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  • Juliana Spahr’s Ecopoetics:Ecologies and Politics of the Refrain
  • Dianne Chisholm (bio)

One of the compelling new developments in writing that Juliana Spahr has been advancing “after Language poetry” is ecopoetics.1 Spahr’s poetry collection Well Then There Now (2011) and poem series This Connection of Everyone With Lungs (2005) deploy an innovative poetics to frame into view varying and emerging crises of ecological illogic. The framework of Spahr’s poetry is a complicated device of ecological thinking, one that provokes acute reflection on the habits of habitat construction. It is complicated in that it figures the construction of habitats by diverse cohabitants on local and global planes, and on multiple and unfathomable levels. Her lyrics foreground the rhythmic buildup and breakdown of domestic and geopolitical processes by which everyone and everything become connected, with intensifying consequences. As micro and macro ecologies take figurative shape in her poems, they envelop and enter into each other affectingly on expanding cosmic horizons. The poems of Well Then There Now frame crises of habitation that range from the gradual polluting of a childhood Eden by local industry to the accelerated [End Page 118] melting of polar ice caps by global warming. Those of This Connection house a serial reaction to the atmospheric fallout of 9/11 as it spreads across the planet to all species of earth-dwellers with uncontainable volatility. The art with which Spahr frames habitats of evolving ecological and political involvement commands critical attention.

Strange Habitats: Birds, Bowers, and Bulldozers

Spahr came to ecopoetics by way of Jonathan Skinner’s eponymous journal, which Skinner launched in 2001. She claims to have found in Ecopoetics “a poetics full of systemic analysis that questions the divisions between nature and culture” (Well Then 71). That is, she found a new, ecological direction for the subtle kind of “systemic analysis” that Language poetry had long cultivated. She also found a welcome departure from “nature poetry,” of which she was “suspicious . . . because . . . it tended to show the beautiful bird but not so often the bulldozer off to the side that was destroying the bird’s habitat” (69). By proceeding to invent ways to frame the involvement of human machinery in the transformation and destruction of human and nonhuman habitats, Spahr underscores and develops the inclusive, ecological, and political focus with which ecopoetics characteristically conducts its investigations into nature.

In the inaugural issue of his journal, Skinner proclaims ecopoetics to be in essence “a house making,” an avant-garde poesis (“making”) that determinedly “takes on the ‘eco’ frame” to interrogate the egregious impact of humans on the world and other species (7).2 Spahr “takes on the ‘eco’ frame” of ecopoetics by constructing poetic framing devices that function as figurative houses, habitats, and territories. [End Page 119] Her primary device is the refrain, which she constantly reinvents from poem to poem or even within each poem. This Connection, for example, deploys a refrain—what we might call her signature refrain—that repeats with variation the words “we spoke of birds and their bowers and their habits of nest” (66). Consider the following variation of this refrain:

When we spoke of birds and their bowers and their habits of nest we also spoke of the Israeli military bulldozer that ran over Rachel Corrie, the mysterious flu that appeared in Hong Kong and had spread by morning to other parts of Asia, Elizabeth Smart’s return, and Zoran Djindjic’s death.


The refrain frames the speakers (“we”) and that of which they speak (“birds,” “bowers,” “habits of nest”) in a figure of repetition that opens out to include a “bulldozer.” More precisely, it opens out to “the Israeli military bulldozer that ran over Rachel Corrie” and hence on to a geopolitical plane of habitat creation and destruction. And it does not stop there. It opens repeatedly to further inclusions that expand and complicate the connection between ecologies and politics and that make the domestic ease with which “we” had been comfortably at home in the world increasingly unconscionable, unsustainable, and unheimlich.

Spahr’s refrain frames figures of habitation in figures of repetition so as to foreground for investigation the repetitious process of habituation that habitation...


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pp. 118-147
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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