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The Nation (1987)

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Even an admiring poet may feel  like a greenhorn on coming to  The End of Beauty. Both astonishing and bewildering, this third book by one of the most highly regarded young poets in America is often addressed directly to the reader, but is probably rarely accessible to most of us.

Graham's first two books, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts and Erosion, established her as a poet of unconforming, unrestrainable intellect. Her poems, many of which refer to writers and painters, often reflect her European childhood and lifelong involvement with art. They don't touch on the domestic part of life as much as they spiral away from the tangible world, tracing the path of perception into idea and philosophy.

For instance, in Erosion's "I Watched a Snake," the speaker, mowing the lawn, observes a snake "hard at work .../... It kept on /disappearing." The poem shuttles between the concrete image and the abstract idea, making a metaphor of the relationship between visibility and invisibility:

This must be perfect progress where

   movement appears 

to be a vanishing, a mending

   of the visible

by the invisible—just as we

   stitch the earth, 

it seems to me, each time

   we die, going 

back under, coming back up . . . 

Toward the end of the poem, Graham writes, "Desire/is the honest work of the body .../... Passion is work/ that retrieves us,/lost stitches."

In part, Erosion concerns itself with the place of human beings within the animal world. The End of Beauty continues to explore the sense human beings make in the scheme of things, but this third book takes as its context our evolution from mythical beginnings. In her new poems, Graham is constantly superimposing the cultural frames of myth on contemporary life. The book's first poem is subtitled "Adam and Eve"; a later one, which opens in a taxi-cab, is called "Expulsion." But the analogies are not simple, and it is easy for the reader to get lost in the winding passages between the worlds.

In many ways, Graham's new poems are radically different not only from her previous ones, but from anything else around. Her formal devices include blanks to be filled in by the reader, as in "Did you see that did you hear that

(wind in the/______ _______ _______?),"

or "Like a __________ this look between us." These blanks are sometimes accompanied by the algebraic variables x and y, as in "To the Reader":

. . . (as if to expose what of the hills— the white glare of x, the scathing splendor of y, the wailing interminable_________?)

or "Headlights [Near Dawn]":

. . . her skirt is

in place again, it will round the corner

      exactly   at   x,   setting   in   motion


the y, the arousal of time into minutes

During a reading at Barnard College last spring, Graham said that reading these poems to a captive audience posed questions for her, since they are meant to address and engage a dispassionate listener. I gathered she was summarizing a more complex ideology about the relationship between poet and reader, and though the poems cast a strong spell on the audience, I wouldn't say most of us understood or precisely followed what was happening.

Creating choices for the reader does at least two things. First, it challenges the notion that a finished poem is a hermetic, untouchable unit. Second, it puts the poem "above" choice, as if finding le mot juste is no longer the poet's task. The poem's intelligence is unalterable by small changes; it speaks at a level of abstraction beyond the influence of single words. For this and many other reasons, it is unclear to me what a reader needs to bring to this volume in order to be communicated to by it. But arguments can surely be made for the spell of poetry over the forthright clarity of it, as any admirer of Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery will tell you. Some poets are able to entrance a  reader  who  cannot   follow  exactly, but who trusts the poet's intelligence enough to watch, to keep listening as the poet makes his or her unpredictable leaps through the vast sky of association. I think it is fair to say, however, that female poets have been expected to be more "domestic," more grounded and responsible  to the reader  than  male ones.   As  articulators  and  communicators,   women  poets  (Anne  Sexton, Sharon Olds and Marilyn Hacker come to mind) have been praised for writing in the tradition of the great Elizabeth Bishop, in a language that cats and dogs can read. That's what Bishop's friend Marianne  Moore  recommended,  and (sometimes) did herself. The right to have our work experienced and judged in different ways is still uncommon. The End of Beauty, with its undeniable intelligence, should help change that.

Much of Graham's work is an exquisite exploration of the process of imagination. Her poems often show a formal allegiance to intellect, beginning in one thought and wending their way into principle and revelation by tapping all the writer's intelligence, not just that immediately surrounding the subject. "Vertigo," which is about intelligence itself, begins:

Then they came to the very edge of the

    cliff and looked down. 

