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Magazine Article


Andrew Osborn


Chicago Review, Volume 62, Issue 01/02/03, Chicago, IL (2019)


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Jorie Graham’s twelfth book of new poetry whelms with ruin: the death of the poet’s father, her mother’s dementia, her own body’s cancerous mutiny, ecological “systemicide,” the erosion of humanity by tools that mimic our curiosity and extend our reach beyond our care. Rather than lamenting it, or (like Eliot) shoring fragments of some former order against it, Graham negotiates with ruin on its own impersonal terms in run-on sequences of often fragmentary phrases. As language in the title poem’s opening line indicates, the book’s title, Fast (HarperCollins, 2017), holds in tension the senses of reckless speed (“too much”), sought-for stability (“not enough”), and involuntary abstinence (“starve”). It bespeaks the challenge of slaking our thirsts at the information era’s fiber-optic fire hose. What might have been a conventionally intimate study of personal loss instead foregrounds the mediation of various technologies—instrumental, algorithmic, grammatical—by which we render the unseen visible.

As she signaled with the Nietzschean title of her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), Graham is an earthbound perspectivist who seeks to know this world by passionately probing it from as many points of view, armed with as many measures and analytical means as she can devise. In Fast’s “Self Portrait at Three Degrees,” whose title almost certainly refers to the average Kelvin-scale temperature of outer space, she asserts, “I want to touch things till they break → that / is how to see them → all the points of contact → entropy, diminishment, pressing / and then pulling back and looking, leaving alone → unimaginable → a meaning in / every step.” Before ostensibly conversing by phone with her father’s afterlife in “The Medium,” she mediates the Charles River’s “channeling scribbling erasing / itself while all along chattering self-wounding self-dividing, slowing at bank, at / streamline, at meander, then quick now trying-out scribbling again—why not—one must / keep trying / to make / the unsaid said.” (Why not, indeed. Fast is full of unmarked, uninflected questions as she lets description catch in the eddies of its objects.) Graham is less keen to share the particulars of a parent’s or her own personality than to explore how personality may arise from inert form, flout entropy, and persist after inspiration abates.

The four-part collection’s short opening poem, “Ashes,” retains the spine-and-rib lineation of much of Graham’s twenty-first-century work. But the form and syntax of the second poem, “Honeycomb”—with its variously line-spaced, wide verse paragraphs and phrasing that modulates between periods, dashes, and vectors—is new. One of two “bot” poems, it sets the book’s tone of flattened affects before Graham peoples parts II, III, and IV with the posthumous and otherwise “post human.” Having introduced “Honeycomb” as an “Ode to Prism”—that is, PRISM, one of the NSA programs that Edward Snowden made public in 2013—the poet speaks to and for the algorithmic agents that she presumes are tracking her through the computer at which she writes:

          You have the names of my friends my markers my markets my late
queries. Re chemo re the travel pass re where to send the photo the side
          effects the
distinguishing features—bot says hide where—bot does not know, bot knows, what is it to know here

One might expect Graham to decry this invasion of privacy. Instead, she invites it—“Here at my screen, / can you make me / out? Make me out,” “can you please / track me I do not feel safe”—so as to articulate what facets of interest and intuition resist such tracking and thus help to define the boundaries of our humanity. Even if some searching engine could detect “the smell of these stalks and the moisture they / are drawing up → in order not to die // too fast,” it is not likely, she implies, that it would relate, as she does, the scent of floral rot to the moderation of mortality’s blossoming. Nor will its stalking discover that “first love is taking place” as Mrs. Ramsay does in her desktop copy of To the Lighthouse. Graham does not explicitly link the lighthouse’s beacon to the bot’s surveillance. Nor does she cite Lily Briscoe’s likening of others’ minds to hives that one may visit as a bee. Of Lily she writes merely that she “moves the salt”; later, Graham challenges the bot to track “the bees that did return to the hive today” and “what neural path the neurotoxin took”—presumably in the disoriented brains of the bees that did not return—trusting her human readers to connect the ellipses’ dots. Whereas The Errancy’s disembodied guardian angels anxiously cared for their human wards from on high, the “emblematic subjectivities” in this and other Fast poems lack empathic imagination, to say nothing of benevolence or the lung-warm inspiration that sounds through (per-sonare) a genuine person. Narrowly acquisitive, they mine what is ours for data divested of givenness.

In her previous collection’s “Lapse,” which is among the most compelling and encapsulating poems of her career, Graham recovers a several-decades-old experience through a lapse of judgment, a mistaken feeling. For Seamus Heaney, her predecessor in Harvard’s Boylston Chair, a pen’s thickness in the hand had been “snug as a gun” but recalled his father’s handling of a spade. Graham’s writing implement takes her back to early motherhood because its touch triggers a manual memory of the thick chains of a playground swing on which, in the early 1980s, she pushed her infant outward and thereby upward as a full-body, physical education. Rainwater accumulated under the swing where human strivings for elevation and foot-dragging alike had eroded the soil. As if to show that from such erosion even our acutest organs may have evolved, the poet announces—in the fifty-sixth of the first sentence’s eighty-three lines—that the child’s fleeting reflection in the puddle “giv[es] me for that instant an eye you its iris blinking.”

