Beloveds, We Wake: Juliana Spahr’s “Poem Written From November 30, 2002 to March 27, 2003” as an Anti-War Poem for the Twenty-First Century
Essay by Daisy Couture
Art by Vicky Chen
Poetry has long been accused of being a futile genre by both literary critics and the general public. What can such amorphous work really achieve? This question is especially in play within the subgenre of anti-war poetry for it has a stated goal. Anti-war poetry has evolved dramatically throughout history, accompanying the changing nature of war itself — from trenches and set battlefields in the First World War to the War on Terror with its lack of clear allegiances and “collateral damage” of civilian casualties. As Philip Metres writes in Behind the Lines, “the soldier-poet” —such as Randall Jarrell or Wilfred Owen — has long been “held up as the principal proprietor of viable anti-war poetry” (4). While this was true when war generally affected only active soldiers, in our contemporary world “total war affects nearly every citizen” (4) and, therefore, anti-war poetry can, and must, be written by non soldiers as well since it no longer affects just them. It is into this context and world that Juliana Spahr steps. Spahr is an academic, a language poet, an activist, an eco-poet, and in this case, a lyric poet. Spahr’s book, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs contains two poems, the second of which, “Poem Written From November 30, 2002 to March 27, 2003” serves as an ongoing response and reaction to the United States’ invasion of Iraq. The poem is long and diary-esque; there are entries for many of the days within the specified time period and they chronicle the speaker’s efforts to grapple with her own complicity in the impending invasion of Iraq as well as her connections to both the United States and the world. The poem deals with proximity and distance, responsibility and complicity, connection and disconnection, and what it means to live in a world shaped by the military-industrial complex and saturated with media. The poem’s breadth and richness offers many avenues of exploration but I will explore it specifically as an anti-war poem. I will argue that the poem is an effective contemporary anti-war poem because it does not just explicitly resist the Iraq war but also, through its treatment of intimacy, ecology, and style of repetition and fragmentation, works to unsettle the dominant ideologies and motivations — capitalism, nationalism, imperialism — behind the Iraq war.
I will begin my exploration and argument by responding to Dean Brink’s article “Resisting Imperial Jouissance: The Transideological Line in Recent American Antiwar Poetry.” Brink defines anti-war poetry as poetry “engaged in active extrication… [that] challenge[s] the false premises of the war itself” (2). He argues that most anti-war poets are currently failing at their task because they have a tendency to take on a diffusive, passive distance to war, acting as if there are no hard facts, only confusion (Brink 4). He cites Juliana Spahr’s “Poem Written from November 30, 2002 to March 27, 2003” as an example of failed antiwar poetry. He criticizes Spahr, claiming that the confusion and distance present in her poem renders it helpless and passive (Brink 6). He argues that “Juliana Spahr’s ‘’March 27 and 30, 2003,’’ though well written, uses a passive ironic positioning. The speaker tellingly capitulates to the government’s invasion (‘war’), as if it were the poet who suffered, not those bombed with our taxes” (Brink 7) and further criticizes her for mixing the language of war and daily trivialities, creating what he deems a “made for TV ethos” (8). He concludes that the confusion she provides as closure affirms the “impossibility of meaningful action against the war” (9). This is certainly a fierce critique and yet it is based on an unyielding idea of how anti-war poetry can be effective.
I find this criticism of Spahr as confusing and weak to be interesting but flawed. While anti-war poetry certainly should challenge the premises of war, in our contemporary world — where war no longer takes place on set battlefields but rather is fought by proxies and technology, where the United States has been fighting the War on Terror for fifteen years with no end in sight — anti-war poetry needs to do more than simply explicitly resist war. I believe Brink’s definition needs to be expanded: I will therefore define anti-war poetry as poetry that speaks against war explicitly and implicitly by subverting and unsettling not just the “false premises” but also the dominant ideologies and motivations behind war. This expanded definition is necessary in the twenty-first century when war is pervasive and involves everyone through varying degrees of complicity and connection. Using such criteria, Juliana Spahr’s “Poem Written from November 30, 2002 to March 27, 2003” is an exceptional anti-war poem for it both explicitly resists the war through criticism of the government and military and implicitly builds a foundation of intimacy and connection with both humans and the earth; while doing this, she also creates a dystopian reality through the form and style of the poem. All together, the poem unsettles and subverts the warmongering ideologies of nationalism, imperialism and capitalism — it is, of course, difficult to talk about these three separately as they are deeply entangled with each other.
