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Magazine Article


The Boston Review (1997)



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The Errancy
Jorie Graham
The Ecco Press, $22 

by Bonnie Costello

Jorie Graham's subject, in this impressive new volume, is desire and the error it inevitably leads us into. In our restless urge to form and fail and reform, in our apparent glimpses of utopia, we are heroically human. Poetry is not, for Graham, a place to relax.

Then the cicadas again like kindling that won't take.
The struck match of some utopia we no longer remember
the terms of--

* * *

how she wants to be legible, how the light streaking her shades
now grows vermilion
which she would capture of course, because that, she has heard,
from the rumourous diamond-dust, is what is required,
as also her spirit--now that it has been swallowed
like a lustrous hailstone by her unquenchable body--suggests--
the zero
at the heart of the christened bonfire

* * *

. . . what has awakened which we thought we'd extinguished,
us still standing here sword in hand, hand extended . . .

* * *

aren't we
going to close the elaborate folder
which holds the papers in their cocoon of possibility,
the folder so pretty with its massive rose-blooms, 

These scattered lines from the long title poem suggest what the experience of writing is like for Graham: a search for direction, for renewed terms of utopia, a heating up of passion for this object, a brandishing of language toward the plenitude, where it blooms and then fades for the exhausted imagination. In her notes Graham includes a daunting definition of "errancy" gleaned from poet-critic Linda Gregerson:

Epic action begins with a gaze in the mirror. When Spenser thematizes the gaze, he inscribes Eros as a species of reformed narcissism, the close embrace broken to allow for the discursive path of knightly "error," or wandering. Other critics have noted how vividly etymology appears to structure Spenser's poem: "discourse" derives from discurrere (to run back and forth) as "error" or errancy derives from errare (to wander). . . . Knightly errancy begins with a gaze. . ." 

Such specialized critical language, inspired by the formidable Jacques Lacan, might seem to some an unpromising or backwards source for lyric. Poetry, for such readers, derives from more primitive, and more personal impulses. But this poet has turned all her faculties, critical, emotional, sensible, rational and instinctual, to a high frequency. Graham's "knight" is not situated in the outward plot of Spenserian romance, but in the course of consciousness itself through its various guises: epistemological, political, sexual, ethical, spiritual. The quest is for meaning and wholeness, the path obstructed by gaps and barriers. Action and scene are replaced by the intense drama of internal event, mental process, and feeling, toward an insubstantial and elusive object. Like Wyatt, who provides the epigraph, she seeks "in a net . . . to hold the wind." That Graham manages to hold the reader to this demanding purpose is a tribute to her facility for metaphor and her skill as a contemporary allegorist, as well as to the realness of the story of thought and desire she wishes to tell.

While the volume is made up of a series of medium-length poems, it forms a kind of epic (the volume, more than the discrete poem, being Graham's true unit). The design is fractured, abstract and allusive in modern epic style, with narrative and recursive elements but no clear plot or system. But the poems move out, in Biblical form, from utopia to errancy to flood. Life comes back with its diurnal alternations, the emphasis usually on the "aubade" or morning poem, for all the shadowy places. Hope and desire are not cruel tricks or ironic habits for Graham as she moves through questions of intimacy, identity, death and rebirth. These themes are investigated through various lyric "heroes"--lovers, philosophers, poets, an "I" filling and emptying out, and their various "guardian angels" (inspired by Rilke)--"of the little utopia," "of point of view," "of self-knowledge," and so on, counterparts of the personified principles that guide the epic hero of Renaissance allegory.

This may be Graham's most allusive and echoic volume. Besides her guardian angels Graham is guided by various precursors who wander in and out of the volume. They remind us that errancy is ancient and perpetual, its story told in Ovid as well as in Wallace Stevens. The ample notes only gesture at an extensive, though unsystematic, collection of silent quotations and derivations. One of the most important unannotated sources is T. S. Eliot, the century's great ventriloquist and master of the modern lyric-epic. Graham quotes Eliot and learns from Eliot how to quote, wrenching from context to recharge meaning. 

What shall we move with
now that the eye must shut? What shall we sift with
now that the mind must blur? What shall we undress the veilings of dusk with,
what shall we harvest the nothingness with,
now that the hands must be tucked back in their pockets,
now that the bright shirt of the over-ripe heart
must be taken off and the skin of things restored 

"Gerontion" may not register right away as the source of these cadences, but we come at the end of this verse paragraph to "Our plan . . . To get the beauty of it hot." Many readers will recall the conversation in The Waste Land about poor Lil who had been invited by her false friend to a dinner of hot gammon, "to get the beauty of it hot." Lil and her story of betrayal are not importantly present here, but rather Eliot and his larger project, drawn from the Percival myth: to restore the spiritual health of the land by the knight errant's progress. Eliot, poet of splintered subjectivity and damaged vision, longing for radiance in a spiritless world, is Graham's mentor. The earlier Eliot of "Prufrock" can be heard in "The Guardian Angel of Self-Knowledge."

