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Magazine Article


Klink, Joanna


Kenyon Review, Volume 24, Issue 1 (2002)



Full Text:

Swarm. By Jorie Graham. 

New York: Harper Trade, 2001. 

128 pp. 


And out of what one sees and hears and out

Of what one feels, who could have thought to make

So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,

As if the air,  the mid-day air, was  swarming

With the metaphysical changes that occur,

Merely in living as and where we live.

—Wallace Stevens, "Esthetique du Mai"

In one of Jorie Graham's earliest poems, "The Geese," from Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, she writes about "a feeling the body gives the mind / of having missed something" (38), I know this feeling when I read her poems; you may have experienced it. Readers of Grahams work are often moved by her poems even while finding that the language is difficult— hard to process because it is abstract, but easy to feel in its urgency, its music, its expansiveness and baroque diction. There is a reason you might experience, in her poems, this feeling of the mind frantically outrunning the body, or the body reaching out across a great, ocean-like distance, through confusion and grim pain, with all its senses brightened, to meet the mind. The effort in each of Graham's books has been to bring the body and the mind in right relation to each other, to bring them so close that a surface seems to form between them—an edge, an iridescence, a "fine inner lining," as she calls it in "Le Manteau de Pascal," "a grace" (Errancy 64).

Of course, all poets want to connect thinking and feeling. At the other extreme from poets like Williams, for whom the interembeddedness of experience and idea is given, Graham, in her own wholly distinctive way, confronts these domains as mutually resistant and, sometimes, as radically separate. She seeks, in the company of other High Moderns such as Eliot and Stevens, to construct a relationship between them. By the term "idea," in this context, I mean forces perceived to be outside the self that would shape and organize experience, forces general enough to include your experience and mine at once. Although Graham often encounters experience and idea as explosively incompatible, nevertheless she believes them to be equally real. To bring together what I experience of the world in my body, and the ideas by which I understand this experience, or to restore the body and the senses to the mind, is the "Dream of the Unified Field," the prayer behind every poem. As she writes in a poem from Swarm, the effort is to "[hold] the mind in like a wish so deep" (7). Graham's project, then, daunting and dynamic enough to span seven books of poetry, involves two motions of spirit: on the one hand, coaxing ideas—in their pre-entanglement with things—out of the visible world, that they might be apprehended and recognized; on the other hand, translating ideas into physical realities, bringing them down into the body so that they are particular, concrete, visceral, known. In both motions. Graham struggles to make the collective life something deeply felt, deeply lived.

You can sense an idea "entering" the world in Grahams poems whenever a form starts to settle over the words, forcing the onrush of language into fixed syntactical arrangements or strict numbered sequences; when phrases are interrupted or broken off; when blanks and dashes are inserted; when story, plot, and closure start to bear down on a lingering incident; when strings of questions appear. This difficulty you feel in the language is the resistance the body feels to an organizing idea. Because finally, the speakers in these poems want to feel, want to let forces beyond the self—of reason, say, or history—open up, to inhabit them in their complexity, to suspend them long enough that they might be received as a freedom as well as a responsibility. This accounts for the persistent emphasis in Graham's poems on delay. As an idea is drawn toward enactment (not its enactment, in the sense of its illustration or example, but an enactment—an embodiment in a person's life), the poem tries to hold open its exigencies as long as possible. Graham throws her voice into an ever-widening present, allowing each moment to open up, keeping the sensation alive as long as she can. She does this differently in each book, but generally speaking she tends to resist story line and linear, cause-and-effect thinking; to string out clauses literally to their splitting point with parentheses, descriptive asides and revisions within the line; to weave together personal anecdotes, myth, meta-narrative and self-conscious commentary (as she does in "The Phase after History" and "Le Manteau de Pascal") so that the music doesn't have to end.

What shuts this process down is, in the rhetorical sense, "definition." When an idea is named, or its effect in the world identified, determined, or explained, its grip on the body is lost. In Graham's poetry, there is an important, uncomfortable difference between inhabiting an idea and possessing it. (This is the principle concern of  her book Materialism). If it can be located intellectually (in my life, equality involves such and such), there is no need to feel it, precisely because there is nothing left to discover. Most poems are in search of some truth or understanding; they are not pictures of a confident mind presenting an already fully understood and trusted attitude. As "Underneath 8" expresses this:

Make the sore     not heal     into meaning.

Make the shallow waters      not take seaward      the mind.

Let them wash it back continually onto the shore.

Let them slap it back down onto the edges of the world.

Onto die rocks. Into light unturned by wave. Still sands.

Deposit back on the stillest shore all the messages tossed.

Do not take     hack in     the soundtrack.

Let the cities stay where they were shouted out

Let the horizon     lower its heavy     lid.

Agree     to be     seen.

Deposit     silt

Dream of     existence.

Refuse      rescue.

Overhear     love.


Where definition     first comes upon us     empire. (68-69) 

The hope in this passage is that die horizon of meaning "agree to be seen," be discovered and lived in concrete experience; that it might lower its heavy lid but not extinguish us completely. Graham wants to feel an idea working in our lives without being fully determined by it. As the " Manteau de Pascal" suggests, it is not that we are completed but that we are "filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed" (Errancy 69). It is the presence of organizing ideas that compels such intense feeling in the first place.

