The Hollins Critic on Glass Town

This first full-length collection by Lisa Russ Spear is a mature work, wrought with honed skill and diligent truth telling. Glass Town appropriately begins with “Scenes from Childhood,” a cycle of thirteen poems which allude to Robert Schumann’s piano cycle. The opening poem of the cycle, “Foreign Lands, Foreign People” also alludes to a scene in Jane Eyre. Like Jane, the speaker of this poem “crack[s] the heavy atlas’ spine” to feel both the allure and the weight of the world beyond her sheltered childhood home.

Jane will figure again, in the titular cycle, yet again in the book’s penultimate poem, “Finishing Jane Eyre on the Grounds of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital” after many connections have been forged between her plight and that of modern girls, orphaned by their culture, their families, themselves. Spaar reminds us that Emily Bronte imbued her Jane with “as much soul as you—and full as much heart,” yet the plea of contemporary girls and the women they become to be recognized as fully human is not merely historical. The Red Room, in which Jane was locked to be tamed by her guardian, is employed by our culture in the many diminishing messages that girls in receive. In “Something Important” the girl/speaker recounts that she must separate from her younger siblings vacationing seaside because “One of my mouth was newly red, / and all knew it. And so now I could not swim, / must sit apart.” She tries to bridge from childhood to adulthood by imagining that she can blow her emotion-laden water through the keyhole of her parents’ bedroom, but this, too, is doomed, disabled by the reality of living in a “modern tract house/ [where] there were no keyholes, no privacy, / no ceremony.” And presumably there is no celebration to help her move from girl to woman.

Similarly, the collective speaker of “Recital” fidgets and is told “to hush among the gladioli/presiding over trays of tri-tiered sandwiches.” What these girls must make in there recital is not music by the shared pretense of perfections, as fearful as their parents “that live their lives would be exposed / in one misstruck key, or two, or three…” In “Anorexia” the speaker obsessively explores the connection between the slaughter of animals for food and self-torture.

But another strand runs through these poems: Rapunzal is plotting her escape. She will leave by weaving new hair, by following the spider’s craft after ransoming “the world for my body, / my body for the world.” Even in the suburban landscape of childhood some wilderness can be scouted and preserved, a bit of passion to counteract the stultifying subversions of self that pressure from without and within. In the book’s penultimate poem, the speaker brings herself back from anorexia’s death sentence by recognizing that her willful vanishing act is really its opposite: “in a blaze of disappearing, / a death-wish to be seen–”. Spaar’s poems sweep us from the castle to the edge of the forest in a fresh, compressed language of music and arresting images.