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A Fresh Look at André Spears’ “From the Lost Land I-XII”

“And it is all held together in an irrepressible delight in language and what happens when language and imagination are unleashed and told to have a good time.”

Previous to the 20th century, poetry thrived with genres. Epics, mock epics, dramatic poems, narrative poems, lyric poems, ballads, odes, and eclogues—to name only a few—occupied the poetry landscape. By the middle of the 20th century, the official list had dwindled down to mostly one—well, maybe two: the lyric poem and then the post-1970 non-signifying anti-lyric poem, an invention of the pseudo-avant-garde in reaction to the lyric. A number of factors played into the process that led to that contraction of poetry’s eco-niche. Chief among them was the transformation Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot brought to poetry, writing epics that introduced disorienting techniques such as parataxis and collage which radically narrowed poetry’s readership. Paradoxically, that resulted in the growth of the creative writing industry and the institutionalization of poetry in the university as poets flocked to the lyric in reaction to the difficulty of Pound and Eliot.

At the same time, outliers continued to keep alive other formal possibilities. Charles Olson and Edward Dorn worked with the epic and the mock epic. Some younger poets like Alice Notley (The Descent of Alette) and Anne Waldman (The Jovis Trilogy) continued to develop those possibilities. Robert Duncan wrote philo-theo-sophical meditations. Jack Spicer wrote books. By and large, however, and certainly after the 1980s, the imagination of poetry shrank until what was left was the lyric, the anti-lyric, and something called “the long poem,” though what that was supposed to be was never very clear. The lyric has many manifestations, ranging from creative writing’s “self-expression” to complex arrangements of language that open thinking into the self’s relation to the visible and the invisible worlds. Creative writing tends toward the “self-expression” end of the spectrum. The non-signifying anti-lyric was the result of the rise of sociology and a (post) Marxist commitment to materialism. It ended up feeding into a binary opposition between “poetry based on the virtue of intellect” and “the poetry of virtuous sentiment.” As a spokesman for the non-signifying camp put it, the old saws (i.e., Head and Heart) stand in for an engineered division between intellect and emotion. It is very avant-garde, in a retro kind of way.

Among the current outliers, André Spears’ work stands out as particularly radical in its thinking of what poetry can do when the imagination—rather than ideology or self-obsession—fuels poiesis.

Spears has been working on this epic poem for over 40 years. The first book, From the Lost Land: Schizo-poem was published in 1981, with other sections/books appearing irregularly in 1982, 2000, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2019, and 2020. After 2019, Spears went back to the beginning and revised everything into a single, uniform edition. He published From the Lost Land (I-XII), a finished version of all the work except a chapbook, The Devil XV which was published separately in 2020.

Seeing the scope and depth of Spears project, it is clear it is the most delightful, satirical take on contemporary Western culture and our current situation since Dorn’s incomparable Gunslinger. That humor is balanced by an intellectual complexity and a deep note of pathos, both in the relationship between A and S, and in a growing sense of mortality and doom. And it is all held together in an irrepressible delight in language and what happens when language and imagination are unleashed and told to have a good time.

The book is composed of epistolary exchanges between A and S, a husband and wife. She is on a ship/spaceship engaging “aliens,” while he is a card player engaged in high stakes games of Tarot against various opponents. Both are identified with alternating Major Arcana from the Tarot deck, the imagery of which works throughout the poems as the poem addresses the various hilarities, insanities, tragedies, and grotesqueries of our current situation.

As the drama unfolds on one side of the page in the exchange of letters, with A’s and S’s alternating sides, the side of the page opposite unfolds what the poet Jack Clarke called a “Quotron,” a series of quotations from diverse sources including philosophy, poetry, novels, scholarship, graffiti, and more. The quotations, which seem to contain a summation of the world at the outset of a new millennium, sometimes comment on the text opposite, but more often than not, do not. They may supplement the text they face, or they may contradict it. They may provide intellectual background, or they may just want to be there for some reason no human will ever fully understand, insisting on a world beyond. The overall effect is fugue-like with the two columns proceeding in counterpoint.

