Juliana Spahr

(1969 / Ohio)

Transitory, Momentary - Poem by Juliana Spahr

The Brent geese fly in long low wavering lines on their migrations.
They start in western Europe, fatten in Iceland, then fly over the
Greenland ice cap to Canada. They sometimes breed on the Arctic
coasts of central and western Siberia and winter in western Europe,
some in England, the rest in Germany and France. What I have to
offer here is nothing revolutionary. They learn the map from their
parents, or through culture rather than through genetics. It is just an
observation, a small observation that sometimes art can hold the oil
wars and all that they mean and might yet mean within. Just as
sometimes there are seven stanzas in a song. And just as sometimes
there is a refrain between each stanza. And just as often this sort of
song tells a certain sort of story, one about having something and then
losing it. Just as sometimes the refrain of a song is just one word said
four times. Just as sometimes the word is huge, sometimes coming
from a machine and yet hitting in the heart; uplifting and ironic and
big enough to hold all these things in its four syllables. Just as some-
times, often even, it contradicts, and thus works with, the stanzas. Just
as the police clear out yet another public space and yet another camera
follows along behind. Just as the stream has no narration, only ambient
noise. And the police move slowly, methodically in a line as if they are
a many-legged machine. They know what they are doing. It is their
third time clearing the park and they will clear it many more times and
then they will win and a building will be built where there once was
the park. In this song, as is true of many songs, it is unclear why the
singer has lost something, maybe someone. In this time, the time of
the oil wars, there are many reasons that singers give for being so lost.
Often they are lost because of love. Sometimes they are lost because of
drugs. Sometimes they have lost their country and in their heart it feels
as if they have lost something big. And then sometimes they are lost
just because they are in Bakersfield. Really though they are lost
because in this time song holds loss. And this time is a time of loss.
The police know, as they move through the park yet one more time,
that they will win and a building will be built on the space. But right
now, the building is not there. All that is there are the police and
debris and the police deal with the debris. They push over book-
shelves, open up boxes and look inside, tear into tents, awkwardly, the
poles springing. They are only there to see if any humans remain.
Tomorrow the bulldozers will push the debris into big piles and load it
into trucks. The police wear white helmets and short sleeves under
their kevlar vests. For many years the Brent geese ate eelgrass, but once
the eelgrass was gone to the wasting disease and the estuaries filled,
they moved inland to agricultural lands and began eating grasses and
winter-sown cereals. The Brent geese are social, adaptable. They fly
around together, learning from each other, even as these groups are
often unstable, changing from season to season. Songs in their most
popular versions tend to be epiphanic, gorgeous with swelling chord
changes, full of lament too. And this song, like many, expresses the
desire to be near someone who is now lost. It travels as something
layered, infiltrated, unconfused with its refusals to make a simple
sense. I want to give you this song sung in a bar in Oakland one night
during the ongoing oil wars. The singer had clearly been lost once, but
they sang as someone who eventually got in the car and drove out of
Bakersfield, perhaps early in the morning, the sun just starting to rise,
or perhaps later after sun-up, the light washing out everything in
Bakersfield as the sun is wont to do there. Eventually they arrived to
sing this song. This might have taken them many years. There was
nothing that implied that the lostness was recent. But the lostness, it
was clear, was huge and had been experienced fully by them. It
probably doesn't matter where the sun was that day in Bakersfield
when they got in the car. It probably just matters that there is a sun,
still, and they got in the car and drove, drove through the oil fields with
their wells pumping out amber colored oils and their refineries with
tall towers that heat the oil so as to sort its various viscosities, and drove
through the black cloud that is the slow constant burn of the oil wars.
Then at some point they were in Oakland. The oil near Bakersfield is
heavy but it often benchmarks against the Brent blend. Brent blend is
a light crude oil, though not as light as West Texas Intermediate. It
contains approximately 0.37% of sulphur, classifying it as sweet crude,
yet not as sweet as West Texas Intermediate. When the park is cleared
and the building is built, it will headquarter an oil company. When
this oil company named their oil fields off the coast of Scotland, they
choose the names of water birds in alphabetical order: Auk, Brent,
Cormorant, Dunlin, Eider, Fulmar, and so on. Brent is also an
acronym for the Jurassic Brent formation that makes up the Brent
oilfield, for Broom, Rannoch, Etive, Ness, and Tarbert. About two
thirds of oil is benchmarked against what is called the Brent Crude Oil
Spot price. Petroleum suppliers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East
often price their oil according to Brent Crude's value on the Interconti-
nential Exchange if it is being sold to the West. The Brent Crude Oil
Spot price is set in dollars, maintained by force, endlessly manipulated
by commodity futures markets. The refrain is the moment when the
singer makes it clear that they understand something about what is
being lost. It was obvious they had lost their country, it being taken
over by bankers and all. They had clearly been rejected. Loved too
much and gotten too little of it back in return, many times. But none
of this matters, it was obvious, in comparison to what is now being lost
for that night even though the song is about a minor loss, about the loss
of tongue on clit or cock, the singer seemed to understand s0mething
about the other things that are lost. While a formation of police clear
the far side of the park of the debris of its occupation, another forma-
tion of police on the other side shoot the new gasses, the ones we do
not yet know by name, into another part of the park where people are
now clustered. This camera has sound and every few seconds there is a
pop. It is unevenly steady. The song is just about two people who are
not near each other, who have probably chosen not to be near each
other any more. The song reflects and refracts the oil in ways both
relevant and trivial in how it tells about what happens when one lets
love go, when one gives up the tongue. It might be that only through
the minor we can feel enormity. It might be that there is nothing to
epiphany if it does not hint at the moment of sweaty relation larger
than the intimate. For what is epiphanic song if it doesn't spill out and
over the many that are pulled from intimacies by oil's circulations?
The truckers, the sailors and deckhands, the assembly line workers,
those who maintain the pipelines, those who drive support in the
caravans that escort the tankers, the fertilizers, the thousands of
interlocking plastic parts, the workers who move two hundred miles
and live in a dorm near a factory, alone, those on the ships who spend
fifty weeks circulating with the oil unable to talk to each other because
of no shared language and so are left only with two weeks in each year
where they can experience the tongue in meaningful conversation. A
life that is only circulations. Before the police come, before the
building, in the middle of one night, a group of people form a line
leading to the entrance of the park. Or several groups form several
lines, all leading to the entrance. Some wear medical masks. Some
wear glasses too. All pass bricks, one by one, down the line so as to
make a pile. They are silent for the most part, silent enough that it is
possible to hear the bricks make a clink as they fall. The pile gets
bigger and bigger. It is waist high. Then chest high. Some get out of
the line and climb on the pile, hold both their hands in the air because
they know now is the transitory, momentary triumph and it should be
felt. Others continue passing brick after brick, from one hand to
another hand, arms extended, torsos at moments also going back and
forth with the bricks. When they run out of bricks, the pile is topped
with fencing. Then they gather behind it, waiting. Back there, some-
one might possibly be singing to a child, singing the epiphanic song
that alludes to losing the moment of tongue on clit or cock over and
over because the child cannot be comforted, because the singer knows
only loss. The room will be dark. The light will be on in the hall.
There will be shadows, in other words. And the singer will know about
these shadows at this moment and know they had agreed to be with
shadows when they had the child. They had gambled in a sense on a
question of sustaining. They had agreed to exist from now on with a
shadow. A shadow of love and a shadow of the burning of the oil fields that
has already happened and is yet to come and yet must come and a million
other shadows that might possibly disappear in the light at that moment.

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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, December 1, 2015

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