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Magazine Article


Elisa Gabbert


The New York Times Book Review, New York Times, Issue Oct. 23 (2022)


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Jorie Graham’s new book, an omnibus volume of her last four collections, shows that some themes have been present in her career from the start.

If you’ve ever taken a psych class, you may have seen an instructor hold a blank piece of paper up in front of the room, then wad it into a ball, the whole flat 8.5-by-11 sheet made compact inside a fist. The point of this demonstration is to show why human brain tissue is crumpled rather than smooth. It allows greater surface area to fit in a small space: more brain in the skull. You might also note how the opposite corners of the page can now touch. More folds mean more connections, more speed, more power — a good metaphor for poems. Verse (from the Latin for “turn,” as in turn of the plow) creates more folds. Lines call attention to the surface area of language, the words that brush against one another as they file into their pews, not just the words next to them but above and below them too. Lines accordion more meaning into narrow margins. “This spiral staircase/made of words,” Jorie Graham writes self-referentially in the poem “Root End” — a helical shape being the most efficient use of space when you need to climb a story.

I thought of these metaphors — the Chinese fan, the paper brain — while reading [TO] THE LAST [BE] HUMAN (Copper Canyon, 307 pp., paperback, $22), an omnibus edition of Graham’s four most recent books, originally published between 2008 and 2020, years during which she has invested sustained attention in the ongoing climate crisis and humanitarian disasters. (Robert Macfarlane, in his introduction to the volume, calls it an “Anthropocene journal.”) But while these ecological and existential concerns are always present — the future feels shorter, “the permanent is ebbing” — it seems to me that Graham’s great subject since her first book was published, in 1980, has always been and continues to be human consciousness, the manifold and many-folded self. The vastness of mind contained within the fragile column of the body.

In essays and interviews, Graham has referred to first lines as breaking the silence, a way of “chipping into the silence” of the page, and the poems here often begin with waking, at the threshold of day: “Eyes shut I sense I am awakening & then I am/awake but/deciding/to keep eyes shut, look at the inside.” Is the silence of the white page a kind of darkness too, a no-thing-ness? “I want to break the dark with the idea of God,” Graham writes, in “Of Inner Experience.” To wake is to become a conscious mind again, to break the silence of night; to open your eyes is to break the darkness of sleep. To wake, to write, is to begin to think. “The Bird That Begins It” starts this way: “In the world-famous night which is already flinging away bits of dark but not/quite yet.” (I like to think of the poetry waking, the consciousness it represents blinking on and off between poems.) It ends: “It is/day./The human does not fit in it.” The world, and time, have become ill fitting, much as our physical forms don’t quite fit our souls: “you will never be happy with/your body — it is not the right body.”

Other poems start at dusk, day’s exit — transitional zones, more realms of “not quite.” Take “No Long Way Round”: “Evening. Not quite. High winds again.” With Graham’s signature staggered line lengths, the shorter lines force a shift in register:

There was, in such a time, in addition,

an obligation to what we called telling

the truth. We


the feeling

of it — truth — whatever we meant by it —

Those short lines, in particular “We/liked/the feeling/of it,” seem to underline themselves, as if they have phantom italics. Later in this poem, Graham uses short lines again: “It is/strange but you still/need to tell/your story.” The tighter breaks are a jolt, a seatbelt catching, to counteract the breathless urgency of longer lines in long, dense poems that tend to rush ahead with many ands and ampersands, dashes and ellipses and few periods, as in “Embodies”: “I was not a mistake is what my humanity thinks, I cannot/go somewhere/else than this body, the afterwards of each of these instants is just/another instant, breathe, breathe,/my cells reach out, I multiply on the face of/the earth, on the/mud — I can see my prints on the sweet bluish mud —” and so on, one 500-plus-word sentence. A runaway intelligence.

The idea of telling — the truth, one’s story — has been a theme across Graham’s career, an ars poetica motif that reminds me of Martha Graham’s advice to a younger choreographer:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

Jorie Graham, in her work, seems to honor this same life force, the singular point of view of one consciousness, or from one consciousness — the view from inside a skull. (“Here on this page. Here in my head.”) In “Vertigo,” from her third book, “The End of Beauty,” Graham asks, “What is it pulls at one … That it has no shape but point of view?” And in the stunning poem “Picnic,” from “Region of Unlikeness,” “And why should I tell this to you,/and why should telling matter still…?” “Why do we think? What is the thinking for?” Biologists have asked the same question — organisms don’t need consciousness to live, and consciousness (awareness of living, of thinking) is costly. It isn’t necessary but it must be worth it, for humans, from an evolutionary perspective; the advantage must offset the energy.

Why think, why write, why break the silence? I have wondered sometimes if global warming makes our own deaths feel more real, as though threats to civilization were an overdeath, as though we had to die twice. But if “the synthetic materials last forever,” as Graham writes in “Deep Water Trawling” (our plastics are destined to outlive our species), there is also a sense in which our work lasts forever. “What the lips just inconceivably apart can make,” she wrote in “The End of Beauty,” “cannot then, ever again, be uncreated.” Art exists in theoretical permanence. It may not be remembered — there may be no record — but it did, at least, happen. There is some point of view, I’m convinced, from which everything matters. In the poem “Untitled,” first published in “Place” (2012), Graham’s speaker addresses a posited reader from a deep-time future: “you out there/peering in, listening, to see who we were: here: this was history:/their turn/is all they actually have/flowing in them.” If everything matters, the I persists.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays and criticism, most recently “Normal Distance.” Her On Poetry columns appear four times a year.