By Mary Burger
Koki and Demented Panda, characters in An Army of Lovers by Juliana Spahr and David Buuck, describe themselves as mediocre poets. I’d be more inclined to describe them as discouraged poets or dispirited poets. Glum poets. Koki and Panda are discouraged because, while they believe more than anything in the power of poetry, they have to admit that poetry does not seem to be making a dent in the forces of evil—war, unbridled capitalism, climate destruction, the rest of it.
The five stories in An Army of Lovers share the longing to save the world through poetry, the despair and personal trauma at the impossibility of that, and the despite-all-that claim for the redemptive powers of the ecstatic, orgiastic creative commons. Along the way there is a fountain of shit, an infected tick bite, a pustulent skin reaction, and a celebration of art and community and hope that is both incantation and declaration.
In “A Picturesque Story About the Border Between Two Cities,” Koki and Demented Panda spend the summer days sitting together on a noisy, narrow plot of land surrounded by cars and commuter trains, gossiping, arguing, and trying to collaborate on a poem that would do something. Something like resist the militarist, consumerist powers at work all around them, or cure their despair over poetry and its uncertain reasons for being, or at least affirm their conviction that poetry nonetheless needs to be. As the summer passes and the collaboration seems doomed to fail, Demented Panda casts a desperate spell that spins up a literal shit storm. The storm crescendos, then subsides, and “A Picturesque Story” closes with a quiet analogy that rattles the border between destruction and creativity. Maybe between politics and poetry.
Two pieces both named “The Side Effect” are paired allegories of the body failing under the knowledge of the world’s unending violence. In one, she (maybe Koki) is a sound artist who develops feverish symptoms as she works on a composition made with sounds from military prisons, wartime testimonies, and so on. In the other, he (maybe Panda) is a performance artist who reenacts poses from photos of military torture and takes anti-depressants that cause leaking boils. Both of them seek remedies from a healer named Laura, who practices an art that might be called the kinesiology of poetry. Both transform through their illnesses in expectedly unexpected ways.
In the middle piece, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry,” the couples talking and drinking around the table in Raymond Carver’s story become poets who discuss Zukofsky, politics, and poems. In the nearly word-for-word pastiche, Carver’s story of the ambiguities of private emotion turns into a coy but dead-serious rumination on the meaning of art in community.
In the final piece, “An Army of Lovers,” Koki and Demented Panda return to the site of the shit storm, this time finding their way to a reverberating trance state where they revel in an erotic spectacle of creative community, even as they can’t escape their haunting knowledge of the world’s disasters (the 24.5 acres of resources needed to sustain a first-world life; the deaths and devastation from mining, oil, and natural gas). Their pulsating fantasy swirls the poets, their dogs, babies, lovers, and friends into an expanding spiral of dance, sex, art, togetherness.
Under the devastating weight of human destruction, the power of poetry turns out to be the power to imagine another way. In An Army of Lovers, poetry begets love begets community begets poetry in a huge circle dance that’s worth getting up on our feet for or doing whatever we do to join in, because—we have to start somewhere, why not right here?
An Army of Lovers
By Juliana Spahr and David Buuck
City Lights Books (2013)