That Winter the Wolf Came by Juliana Spahr

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With That Winter the Wolf Came Juliana Spahr is writing at her admirable best. She moves easily between ever-steady long lines and lengthy prose with equal assurance and measure. A true poetic descendant of Whitman, her cataloging of factual information alongside personal and/or imaginative event and experience incorporates extensive, heady accumulations of scientific and industrial data into poetry with assured lyric finesse. She educates herself along with her readers, drawing us into her understanding of the ongoing struggle to change the world and thereby simultaneously transforms our own as well. You feel smarter, and truly are more informed, having read her work. Spahr presents a humanist, but not anthropocentric, responsibly driven public voice of poetry for today’s world; vitally addressing concerns over such issues as climate change and social-economic inequality; welcoming in all who are interested and admitting her own vulnerabilities as one of the party.

Spahr is unapologetically honest and forthright when it comes to her participation in and commitment to the intentionally disruptive, as well as on occasion destructive, activities during recent years of the Occupy movement in Oakland, California.

Is this poem too heroic?
I am sorry.
I worry that it is.
Or I know it is.
We are turnt to mere vandals at moments. I’ll admit it.

In addition to her direct involvement with Occupy, Spahr has been outspoken in her commitment to transforming the status quo. Whether in the academic world, addressing rhetoric/comp departments’ practice of hiring an increasing number of part-time rather than full-time faculty track positions, in part due to the overabundance of MFA graduates, or with the substantial numbers difference when it comes to representation of women and/or poets of color compared to white males within poetry publishing. She has devoted herself in both her creative and academic work to a path outside of the mainstream. She continually pushes for the full realization of the necessity that things must change.

In “It’s all Good, it’s all fucked” she lays out her reasoning, in part. Discussing the gradual transform of her thinking as a result of semi-factual personal experience, casting it not without an ironic dose of good measure as a memoir-styled fable of a failed romantic relationship with a character named “Non-Revolution”:

It was all good and it was all fucked while it lasted. But eventually Non-Revolution and me were over. It was not that one day I woke up and knew it was over. What we had, Non-Revolution and me, was like all relationships, built to last. But unlike many relationships, everything was against us. Yes, we cared for each other. Yes, we learned to tend to each other’s wounds too, to medicate and to bandage. But we suffered from a larger social lack of care or worse a relentless disdain. We were together but we were in it alone at the same time. Except the state was there with us in all sorts of ways. And we suffered from too much of a different sort of care from the state. And we knew history. We knew we would not be together long.

In “Calling You Here” Spahr radicalizes the common identification with the “you” of the poetic address from the ground up, expanding the possibilities for poetic transformation. Throughout the course of the poem, the “you” moves from being an isolated player in the poem’s world view to be joined by the poem’s speaker in the transformation of any future possible engagement with the world beyond the poem. This exchange happens reader by reader. Beginning with a Whitmanic series of possible bird specie identities for the “you” the poem abruptly departs from this course to lay a broader yet specific scene of what’s at stake: “If you were a laughing gull / or a red-breasted merganser / if you were this moment, this world.” Picking up in the next stanza, invoking the tone of a lover’s address:

if you were a clean long rain
Do you think I could stand it?
Honey, if you were a clean long rain,
I’d be there within it, I’d be there with you

The speaker continues on exultingly only to then clarify “but you are not a clean rain” yet “still we are together extremely wide tidal zone” asking “do you think we can stand it?” and concluding in the final stanza where it is now “we” rather than “you”: “if we were an oryx,” “if we were an explosive,” “if we came together,” until it is finally “our waters, our lands / we’d be calling.” And it is at this final, closing point the “you” becomes another, altogether different individual reader, who now the speaker alongside the initial reader would be seeking after: “we’d be calling you here.” It is this process of reformulating traditional roles between the speaker in the poem and the reader of the poem towards a resolution of change in the world beyond the parameters of the poem which the poem promulgates.

Spahr emphasizes her personal identification as the poet within the individual poem’s movements. How, where, and what activities she takes up teach her new understanding of the world she lives in, the world that is not to be separated from that of poetry. The city she lives in and the lives of those around her are continually entering into the writing of every poem. Nothing is blocking anything out as she extols the benefits of protesting, marching, and confronting the established order.

This sort of walking around the city goes on and on. Week after week. Sometimes I go. Sometimes I stay home. When I go, I often say to myself, how lucky to be outside, out in the night, with friends, walking, despite the vans, the motorcycles, the engines, the lights, I learn the city in a different way.
(“Brent Crude”)

The several dozen unfolding couplets of “Dynamic Positioning” introduce the technical jargon of underwater oil well operation. Such listings of Spahr’s display her ingenious capacity for making the technical suddenly ever lyrical.

It is a blowout preventer, a series of valves
That seal off the excessive pressure should

The wellhead kick then blowout. There are all
These variables. Various valves. Pressures.

Buoyancie. Mixes of cements. Currents. Claims.
Humans. Bow Spring. Top plug. Shoe track. Floatshoe.

I could go on and on here calling the
New muses of innovation, common

Vocabulary, that covers over the
Elaborate simplicity of this,

This well, Macondo well, was drilled by
Deepwater Horizon and it went through

Five thousand feet, through the abyssal zones,
The epipelagic with its sunlight

The mesopelagic with its twilight
The bathypelagic with its midnight

Then where the sea meets floor, the deep ocean,
A blowout preventer there with the fish,

The darker fish, the large detritevars
That feed on the drizzle of the moulted

Exoskeletons, the carnivores, snipe eels
Big Lantern fish, and zooplankton, corals.

This well then went on reaching for the oil
Another thirteen thousand feet. When it hits

The pay zone, down through it, down deeper, deep.
This well, Macondo well, was exploratory.

This story then begins with other wells,
But I will tell the story of This Well:

Juliana Spahr“This Well” is of course site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Spahr goes on to acknowledge the utter tragedy of human lives lost and lament the devastative impact to the ecology of the region. Yet it is the depth to which she first submerses the poem into the mechanical workings of the well which is so demonstrative of her dedication to developing traditional poetic craft. It marks her recognition of the poet’s responsibility to be fully informed concerning what she writes about no matter how dry, uninteresting, and tiring she may personally find specific details to be. This is what makes Spahr’s work so vital to the contemporary poetry scene. Rather than just glide along riding waves of popular social unrest, dropping in keywords here and there, she buckles down and turns over fresh views of the material at hand, working it until the language becomes the stuff of wonderment. Her work is relevant both historically as well as contemporarily, representing popular political and social transgressive movements of our day while achieving literary merit of the highest order.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →