IT TAKES CONFIDENCE TO NAME a collection of poems Place and even more to name a poem “Earth.” Such titles might suggest a dull positivism, a lapse of imagination (“Lapse” is another of the titles). Jorie Graham can afford these big-everything titles because she is never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always “the outermost question being asked me by the World today.” What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers. The answers can be summed up in the following words from “Untitled”: “we have other plans for your life says the world.”
Graham makes of the banal topic
“place” a great bonfire of the questions. We know her famous
“thirsting for ever greater aperture,” as she put it in “The
Guardian Angel of Point-of-View” in her sixth book Errancy.
In Teresa’s time, she might have become a saint. How she clamors to
know the absolute, even if it no longer presents itself except as
infected by time, planetarily. “The real is crossing you,” she
wrote in her first book, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, and
not to “know” what it is, what it knows, causes her anguish. Later,
in her eighth book, Never, she elaborated on the matter
magnificently: “O sweet conversation: protozoa, air: how long have
you been speaking? / The engine [of the most] is passing
us now. / At peak: the mesmerization of here, this me here,
this me / passing now… . We, who can now be neither wholly here
nor disappear … . how the instant is very wide and bright and
we cannot / ever / get away with it—the instant—what
holds the ‘know.’” The “most” is the default quantity of the
absolute, but it is so very much more than nothing. The title of
this poem, “The Covenant” is almost ironic; but, no, Graham
will not allow the irony. There really is plenitude, as if
promised: ” plenitude, yes / but only as a simultaneous emptying of
the before … .”
On the other hand, material reality is (and there was a time when we knew this) a traumatizing shock. The two-year-old child in the new poem “Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field)” experiences it unprotectedly; the sharp puzzle of torn grassheads that the poet deposits in her hand announces it: “I watch / terror spray from you in / colonies of tiny glances.” As for the poet herself, she says “I am / not screaming because I am / old enough to hang on hang on.”
Everything “human” tumbles out of the gash of this trauma. Graham tackles the ontological problem like no other poet, more head-on, more fully, and with more exigent distress. A virtual academy of one, she dramatizes the whole “p” crowd of our troubles: personal, political, psychological, philological, phenomenological, philosophical. The drama of her career has lain in how her various hungers — to know the essence of, to preserve the appearances of, to love — have played out against her dreads: of history, of the passing of the unique, and of words as mere phantoms.
Graham’s distinctive hyperattentiveness — appetitive, self-worrying — now flares up and now burns low. In her first two books the curiosity about the “real” was restrained; just typed in, as it were. Then, in the remarkable third, The End of Beauty, the torture of not capturing completely what can be known took over and deeply altered the form, the tone, the feel, the degree, the size. The poems did not so much unravel as burst out from the old, staid standard of the well-made:
Can you help me in this?
Are you there in your stillness? Is it a real place?
God knows I too want the poem to continue,
want the silky swerve into shapeliness
and then the click shut
and then the issue of sincerity …
(“From the New World”)
After this transformation, Graham’s poetry could hardly forget that “the shut thing” could “not be true enough / anymore” (“Picnic,” Region of Unlikeness) The next five books were marked by tugs-of-war between discouragement and hope. But in her ninth and tenth books, Overlord (2005) and Sea Change (2008), the tension slackened off. Graham had nearly had enough of the ambition to be our guardian angel of a potentially solving “point of view.” “The balance is / difficult, is coming un- / done, & something strays further from love than we ever imagined,” she notes in “Nearing Dawn” in Sea Change, which ends with “the thought that … you have / no rightful way / to live.” The lineation, which before had suffered every shift and twinge of sensibility, became nearly automatic. In Sea Change, in particular, the alternation of a longish slip-easy prose line with centered short, wiry, braking lines facilitated flat-level processings of situations and place.
Though Graham has used the same often-indifferent long and short line pattern in Place, the new work has more fight in it. Feeling has returned to pace. Witness “Torn Score.” At the start, there is urgency in the line breaks as time tells against her:
’ lessening as also all low-flame
love: and places loved; space time and people heightening burning, then nothing:
‘ always less
incipience as visible
time shows itself …
A hope-based need for a “precise” art announces itself; the violinist inhales and “please music begin, the years are / disappearing, no one will cough, . . , begin faithful to the one truth, precision.” And two pages later, at the end of the poem, the promotion of life that is Graham’s greatest gift reasserts itself:
so hungry not to slip out of its
catch its span-held
those could be last fall’s leaves piled on dead leaves, thinning, trans-
they are feathers,
coming loose from
snow and rushing now, all of them at once now, down, into the branchfilled glassy
pool of sky to
small cheeping birds, all appetite—
In the long line beginning “snow and rushing now,” the meter of the passage — otherwise composed, mimicking held breath — is excited into sharing the vital loosening. The Graham of The End of Beauty, stalwart of heroic endeavor, is within hailing distance here.
