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Journal Article


The New Republic, Issue January, p.4 (1992)


Region of Unlikeness; review;

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Region of Unlikeness

by Jorie Graham

(Ecco Press, 144 pp., $17.95)

"Poetry implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values," Jorie Graham argued in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990. It competes with the comforts of "story," which sprays "forward over the unsaid until it [is] all plot," and it competes with the power of images, our culture's "distrust of speech and of what is perceived as the terminal `slowness' of speech in relation to the speedier image as a medium of sales." Poetry has responded too timidly, she believes, to the challenges of commercial culture, and retreated into a narrow realm of trivial reflections, decorative forms, and platitudes.

Graham has taken it upon herself in her recent work to confront the power of plot and image head on. She has always been a philosophical poet. First she tested her metaphysics in a quiet, lyric space of nature and art, but lately she has plunged into the rush of history, memory, and contemporary life. Frequently she takes the artist and her own creative acts as the subject of her poems. What is the relation of language to its objects? How might language make a place for the spiritual rather than covering it over? How can poetry engage the world without succumbing to limitation? Increasingly such questions of poetic authority have become, for Graham, a matter of moral accountability, a question even of salvation, with the broadest cultural implications. Restless with the answers she found before, her vision has become more ecstatic, more omnivorous, more abstract in each of her four books. It has also become looser and more notational, less concerned with shapeliness and eloquence.

Graham has explained herself in rather urgent terms:

     I feel like I'm writing as part of a group of poets --

     historically -- who are potentially looking at the end

     of the medium itself as a vital part of their culture

     -- unless they do something to help it reconnect itself

     to mystery.... We need to recover a high level of ambition,

     a rage if you will -- the big hunger.

She has identified her ambition with John Ashbery's, James Tate's, and Michael Palmer's -- writers who approach their work not as artifacts or statements, but as performances. She has also cited the theatrical work of Robert Wilson as an inspiration, and she is translating Rimbaud. It is not hard to find structural and rhetorical similarities to these artists in Graham's recent work: darting images without explicit connections; a digressive, decentered approach to thought; the fragmentation of linear plots and arguments; indeterminate allegory; parodic language; fragmented allusion and misquotation.

These are all qualities commonly identified with postmodernism. But Graham has a fundamentally different orientation. She is much less interested in randomness and indeterminacy, in the material and the dynamic field of language. Her theatricality -- the poem as drama, in which the poet is suffering protagonist before the chaos of the world -- engages her in a search for meaning. For Ashbery or Tate, poetry is not a matter of metaphysics, of sustaining the rigor of truth or opening words to ecstatic vision. Poetry, for them, goes on inside language, where our cliches and routines are rearranged in tragic and hilarious new combinations that reveal our ways of knowing and relating. Graham's work is still driven by ideas, however subverted, and by metaphors of the spiritual.

Her first two books sit quite comfortably on the shelf alongside the late progeny of modernism: Mark Strand, Amy Clampitt, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, all of whom use sensual images to pursue the invisible. Like these writers, Graham eschewed the psychological and political emphasis of much poetry of the 1970s, focusing instead on the meditating mind and taking her cues from Keats, Rilke, Stevens. In her early work she limited meditation to individual objects of nature or art around which her thoughts could circle to form twisting, elegant designs:

             I WATCHED A SNAKE

     hard at work in the dry grass

        behind the house

     catching flies. It kept on


     And though I know this has

        something to do

     with lust, today it seemed

        to have to do

     with work

Since then she has been working toward a new music of meditation that involves a deep skepticism and a constant check on the impulse toward story and interpretation. The poems raise questions, for reader and author alike, about the purpose of poetry: "And what is poetry now? What is it going to keep in life that life is ready to shake off?"

Not meaning, anymore, or order, or beauty, certainly not a story line or a controlling metaphor. Rather, poetry "wants to stick to the skin of the beast as it shakes," to register the force of being "until it is not a randomness anymore" but "a wave, making the whole love fit into its body." But sometimes one feels that the pleasures of poetry (its shapeliness, its precision) are neglected by Graham in the name of the higher conceptual risk of encountering the world without design, without the aid of a story or a statement about it. And sometimes one cannot help feeling that Graham's dedication to that risk may be a little disingenuous: that this poet, for all her commitment to the unmediated encounter, has in fact relinquished very little poetic authority.

In Hybrids of Ghosts and of Plants (1980), her first book, Graham didn't worry at all about fending off the lure of plot or the mesmerizing buzz of sound bites. Her hybrids of thought and image thrived in a well-weeded lyric garden. Many of her poems compared thought to nature, appreciating in the former all the fluency of the latter:

     A bird re-entering a bush,

     like an idea regaining

     its intention, seeks

     the missed discoveries

     before attempting

     flight again.

