[006 - That Winter the Wolf Came, autonomy, and climate]
June 04, 2017 by alex christie
Juliana Spahr's That Winter the Wolf Came offers solace in a moment of ecological anxiety and disaster. As Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord (indeed, a largely symbolic act but with very real ecological, economic, and political ramifications), I'm struck by the right's oxymoronic stance on the country's autonomy, or the ability to be autonomous in an age of intensified globalization. It's easy to see the tension between the way the nation-state holds open the door for transnational capital---i.e. producing fluid borders rather than locking them down and securing the reproduction of a specific citizenry---and the insistence that somehow the U.S. can stand alone, or dictate the terms by which its borders function. The travel ban, increased racist violence, and the dream of an economy sustained by coal all play into this fantasy of the autonomous nation, and by proxy the autonomous masculine figurehead Trump longs to become.
I don't want to repeat the obvious: climate change is a problem that resides simultaneously in the present and future (but also the past since we're probably 30 years too late to do anything about it); autonomy is a fantasy ontologically, and an impossibility economically. Autonomy is less about locking down the self or the nation, than dictating the terms by which these bodies are porous or vulnerable. It's a chauvinist and masculinist deployment of power that seeks to impose the will of the self onto the world it inhabits. It's a way of saying, 'I am not vulnerable to what lies beyond me, but rather will make what remains beyond my control subservient to me; to my world view. I will shape the world in my image, and thereby refuse my own vulnerability.' Again, entirely an impossibility in our contemporary moment.
On the side of ice shelves falling off the antarctic, I find myself working on a presentation of Barad and Levinas (which seeks to rethink our capacity to intra-act with reality to co-produce a slightly different future) and reading Spahr's collection. That Winter the Wolf Came has been less a solution than an antipode and coping mechanism for living in the post-apocalyptic present, not least of all because these poems emphasize the porosity and toxicity of the world we inhabit. The BP Deepwater Horizon spill looms large in the background, an image of oil contaminating the ocean, but also the economy and our (inter)personal relationships. However, I think the collection emphasizes toxicity not necessarily as a bad thing, something to be avoided, but rather situates toxicity and contamination as immanent with and to how we move through the world.
The collection's second poem, 'Brent Crude,' interweaves the price of oil into the speaker's participation in marches and rallies, their life as a parent, and their profession as a poet. The Brent Crude Oil Spot price contaminates the speaker's life, appearing repeatedly throughout the poem. The speaker insists, 'I am trying to figure something out. Something I do not yet understand about my physical body, my real financial, medical, and social needs' (23). Embodiment is not self-sufficient, but exceedingly dependent on the institutions and systems we find ourselves imbricated with(in). The poem foregrounds this, modeling less how we come to terms with this existence, than showing how we might identify where embodiment exceeds our grasp, or where our autonomy becomes wound up in something other than ourselves. A physical body is not just matter, but an intra-active mattering with a complex matrix of discursive and material apparatuses---'financial, medical, and social,' but also ecological and ontological. The poem's final stanza moves us to identify the complexity of the dynamic we inhabit, with someone telling the speaker, 'the last thing we need is another BP poem; someone said just another nature poem...Not to me necessarily. At other moments to me but that doesn't matter. It was in the air' (25). 'Brent Crude' moves from nature or the oil spill as such to nature and oil as bound up in our own lives; from contamination to the way contamination functions.
Privileging autonomy belies a shared corporeal vulnerability with both humans and nonhumans with(in) the intra-active reality we co(in)habit. It denies the dynamism inherent in our relationship with the world, and pretends that nature is somehow limitless and self-producing resource that we must merely manage (though Trump seems uninterested in even doing that). What is to be done? We are all in this together. And though 'we' are perhaps differently situated in whatever 'this' is, we must leverage the double valence of our (im)potentiality in an effort to re-imagine or re-theorize the present and future. 'Brent Crude' might be a helpful companion in this task.
The collection, for me, foregrounds the impossibility of autonomy, on the one hand, and the necessity of foregoing fantasies of autonomy, on the other, in order to sustain anything like a future. In Spahr, this involves moving from a nature poetry that posits a nature somewhere over there that we can observe and write about, to a nature that we're active participants. In That Winter the Wolf Came this isn't a choice or an imperative, but a reality that we're called to recognize or risk annihilation in a self-same and post-apocalyptic present. I think we're seeing this shift in contemporary U.S. politics to an extent---a realization that politics isn't something that happens over there, on election day(s), but a space that we actively co-produce on a daily basis. This is, of course, met with backlash by the current administration that prefers a univocal deployment of political force. But I think there's an increasing number of models of rethinking this kind of engagement, which might transmute into a shift in how we engage with(in) the environment we cohabit. Spahr's poetry here and beyond is a useful resource for finding the intersections and intra-activities among human and nonhuman in precarious times.