Juliana SpahrUnevenness

by Juliana Spahr

Working Note

When I teach creative writing, I always begin with a few minutes of private writing. I wrote most of this piece during those moments. This is an excerpt from a much longer piece. I felt when I was writing it that I had Pamela Lu’s work in my head somewhere. Or probably more than Pamela Lu.  Probably what I might call the “California sentence.” Last year, Pamela, Renee Gladman, and Summi Kaipa came to read and they all read sentences. And then over the summer I heard Fanny Howe read at Boulder. She read poems but her poems made me think of her sentences. And all of them made me think about prose as something friendly and exciting, as a place where one could think about relations.


There was a day to day rhythm. One of them moved from bed to bed. One was always coupled. One was single every other night. There was a pattern. And so each day a thought had to be had about which bed had been the bed for waking. Or which skin had been the most touched of the skins. What certain specific memory had been the most recent. A smell. Or a feeling. Or a satisfaction.

As a result, this relationship, a new relationship for all of them, had motion, had airplanes. When they began the relationship, one of them had met the other two in a city that was half way between the coast they moved from and the island they were moving to. Then they all got on an airplane to the island. Two sat in one row of two seats. One sat in a row ahead. The one who sat in a row ahead talked with another person in the same row who had lived on an atoll for a number of years. But now the atoll was gone because the water had risen above it.

When they first landed they went from the airplane into a car. They went from a car into an empty apartment and then went from an empty apartment into a bar where they had beers in the afternoon. They were awkward because they got off the airplane on an island. They were awkward with their bodies in the five-hour time difference after a ten-hour flight. They were awkward because they had never lived together before.

For a long time everything felt like airplanes to them. Like moving between. Like migration. Like motion. Like dry mouth and tiredness and boredom. Like stale air and the hope of getting somewhere. Like awkward sitting in seats. And sudden drops in altitude and turbulence that if they just held on and relaxed it would be ok.

Shortly after they found themselves on an island it was announced that a giant melting puddle of ice had formed on one of the poles of the earth. Things were melting and this mattered because the ocean surrounded them. The ocean was huge and it was filled with `o`opu and `ala`ihi and `u`u and limu and plastic. It was so huge and so all around them that it was strange to think about. And then even stranger to think some more about it rising. The vastness of the ocean made the television news strange because behind the news anchors was a representation of the island amid this huge expanse of ocean, a growing expanse, and although the news was about what was happening in the rest of the world there was no evidences of the rest of the world on the back drop.

They arrived then on an island and they had histories. But their histories were small, were nothing compared to the history of the island. They were newcomers to the island. It was contested land. It had big metaphors of place. It was not that they couldn’t find things similar to them. All around them were reminders of what they were and of their impact. They lived among plants that grew into each other in various and unique ways. There was the huehue haole, or the passion flower vine, which smothered shrubs, small trees and the ground layer. Seeds from its fruit were dispersed by alien frugivorous birds.  The koa haole which formed dense thickets and excluded all other plants. Most of the birds they saw around them came from other places and took over. The myna was introduced in 1865 to control army worms. The hedge sparrow was introduced in 1871. The Japanese white eye was introduced in 1929. The red-billed Leiothrix probably escaped from a cage in 1911. As the birds changed, the plants changed with them from native to largely alien because the birds carried seeds in their feathers and in their waste. There was an indigenous bird, the kolea, that summered on the continent and wintered on the island.

Gradually, the airplane feeling faded away. They got used to the time. Their skin recovered some resiliency. Their nostrils no longer hurt. Their eyes didn’t feel dry. But the history of the island remained in their consciousness and slowly began to define them. The history, one of overthrow and occupation and then of denial of rights to certain humans and of racism and of repression of culture and language, remained with them and was inescapable in most daily interactions. They were a part of this history of occupation. They had no choice in how they were seen as occupiers. It was with them in line at the grocery store and while waiting for the light to change at the intersection. It was with them when they walked down the streets and when they met people in a bar. This history swooped down and then took away what they thought they were and replaced it with a weak complicity with power that they didn’t like about themselves but had to accept even as they tried to speak out against it in their tiny ineffectual voices.

They began in this place with new patterns of relating. There were new patterns of their relationship and the new patterns the history of the place left on their relationships with others. They felt stroked by the weather that was unusually pleasant. But they felt lost otherwise.

Their bodies confused them mainly. They could not understand how they fit into each other or around others. The intricacies of relation. How their bodies might exist. How they were changing into other bodies, slowly growing into other invasive presences.

In this new place, they each had their own room. They lived their lives most fully in their own rooms, at their own desks. Most of their emotional life was experienced at their desks and they often interacted with each other from these desks through their computers. Yet the desks that they had in each room were identical. They had made them together on the same day out of plywood. And the desk chairs were identical. They had gone together to the office warehouse store and they had bought three identical desk chairs with wheels and blue denim upholstery. They each had computers on their desks. But they kept their identical desk chairs at different heights. And they kept different sorts of things on their desks and their computers. One had papers and books strewn about in piles, abandoned birds’ nests, and several lamps. One had ashtrays and matches and voodoo dolls and candles. One had shells and weird materials found on the ground and math books. They tried to think of their lives and their desks in political terms as mixes of individualism and collectivism, boundaries and ties, locals and globals. They wondered if they were a new pattern or a very old pattern that had fallen out of style and then been forgotten about. None of this thinking went much of anywhere. They wondered about this in the back of their heads, in the background of their daily thoughts. The front of their heads couldn’t really see the pattern or make sense of it. They were as aquarium fish who did not understand they were in a tank and there was no where to go. The day to day felt normal to them. They got up and made breakfast and then they went and did the things they did for work and then they would meet later in the day and eat dinner and then do the things that people did before they went to bed like read or watch something on television. This they thought of as normal life. They just did it with the motion of moving between three instead of one and another.