Contemplation offered occasions for epigram, gestures into the unknown that even in their ambiguity often had a certain verbal crispness: "only perfection can be kept, not its perfect instances"; "they say the eye is most ours/when shut,/that objects give no evidence/that they are seen by us." Large questions of perception, meaning, and identity could be stimulated by small things, taken one at a time, with little symbolic reserve: an artichoke, a chestnut tree, her mother's sewing box. If they lacked intellectual discipline, the cerebral notions in these poems were still a part of the experiment of seeing. We trusted this poet's move toward "pure idea" for the move was always made with a knowledge of its antithesis: "we have no mind in a world without objects."

In Erosion (1983), Graham's confidence in the authority of art was at its peak. She understood more clearly the iconic and sacramental nature of her mind, as she showed in coming to terms with the landscape of her childhood. (She was raised in Rome by an artist mother on the objects of ancient and high culture.) In these poems, art and sacred objects replace nature as the reigning muse. So often the detached observer, even the voyeur poking through blinds and noting neighbors' movements, Graham's stance as a beholder of works of art is an honest one, not just a device as with other poets. It leads her to many of her central themes: the dialogue of the body and the soul, the boundary between the eternal and the temporal, the mental and the natural.

The monumental works and the sacred objects are approached with simplicity and intimacy ("come, we can go in./It is before/the birth of god"). The focus may shift, but we know where we are (sometimes down to the address: the Piazza di Spagna, the Quinta del Sordo, "down here this morning in my white kitchen"), even as the poetry complicates that concreteness. Especially after the casual assertiveness of Hybrids, the reflections that these precise images inspire are often puzzled and paradoxical ("As if flesh were the eternal portion after all,/here it is, your blunt modesty, pure,/even after a ton of dirt"). History, especially the Holocaust, begins to seep into the sacred ground of these poems, but it is absorbed rather than rooted out, or allowed to overwhelm the meditation. Although Graham risks sensationalism with some of her references to atrocity, most often she succeeds in presenting an honest tension between aesthetic patience and moral rage.

In The End of Beauty, which appeared in 1987, Graham largely abandoned the metaphoric and iconic methods, as well as the slow, winding syntax. In their place is a more immediate, urgent contemplation of figures from classical and biblical myth. Steeped in Milton, Keats, and Rilke, big hungerers all, Graham takes myths as allegories of consciousness, in fact as "self-portraits." These self-portraits render the lyric poet's psyche not as an integrated unit, but as a variety of dramatic tensions and repeated gestures (Eve taking the apple and offering it to Adam, Apollo pursuing the elusive Daphne, Orpheus longing for Euridyce, Demeter relinquishing Persephone, Penelope weaving and unweaving to avoid her suitors). Within these paradigms, Graham explores questions of freedom and necessity, of desire and resistance, in fresh ways.

The use of myth also allowed her to deal more directly with an idea that has always preoccupied her: the sense of an abiding wholeness behind a "veil" or "shroud" that is ripped to form a "storyline," to divide experience into "minutes," to frame it in limited "points of view." Myth helps us to understand that fragmentation of the world into discrete "finished things," constrained by shapes and boundaries, and helps us to think beyond it into a sacred, unfinished dimension. The poet of myth is more concerned to represent intense vision than achieved wisdom. And this intensity is typographically expressed: questions, dashes, ellipses, parentheses abound, and lines reach into margins.

The problem with The End of Beauty was that Graham had not found the formal or the linguistic means to sustain her prophetic project. Her mythic meditations aim for the intensity of The Spiritual Exercises, but the imagery is spare and non-pictorial. The poems are too infused with redundant abstractions and attenuated allegories to take physical or conceptual hold of us. Terms such as "gap," "delay," "plot," "rupture," constantly repeated, begin to sound like predictable buzzwords rather than like insights. The poet's language sags and loses direction: it can't sustain the ecstatic level. Too often it sounds like a bad translation of a Greek chorus ("why this sky why this air why these mountains why this sky"). Without a formal design to direct this stream of consciousness, the current dissipates. The aversion to "finished things" at the thematic heart of this book does not justify Graham's constant use of blanks ("that which sets the -- in motion"; "mud, ash, -- , -- "). The poet's job, after all, is to give us the words and the pictures, however tentative, qualified, or figurative, for what we cannot name or see ourselves. Graham's blanks represent a poetic failure -- honest, perhaps, but hardly satisfying, and certainly not redemptive.