Below a real world flowed in its parts,

    green, green. 

The two elements touched—rock, air. 

She thought of where the mind opened


 into the sheer drop of its intelligence

Although Graham maintains the metaphor to the end, she spends a good part of the poem asking questions related to it:

. . . How it is one soul wants to be


by a single other in its entirety?— 

What is it sucks one down, offering

itself, only itself,  for 

ever? She saw the cattle below

moving in a shape which was exactly

     their hunger. 

She saw—could they be men?—the

plot. She leaned. How does one enter

     a story?

Such poems are like living cross sections of the braiding process of thought, often beginning suddenly and ending with a hyphen, or no punctuation at all. Here too, Graham's form disrupts convention and pushes into the future. Because so much of the poetry we see being published and praised is formulaic, our notion of contemporary poetry often habituates itself to the subtle lure of the familiar. For instance, we are quite prepared for poems in which the speaker is set in one emotional doorway and takes the length of the poem to walk out another. We are so used to this dramatic path that we almost take it before the poem does, knowing that sooner or later, like any overworked horse, the ordinary poem will break into a run and head for the stable. Sometimes the reader gets there first.

Still, many readers will wonder: are Graham's formal devices a self-conscious attempt on her part to forge a new poetic mechanism, or are they essential to the experience of the poems, or both? Do the blanks and variables serve up a volume of intellectual Mad Libs, or a new dimension of poetic experience? Perhaps the most engaging and magnificent poem in this volume, "What the End Is For," employs none of the devices mentioned above. Using the stanza form she made her signature in Erosion (a roughly symmetrical six-to-eight-line stanza with even-numbered lines indented), Graham tells two stories at once. The first is about being shown a fleet of bombers in North Dakota:

A boy just like you look me out to see


      the five hundred B-52's on alert

         On the runwav.

fully loaded fully manned pointed in 

       all the directions.

     running every minute 

of every day.

     They sound like a sickness of

the inner ear.

where the heard foams up into the

   noise of listening,

       where the listening arrives without

           being extinguished.

Graham uses repetition between sentences ("where the heard foams up," "where the listening arrives") so effectively that the reader experiences something analogous to the backstitch in sewing—we go back half a step into

what's already been said, then are moved forward, so that our connection to the poem is both fortified and stretched at every turn. That is one part of the poem's spell, part of the way we are engaged with it as a whole, not just with what narrative and logic we grasp.

The subplot of the poem is the speaker's conflict with the "you" of its first line. In a metaphor begun in one stanza then taken up in another, Graham executes a splendid description of dusk turning to evening:

    The last time I

saw you.

     we stood facing each other as

     dusk came on.

I leaned against the refrigerator, 


leaned against the door.

   The picture window behind you

     was slowly extinguished.

     the tree went out, the two 


   the metal braces on them.

     The light itself took a long time.

bits in puddles stuck like the


     splinters of memory, the chips

   of history, hopes, laws handed


. . . We stood there. Your face went

  out a long time

         before the rest of it. Can't see

              you anymore 1 said. Nor 1,

you, whatever you still were


When 1 asked you to hold me you


   When 1 asked you to cross the six

                    feet of room to hold me

you refused.

Whatever happens to the volume's other poems, "What the End Is For" will travel through time.

The End of Beauty, like the poems it contains, is a process, a cross section of the author's evolving, unstoppable intellect; it should not be judged by its star metaphors or most exciting turns. Graham's intuition is the volume's true narrator. Her maturity as a writer is evidenced in the risks she takes and in the set pieces she does not write. She makes no attempt to seduce the reader through cleverness, but only to challenge her own mind and see if we can hang on for the ride. One might well be skeptical about some of Graham's recent affectations: at the above mentioned Barnard reading, for instance, she insisted on being out of the room for the first reader's poems, saying they might interfere with her own reading rhythm. (Well!) And the book's cover, a detail from an Eric Fischl painting, may signal to some a potentially unsatisfying foray into trendy, stingy art. But while Graham's experimentations may sometimes merely be their own reward. The End of Beauty as a whole is made of superlative cloth and is more than worth trying on. You might want to have some x and y handy, though.