Review Juliana Spahr’s “That Winter the Wolf Came”


The huddled wolf on the cover of Juliana Spahr’s “That Winter the Wolf Came”, stares at you with a quiet intensity. It’s eyes locking with yours, it seems to ask a question, “What can I, you, we do?”. The poems in this bundle seem to reflect Spahr’s own, personal, struggle with that question. It is asked in the light of two major, worldwide events, namely the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, and the Occupy movement that started in 2011.

An answer is never truly found, but in reading through the poems I found that there is also an acceptance in that. Spahr wonderfully manages to diffuse the lines between the personal and the global, the bodily and the mechanical, the natural and the cultural.

All of her poems, namely, share a feeling of interconnectedness, which is related to us in deceptively simple prose and verse. The wolf in “Went Looking and Found Coyotes”, is at first alone, “yet he was mutual, we noticed, he cavorted with coyotes”. This lone wolf is in the end the same as the speaker, who is “Still. Together. We had no other choice”.

The poem “Dynamic Positioning”, on the other hand, blends a scientific and mechanical vocabulary to simulate the catastrophic oil-drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil, gas, mud and seawater intermingle more and more, and as the explosion comes closer, even the words themselves rupture in unexpected line-breaks. It is a beautifully crafted elegy for the explosion she watched on her “flat screen”.

This feeling of everything being in relation to each other is made most explicit in “If You Were A Bluebird”. It begins almost as a recipe for an ecosystem. First “A bird. Reed cormorant” is added, then the speaker “Added a fish and a monkey”. The spicing comes from the “because” and “the principle of relation”.

Every creature added is specifically named, and its “because” carefully described, thereby showing how they belong in places like the Niger Delta, the Kuwait Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. As with all the other poems, Spahr eventually injects the personal into the poem.

Yet here it is not the relation to those close to her that is described, as is the case in most other poems. It is that being one always means to become with many. And these many are not human animals, they are non-human animals as well. How we are all “Wanting to be together”, everyone and everything “Wanting the principle of relation”.

“That Winter the Wolf Came” is a wonderful collection of poems which should be read slowly and thoughtfully. Despite pointing mostly to the precariousness of things it leaves you with a feeling of possibility, of being in connection with change. These are poems for the present moment. As the poem “Tradition” rightly says, “Hand this over. Pass this on”.

Pauw Vos


“That Winter the Wolf Came” can be downloaded for free here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s