This is a poetry book that takes a fresh and at times troubled look at how to do politics, and a fresh look at how to do poetry that engages politics. Its site is the Occupy Wall Street meme Occupy Oakland which began October 10, 2011, almost a month after Occupy Wall Street, as a project to continuously occupy Oakland California’s city hall square in protest against United States wealth distribution and banking practices. The project has continued in the form of smaller sporadic actions to the present.
To some extent Spahr’s text is a journal of her attempts “week after week” to be present at least some of the time as a supporter of the occupation and participant in its marches and demonstrations – despite her contrasting and possibly conflicting needs to protect and educate her young son, who is often with her, and to carry on the everyday middle-class life that she can so easily return to by merely walking a block from the sometimes violent demonstrations. “I should tell you that I never spent the night at the occupation”( 19). The ‘authenticity’ of the text is often due to the seeming candour of the poet about her limited and ‘nervous’ participation in a project she largely supports.
I have a tendency to anxiously slow down. I also stay to the side. I am nervous,
nervous. I want to keep saying this. I am an anxious body. Shortly after we step
out into the street, the white vans, which have been idly waiting nearby, pull
out and the motorcycles drive up from behind. Engines then and bright directed
The protesters have a mixture of political aims, from anti-poverty activists and chanting police-violence opponents to “black bloc” anarchists (familiar to Canadians at the Toronto G20
It was Non-Revolution. Or it was me. Or it was Non-Revolution and me. I was unsure what
it really was. Maybe it was my thoughts. My thoughts at one minute about Non-Revolution.
About the smell of Non-Revolution. Sweat, urine, sage, pot, rotting food, hay all mixed
together. Perhaps about Non-Revolution’s body. I am sure I am not the only one who has
thought it exceptional, but I am also just as sure that by the standards of bodies,
Non-Revolution’s is fine but not exceptional. That is the point. That is why Non-Revolution
is called Non-Revolution, why they have revolution as a possibility in their name but it is
a modified and thus negated possibility so as to suggest they are possibly neither good
nor fucked. (65)
Readers will note that a somewhat discontinuous succession of sentences common to Language poetry is being used here to suggest the writer’s mixture of contrasting thoughts – a use however which risks placing the emphasis of Spahr’s text not on language itself, and on its political effects, but on the writer and her attempts to represent both her confusions and her heterogenous and multiply situated politics. One senses that Spahr may not be entirely happy with a metaphysically dubious return to representation and so disrupts it here as well with awkward pronouns – “they” for ‘Non-Revolution” – and further non-sequiturs – “That is the point.”
Spahr also veers away from representing the Occupy protests themselves, which were/are protests against the unfairness of Western banking systems, where governments indemnify banks and bankers for losses which those bankers' own greed and foolishness has incurred while not obliging them to indemnify the losses of small investors and taxpayers also caused by that bank foolishness. She focuses instead on concurrent events in the oil industry, implying that, as well as being environmentally dangerous, these – which in the opening poem she calls “the oil wars” – may be at the root of the bank practices the protesters are decrying. The most powerful passages in this book for me are not the ones narrating the writer’s small part in the Oakland occupations but the various ones – “Transitory, Momentary” and “Brent Crude” – that recount fluctuations in the price of Brent Crude oil and the economic dislocations these can cause. “Brent Crude” is also one of her most detailed accounts of the Oakland protests, but begins with the Brent Crude Oil Spot price and ends with both a new Spot price and lines describing deepwater drilling. Even more remarkable is “Dynamic Positioning,” a poem that narrates the ecologically disastrous self-destruction of the BP oil drillship Deepwater Horizon off the Louisiana coast in 2010.
It is nine o’clock. The flow
Out from the well increased. Trip tank then
Emptied. Then fluids discharged overboard. Pumps
Restarted. Drill pipe pressure on constant
Increase. It goes on like this. Pump number
Two started. Pressure spike. Then pumps number two, three
and four are shut down. Pump one still online.
Then pumps three four restarted. Pressure build-
Ing, pump two. Pumps shut down. First pump three four
Then one. Then drill pipe pressure fluctuates.
Increases. Then decreases. Then again
Increases. Then held briefly, then again
Decreases. A repair begins. At some
Moment hydrocarbons enter the bot-
Tom of the well undetected and rise
Inside the wellbore, growing quickly as
They meet the lower pressure of the sur-
Face, heavy drill mud, other fluids, sea
Water, all pushed by the rising and
Expanding gases ... (46-47)
“Dynamic Positioning” is a subtle poem, in which the growing disruptions in the new oil well are also disruptions in line structure, eventually breaking words apart – a feature made more visible by Spahr’s choice to capitalize each line as poets did in other centuries. She also faintly mimics traditional iambic pentameter, ending each line after ten syllables. The metre of Milton and Dryden meets Big Oil. Once again what could have been a mere narrative representation is disrupted by the materiality of the poetics in which it is presented.
Canadians whose personal and economic lives are currently being roiled by the recent dramatic decline of petroleum prices would understand the links Spahr appears to glimpse between oil exploration and financial markets and the threat to life, quality of life, and environmental health both can be.
The wolf of the book’s title is probably of Canadian heritage – descended from the wolves reintroduced in 1995 to the Yellowstone area. It’s not the ominous wolf of folk tales, but an environmental-change refugee, much like many of the Oakland protesters. Just by its solitary arrival in a once traditional habitat it illustrates the future empoverishment the protesters fear will soon afflict them if current financial practices continue. The oil wars are also ecology wars.
There was a mist or a fog or a smoke that held us.
And we walked with this mist or fog or smoke and amidst it also and we
breathed it deep.
It cloaked us. From the inside.
That winter the wolf came.
Came to us. Came near to us. Walked toward this fog of us.
He was two and a half years old and he was the first one back.
He was alone. Wandering over mountains. Across highways. Through
Back and forth he went. Alone.
He was looking for others.
They were not to be found.
Yet he was mutual, we noticed, he cavorted with coyotes.
What else could he do?
He was the only one, not as in the chosen one, but as one of the un-
We called him OR7. (59-60)
Earlier she has noted the Brent geese, after whom the Spot Oil price has ironically been named, are “social, adaptable” and historically have been able to adjust their feeding habits to climate changes (12).
Using the wolf’s return as the title of the book not only parallels his plight with those of both the Occupy protesters and the Brent geese but recasts their protests as unknowing responses to ecological change – change which has transformed coyotes, as it has raccoons and various breeds of goose, into urban foragers.
But that winter, we were close there.
Under a tarp. Close. Together
Just dealing with. Together. Went looking and found coyotes. (61)
In a variety of ways this is an instructive book – about planetary crisis and species crisis, and the challenges of writing protest poetry.