“Poem Written from November 30, 2002 to March 27, 2003” is usually classified as an anti-war poem on the basis of certain explicit protests against the Iraq war. In the February 15 entry, the speaker recounts going to a protest against the invasion of Iraq and the pride she feels in the global gatherings that oppose it: “Over eight million people marched on five continents against / the mobilization” (53). The whole poem serves as a long critique of the pervasive militarization of all aspects of life in the United States, particularly Hawaii: the speaker of the poem describes how “the military-industrial-complex enters our bed at night” (Spahr 63), and how it has tainted everything in life: “Beloveds I keep trying to speak about loving but all I speak about is / acts of war and acts of war and acts of war” (28). The long listing of all the violence in the world, from “one dead after rioting in Dili” (31) to “ten killed in Bureij refugee camps by Israeli tanks” (38), also serves as an elegy to the violent effects of nationalism and imperialism upon the world. These are the explicit ways that the poem functions as an anti-war poem. However, the poem is long and complex and, along with explicitly resisting war, struggles with connection, intimacy, responsibility and space. These themes, which take up the bulk of the poem, are often dismissed in discussion of the poem as an example of the anti-war genre; they are treated as simply padding for the real, explicit work it does. However, they are actually where the most effective war resistance happens. In addition to the explicit calling for opposition to the war, the poem also works to unsettle the dominant ideologies the war is built on and reframe the world from the divided, distant categories that politicians employ to further war.
Spahr’s poem has been called both an anti-war poem and a love poem by both critics and by Spahr herself. These categorizations are not mutually exclusive but rather dynamically linked. In the first entry she states, “when I speak about the parrots I speak about love” (Spahr 15) and throughout the the poem she addresses her “beloveds.” Even as the poem focuses on the progression towards war, it is all in the context of love and intimacy. In the January 20th entry she catalogs what “some say” is beautiful, for some it is “AH-64 Apache attack helicopters,” “a fleet of ships,” or “thirty thousand assault troops from Britain” (Spahr 46) but the speaker says: “It’s what one loves, the most beautiful is whomever one loves. / I say it is whatsoever a person loves. / I say for me it is my beloveds.” (Spahr 47). Many of the entries are also situated in the speaker’s bed; for example, December 8, 2002: “our bed as we lie there in the morning enjoying the touch of each other’s bodies” (Spahr 35). The speaker is obsessed with learning about the coming invasion but intimacy accompanies every step the speaker makes to try and understand. Love and war do not exist separately in the poem, they are inexorably entangled: “In bed when I stroke the down on yours cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers” (Spahr 74). However, rather than connecting love and war as parts of the same entity, the poem throws them in stark contrast to each other. The tender, sweet intimacy of the poem exists simultaneously and within the same spaces as the pervasive influence of the military-industrial-complex and the war that is on its way. The poem shows that war does not erase love, however much it might try to do so. The speaker demonstrates resistance by speaking simply about love, about intimate spaces such as beds, showers, and skin. War is built on hatred, distance, and isolation; the poem counters that with constant intimacy. The speaker states that her desire is to “lie with yous in resistance to the alone” (Spahr 63). In a world driven by violence, turning away and centering love is anti-war in and of itself.