Still, the major poem in The End of Beauty, called "Breakdancing," proved that Graham has aesthetic power equal to her prophetic ambition. A youth breakdancing on television gives the poet an image she can compare first to our own edgy, fragmented twentieth-century lives, but then also to Christ himself, who showed himself "in pieces" to St. Teresa. The poet manages to shift her rhetoric brilliantly, to chart her emotional flux and roving focus through media time, human time, sacred time. Her language can be jive ("What/is poverty for, Mr. Speed, Dr. Cadet, Dr. Rage,/Timex"), technical ("The robot-like succession of joint isolations/that stimulate a body in reaction to electric shock"), even homiletic ("staying alive is the most costly gift you have to offer Him"). These words rise to a poetic as well as a local rhetorical purpose.

Region of Unlikeness, Graham's new book, takes up many of the concerns of "Breakdancing," particularly its attention to the textures of contemporary life, to the media blitz and the terrorism that threaten our humanity and invade the quiet space of the lyric, demanding its renovation. As in "Breakdancing," the TV hums in many of these poems, the poet's own attention darting from image to image as if to compete with its mediating presence. Indeed, the poems seem at times like a grazing of channels, a desperate effort to forestall the reader's lapse of attention.

Where nature, painting, and myth each inspired previous volumes, the movie camera is the ambivalent muse now, both a threat to our sense of reality and an opportunity for new poetic strategies. Graham studied film at New York University, and her interest in the medium has surfaced in her verse before. But its overwhelming affect on contemporary consciousness -- on our sense of history, of time and space, our conception of suffering -- becomes a dominant theme in Region. Graham records the constant "click, click" of the mind taking up the world "in pieces." The mind inhabits a region of temporality, history, and representation "unlike" the wholeness and the presence that it longs to unveil.

Graham's poetic strategies are aimed at expressing and overcoming this condition. The poems cut, splice, fast forward, play, reverse, replay, and shift back and forth between independent scenes without making connections explicit. "Can I from down there, please, from Later On,/have a shot of a) the mall, b) flying the kite late August choppy wind, c) the men haying fast to beat the rain?" Ideas are like voice-overs, never quite meshing with images. The poet stars in and directs these movies, which are at least partly about their own making.

"Manifest Destiny," for instance, works like cinema montage, a pastiche of images outpacing narrative and argument. It begins, like so many movies, with a drive along a dusty, golden road (this one near Rome) through "shafts of morning light." The poet/director gives a visionary cast to the scene as the dust and the light mingle to throw up allegorical shapes, "all the contortions of the human form," anticipating subsequent images -- "dusty money" and "gold bars," which later connect to prison bars, bills being paid in a restaurant, whores calling out of prison windows, meats on sale in a marketplace arcade. These are set against an ancient background of stone:

     -- colonnades, promenades, porticoes,

       shadows of warriors, lovers and the various

     queens of heaven --

         arms raised holding stone fruit, lips

     parted uttering the stone word -- the stone

     child in the stone arms.

A set of implicit prophetic themes emerges: an assault on materialist values in the face of "change," an anguished glimpse of human life reduced to "a handful of cloth, cash, skin," a criticism of the poet's own desire for "meaning" as a form of currency.

Dissatisfied with the narrow corner to which poetry has retreated, Graham seeks to achieve the stillness of the private, metaphysical vision within the harried institutions of our time: cities, nursing homes, extermination camps, prisons, psychiatric wards. The titles alone suggest something of her level of ambition and its increasingly ideological inflection ("Short History of the West," "Manifest Destiny," "From the New World"). Graham identifies history not only in images of the marketplace, but in riots and arrests, suicides and assassinations. Yet her effort to cut these images loose from sensational journalism can seem a little facile. The effect too often is merely to display a politically engaged and righteous sensibility, without attempting much historical scrutiny or political reflection. Though South African children, Holocaust victims, and AK-47s may flash in and out of her field of attention, the poems have less to do with events on the news (or even with history) than with the problems of consciousness that Graham loosely suggests may result in such events, or that go into shaping "the news."

Graham's "big hunger," then, has led her to somewhat contradictory impulses: to a confrontation with history and to a passion for the "imperial invisible," the wholeness behind the veil. Plenty of poets -- Yeats, Pound, Eliot -- have preceded her in this double vision, but in Graham it has resulted in some unsatisfying shifts of ground. Not wanting to reduce her images from history and experience to a political or psychological narrative (a "plot" or "story"), she swerves away from their implications. "Picnic," a poem that traces the fall from childhood innocence into the web of adult deceptions, abruptly turns at the end to become a poem contemplating being and truth ("the predicate -- `is, is, is.'"). "From the New World," which begins with images of the gas chamber and hunted Nazis and which turns to maudlin images of her grandmother in a nursing home, ends up as a meditation on "like," on the problem of resemblance and naming, the wish for words that will not smother being. We are meant to feel that language and representation, unless constantly renewed, are -- like the nursing home, like the gas chamber -- forms of extermination. But surely distinctions in the order of being and the degree of atrocity ought to be made, if we are not to feel that all of this history really serves only as a trope.

