Vanitas, Rough
by Lisa Russ Spaar
Persea Books, $15.95 (paper)

Lisa Russ Spaar’s intensely lyrical language—baroque, incantatory, provocative—enables her to reinvigorate perennial subject matter: desire, pursuit, and absence; intoxication and ecstasy; the transience of earthly experience; the uncertainties of god and the grave; the dialectic between fertility and mortality. These poems—steeped in the chivalric and liturgical, the phantasmagoria of the Northern European still-life tradition, the elemental works of Hokusai, and the discontents of modern domesticity—refuse to leave the body even as they imagine moments of incorporeality and transcendence, a future in which “those bodies we were before / we climbed gazed up deeply into us, // glass messages extravenous, / in mortal transfusion of flesh & gust.” Urgent, hungry, and unabashedly sensual, Spaar arrives time and again at visceral and eviscerating epiphanies as she insists on the continuation of the fleshly: “Flocked foreskins of the tulip poplar // grow beyond this darkening hour. / Why would they not?” Throughout, Spaar maintains an incisive wit, an impulse to subvert and ironize the conventions of lyric poetry and memento mori as well as elements of her own approach. She shuttles expertly between the erotic and macabre: “I watch the primal arousal: // day’s lost fruit stoned by black hills, / the metafucked in the metaphysical, &c.” Too ambitious and sensitive to settle for the merely gorgeous, VanitasRough wrestles productively with its inspirations and itself, offering an electrifying glimpse of an omnivorous mind in the throes of creative activity.