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Sean O'Brien


The Guardian, London, UK (2012)


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Place by Jorie Graham - review
Jorie Graham places herself at the centre of this collection.

By Sean O'Brien
The Guardian, Friday 14 September 2012 17.55 EDT

"Untitled" from Jorie Graham's Place (shortlisted for both the TS Eliot and Forward prizes) is a meditation arising from witnessing two dogs hit by a car. It brings strong reminders of Richard Eberhart's "The Groundhog", published in 1934, once very famous but perhaps not so much read now. Eberhart's speaker finds a dead groundhog and observes its decay and eventual disappearance:

I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,

And thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.

Plenty of bang for your buck there as Eberhart attempts a big Yeatsian finish, but the first person looks misplaced. Curiously, a poem, part of whose burden is that the world is not all about the narrator, turns out to give him considerable prominence. Likewise with Graham, the subject of "Untitled" returns to the self:

the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where 187 million perished in wars,
massacre, persecution,
famine – all policy-induced –
is the
one out of which
I must find the reason
for the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn as they try
everything, and all murmurs shroud hum cry instruct

Authenticated by the reach of its perceptions and its sense of obligation, the self appears magnified, even aggrandised, in the poet's repeated reaching towards an indifferent but beloved infinity amid which humans oppress and slaughter each other. The suspicion grows that the important thing may somehow be not the thing seen or understood, but the fact that the self has seen it: the intended scale of things is in effect reversed. That this seems quite guileless makes it more worrying, though not unfamiliar.

There are precedents for Graham's work in the way America adapted Romanticism – in Whitman, for example – and in traditions of Protestant testimony. But the two poets from whom Graham would seem to derive most inspiration, Rilke and Elizabeth Bishop, each have a deep idiosyncrasy of perception for which Graham seeks an equivalent, displaying what is at times a rather willed intensity, like painting stripes on a Volvo to make it go faster, as well as a use of layout which sceptics might view as a diagram showing the triumph of typography over prosody.

These reservations notwithstanding, the poems sometimes generate a compelling incantatory power out of their conviction. See, for example, "The Future of Belief", "Earth" and, especially, "Dialogue (Of the Imagination's Fear)": "The flame of / sun which will come out just now for a blinding minute / into your eyes is saving nothing, no one, take your communion, your blood is full of / barren fields, they are the / future in you you / should learn to feel and / love: there will be no more: no more: not enough to go around: no more around: no / more: love that." By this nightmarishly impressive point the poem has outgrown the temptation merely to make remarks and has crossed into the dramatic, so that the apparatus of importance and solemnity falls away like a first-stage rocket towards the doomed and (we must infer) benightedly Republican earth.

Graham's hunger for revelation can produce some strange effects. "Sundown" depicts a walk on Omaha Beach and being passed by a figure on horseback, "the rider looking straight / ahead and yet / smiling without looking at me as we / both smiled for the young / animal". The horse's passage throws up "flake[s]" and "sparks" of the evening surf (recalling the "Forms, flames and the flakes of flames" in Wallace Stevens's "Nomad Exquisite" from Harmonium), but Graham's anxiety shows her less than convinced about the continuity of the aesthetic and morality. The horse and rider are "boring through to clear out / life, a place where no one / again is suddenly / killed – regardless of the 'cause' – no one – just this / galloping forward with / force through the low waves". The line-breaks are hectoring and intrusive, and although the poem moves into a rich, meticulous description of the hoofprints and sandfleas on the shore, Graham cannot resist being there at the close to deliver the lesson first-hand: "and when I shut my eyes now I am not like a blind person / walking towards the lowering sun, / the water loud at my right, / but like a seeing person / with her eyes shut/ putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth." Watch out for the giant octopus.

Graham's own (not very often indulged) sense of humour is very appealing. In "Treadmill", one of the best poems, "I / entered the poem here, / on line 28, at 6.44 pm, I had been trying to stay outside … / but … the city itself took / time off from dying to whisper into my ear we need you, the complaint which we will / nail once again to the door must be signed by everyone". It helps to make the horrors that follow – "death, rimless stare" – persuasive, adult, serious rather than solemn, properly equipped for when "your dance partner, be prudent, it / really knows the / steps."

• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.