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Magazine Article

Authors:

Oli Hazzard

Source:

The Times Literary Supplement, The Times Literary Supplement Ltd, London, UK (2013)

URL:

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/reviews/literature_and_poetry/article1311970.ece

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Review of The Taken-Down God

Jorie Graham’s ambitious, densely tangled work rewards the effort.
13 September 2013
By  Oli Hazzard

The Taken-Down God is Jorie Graham’s second volume of selected poems, following The Dream of the Unified Field (1995), and includes work from five collections, beginning with The Errancy (1997) and ending with Sea Change (2008). Its judicious selection from these books provides a comprehensive introduction to Graham’s development over the past fifteen years, and in some ways represents a useful way in which to encounter a poet whose work can be uneven – a characteristic that is perhaps inseparable from her salutary desire for continual change. The poems included here testify to a remarkable willingness to experiment with new forms of expression, as suggested by works as varied as the hesitant, Dickinsonian fragmentation of Swarm (2000), which describes ‘the path of thought also now too bright / so that its edges cut’, and the fluent, expansive Sea Change in which Graham introduced her now typical formal arrangement of long lines protruding from a central column of shorter ones, the transitions between which are enacted by enjambment so abrupt it often divides words in two: ‘you are in- / terrupted again and again . . .’. What provides continuity across this period is Graham’s exploratory sensibility; for her, the ‘activity of awakening’ is always more important than the end result. Though her poems are capable of accommodating sizeable concerns (‘the /end of the world’, ‘the politics of time’, for example), much of her most intensely engaging thought occurs when it moves outwards from small, precisely defined subjects. Particularly fruitful are the moments when she applies her attention to language, which she has a remarkable ability to objectify and animate. ‘Other’, the opening poem of Overlord (2005), employs a brief childhood recollection to interrogate the fertile vagueness of the innocuous phrase ‘now now’:

Now now, the adults used to say
meaning pay attention, meaning the thing at
hand, the crucial thing, has these
slippery sides: this now its one slope, this now its
other. The thing itself, the essential thing, is in
between. Don’t blink. Don’t
miss it. Pay attention. It’s a bullet.

Like Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infrathin’, which stipulates that the attention of the artist should be focused not on metaphorical points of identification between names, objects, moments in time and so on, but rather on the most minute intervals between them (number twelve of his famous list of examples asks us to recognize as distinct the moment between ‘the detonation noise of a gun / (very close) and the apparition of the bullet / hole in the target’), Graham repeatedly challenges herself to realize an impossible precision in attention and expression, while remaining fully aware of its impossibility. The inability of language to seize ‘the essential thing’ is addressed in poem after poem, balanced by a consciousness that, as she has put it in an interview, ‘what leaks in between the attempts at seizure is the thing, and you have to be willing to suffer the limits of description in order to get it’. Despite her awareness that it cannot be figured directly, the desire somehow to present this unpresentable thing persists: ‘In / Silence’ describes the desire to ‘catch in its syntax the necessary sacrifice’ of expression, which is ‘the betrayal (into the clear morning air) / of the source of happiness into mere (sung) happiness’. Given the predominance of this concern with the relationship between description and its subject, it is particularly apt that the title of this Selected Poems should connote both transcription and removal.

Graham’s commitment to ‘the one truth, precision’ is, in some instances, explicitly political in its motivation. Following, at least in part, Ezra Pound’s dictum that ‘a people that grows accustomed to sloppy writing is a people in process of losing a grip on its empire and on itself’, her poems continually resist the detachment of words from their meanings to suit the purposes of those whose intention is to distort or misrepresent. Repeatedly throughout The Taken-Down God she scrutinizes words that, particularly in political discourse, have often been drained of identifiable sense to the point that they seem unabashedly to advertise their ‘shiny / emptiness’. This tendency is continued in P L A C E, Graham’s most recent collection. ‘Dialogue (of the Imagination’s Fear)’ states that ‘it is a / wonder we / can use the word free and have it mean anything at all / to us’. Graham’s extreme, strenuous alertness to natural phenomena can also be seen as a further oblique form of redress against the wilful obfuscations of public speech. ‘Although’ contains a typically scrupulous description:

