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Publication Type:Magazine Article
Source:Boston Review (2000)
Soon after the long-absent King Agamemnon exits the stage in the classical tragedy named for him, a chorus of "broken husks of men" voices as one its insecurity: "I choke with anguish, / mutter through the nights. Never to ravel out a hope in time / and the brain is swarming, burning--." The translator Robert Fagles defends Aeschylus’s eccentric style--his stuttered syntax, his writhing then cut-short sentences, his flirtations with incoherence--noting that when he "strains for self-expression and it turns to baffling obscurity, there may be a lack of technique, though more likely there is too much ‘self.’ ":
Proud to grapple with concepts that are new, inchoate, mystical, tremendous ... he is continually turning the dangers of his language into strengths, its roughness into power, its cries of inadequacy into copiousness and song.
In her seventh book of poems, Swarm, Jorie Graham honors Fagles’s take on Aeschylus, for good reason. (Change a few pronouns, substitute "prayer" for "song," and the above would make a splendid blurb for this collection.) Like the Greek tragedian, Graham eschews the mnemonics of neat metrics and catchy phrasing, seeking instead to lodge, as in our muscles, kinesthetically, the feel of an aggregate in crisis--the wresting apart then away, the reforming in transit, and the as yet unsettled seeking itself. She deliberately forfeits the preservational qualities of honey. Her worker bees are all scouts; the queen has led them away from the comfortable known but is not herself equipped or inclined to find a new home.
Swarm--the title flickers, noun and verb--is Graham’s most vulnerable book to date. Her past work, at least since The End of Beauty (1987), denatured risk by romancing various species of going-wrong. For example, that collection’s cinematically clipped opening poem, "Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them," ended with a just lapsed Eve "loving that error, loving that filial form, that break from perfection // 32 // where the complex mechanism fails, where the stranger appears in the clearing, // 33 // out of nowhere and uncalled for, out of nowhere to share the day." Reading the poems that followed, one was likely to feel similarly expelled from the walled garden of easily harvested Meaning. But no one could have missed the celebratory tone of this deviance; no one need have feared that Graham herself was bewildered.
Swarm, on the other hand, is a kind of Self-Portrait as the Between, and though its own opening poem gestures at some of the same themes--"Give me the glassy ripeness in failure"--such self-consciousness, bereft of optimism, inoculates not. Before we come to this imperative, and certainly before we recognize in it the sheen of our first disobedience’s fruit (and in that sheen a reflection of ourselves, or of Graham’s self?), we are informed--then induced to feel formally--that readerly ease is not a priority in this first of two ostensible excepts "from The Reformation Journal":
Locations are omitted
Uncertain readings are inserted silently.
Abbreviations silently expanded.
A "he" referring to God may be capitalized
(is crying now) show me
is crying now (what’s wrong)
in a strange tree of atoms of
too few more no wonder
Give me the glassy ripeness
Give me the glassy ripeness in failure
Give me the atom laying its question at the bottom of nature
Though Graham often adopts a mythic or otherwise recognizable character as a lyric speaker, the point-of-view here is apparently authorial. So when the post hoc descriptions of editorial procedure give way to parenthesis and fracture followed by sparsely contextualized demands, we have no one to blame for our discomfort but Graham herself. Why, we might ask, would this poet forfeit her former deftness and risk alienating her audience so?
The dust-jacket write-up suggests that her lyric speaker has lost track of who its audience is. This is a symptom, I think, not a strategy. Such "vertigo" is the unavoidable side-effect of what the book’s longest poem calls "Probity," which we might think of as a portmanteau word for "probing integrity." I’ve appreciated Graham’s earlier willingness to liken explicitly her poetic pursuits to territorial conquest but have always inferred that she thought the moral depravity of such conquests on a grand scale did not carry over to the individual imagination’s exploits. Here, in the final one-line section of "Underneath (8)," she writes, "Where definition first comes upon us empire," and much of Swarm evades definition as if thereby to avoid complicity in empire’s impositions. Writing in a time when lyric’s roots in epigram and song have largely eroded, Graham instead founds the genre on what poet-scholar Linda Gregerson has slyly termed the reformation of the subject. In Swarm, she conceives of the subject--that is, the doer, the thinker, but also, etymologically, the thrown-under, the thing controlled, the theme--as a composite, often held together by forces not intrinsic to it. Having atomized, Balkanized, or otherwise segregated the constituent parts, Graham trusts that they will regroup, as of their own volition, into better, if only because autonomous or more honest, configurations.
As Helen Vendler observed soon after the publication of Materialism (1993), each of Graham’s books adopts a new line, which then radically affects not only her rhythms but her whole lyric strategy. The parry and thrust of fencing gives way to skirmish when switch-blades are taken up instead. Whereas the comparably "difficult" poet John Ashbery avoids fixing what would otherwise flutter and, like Henry James in prose, advertises the ineffable by conspicuously protecting it, Graham is too scientifically skeptical for such delicacy. She has been as likely to reveal the fleeting or fragile by slashing about the vicinity (she wields the gerund and present participle like a rapier). If resistance is offered, if something bleeds, then she knows it was there. In The Errancy (1997), however, line itself gave way in many poems to a measure Benoit Mandelbröt might have assigned a fractional dimension just under two: run-on, em-dashed accretions from which whole landscapes and inscapes would unfold. In Swarm, Graham takes the opposite tact, pulverizing the line, the sentence, the normative sequencing of thoughts, and with them the self. In "Underneath (9)," she writes:
Back there its river ripped into pieces, length
gone, buried in parts, in sand.