Shedding each possibility with gusts of self-exposure,
bubbling-up into gesture their quaint notions of perfection,
then letting each thought, each resting-place, get swept away--
because that was not what I meant--was not at all--
and since the future isn't real, is just an alarmclock,
where the last domino can finally drop,
wearing a street-address around its medicated neck-- 

So much is Prufrockian here, not just in cadence but in image and theme--the self-consciousness, the mechanization, the paralyzing sense of time, the anguish of thinking. Eliot has taught Graham how to quote Shakespeare--"good night ladies, good night, sweet ladies," "tomorrow and tomorrow," "the rest is silence," whisper through The Errancy--and how to quote and echo other poets in quiet dialogue with them. Wallace Stevens is a particularly important presence, a natural influence on this philosopher-poet. "Sea-Blue Aubade" recalls several poems from Parts of a World, where meaning-generating mind (the "doctor" of "doctrine" in Stevens) confronts the unformed morning. Graham converts this to:

And freedom in the room like a thin gray floating
And doctrine.
And other kinds of shine rising off the edges of things--
as if the daylight were a doctor arriving,
each thing needing to be seen . . . 

Even Marianne Moore makes an appearance, in "Motive Elusive," with several lines from "The Hero" and from "The Plumet Basilisk," suggesting the pursuit of the invisible ideal within corrupt and forbidding places. A similar silent dialogue goes on with Graham's more immediate precursors. Threads from Bishop, Lowell, Ammons, and others have been woven into the unique fabric of the work.

What should we make of so much silent quotation? This is not showy erudition or magpie theft. Graham is a natural heir to modernism, the foremost poet to carry forth its ambitious project, discredited by recent purveyors of the new. The search for unified meaning in a chaotic world, the struggle to affirm the spirit in a dehumanized cultural condition, the attempt to understand the self in the momentum of desire--these are on the unfinished agenda of our century. Errancy is larger than any single lyric voice; it is humanity's story (or at least its heroic story) and Graham absorbs these voices from past and recent past as the latest progeny of the quest.

As in other volumes, Graham has developed an elemental vocabulary for describing the path of consciousness in its search for meaning: the "pane" of the window that marks a painful condition of the gaze (philosophy the glass), which blurs and clears alternately; the "doorframe," inescapable construction of a point of view; the play of light and shadow, sun and rain, which variegate existence. The most innovative trope, the "manteau," centers the book. This coat of meaning, language, and form is a tattered but sublime garment. In a sense it is the fallible armor of the modern knight errant, a human vestment that can take on a priestly radiance at times. There are several "manteau" poems, the best of which is a long poem, "Le Manteau de Pascal," inspired by a painting of Magritte's of a ragged coat against a starry sky with a city landscape below. Graham's note provides the clue to its interpretation: 

One presumes it represents the coat in which Pascal was buried, and in whose hem or sleeve or "fold" the note containing the "irrefutable proof of the existence of God" is said to have been stitched, at his request, unread, by his sister, upon his death. 

Pascal's dream, like ours, is of a form that can enfold irrefutable meaning. It remains full of holes and inaccessible pockets. The manteau is a complex and flexible trope, not easy to paraphrase, but certain obvious elements pertain. It is form designed to fit the body, human nature, and the individual, something cut out from the world and shaped to our understanding. This mantle of subjectivity both hides and affords meaning. Its folds are luminous with personal and philosophical hope. Such a mantle keeps us warm and provides us with a means of entering an obscure world. "Le Manteau de Pascal" contains some of Graham's best writing, moving out from the personal and particular to the cosmic and abstract:

I have a coat I am wearing I was told to wear it.
Someone knelt down each morning to button it up.
I looked at their face, down low, near me.
What is longing? What is a star?
Watched each button a peapod getting tucked back in.
Watched harm with its planeloads folded up in the sleeves. 

Through the tatters in the coat, as through errancy, the sky can show itself. But we cannot take the coat off and walk unmantled through the night. " Le Manteau de Pascal" is also striking for its formal innovation. Graham employs a series of weaving devices as if to create a fabric of her own on the page. As the trope expands and shifts through multiple sections, lines of the poem recur intermittently until we reach the end where we find something that sounds like, though it is not precisely, a double sestina. One thinks of the weaving techniques of certain contemporary composers, Steve Reich, for instance, in which devices of repetition propel the work forward through variable melodies.

Graham's concept of "errancy" explains a style she has long employed to record the mind in action. From the first poem, "The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia," we recognize poetry as an activity of restless rearranging, straining against both the noise of human discourse and the inchoate flow of existence. "Against Eloquence" announces her stand on the well-wrought poem. Readers of Graham are familiar with the strategies: the predominance of the interrogative (a quest is beset with questions), the revision within the line (marked by the corrective "no" learned from Bishop, who learned it from Moore), the broken off unpunctuated sentences, (of--), the italics, the parentheses, the blank spaces. These are the tracks of the quester, not the motors. The work is inwardly pulsive. The final poem of the volume, "Of the Ever-Changing Agitation in the Air," beautifully evokes the dance of the intellect. 

nervous little theme pushing itself along,
braiding, rehearsing,
constantly incomplete so turning and tacking--
oh what is there to finish?-- 

The dancer may be laboring out of Yeats's "Among School Children" ("somewhere" where "body is not bruised to pleasure soul") but the emphasis is on the movement through the doorframes rather than on what they frame. Aware all the while that there is a darkening, a final frame for each story, Graham sees how "liberty" may "spoor" out of our errancy, beyond the individual life or poem. Like Yeats in his great poem, Graham finds in passion, piety and affection a common, unquenchable yearning for presence and wholeness. Poetry and philosophy belong together, recording the passion and rigor of our desire. Poems of sexual intimacy, such as "Studies in Secrets," poignant elegies such as "In the Pasture," are integrated with poems of epistemological and theological quest, all part of the errancy, here so deeply thought and deeply felt.