A struggle not to disbelieve and a painful promoting love also distinguish other strong poems in Place, including “Although,” “Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field),” “Treadmill,” “Sundown,” “The Bird that Begins It,” and “Lapse.” The plots of most of these poems are too big and loose, their openings-up of the world too resistant to reduction, to be outlined here: the poems must be read and re-read. The richest of them is the gorgeously dense “Although.” The poem begins, puzzlingly, with the fragment “Nobody there” and continues immediately with the nonetheless potent literary thereness of “The vase of cut flowers with which the real is (before us on this page) permeated-is it a page-look hard-(I try)-this bouquet in its / vase-tiger dahlias (red and white), orange freesia (three stalks) (floating / out, one / large blue-mauve hydrangea-head, still wet,” etc. The explanation for “Nobody there,” seriously delayed, is that we are “no longer … inhabitants,” being, as we are, too much in our heads, “not really anywhere.” Besides, the poem is more than half written into the future, when we literally will not be there: “are there still ‘ones’ of / things-vases or days- / you think it is wrong, perhaps, to play this game. / when we are all / still here.” Is it “wrong”? No, but it’s tricky; boldly novel; spooky.
All challenge, the poem even says nay to its nay:
We must write the history of appearances
that tomorrow be invested
as casually as the conversation drifting in from the next
Graham has hardly ever evoked things-in-places so full-bodiedly as she does here, showing us the very thing to which we are theoretically not present. These objects and actions are pictured, not thought, onto the page. In a spurring reading, this demonstration is a lesson in how to observe, how to participate in unmediatized appearances, so as to escape nullity. In an existential reading, it is a skillful and all but undermining exception to Graham’s argument that the human is constitutionally outside the world. In any case, the poem qualifies her poetics of grinding force by a loving particularity.
Graham’s drive to apprehend (she goes so far as to call it “greed”) shows up in the book’s very first poem, “Sundown.” The poem is a locus classicus of her wish to master time, to prevent erasure. Here, as the poet sits on Omaha Beach with her feet “in the breaking wave-edge,” a horse and rider approach from behind. They are seen “flooded from the front with the late sun he/they were driving into-gleaming- / wet chest and upraised knees and / light-struck hooves and thrust-out even breathing of the great beast-from just behind me, passing me.” For good measure, Graham notes also “his hooves returning, as they begin to pass / by,” the ambiguous “returning” making a potential loop of the action. A lightning-quick processing, then, of a gallop simultaneously behind, beside, and seen from in front, with, as a bonus, a bionic hearing of the beast’s “even breathing.” Contorting the law of succession, the technique here is the “too much” of the sublime. It piles frame on frame to make the horse a vital body so temporally layered on itself that it all but arrests time, even backs it up, in what is, nonetheless, a gallop through time “to clear out / life … where no one again is suddenly killed-regardless of ‘cause.’” The multiple perspectives interact, fruiting and clashing. Near the beginning of the poem, the speaker is unaware of the approaching “calm full gallop” (oxymoron as dare) behind her but aware anyway and turns to look over her shoulder. Subliminal omniscience…
After the comparative lull in Overlord and Sea Change, Place is hungry for news of whatever “leaks out of … scene, / once it’s the untheoretical here,” as Graham wrote in “Relativity: A Quartet” in 1993’s Materialism. Her dialectic springs back in nearly full force, encompassing both “appetite,” an eruption of presentness, and the human ineptitude for living. But once again the would-be omnivorous (and omnipresent) Graham is checked not only by omnipotent change but by the limits of discursivity, which in Never she calls “stump interpretation,” and, to boot, by run-away historical guilt-hindrances that say we have chosen the wrong way to live. In fact, on balance, the tenor of Graham’s poetry is “dark-true” (to adopt a phrase Graham uses in Errancy to describe Pascal’s manteau). To quote “Willow in Spring Wind: A Showing” (perhaps her finest ars poetica), in the same book, she has kept her work faithful to “the true roughness.” Even her phrase “this rosy sphere of hope and lack” (“Manteau”) is too sweet to fit. Answerability weighs that heavily on her as she strives to be a heroine of complete perspective (by and despite “taking it all down”), while all the time knowing it wouldn’t change a thing in the world’s evils. “We are responsible for the universe,” she writes: a fearsome sentence.
