Catalogues: Spahr vs. Whitman

In the aftermath of 9/11, I think a lot of people in the United States felt a profound sense that the senseless murders of thousands of people on American soil by terrorists was one of the worst things that ever happened. I think people really tried to quantify the tragedy of what had happened in relation to other catastrophic losses of human life. But Juliana Spahr’s catalogues of people who have died in different parts of the world under many different circumstances remind us that any amount of human loss is equally tragic, no matter how significant. Spahr’s catalogues of death function a bit like Whitman’s catalogues in “Song of Myself” in that they implicitly argue the equality of the things they are cataloguing. I saw this in a passage on page 19:

I speak of the forty-seven dead in Caracas.

And I speak of the four dead in Palestine.

And of the three dead in Israel.

The forty-seven dead that Spahr speaks of died in a fire in a nightclub in Caracas. The three and four dead in Israel and Palestine presumably died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each grouping of death is just as significant as the other. It reminded me of the catalogue in Section 15 of “Song of Myself” when Whitman goes on a catalogue binge:

The prostitute draggles her shawl, he bonnet bobs on her
tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and

wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you);
The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by
the great Secretaries

By placing the prostitute next to the President, Whitman implicitly argues for the equality of the two people. To Whitman, the President is no better or no more important than the prostitute. I think Spahr’s catalogues accomplish the same thing. This Connection can almost be read as one big catalogue beginning with the 2,819 dead in New York City and including all of the other human losses that she mentions. To Spahr, any human being who is killed is a significant loss to the connectedness of humanity or to just someone in particular. In what I think is the most moving part of This Connection, Spahr talks about “the one hundred and thirty-six people dead by politics’ human hands”:

Chances are that each of those one hundred and thirty-six people
dead by politics’ human hands had pets and plants that need
watering. Had food to make and food to eat. Had things to read
and notes to write…

Pictures of Victims of 9/11

This passage makes each one of the “hundred and thirty-six people” feel so real and tangible. When I read that passage, I imagine someone’s dog eagerly anticipating the return of its master who will never come home. I imagine a loved one of a victim going to the victim’s home and looking through their fallen loved-one’s possessions—looking through someone’s life, really—making decisions about what they want to keep, or throw away, or donate to the Salvation Army. And it makes those people—the victims and those who are left behind—so incredibly real. It is heartbreaking and authentic in ways that I’m not sure Whitman ever achieves in his catalogues. Even though he carefully describes the prostitute with great detail and we hear men on the street jeering at her and we feel sorry for her, it doesn’t quite bring the poem to the heartbreaking standstill that Spahr’s “hundred and thirty-six” do. Spahr has taken the iconic Whitman catalogue to new heights, with absolutely painful truth.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Catalogues: Spahr vs. Whitman

  1. AVZ says:

    I agree with you about Spahr taking Whitman’s catalogs to new heights. I think it is because, as I think we noted in class, Whitman’s catalogs mostly represent “types”–the president, the prostitute, the blacksmith, the slave, the mother. It is the utter specificity of Spahr’s catalogs–their unrelenting truth–that gives them such force for me.

    Also, I really like your comment about the implicit equality between things that is such a crucial part of the catalog form–very nicely put.

Comments are closed.