The vase of cut flowers with which the real is
(before us on the 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 (this
bending falling heavy with
load) (and yellow
rose)

Names, numbers, colours, parentheses and qualifications extend out from one another in a calligrammatic fashion, until the strenuous evocation of the desire for precision overrides any imaginative realization of it: ‘the necessary sacrifice’ referred to above. Elsewhere, we get another exact(ing) description of a flower, which reveals another impetus to attentiveness in its challenge to the reader:

look, you
who might not believe this because
you are not seeing it with your own
eyes: look:
this light
is moving
across that flower on
my sill
at this exact
speed – right now – right here – now it’s gone
yet go back up
five lines it is
still there I can’t
go back, it’s gone
but you –

Here Graham’s appeal to our faith in the reality of the scene she is describing becomes analogous to our faith in the texts that inform us of the reality of – to take two recurring themes of hers – environmental destruction and distant historical events. By the time we have surmounted our hesitations,‘it is / still there I can’t / go back, it’s gone’.

‘Although’ illustrates a common criticism of Graham’s work, which is that she often obscures that which she describes by obtruding herself, or her contextual thinking, too forcefully into the scene; the reader cannot ‘see’ because Graham is too preoccupied with describing her experience of seeing, an excessive mediation: ‘visibility blocking the view’, as she puts it in ‘Evolution’, from Sea Change (2008). Like one of her great inspirations, Elizabeth Bishop, Graham’s most virtuosic descriptions demonstrate that she is having to exert herself very strenuously in order to see what she is describing, but rather than having the point of attention obscured by some other element of the exterior world (as, say, mist and fog recur in Bishop’s work), for Graham it is the mechanics of her own thought, her hunger for connection and extrapolation, as well as the incessant infidelities of her language, that obtrude and obscure, that she has to strip back and fight through in order to reach a never fully achieved point of clarity or perception. These internal obstacles are sometimes dramatized, as in ‘Praying (Attempt of April 19, ’04)’, from Overlord (2005), which extends Graham’s long-standing interest in the relationship between the physical structure of the eye and that which it perceives: ‘Has the human eye changed. The eye doctor asks me / if it was more like dust or soil,the matter my eye splays / against the empty walls. More like dust. Then it’s ok. / It’s really my own blood I see. / It will disintegrate, just not right away’. It is when attempting to parse, with great difficulty, what is actually perceived and what is a hallucination of the sense or the imagination, that Graham’s idiosyncratically knotty thought seems most at home with its subject.

At times, the manner in which Graham situates her perceptions in an abruptly and sometimes unaccountably broad historical context can seem portentous, as in ‘Untitled’, which describes a neighbourhood dog killed by a passing car: ‘my century, the / one where 187 million perished in wars, /massacre, persecution, / famine – all policy-induced / is the one out of which/ I must find the reason / for the young still-loved creature being carried now onto the family lawn’. However, Graham is fully aware of the risk involved in such a manoeuvre, and in the wonderful ‘The Bird on My Railing’ supplies an elusive rationale for the shocking collision of personal and historical experience often encountered in her work: ‘our personal / dead cast always deeper into / the general dead / no matter how hard you try / to keep your /own your / known own’. The peculiar, syntactically jumbled phrase, ‘to keep your / own your / known own’, contaminated by resonances of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous remarks on ‘known unknowns’, expresses Graham’s sense of the often fractious interconnectedness of not only the personal, the political and the historical, but also the known and the unknown, the real and the imagined, the thought and the felt. ‘I was a hard thing to undo’, she writes, channelling Hopkins, in ‘Le Manteau de Pascal’, and it is with this declaration in mind that Jorie Graham’s ambitious, densely tangled work should be approached. It rewards the effort.