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Journal Article


Bedient, Calvin


Threepenny Review (1994)


Materialism; review

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As Jean-Luc Nancy says in The Birth to Presence, "a pure flow of time could not be 'ours.'" Jorie Graham’s Materialism attempts over and over the birth to presence, to a time that is an uncanny sort of "property." Her poetry is the opposite of will-less blossoming; it strains for the gnat of a time and space that includes us, as God includes the saints. Graham's temperament is metaphysical; her single realm, material. Let her stress the visible as much as she likes, paintings with words is not her project—all the descriptions in Materialism put together would not rival a single Marianne Moore stanza for optical sparkle. Graham's real object is to think time and space into their proper strangeness, which is purer than we are, even as her heart says, "Relent, stay, be the eternally manifested, not the eternally manifesting; I'm strained, strained, with being alone in your inhumanly self-emptying presences."

Bible-colored, poised to ring with alarums like Moby-Dick, Graham's poetry has the passion for the absolute that characterizes sublime art and, at the same time, the heart-poured dependence on surfaces that is the senses' mercy to the insatiably ravenous spirit. It is greatly divided, great with division—what it I contains of the human world it may often thin almost to the bursting point, like a balloon wanting to line the whole universe, but only thus can the poet see through the small human order (all too thick a surround in most current poetry) to the seductions and evasions of the material grandeur of reality.

The third of the poems entitled "Notes on the Reality of the Self" is the oddest thing in Materialism, all of which reads like a peculiar new species of poetry. It roughly goes as follows: scene, bakeshop; character, "a man about to eat his morning's slice"; action, his eye-shut prayer of thanksgiving; problem, his momentary ontological blindness. Just when you think that this bakery is reality there come the lines:

The knife, a felled birch left overnight

for tomorrows work on which the moonlight, 

in the eyes of no one, plays, gleaming, the knife

sits awaiting the emptiness it will make appear

where all along there had been emptiness


"Round him / infinite spaces gnaw at his face." A loaf and infinite spaces: what .is their connection? Merely, if not simply, this: from any given visible good ("The loaf is a crucial landmark"), the unfamiliar branches out like a path. Take it. "For days / he hunted for the tree. Found it." Then "Beauty... recognized!— / three redbirds in [the evergreens] and then two now, up and out, chasing the third, / bursting the air all round like water when the monster's / surfacing." For Graham, the visible world is a Moby-Dickish wonder-show of disappearances and bursting appearances, the bursting implying another disappearance. Here is already partly there, the knife a felled birch, for everything relates to everything else, if in a way that only the infinite genius of reality could map. So to "lift the knife" is to evoke "Corridor, stairway, front door—." And so the poem ends, passing outward.

To be so selflessly preoccupied with the widest implications of slices of space, with space's gnawings on the bread of faces, is extraordinary. In another age, Graham might have been a Christian theologian, gender allowing; or a penpierced candidate for sainthood. In ours, her miracle loaf is in a bakery, the cross is a felled birch played on by moonlight; her churchmen, redbirds; and resurrection the surfacing of a monster of endlessly unpredictable ways and limits (white whale, white birch, harpooned whale, felled birch, sliced white loaf. . . the price of being is to be cut into by absence). The purity, if not the all but obsolete nobility, of Graham's project is bothered by too much lofty philosophical company—thirty-two or so pages of quotations from Plato, Sir Francis Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, etc., some of which are beside her point (for instance, Wittgenstein on pictorial form, which she does not emulate). Compiling a Graham Reader (and she has the wit to quote from McGuffey's Reader) in order to educate her readers, she overdoes it in a way that suggests self-doubt. In reality, each of her brain cells is already full of heads bent over books in libraries, her nerve-endings are already the feelers of super-refined thought, her imagination is already an advancing phalanx of concepts hidden within concepts, so she can afford to snap her fingers at the  inner prompting to show her knowledge, if she wishes.

A more serious impurity, because internal to some of her poems, is the hybridization of resistant historical matter—an earnest more of Grahams good heart and conscience than of continuing inquiry. Walter Benjamin's virtual prose poem on the angel of history ("he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet," etc.) hangs like a silent, irrelevant gong in Materialism, whereas it reverberates terribly through every a page of Carolyn Forche's The Angel of History (1980). Graham seems anxious to comprehend history in her book as an item, for the sake of comprehensiveness if itself; but, in doing so, she reduces historical events to allegories of her own ontological anguish, leaving, as it were, real arms and legs hanging out. (Her absorption in human crises really belongs to a separate project, toward which she has been hankering and sidling since Region of Unlikeness, published in 1991.)

Pushing beyond even the intellectualized lyricism, the anti-nailing attenuations of The End of Beauty (1987), where Graham first reinvented the cogitative lyric, Materialism breaks into itchy-woolly ascetic contemplation of phenomena that seem (after an idea she cites from Jonathan Edwards) "newly created in I each successive moment." (No history here.) At the same time, the poet forsakes I the gender investigations of the earlier book (after all, she had done that) for a dissection of moments into their visual joints and organs. Here her passion is, in Emerson's words, "to form an acquaintance with things." If she lacks what Forche has in abundance, what George Eliot thought womanly, namely the ability to live in the experience of others, she has something perhaps equally rare, a I soul innocence that echoes Captain Ahab's surprise, if not his dangerous sense I of affront, when he says, in words the poet quotes, "Swim away from me, do you?" She may write nearer the heart of ontological trauma (the shock of there I being a world at all, the further shock of its passing) than any poet since Rilke.  The writing in Materialism is not a school of conventional beauties: "ventriloquial breeze on which the / furry gypsy-moths from the immensities of x / now constellate" means to be, and is, a new kind of philosophical description, a sieve through which the hunger for surfaces (or is it for an end to surfaces?) continues to pour. The poetry is in the constant rhythm of moving forward and peeling back, applying a new phrase like a trowel or a scraper or both at once, getting at things, over and over, in their living actuality ("Nothing is virtual"). "Is there, a new way of looking," the poet asks in the first poem, "Notes on the Reality of the Self"—"valences and little hooks . . . ?" Graham perhaps comes as close as anyone could to fashioning or feeling out little hooks, slippery or muffled hooks  though they are.

The many strong poems in Materialism include the several "Notes on the Reality of the Self" (except for the dull one made up of quoted classic haiku—not to offend its many fans, but I find haiku slick compared to Grahams own rough planings of the real), "Subjectivity," "The Dream of the Unified Field," "The Visible World," "Existence and Presence," and "The Surface" (titles that half-read like entries in a philosophical index). The most magnificent is the perhaps overambitiously titled "Relativity: A Quartet"; here the poet hits upon a vehicle—and literally so, a train ride—that makes natural room for something of the variety of the human drama itself ("And I see on her arms the needle tracks,"etc.), even as the poet as passenger remains attuned to her own going by, "as if  matter itself were going / on and on to its own / destination" while laying "itself down frame by frame onto the wide . . . opening of our wet / retina .. . / all the astonishments . . . smearing onto us." The poem is somber with a sense of our violent human distance from "the fundamental uncreated essence," as with the sense that "there has never been anything / given to another, there has never been anything received from another." Hence the loneliness of Grahams quest to close at least the distance between sight and created essence, in a profound objection to the dangerousness of our species. Even though the longer poems splay away from a single object of contemplation or "unity" of time and place, what Graham here most trains her formidable powers of concentration on (if through a technique of almost alienatingly abstract description) is the fate—a sorrowful fate? a great fate?—of being an astonished "wet retina."

The Threepenny Review