Poems of Desire, Poems of Self: Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Orexia”

Cover illustration of Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Orexia” Image courtesy of Lisa Russ Spaar
Cover illustration of Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Orexia”
Courtesy of Lisa Russ Spaar

There’s a picture I keep on my desk, a group photo taken in the backyard of the house I lived in my last year of college: two rows of us, one standing, one sitting, arms criss-crossed behind backs. It’s the end-of-year party for our graduating class of poetry students. We look almost classical, perfectly framed by wrought-iron chairs and low brick columns bearing metal vases tumbling with flowers.

Even now, only five years later, the youth on our faces seems to give off its own shine, bouncing off the sunlight that bathes our bare legs. A hot Virginia day in late spring.

On the very left hand side of the top row is Lisa Russ Spaar, poet and critic, teacher and mentor. One of those who introduced us to the slim books of contemporary poetry that had begun to accumulate on our shelves, neat blocks of words on creamy pages belying the challenges, intellectual and emotional, that they contained.

Lisa Russ Spaar
Photo courtesy of Lisa Russ Spaar

The latest to join my shelf is “Orexia,” Spaar’s fifth collection, which takes its title from the Greek “orexis,” or “appetite.” The poet’s characteristic lyric virtuosity is in full bloom as she plumbs the confluences of language, nature, and desire, down to the yonic, carnivorous-looking flower on the cover.

“Orexia” contains elegiac tributes to those passed and cameos by brilliant women writers of cloistered yearnings, Dickinson and Wordsworth (Dorothy, not William). But its true pulse lies in the poet’s Keatsian considerations of nature to consider herself, the baroque effulgence of her (unbeatable) lexicon balanced by her competing impulse to give it to us straight. In “Temple Serein”:

Who wouldn’t treasure this pain,
cloudless sundown sly with rain,

a slight, houndstooth-tinged hour
almost hormonal. Remember?

Uncanny blue static between child cry
& breast fill? The body made to shed itself.

Later in the poem, the speaker puts her foot down: “No longer girl, I don’t want to suffer.” She reminds us of the “joy in shame” that comes with girlhood, with womanhood, the two never quite coming to terms with each other no matter what age we find ourselves.

Their fragmented syntax laced with moments of heart-piercing wistfulness, the poems in “Orexia” show the poet pushing against the limits of language, even while acknowledging them: “Even the moon / does not speak my language // as many times as we’ve conversed,” she writes in “Temple Solstice.” At the book’s heart is “Orexic Hour,” in which we see the act of writing a poem played out in equal measures of exhaustion and needfulness (a play, perhaps, on psychology’s definition of “orexis,” which refers to the side of the mind that acts on emotion and appetite, rather than intellect). The first couplet sets the scene:

My body, made to be entered
& exited. Almost wrote “edited.”

Only for the poet to confuse the issue further:

Eaten. Odd to be so direct.

Asked directly, the burning question of these poems seems to be: Should we want to be freed of desire, unyoked from the wheel of Samsara, to borrow a Buddhist notion? Later in “Orexic Hour,” we get the truth in the form of confession: “Still freighted/by the gadget of self, I admit / I care.”

As much as an exploration of appetites, “Orexia” is a collection of decaying things—an abandoned car, a broken clock, an old book—all spilling over with the life that the poet’s language resurrects—the memory of a dead person’s voice, a “fury of shadows,” the scent of vanilla and almond. All the demurring, the reconsideration and revision, come down to this lament, in “From the Orison, River Stones”: “Love has stories not mine to know / or ever tell.”

Each day leaves us all a little less first-flush, farther from that humid afternoon when our desires and our ability to satisfy them were two things we took for granted. But for whatever’s not captured in a photograph, a memory of what the body once was—thankfully, mercifully, there’s a poem for that.

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