They talked some about the pool of melting but cool water on the pole. And then some more of the atoll that was no longer an atoll. This caused thoughts also of what it meant to be part of the country that uses the most energy. The country most responsible for the growth in the ozone hole that was growing over islands that were far away from this country. And the country also responsible for the bombing of various nearby islands. They thought about citizenship in a land where the nation occupied. Then this lead to thoughts about the extinction of species, which had a special relevance as more species were dying on the island they had moved to than anywhere else. This was all juxtaposed to daily life on the island itself where the air felt moist and lush and kind. And it was so wonderful, yet so not theirs, that they did not know really what it meant that it was going away. Or what it meant that some of it had been lost because it was so much more wonderful in terms of nature than other places even as it was an island of loss that they had no idea how to imagine it as more than what it was right at the moment. They were limited by their ability to envision it because nature in their lives had always been shaped by the development and industry that was creating the hole in the ozone, the melting pool of ice, the disappearing atolls.

They got off the airplane and adjusted but the airplane remained with them, remained a reminder of things as it spewed out carbon dioxide and carried tourists back and forth. They had a lanai that overlooked the flight pattern and they could watch every few minutes a plane flying away to a place they felt was a home of sorts, or more of a home than where they were. This felt comforting because they felt they were a part of the planes and the planes a part of them. And this part of them that was part of it, felt comforted by the airplanes arc that happened every few minutes at regular intervals all day long. They felt comforted even as one summer JFK Jr. and Caroline and the sister whose name is never remembered did not arrive and were lost in the ocean. When things were not going well they worried that they were caught in the downward spiral plunge of overcompensating by holding the steering wheel so far away from couplehood that they were going into cold water even in hot summer and landing on the bottom of together.

As it is for all humans, many other humans interacted with them and they were grateful when their identical desks and chairs were seen as normal, as something that could be mentioned casually in conversation but did not need to be dwelled upon or would not make anyone confused or nervous. They were grateful even when a friend gave them the video Jules et Jim, even though two of them refused to watch it. They said it was because it was in French but the one of them who watched wished that they had not because it ends badly. Another time they were grateful when a friend called late at night after he had been drinking awa. He asked what it was like. He said he couldn’t even keep one relationship going because he had no time. And one of them said it makes time. It makes everyone independent. Relationships become wide like decks on barges. Or something like that. Even though they were not speaking well or lacked words they were grateful because they had a hard time telling others about who was what.

They had no metaphor. They had met one afternoon at a bar and talked it over. At the bar meeting, it was hard for them to talk. They felt uncomfortable. But they decided to move to an island together. Once they were on the island they had no words for themselves. They had only theories. And the words they thought they might use did not work. They did not know what to make of how it felt reassuring to watch on public television the female hedge sparrow vigorously shaking her tail feathers at two different male birds to indicate her desire to be inseminated by each of them in close succession, to watch a cable channel’s documentary on the marrying tribe of the Amazon, to watch the music channel’s soap opera subplot of a girl and her agreement with two guys which involved neither of them having sex with her independently but was of course immediately broken by two of them when the third went off to study. The interest they felt in these images that came at them without their input made them feel stupid but they could find few models to turn to among their friends so they could not stop thinking about these models made for them by other people far away from them, by people who did not even understand them. Lack of understanding was all around. It defined them. They could not understand the marrying tribe. They did not even know the real name of the marrying tribe, the name that the members of the tribe had chosen to call themselves.

They did not want models to matter but a scarcity of models made the ones they came across big in their minds. When talking to others, such as their parents, they kept resorting to metaphors of nature, as if that would make them natural. But the metaphors of nature always failed them. Everything happens somewhere in nature. For every polygamous hedge sparrow or Amazonian fairy wren there were all those birds that mated for life. And the documentary on the life of birds cautioned that the extreme infidelity of hedge sparrows was not widespread among birds least they identify too completely.

What the friend should have been told is that they were an organic blob. They took over each other. They absorbed and digested each other. There were parts of they that were indigestible to the blob, belt buckles, bones and teeth, finger and toe nails. Because they were always worried that they would be seen as a blob, they tried to fool their friends by showing them this detritus. Or another way, they were stoned say on a drug that made them digest and the rest of the world was not only not stoned but disapproving of stoned people who digested.

The three of them moved to an island and this sounds like a little grass shack story with a ukulele and a palm tree but they were lovers of desks and they were trying to be like the finches who grew new and different beaks in reaction to the wide variety of microclimates on their island. They arrived by plane. And they identified with planes. And they didn’t like this part of themselves but it was a part of themselves anyway. They avoided words to describe their relation because words felt wrong. And there were not any really. They heard rumors of there being words for their sort of relation in the language that was originally spoken on the island, but they could not speak this language. They asked a few people who studied it about the words and these people did not know them. In their language all the words made them feel funny or dirty or untrue. Instead they just configured themselves in sets and forgot about words even as they often found it necessary to use metaphors. They tried to understand the balance of stools. The rules of triangles. The smoothness of three point turns made by a new but practiced driver in a driver’s education class. And things went on being normal really. Or feeling that way even though they didn’t really like that word, even as they took comfort in its feeling.

Bio: Juliana Spahr is the author of Response (Sun & Moon Press), Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press), and the tentatively titled Fuck You—Aloha—I love you (forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press). She lives in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

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