Who We Are by Herbert Spohn

Who We Are

Our Lives and the Human Condition
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

A collection of spare, blunt and often dark existentialist free verse.

Spohn (Do You Know Me? Do I Know You?, 2008, etc.) takes an unflinching look at entropy and fragmentation, at degradation and pain. He writes of the absurdity of the human condition with precision, authenticity and, ultimately, compassion. His section titles—“Romantic Love,” “Our Lives: Meaning and Experience” and “Facing Death” among them—suggest a grand poetic metanarrative, a unifying philosophy of answers and perhaps even the “Truth.” Yet what Spohn delivers is anything but grand; his narrators are hopelessly tangled in the loose threads of moment-to-moment experiences. One narrator admits that he rarely thinks about his dead wife, and when he does, he feels “no grief, no sorrow, / sometimes guilt for feeling nothing,” then muses over a brief flash of passion he feels at seeing a particular photograph of her. Another is outraged that age forces him to admit that sometimes, “I don’t remember / why I’m shaving.” Others engage in tightfisted, even cruel, emotional bargaining. In a poem echoing Robert Browning’s 1842 poem “My Last Duchess,” one narrator declares, “I will not / I cannot / forgive you for promises denied.…Upon your guilty pain, / now that I have left you, / my sense of my own worth depends.” Still others merely ask questions, insistently shifting the philosophical burden onto the reader. In fact, Spohn explicitly rejects metanarrative in epigrammatic, ironic fashion: “Tomorrow is a womb / from which we’re born anew. / Yesterday we died. / Today is all we’ll ever know.” Though he occasionally approaches nihilism (“Life is pain / and loss / and self-deprecation”), he eventually finds some redemption (“That’s why many of us drink— / to numb the hurt, / to glow in triumph”). We make meaning by making choices, the author appears to say, even if those choices are about how to interpret things over which we have no control. The sparseness of Spohn’s language and imagery serves to mimic the meanness of human existence and to heighten each precious moment of lyricism and self-discovery that appears. The poems reach an emotional and philosophical crescendo in the final section, “Reflections on a Childhood in Post-World War I Germany,” a poetic experience not to be missed.

A fine collection of poems that’s quietly cumulative in its power.

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1475970555
Page count: 76pp
Publisher: iUniverse
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2013