Of the three major recurring complaints in Graham’s work — time’s constant undermining of appearances, the prison of language, and historical guilt — I have yet to elaborate on the continuation of the latter two in Place. I will take up the language problem first. If Graham were not just a sensibility but a rage for thinking (and few other poets have so thought themselves into poetry, so examined what they have to say in the very act of saying it), silence would tempt her more. But throwing herself into the task of articulation, as she does, she must talk and talk (and also get the world to talk back; the path, the minutes, the atoms, everything must talk). Saying is the blood-spot in Graham’s work. Her poems exemplify the modern misgiving that we are nothing outside of discourse, that we speak ourselves into being what we are in an effort to own ourselves, the species, the world. Silence won’t suffice: “I have to trace a path,” the “speaking subject” says in “Solitude” in Never, “I am sinking into the local the temporal open, / that other-than-me who is the I.” But discourse, inevitably marbled by inaccuracy, emptiness, and guilt, can’t assuage the “terrifying … hunger” of which we are “slaves,” the hunger at the least for a presence both languaged and transcendent. Its manipulative greed is “not / precise enough,” says the fox in the new poem “Lull,” an unsparing critic of the poet’s failed greed (not a real fox, of course, but a dummy ventriloquized by Graham, who, perforce, is ever in dialogue with herself).
But the same fox also unfairly chides the poet for having a linguistic brain (she can’t win): “What a rough garment / your brain is / you wear it all over you, fox says / language is a hook you / got caught … had you only looked down / fox says, look down to the / road.” What to do? Will it help to make each poem dynamic, that mode so endangered now that all life has been squashed? Yes, let each poem step forth as a being-in-itself elbowing its way into adventure. Even so, one is honor-bound to keep one’s work (to echo Francis Ponge) on an “appropriate scale,” to make of language “a shelter not much larger than a body,” though “involving all [the creator’s] imagination and reason.” Even Graham’s former stylistic boldness (in abeyance now) suffered constraints. Whereas the literary avant-gardes were nothing but attempts to solve the ontological dead-end of discursivity, Graham doesn’t believe in a literary solution (or any solution) to this problem. A magnificent poem like “Le Manteau de Pascal” (from Errancy) is “wild with rhetoric,” but only like the night, which is “full of hollowness.” No, by and large there is only the impossible attempt to roll the stone of discursivity out of the mouth of the world by means of discursivity, an effort that cannot make the page a pop-up of scenes of “the real” (despite Graham’s persistent fantasy-ambition).
As for the third problem, namely history, the antithesis of place in the new poems is the “face” in “The Future of Belief,” a poem that at first may seem unfortunately ugly, a lifeless fable, but on rereading emerges as a marvel of ferocity. There is this face and you can shove a lot of things into it, for instance “the centuries,” or troops inspecting the keep, or forty-seven people shot and fed to the morning’s ditch: “You can put their muddy jackets and the shawls held tightly / round for / one last / instant now into the face, you can.” It can indeed be done, for history has done it; and, to its shame, the face has yet to explode from the pressure.
Ever since “What the End is For” in The End of Beauty — that frightening poem evoking hundreds of roaring bombers on a North Dakota airfield — Graham has often is accurate turned the lens of her poems onto historical violence and asked, in effect, how do we get past that? The most notable example of this mode in Place comes in the poem “Message from Armagh Cathedral.” Here, the poet begins with a characteristic general concern: “How / will it be told, this evidence, our life, all the clues missing?” Soon she notices a wedding rehearsal going on in the church. Then, after four big pages, war comes in, briefly but memorably:
She is trying
to say the vow again—till death do us part—and I cannot make out what it is that
time will do to them. Why are we going this way, The flowergirls are carrying a pretend
train now, laughter
as they go. The ring bearer is carrying the pillow with no ring. In late morning a
short time before
the explosive device hidden in the basket of fresh laundry went off, Private Jackson,
who still had arm then,
reached down in secret, weapon in one hand to feel the clean fabric. Actually
to smell it. Clean, he
thought. He used to hang it out for his mom, afternoons, hands up at the shoulders
of each shirt, an
extra clip in his teeth as if surrendering. He remembers the line up of shirtsleeves
all blowing one way
in the early evening, in Indiana, and for a blinding moment he realizes they had been
brothers, his father, his uncle, they all had been pointing—in their blues and whites
and checks. He
wished he had turned to see, is what he thinks just before it goes off, they seemed
about to start a
dance—the tiny rhythm in the flapping sleeves.
Allegory is at its lightest, its freshest, smelling most strongly of world, in this great passage, where Graham’s empowering, oppressive concern with the question “Why are we going this way” is both relieved and tortured by a momentarily restorative sensual memory. What the wind-blown shirtsleeves had been pointing to is perhaps what might have been if we had gone with the wind that blows through us. (It is the same wind that the sailor in The Waste Land pilots his craft against, and the same that blows the easel away in modern art.)
In effect Graham long ago predicted the downturn she now writes about, in an almost bare-bones manner in “Dialogue (of the Imagination’s Fear”), a poem on a foreclosure. She has always known that the system, a “human” effort, would fail, has failed. When still a young poet, she quickly caught up with a conclusion articulated by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in 1956: “the horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one, a today without a tomorrow, a situation in which historical man, certainly idealistic man, rots.” A poet of the (almost imaginable) fullness of being, Graham can hardly have landed in a worse time, and a more necessitating one, to do the work she is intent upon doing and best equipped to do.