Nothing in Fast is nearly so evocative of personal and planetary self-overcoming. What initially sounds like energetic dancing or “birdchatter” in one poem is “everything being sung in the magnetic field’s no-upward-rung / unswerving tiny dwelling” of an MRI. This foreclosure of ascent, and of lyric clinamen, is typical. The horizontal arrows with which she punctuates some serial phrases stay horizontal. Having visited the Shroud of Turin, she reflects on the grungy physicality whereby it preserves the image of Christ’s face:

                                   we leave a lot of stain → we are wrapped and wrapped in
                                   gossamer days → at
the end what is left is a trail → of bodyfluid → of all this fear → can you

it → it beats under my shroud → I have to stop the lullaby → when
          questioned said yes → said I
almost believe you are there → you are there → said the season of
          periods is over → said hold
each of us up to the light after our piece of time is cut off we are the
          long ribbon of our days
nothing more → do you mind → and a crowd comes and looks at the
          long worm of our
bodytrace → in this light → they will see the stainage of our having lived
          and think it has a
shape → it is dirt → it is ooze’s high requiem → becoming

“Ooze’s high requiem” is about as close as these poems ever get to uplift. What we get instead is significant ambiguity. Are the “periods” no-longer-in-season punctuation? Or is she writing of menopause? Who is the questionably present “you”? Is it Christ in his shroud? Or as his shroud? Or her father in his stained blanket of a body?

Such ambiguities—and the high stakes of distinguishing the right pronoun or preposition among options—make the second of the collection’s four parts the most moving and most engaging. When Graham is awakened by a dog in “Vigil,” she recognizes that it may be alerting her to a change of being in another room. Gender-neutral references to the dog (“It stands and breathes and makes me / look”) become indistinct from references to death (“Is it come this time”). As she follows “it” through the residence, Graham considers what conditions of being may pertain “afterwards” if her mother’s life has ceased, writing of the air’s ongoing doings and qualities as “flow, cluster, possibility, speed—stirred but / not stirred-for.” That dispositional for will cease with the loss of its object. Likewise, toward the end of “The Post Human,” she interrupts the assertion “There on the bed just now—” to implore her just deceased father parenthetically: “(look, all of a sudden now I cannot write ‘your’ / bed).” It takes a fastidiously honest, formal feeler to imagine and figure her parents’ deaths grammatically.

Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” is clearly a precursor for this cluster in part II. America’s original maestro of expressive syntactical extremes addresses his fallen Civil-War comrade as “you” even after the young man has perished, shifting to third-person reference “just as the dawn appear’d” to imply that while a persistent presence remained local in the dead body throughout the night, the soul has then risen with the sun. “Reading to My Father” most meaningfully pushes against Whitman’s transcendentalism. Graham, too, feels compelled to shift pronouns: “here comes my you, rising in me, my feel- / ing your it, my me, in- / creasing, elaborating, flowing, not yet released from form, not yet, / still will-formed, swarming, mis- / informed.” Instead of waiting for dawn, however, she waits for the embalmers, feeling the not-quite-rightness of the titular preposition to, feeling her own automatism kick in apparently because the “thin machines that ticked and hummed until just now / are off for good,” feeling the reach of human artifice as “the hissing multiplying / satellites out there I took for stars.” The poem’s closing gesture is literally as well as emotionally touching. Having propped “our open book on you” (her father’s corpse) and read first it (“where we left off”) and “then, one last time, the / news” (because Curtis Bill Pepper had been a journalist and bureau chief), she reveals that she has tacitly shifted from consumption to production:

                                        —Once upon a time I say into my air,
and I caress you now with the same touch
as I caress these keys.

As she begins to tell a new story with no-longer-shared air, she types on her laptop as if to embalm the shared minutes and thus stay decomposition herself.

Although most of Fast’s poems are so long-lined and so arbitrarily enjambed as to resemble prose poetry, Graham is far more phonetically playful in this book than she has ever been. Cancer is figured as prosodic redundancy: “in my flesh these / rapid over-rhyming cells…want us to go faster, faster, headlong with / mirth ruth glee.” She riffs off Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” to address herself from the point of view of a hospitable chorus of oncologists: “give me your / mass, your teeming cell-dividing / mass—give me your poverty, / your every breath is screened.” Later she has her doctor reassure her in an improbable rap:

you are a shoo-in as the heroine, new citizen, back since the pleistocene,
being touched up like a virgin engine in the squeaky clean saline,
punchline, your soul at plumb-line, magic marker written in in print
to make sure LEFT is left, it’s not benign this timeworn
zone in you, no not benign this fast archive,
surgical thread making its dragline in the artificial
moonshine—how supine must the whole apparatus of being get

A consent-seeking inquisition of identity fluidity entitled “Self Portrait: May I Touch You” answers this morpheme drip of -in, –ine, -ene with its copious -tudes and -ides and -hoods.