Believe me I speak now for the sand
The first line partakes of the buoyant length it elegizes; it is the second, tabulated and imperative line that represents Graham’s abrupt rhythms of searching entreaty in this book (the demand "Explain" will ring in your ears). Elsewhere, she qualifies the last of these phrases: "I’m keeping the parts from finding the whole again // page after page, unstitched, speaking for sand."
In fact, Graham speaks for all particulars that must congregate before they can accomplish mind or change. Even the components of personhood have dispersed: Voice has gone off on its own, a "bitter ... spare part." Likewise, the "first person" is said to be detachable--"Look, I can rip it off (the pile in the corner)"--though the ripping’s need of an agent (the pronoun "I") belies the pronouncement no less than pronouncement itself belies Voice’s alleged abdication. But think also: hive (of course), or Greek chorus, or empire. Think anything composed of atoms: for example, "Birdcall in the farthest windsounds: atoms" or that "strange tree of atoms," no doubt the Tree of Knowledge. Think of thinking itself, of its resemblance to seeing through a screen:
... glimmering the world into a silver grid.
Inside the grid nothing complete. Everything
that was plunging
the screengrid forced so deep into the eye
disappearance--or the mind--as
silvers alike although all bendings or bowings
except for the fact of
I’m reminded of Blake’s critique of calculus, "Newtons Doctrine of the Fluxion of Atoms," for denying such difference. Again and again, Graham seeks the final breaking point of both matter and spirit, and finds that even at the level of atomic incorruptibility ("incorruption because already as little as it can be"), uniqueness persists; even atoms are "saturated with situation."
Mentally rigorous as this may be, I am thankful for the few full poems and many passages where such calculated catatonia is in abeyance: the title poem, for example, in which Graham describes the hexagonal pattern on her telephone mouthpiece in Italy as a "tiny geometric swarm of / openings sending to you // no parts of me you’ve touched, no places where you’ve // gone--." Here the space of tabulation ("two petals fall and then the is wholly changed"), actually stands for something, like the underlined blanks in Graham’s previous books. In my favorite poem, "Fuse," whose five parts run through most of this collection’s repertoire of abstract themes (e.g., duty vs. abdication, the good vs. the beautiful) and syntactic/typographic mannerisms, Agamemnon’s watchman ekes out a sleep-deprived, apprehensive monody. His early lines are riven: "It is a sentence the long watch I keep. / The appearance of me. Forgive the absurdity." They soon fuse, however, and as Graham had optically ravished an amaryllis in Materialism’s "Opulence," so the sentry, diverting his eyes from the stars and horizon, wiles away his watch with a similar enterprise:
For a full hour once just stared at one rose.
Up-flaunting, irregular, winged, without any
Mornings it emerging from shadow to tell its
one story over.
Sightless facing. I try to learn from it disinter-
And what would the fruits of such disinterestedness come to? The watchman’s first stab at explication--"How to drive a point home where there is no point. Or home"--gets to the heart of it, and to the heart of Graham’s project and dilemma throughout this collection. Then, for a spell, terminal punctuation becomes scarce, the syntax follows the rose’s exfoliating example, and the force of thinking that through Graham’s "Fuse" is driven by the flower takes hold:
Dear sentence so filled with deferral,
built on forgetting word by word how life
outside a garden now full of moonlight,
as if a ferocious bleeding,
asking for breathlessness, for a finishing-out
using the breath down to the last broadcast--
the final strictest letting-go of seed,
that the underneath might grip it[.]
This "strictest letting-go"--an excellent translation of Gelassenheit and thus an acknowledgment of Graham’s ongoing devotion to a late-Heideggerian mode of poetic thinking--is this poet-thinker’s way to achieve a staggering vulnerability without pretending to relinquish the top-down perspective of one so devoted to analysis. In the "Guardian Angel" series of The Errancy, perspectival monads fretted about how to arrange the knowable world, what to filter out, where to make cognitive vacuums for human minds to abhor. Patterned after Gilles Deleuze’s allegorical depiction of the Leibnizian monad as a baroque, two-story house, her angels see from, and to an extent are, the upper stories. So, too, in many early poems Graham’s lyric speaker narrates from on high, from a place of theoria, a word that derives from the Greek for spectator, someone who watches from the nose-bleed seats of the amphitheater. At a reading last April, Graham quipped about "back when," as she said, "I had a poetics." Between theories, she no longer looks down confidently from above but trusts what is underneath--the subjected, the sometimes fertile world of dirt, and "even the listener, here now, you"--to germinate the seeds of her meaning.
With a quotation from Dickinson, Graham’s opening poem concludes:
"to all except anguish the mind soon adjusts"
have reduced, have trimmed, have cleared,
have abbreviations silently expanded
to what avail
explain asks to be followed
explain remains to be seen[.]
How all this reformation, this swarming, will settle indeed remains to be seen. I hope Graham’s next collection will contain more mellifluous distillations than this one. For as any beekeeper will tell you, too long a sugarless winter and you end up with only the broken husks of dead bees. Swarming, however, often signifies a hive’s health and productivity; the colony, like Aeschylus’s self, has merely outgrown its confining shape. House the diasporic moiling and double your honey. In the meantime, the true risks Graham takes in this book are indispensable to lyric.
Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review