While love instead of war may be a cliched, tired sentiment, Spahr advances a specific pluralistic intimacy that is radical and stands in the face of not only violence but also militant nationalism. While the poem certainly addresses a local, present beloved, the intimacy is extended beyond just the speaker’s immediate environment and national boundaries and into the world, encompassing everyone. This pluralisation is present in the language of the poem; the speaker consistently refers to “beloveds,” “yous,” and “yours skins” (Spahr 20). Heather Milne argues in, “Dearly Beloveds: The Politics of Intimacy in Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs,” that this collective lyric subject Spahr uses embodies Rosi Braidotti’s work on the post-humanist and creates “a sustainable ethics… an enlarged sense of interconnectedness between the self and others… an ethical bond” (205). By pluralizing her intimacy, Spahr extends the responsibilities we have to our beloveds — care, respect, reciprocity — far beyond national borders. Milne argues that Spahr explores “the poetic and political potential of a pluralized subjectivity in an era of mediatized and militarized global connectivity” (205). Through her subject matter, Spahr entangles politics with pluralized intimacy and it becomes impossible to separate war as simply a ‘political’ decision that doesn’t involve our connections to others on the planet. Spahr herself states this ambition, saying “I like the political lyric because I see it as arguing that we must approach our politics with as much devotion as we approach beloveds” (Bettridge). By entangling love and politics the poem extends our feelings of intimacy beyond its usual boundaries and reframes our relationships and responsibilities to others. It is not trivial or made for TV as Brink argues, it is a fierce political decision, and an effective one for resisting war, which is built on dichotomies of us/them, of seeing distant people as violent, inhuman others. George Bush’s address on terrorism to a joint meeting of congress in 2001— the first instance where the name “War on Terror” appears — is full of this dichotomous language, particularly when he says, “We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another” (Bush). It is this kind of militaristic, political framing that Spahr actively resists through her pluralization of intimacy.
On a different plane of connection, the poem also has many ecological concerns. The physical environment of Hawaii is immensely present in the poem. The poem doesn’t just dwell on the intimacy between human beings but also, as the speaker muses, on “the intimate relationships between salmons and humans, between humans and icebergs, between icebergs and salmons, and how this is just the beginning of the circular list” (Spahr 21). Spahr brings the ethical responsibilities of our relationships with our beloveds to our relationship with land. This is important for land is always at the heart of war, no matter its declared cause. As many have long argued, including Douglas Kellner in his article on the causes of the Iraq war: “Increased control of the world’s oil supplies provided a tempting prize for the former oil executives who maintain key roles in the Bush administration” (330). Furthermore, the natural environment is often sacrificed or even purposefully destroyed in war. In war, we treat other people like we treat the earth and Spahr tries to draw our attention to that. She positions environmental crisis on the same plane as the political crisis of war: “Yet the world swirls around us. / The ocean levels rise and the beach gets smaller” (Spahr 29). No matter what divisions we create for ourselves around the world, we will always be connected by the fact that we share the earth and rely on the same water and dirt. We are connected even when it hurts us, even when it is terrible, as Spahr notes: “This burning, this dirty air we breathe together, our dependence on this air, our inability to stop breathing” (Spahr 57). Dianne Chisholm, in “Juliana Spahr’s Ecopoetics: Ecologies and Politics of the Refrain” argues that this focus on ecology in Spahr’s poem creates a “planetary commons aflame with potential for political resistance” (140). If the pluralism of beloveds wasn’t enough, the ecological focus gives us all something to share and connect with, a basis from which to resist war. At one point the speaker even muses that “perhaps it isn’t the lovers in our beds that matter, perhaps it is the / earth” (34). Spahr uses land to show the connections between us, what we share, rather than the divisions. This ecological awareness powerfully resists nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. The ecological focus of the poem makes us think about land in the opposite way governments try to portray it during war. It is not something to be won or claimed, but something alive that is unquestionable evidence of global connection.
Beyond the basis and far-reaching intimacy that it creates, the poem’s form and stylistic elements also further contribute to its effectiveness as an anti-war poem for they extend the resistance further on an implicit, structural level. Brink criticizes the poem as being confusing and ephemeral, an effect largely created by the poem’s fragmented form with sometimes just two words appearing in a verse paragraph such as in the December 8, 2002 entry with “Oh, endless” and “Oh, century” (37). The poem looks scattered on the page, pulled apart, distance stretching between sentences and ideas. However, this visual component of the poem adds to the complexity of the ideas of proximity and distance that the poem is grappling with. Spahr increasingly fragments the form, pulling the sentences apart into single, short lines, when she feels especially disconnected and lost such as the March 11, 2003 entry when the invasion seems imminent. On the other hand, the poem is packed closely together when Spahr feels connected with others: in the middle section of the February 15, 2003 entry, she lists all of the cities in which protests took place and the text forms a block that takes up most of the page.