At the core of the story is the death of A and S’s child, Es. The poem opens with S‘s memory: “It was at this same time/in distant past/that we first mourned/our beloved child, Es.” In an epic, nuanced explication of the book, Miriam Nichols argues that Es is tied up with the thought of a lost paradise that seems to haunt human thinking. The opening quotation across from S’s letter is from James Churchward’s 1926 book The Lost Continent of Mu. It describes the sinking of Mu, the lost land of the book’s title, the pre-lapsarian paradisal origin of all human civilization. The epic narrative, then, is the story of the attempt to get back “home,” a spatiotemporal zone characterized by polymorphous perversity and outbursts of unrestrained creativity echoing with Deleuzian yes yes yes, not unlike the 1960s. Which were followed by a resounding JUST SAY NO as the forces of containment mustered to clamp down on the temporal opening and prepared the ground for the rise of globalization and the dominance of international finance capital.

Different characters come and go in this space odyssey, often with names drawn from history, philosophy, literature, pop culture, and commerce. Tarzan, Mőbius the Mapper, Ocean, Occam the Weatherwoman, Don Juan. Ahab, Thoth, and Sinbad the Steward populate the spaces of The Lost Land. The names invoke humourous connections, a kind of familiar absurdity. But they also often point to an implicit critique of cultural developments. At one point, A describes to S a kind of hieros gamos, a sacred marriage that mirrors the Alchemical union that results in Rebedo, the ultimate transformation and union with the divine.

The Youth were gathered

beside McDonalds,

their sex aroused guide

with curly hair,

when Gucci emerged

from the sea.


Shapely and firm of flesh,

Gucci had pale skin

and a pretty face,

with short dark hair

and small darkish teeth.


As she stood there on the sand,

resplendent with new life

they offered her poems

and blessed her with myrtle.


Then, arm in arm,

McDonalds and Gucci

led the others

in a joyous procession

by the sea, past the cave,

toward JuJw Forest—

each rear end

more beautiful than the next,

according to Baboozas.

After standing face to face and “declaring Murphy’s Law,” they enter the pool where the final alchemical transformation takes place. When they emerge, however, they have been deformed: He is blind; she is “gap toothed.” The commercial logos combined with the narrative irony, leads to inevitable speculation on the implicit critique of contemporary consumer culture. Spears’ narrative continually leads his readers into these moments where meaning shoots off in multiple directions.

Unlike the lyric, the epic contains history. And, at least since Pound’s The Cantos, it has been a place for thinking about the meaning of history. Spears, as his Quotron demonstrates, is a learned man, and that knowledge has a lot to do with informing both columns of the poem, though it never interferes with the poem’s work. It furthers it. The range of knowledge in the poem extends from Georges Bataille to Philip K. Dick, from Aristotle to Lewis Carroll. Some of the most obvious influence on his work, apart from the aforementioned Dorn, includes prominent postmodern thinkers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari whose Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus remain a ground-breaking critique of the modern mind, supplying the poem with lines of flight, bodies without organs, and  schizo-analysis. Bataille’s thinking about desire and eros figure prominently. Lewis Carroll contributes to a sense of absurdity, and Gene Wolfe’s weird sci-fi onto-scapes resonate. Charles Olson’s thinking about poetry and history is everywhere. Spears handles his materials adroitly. The information flows without seeming forced. The narrative, while enriched by a knowledge of its various sources, works just fine on its own.

From the Lost Land is unique in today’s poetry landscape. Combining dream imagery, unlikely variations on the archetypal imagery of the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck which Spears reworks into new Figures, a rich range of reference to history, science, contemporary culture, poetry and philosophy, a visionary exuberance reminiscent of William Blake, and a deep strain of satirical hilarity, Spears introduces us to a whole new experience of epic possibility at the beginning of the 21st century. Politically astute, intellectually vigorous, and aesthetically wild, Spears has created a unique work that challenges the contemporary reader of poetry to step up into the complexity of the world.

Michael Boughn’s most recent books of poetry are The Book of Uncertain—A Hyperbiographical User’s Manual, Book 1, which was released with Spuyten Duyvil, 2022, and Uncertain Remains, which was released with BlazeVox in 2022. A collection of essays, Measure’s Measures—Poetry and Knowledge was published by Station Hill in 2024. He is currently working on Book 2 of The Book of Uncertain.

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