation. How can poetic language investigate and transform languages inherited by science? How does poetry provide a toolbox for understanding ecology, for possibly changing our place within it? To what extent can poetry/poetics be a subtle tool for ecologically responsible behavior? Sprague’s work as a poet, essayist, and educator have for me long been at the forefront of these questions.

Comments (5)

  • On March 7, 2010 at 8:15 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Fascinating, Thom! Thanks for the introduction to this book/poet. These are themes I wrestle with, as well. It shouldn’t seem strange, really, that culture, injustice, ecology, globalism, get wrapped up in someone’s poetics…it’s all one big meatball. Everything’s entangled. A mess! The good news is that if we can learn the art of relation, and learn to communicate it to others (by example and through poetry), then all of these problems, on which so many activists focus separately, will naturally sort themselves out.

  • On March 8, 2010 at 8:00 am Eric wrote:

    Jane used to be a part of a writing group in Ithaca, NY, with me and some other poetfriends. She also ran a really great poetry reading series in Ithaca. We miss you, Jane! I’m very glad to see the news about this book and I will try to get a copy ASAP.

    Eric

  • On March 8, 2010 at 2:31 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    How cool is that, Eric? I just moved to Ithaca. It really is a tiny planet.

  • On March 8, 2010 at 3:14 pm Eric wrote:

    Welcome to Ithaca! I hope you like it here. It’s a small town but a very interesting one, with a rich cultural life. A lot of interesting writers and artists of all kinds here. The winters can be harsh but we’re moving into spring now which is very beautiful here….

  • On March 8, 2010 at 5:25 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Thanks, Eric! Luckily, we moved here from further north, from Sackets Harbor, which makes this seem like a big city with mild weather. And we chose it precisely for the prevailing thoughtful and creative culture. I look forward to participating.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, March 7th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.