The form also functions to create an almost dystopian reality for the world of the poem. The often fragmented form skips between topics and areas of the world: “U2 spy planes exist flying over the Koreas. / Supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s plan to eradicate hunger in Brazil / exists” (51), along with repetition (often anaphora) such as “some say” (January 20 entry) or “we do not speak” (January 13) or “Oh” (March 11) and creates an almost hypnotic sense of unreality, making the world the poem describes seem like a dystopian version of our world. This dystopia that the poem creates is disturbing because even though it doesn’t feel real, it describes our world and chronicles actual time and events. The poem is filled with rumours and secrets: “I hear rumours from friends at parties” (37), “someone somewhere tells ships to refuel and then to slip out of the port in the night” (40). Everything is unbalanced and suspicious as secrets are kept from the people by their government. This reflects the political atmosphere of the early 2000s, the time in which Spahr was writing. Spahr’s poem doesn’t create unnecessary confusion but instead echoes that which already exists in the political landscape, positioning it in a way that illustrates how insidious and alarming it is. This dystopian reality that the poem creates through its fragmented form and hypnotic repetition is such an effective part of the poem’s war resistance as it shows us just how strange and awful the things that are happening in our world really are; rather than being normalized they are positioned as impossibly disturbing. In the context that they are presented they seem like some terrible fantasy, a fantasy of bright parrots, vivid flowers, and oceans. The poem’s dystopian framing changes one’s perspective and makes one look at the events catalogued in a vastly different light, seeing them for what they really are when stripped of propaganda and normalcy.
On all fronts though, it is essential to position this poem in its context for its effectiveness as an anti-war poem is based on its response to the contemporary world. War in the twenty-first century is radically different from the wars of the twentieth century. There are no longer clear sides or clear terms but rather diffuse, disorganized fighting. “Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003” is an anti-war poem that responds to this new type of war. As Mary Kaldor explains in “The ‘New War’ in Iraq,” “the ‘new wars’ [of the twenty-first century], in contrast, take place in the context of failing states. They are wars fought by networks of state and non-state actors, where battles are rare and violence is directed mainly against civilians” (1). It is this new kind of war that Spahr is writing against, one where the causes are uncertain and often suspicious, one in which all living in the global North are implicated for we inherently take part in these ideologies. For this kind of war it is not enough to simply march in the streets and protest. These actions will stop the current war but war is no longer a singular event it is a continuous process of exercising power and superiority upon the world. To truly be anti-war in the twenty-first century one has to dismantle the ideologies that drive war: capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism. With the proliferation of real-time war reporting (Turitto, Web) it also becomes impossible to be ignorant of war, to pretend one does not know what is happening and therefore, is not responsible for events taking place thousands of miles away.
“Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003” is a remarkably powerful anti-war poem for it does not just explicitly challenge the war in traditional protest means but goes deeper. The poem tries to undermine the basis of war by creating an alternate kind of ethics and responsibility that binds us to one another and resists the divisions pushed to further war. Spahr seems to understand that in the twenty-first century war is no longer an isolated event but a pervasive state that affects and invades everything. It is also important to note that, unusually so, Spahr’s poem is an anti-war poem written before the war began. As Metres writes in his book, “Antiwar poetry, which exists so frequently as a response to war… can seem a retroactive and even futile undertaking” (229). Spahr gets in front of the war with her poem, recognizing the ideologies and motivations at work before they have even fully been put into action, showing how essential it is to resist these dominant forces when there is still a chance at preventing war. Brink found fault with Spahr’s poem for being too trivial and confusing and not being enough of a clear rallying call; however, in a world in which war is fought with drones and black ops and distrust a simple rallying call to protest is not enough. To truly resist war, we must take on the ideologies that drive it and create a different kind of world for ourselves based in care and responsibility for each other. War is not simply a battle: it is a state of living and to be effective it must be resisted on all fronts. As Juliana Spahr models for us, we must love one another, and create responsible, ethical relationships with each other and with the earth. To resist distant imperial wars, such as the Iraq war, we must understand what kind of distance is real and what kind of distance is socially constructed. We must acknowledge how we are complicit in what we try to resist war and dismantle those connections. In an increasingly globalized and mediatized world we are responsible more and more for each other; we cannot feign ignorance — we must awaken.
- This vein of the poem is lacking a bit in nuance of the colonial significance of the location of Hawaii. Spahr mentions it briefly in the January 28 entry, “here in the Pacific with its own deep unsortable history” (50) but the poem could have been an even more powerful anti-war poem with some further attention on colonialism and decolonization
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