Fast’s meditative, mediated maximalism serves up too much and not enough: a feast of privations. Graham’s early poems often had an arcing grace for which a stuttering discontinuity has come increasingly—and in Fast pervasively—to substitute. Shotgun sequencing’s inelegant advancements upon the Human Genome Project come to mind as an analogy. And other disconcerting analogies lurk in the book’s exhaustive, exhausting inclusiveness. Fast’s readers find themselves in a position akin to that of her bots and her deepwater “ghostfishing” nets. Before we can take Fast in, we are made to mine or trawl it:

the coil of the listening along the very bottom—the nets weighed down
ballast—raking the bottom looking for nothing—indiscriminate—there          is nothing in
particular you want—you just want—you just want to close the
third dimension—to get something which is all—becomes all—once you
indiscriminate—discards can reach 90% of the catch—am I—the habitat
and flattened—net of your listening and my speaking we can no longer
          tell them

Although Graham has frequently testified to the human knack for atrocity, she trusts that readers of her poetry are not indiscriminate. We will process the serried phrases, seeking the chronic ideas, the thematic threads of concern that connect often nonsequential packets of observation, inquiry, and emotion. By implication, however, there’s a lot of “bycatch” that could be or must be discarded.

Why invite such criticism by supplying the figures for it? There’s a common term for the literary mode that foregrounds the interpretive frame it seeks to assail. But this isn’t satire. Whereas Alexander Pope implicitly mocks any morality that could suffer his yoking of stained fabric and stained honor, Graham implies that such meting out of quanta and qualia (“clumps of feel/think”) is nigh inevitable—“the order of the day,” a symptom of our now’s sickly ghost. She would relay her jeremiad otherwise if she could. It’s just that “the words don’t grip-up into sentences for me, / it is in pieces.” The piecemeal it is owned up to, owned. Hybrids’s title poem concluded by asking, “And if I break you are you mine?” The answer is yes.

Once I have overcome my initial frustrations with each of Graham’s books since Erosion, I have found myself thankful for her refusal to settle. In the long run, one learns from her figural and syntactical stress tests to value intuition above instinct because the latter relies on, and internalizes, a static world while the former welcomes new life and insight by embracing change. Earnest foot-dragging may serve evolution no less than upward striving. What wells in Fast’s resulting declivities is not rain but time. Other than in and own, the book’s most interrogated word may be now. “I am the temporary → but there is also the permanent,” she tells the bot of “Honeycomb,” then concludes by asking with ponderous skepticism, “have you looked / to it → for now →” “The sun and the bedrail—do they touch each other more than you and I now,” she asks her dead father in a season of periods; “Is that a place now. Do you have a now.”

By the book’s end, much of what might have been discounted as an inadequately curated stream of consciousness may instead be esteemed as a tender tribute to Graham’s disoriented yet persistently creative mother, for the rest of us an emblem of our Earth. The final poem, “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me,” draws further upon the plenitude of that manual mistake in PLACE’s “Lapse” by not pushing beyond or above, by not exacting distinctions, by letting the whole apparatus of being be supine. It could have been titled “My Hands Writing about Mother’s Hands Drawing Me,” but as Graham asserts in the course of a very long, “cursive” sentence, “I want this to not be / my writing of it, want my hands not / to be here also, mingling with hers / who will not take my hand ever into / hers.” Does she seek to compensate for hand-holdings denied or to respect her mother’s irrational refusals? The layered negatives leave the answer ambiguous, but it’s evident: Graham wishes to write as the object, to share her unselved mother’s unmooring from subjecthood even as she makes. Published three decades earlier, The End of Beauty (1987) ends, in “Imperialism,” with a heart-wrenching dismissal of her mother’s body as “a plot a / shape, one of the finished things, one of the // beauties” that she could further impugn by reducing synecdochically to “all / arms no face at all dear god, all arms—”. At the end of Fast, Graham gives that body, those arms, and, extending further, their hands and digits their due:

the mind
does not—I don’t think—know this
but the fingers, oh, for all my life
scribbling open the unseen,
done with mere things, not
interested in appraisal, just
seizure—what is meant by
seizure—all energy, business-
serious, about direction, tracing
things that dissolve from thingness
into in-betweens—                                  

The hands have a mind of their own, and memory. They “have / known what to find in the unmade…and / dragged it into here—that it be / visible.” One can hear in Graham’s description of their drawing as dragging the moiling of the River Ganges in “Imperialism,” of the oft-flooded Iowa, and of this latest volume’s Charles. Graham’s aim all along has also been seizure—what Wallace Stevens called “the intensest rendezvous”—not the faux action-at-a-distance of appraisal. To appraise such serious business seems beside the point.

June 2019.
This review is in
Chicago Review 62.1/2/3.