Jaime Lee Kirtz on Juliana Spahr

Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache


We come into the world.

We come into the world and there it is.

The sun is there.

The brown of the river leading to the blue and the brown of the
ocean is there.

Salmon and eels are there moving between the brown and the brown
and the blue.

The green of the land is there.

Elders and youngers are there.

Fighting and possibility and love are there.

And we begin to breathe.

We come into the world and there it is.

We come into the world without and we breathe it in.

We come into the world.

We come into the world and we too begin to move between the
brown and the blue and the green of it.

(View entire poem.)


“It was not all long lines of connections and utopia,” writes Juliana Spahr in “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache.” This sentiment is carried throughout the poem, where Spahr chooses the sentence as a modality through which to transmit the ecology of the Ohio River, naming species and natural elements, ranging from clams to birds, trees to creeks. Spahr has stated that “poetry is a troubled and troubling genre” (131) and by working at the level of the sentence Spahr applies this aid: that poetry rearranges conflicting and conflicted images through the sentence’s ability to provide connections between opposing thoughts. The ‘and’ of a sentence, as Spahr uses it, works against strict dichotomies and towards a realistic friction; the “and” plays a dualistic role. This multiplicity of function is witnessed in the line: “Our hearts took on the shape of the stream and became riffled and calmed and muddy and clean and flooded and shrunken dry.”  The realistic plurality of this sentence exhibits the mercurial nature of humans (we, the readers) and the world surrounding, both clean and dirty, a microscopic projection of the larger tensions at work in Spahr’s poetry. It seems Spahr is asking questions beyond the debate of current environmental concerns, something that relates to communication between outside and in.

The poem begins with Romantic imagery and allusions but dissipates into technological repetition and disjunction, becoming “a part of us,” a part of the world. Divided into sections by numerals, physical disconnects juxtapose pastoral imagery actively engaging with underlying themes of tension and the ‘readerly’ value ascribed to personal pronouns. In using a malleable structure formed by varying line lengths and sentence construction, repetition acts as an anchor for the reader focusing on both the actions of the speaker, “we come,” and the official names of species. An example of this repetition is seen in the word “larvae,” which in the first few sections is witnessed twelve times; “Ohio pigtoe” is found eight times. In this way the repetition is mechanical, driven, meticulous; however, the repetition also takes on a subjective quality. After hearing Spahr read from one of her long poems this year, the repetition affected me in a way I wasn’t aware of initially. There is something intrinsically human about her repetition; the sound oscillations act as another form of communication itself aside from their obvious purpose. The poem repeats itself as if to assure the speaker, comforting in the face of ecological destruction, similar to the way a repetitive and structured story may comfort a child. In this folkloric-like presence, images are produced that contribute to a utopic imagination, one that questions its own existence.

By archiving and listing proper names, such as “Slenderhead Darter” or “American Robin,” instead of simply writing ‘fish’ or ‘bird,’ Spahr imbues formality with value only to contrast it with the informal statement “don’t add to heartache.” Again, tensions rise between a strict formal order and a looseness of human experience. Kimberly Lamm writes, “Spahr calls attention to the materiality of language, and, in turn, language’s tie to material conditions” (139). The fashioning of proper names, then, creates a currency where the value of an image is assessed by its formal properties—its material consequences meet determination by social compliance. For instance, ‘American Robin’ is more defined in its meaning universally than a generalization or appellation like ‘bird’; the specification imbues further meaning personally, as we the readers conjure our associations with the American Robin, as well as claiming its modern classification, a side effect of the scientific process.

Moreover, the list form that Spahr engages differs in its various manifestations. This is illustrated in section three, where a long list of names is broken by “don’t add to heartache” insertions, intersecting the list at varying intervals. These breaks are disruptive of the rhythm of the long list, reflecting interruptions of technology on nature. Rhythm and repetition are closely connected, and Spahr uses this to her advantage, playing with the reader’s expectations for repeated segments of text.

The sonic quality of words such as “caddishfly” or “chokeberry” provide cohesion of sound, both familiar and foreign. These uncanny sonic images challenge contextual notions of word/world formation and the play between expectation and rhythm pre-empts the poem’s conclusion, the transition from idyllic utopia to modern wasteland. Furthermore this delegates certain sets of words to shared, communal experience (“we”) and to personal subjectivity (“I”).

Spahr begins her poem, “we come into this world,” a line rife with familiar biblical and pop cultural allusions. Using the pronoun ‘we’ yokes the reader into the speaker’s own experience and ephemerality. Furthermore the common fantastical elements of the poem, such as the enigmatic blue and green colouring, mingle with humanly (“I”) aspects like pollution and garbage. Romanticism then succumbs to realism, which the poetry debates as inherent in describing a modern landscape. As the poem progresses, the human presence eviscerates the natural beauty of the streams and creeks through production planets and degradation of nature.

Through concrete references such as “Cholesterol Test Packets” and “Viral Data Stream,” Spahr contrasts visualizations of the idealistic state of nature with mechanical realities. Again, the value of the word surfaces, and modifies the interaction between reader and speaker, creating a new currency of postmodern dialogue. The reader, initially involved through the poignant statement of ‘we come into this world,’ is now subject to the impact of capitalist society. The deeper into the terror of mechanization the poem delves, the further apart the speaker and reader are pulled. By concluding the poem with “I did not sing wo, wo!” the personal subjectivity of the speaker succeeds. What once began as ‘we’ is now ‘I’ as if the loss of nature is also the loss of ‘all,’ and the loss of everything surrounding has turned the poem inwards, in a frantic attempt to claim a lost Romanticism.

Works Cited

Lamm, Kimberly. “Writing the Space of Collectivities in the Poetry of Juliana Spahr.” American

Poets in the 21st Century. Ed. Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 133-150. Print.

Spahr, Juliana. “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache.” Tarpaulin Sky 3.2 (2005). Web. 20 July 2013.

—. “Poetics Statement.” American Poets in the 21st Century. Ed. Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 131-133. Print.

Jaime Lee KirtzJaime Lee Kirtz is a MA Candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University. Originally from Vancouver, she has attended SFU’s Writers Studio as well as obtaining both a BA and BSc from UBC and UofT. She has been published by magazines such as Poetry is Dead and Steel Bananas as well as being included in the anthologies Headlight, The Enpipe Line, Emerge 2011 and by the Poetry Institute of Canada.