We are prepared for these shifts to metaphysical questions, though, because they have preoccupied her in earlier books. A sequence of epigraphs -- from Augustine, Heidegger, the Bible, Melville -- serves as a "foreword" to Region of Unlikeness. They tell, in philosophic terms, a story of desire to recover lost presence, of thinking as a drawing toward what withdraws. The influence of the late Heidegger is especially strong, giving the poems an all too discursive and derivative character, despite the poet's suspicion of meaning ("The whole time looking for limitation, the place/without promise, where the adventure is finally over/and shape grips down"). This is nothing new in Graham. What is new is her effort to bring her desire for and resistance to meaning, interpretation, and judgment right up to the surface of the poems, to make that struggle their whole matter. Yet as she repeatedly treats the same themes, the digressions seem more to illustrate than to enact this struggle: matter "wants to remain asleep," change tries to arouse matter as she "lifts and drops each veil" of form, and matter continues to refuse her.

Still, some of the best poems in her new book tell a story of refusing the lure of narrative continuity in a way that centers the restless thought and sensation without reducing it to a discursive point. The parallel syntax and the often jerky, pounding, repetitive lines that portray the mind in motion can break out of abstraction when sufficiently imploded with metaphor, as in "What is Called Thinking." The poem opens simply enough: on a walk, the poet, listening to a Walkman, glimpses a deer. This initiates a meditation on the mind's relation to nature, and also an enactment of that relation. The "self-reflective strings of the/eighteenth century" heard from the Walkman become metaphors for our interpretive "voice-over" of observed reality, our wish to "brand" reality with our own identities. Graham then expands her explorations of the mind. The mind is a "transparent unmoving frenzy" that includes raw sensation and the desire to shape. An angel appears, a Promethean spirit of imagination and desire who converts nature into objects of thought, yet who laughs at his own error, is indeed robed in error. As Graham darts back and forth among images of the deer and her natural setting, the poet's "strings" of interpretation (the tape going on in her mind), and the daemonic angel that is larger than either, an exhilarating drama unfolds.

One feels the need to hear these poems read. Their force is performative, and they are very difficult to quote. Yet they are so burdened with doubts about eloquence in this age of distraction that moments of visual and linguistic pleasure are rare. When even seeing is upstaged by self-consciousness, when every act of perception or meaning becomes a noun ("my looking up"), a thing that blocks the view, it is difficult for the reader to enter the poem's world, despite the brusque imperatives ("Sit," "Blink," "Feeling ok?"). The abstractions begin to take on a life of their own ("the now," "the about," "the thing-in-us-which-trails-behind"), yet the allegories (with the exception of the Kafkaesque "At the Cabaret Now") lack either pictorial or intellectual vitality ("mother Matter -- the opposite of In-/terpretation: his consort"). The poems seem to be about so much that they are about nothing at all.

What is the purpose of poetry? To stop and hold the hurry without extinguishing it, to put the world in parentheses and then let it out again, is Graham's current answer. It is not always a satisfying answer, nor is it an entirely honest one. History is not really embraced in its randomness in these poems. It seems, rather, to be selectively imported from the media for its emotional punch. And nature is rarely more than mere shorthand -- mother bird and eggs, garden and secret lovers -- a designation rather than a true evocation of raw being.

Graham's volume ends with Prospero laying down his magical garment. But how much poetic authority has Graham really relinquished in her project to encounter the world without the aid of a preconceived story or statement about it? Has she bravely stepped aside to let in the big vision, or are her tactics an abdication of a truly ambitious poetic project? She repeatedly interrupts her movies with protestations that she is only a camera: "Where would you go now?"; "shall we end on them?"; "a tracking shot?" But such interactive features of her poems are too often rhetorical, glib illustrations of the familiar point that we must oppose the "silky swerve into shapeliness" in the name of larger vision.

The poetics of failure that Graham constantly invokes has grown stale by now. Poetry must indeed sustain a reach beyond its grasp if it is to matter, and Graham's "big hunger" represents an inevitable, laudable shift away from the timid appetite of the much-spurned "workshop poem." Still, the reader's own big hunger should not be satisfied when it is served up imitations of Heidegger and allusions to the Holocaust in place of the poet's independent struggle to wrest beauty and meaning -- however tentative and qualified -- from the abyss of language and the randomness of experience.