"Empire" derives from the Latin imperium, to command absolute power, as an emperor might command sole authority over an imperial dominion. And of course the word also refers to the territories or peoples dominated, as in "the Roman Empire," and both meanings—the force of command and the region under command—are relevant in Graham's collection Swarm. For Graham, "empire" is among other things a metaphor for conceptual universality: the poems in this book try to stave off the dominion of ideas, which can crush personal freedoms, while harnessing some of their inclusive power—that power which makes us citizens. The poems in this book try to stave off the dominion of ideas, which can crush personal freedoms, while harnessing some of their inclusive power: that power which makes us citizens. As the last phrase of the long poem "Probity" expresses this,

we used to say it was a campaign

to the edge of       empire. 

It is (101)

Graham's poems explore that region before self-definition slides into determinism; it is a campaign to the edge. But we need die empire—the general life, those forces that define us—in order to be able to say "it is," in order to know where the self starts and stops, where its delicate edges are. In the idiom of Swarm, which tries to get underneath the foundations of Western civilization and culture, if the city of Rome is never built up completely, it cannot be broken down. This lingering on the verge of definition is meant to keep that enforced separateness of generality from smothering die self. As Wallace Stevens (one of Graham's instructors in this problem) writes in "The Auroras of Autumn," an idea

is like a thing of ether that exists

Almost as predicate. But it exists,

It exists, it is visible, it is, it is. (418)

To make an idea visible—just visible enough that it feels real—is the task of Graham's poetry.

In two recent reviews of Swarm, Richard Eder and Adam Kirsch have suggested that Grahams new poems free themselves of the phenomenal realm altogether, that they withdraw from the sensuous world into such heights of abstraction that they sacrifice comprehension. Calling the poems in Swarm "private," both critics nevertheless call attention to one of the central experiences of reading her work: the mysterious, often violent, intermingling of ideas and sense-perceptions. For his part, Eder does not offer an interpretation of the larger project of Swarm and admits that "even as the brain struggles" (9), the poems are physically bracing. A good deal of his review is devoted to drawing attention to those very passages where Grahams sense-detail is most powerful. Kirsch, although acknowledging that "the way it feels to think is . . . one of the major subjects" of Grahams poetry (42), strains to interpret discrete poems in Swarm and determines that "there is no phenomenal presence" whatsoever in the poems, no "immediately comprehensible story. Indeed, the phenomenal experience of her poetry is a theoretical experience" (41). Of course, Kirsch uses these terms in unconventional ways. He lends "theoretical" a distinctly pejorative cast, so that it is not only synonymous with exegesis and the "assignment of themes," but involves opacity, over-conceptualization, statements about the limits of communicability, and deliberate obscurity. Likewise, he uses "phenomenal" in a thoroughly positive sense to encompass the poem's sound, its "literal meaning" (35), its plot, and anything else about the poem that he feels should declare itself outright. If we overlook for the moment some basic problems associated with using "theoretical" and "obscure" interchangeably, and with conflating many levels of meaning into one (The Waste Land is in trouble if, in order to have phenomenal presence, a poem's plot must be immediately  apparent), we can see that Kirsch registers an active tension between two extremes of Grahams sensibility. The fact that Kirsch is left to conclude Grahams poetry is "about" the frustration of our perception indicates, at the very least, that he registers the resistance of thought to perception in her work. Indeed, both Kirsch and Eder acknowledge—look right into the face of—the acute sensory reach toward abstraction in Swarm, but they misread the orientation of these poems, which involves casting out from, and then drawing thought down into, the body. Insofar as Graham's poems fight to feel beyond the confines of a single sell' into a realm of collective experience, they risk, like those of the High Moderns, being "difficult," but it is exactly such an orientation that keeps Graham's poetry from being private or obscure. The complex energies in her language are a result of the extent to which her voice is pitched outward, seeking ways to make the boundaries of a self more fluid and expansive.

Sense-details are at the core of most descriptive and figurative language. They arise when any kind of information—feelings, things, concepts—is filtered through die five senses. Sense-details summon a physical state in the reader, which is to say that you feel something suddenly and precisely. For Graham, to sense an idea means to touch it, hear it, taste it—it's transparent blue, it echoes, it's damp and sour and raw. Of course, sense-details not only place you back into your body and make you feel alive, diey also ground your belief in a poem; they help convince you that an abstraction is as real as marble or flesh or crying birds. In Graham's prior books, and especially in The Errancy, close observation draws ideas out of the visible world. This is one of the techniques she takes from poets like Keats, Hopkins, and Bishop. She addresses things diem-selves—clouds, willow trees, floodwaters—and out of her engagement with these materials, out of watching and sensing, ideas arise. The presumption is that the ideas are there, just below the outermost surface of things, and that it is a matter of looking hard arid paying attention to where things resist your desires—to where they insist on their own nature apart from your subjective designs—that ideas take shape. In this land of encounter, because ideas emerge from the bright outline of the world, the reader encounters them already couched in sense-detail. The concluding stanza of the poem "Try On" is a case in point:

Wings thickly lifting off  the hidden 


The sound of a hand-sized stone hitting dry ground

from a certain height.


Holding the mind in       like a wish       so deep (7)

The heavy wings rise up against gravity in the first phrase, and you hear a low, rustling sound. The second phrase presents the opposite motion: a single stone after free-fall, dropping quickly, and the brief thud it makes on contact. Before you understand that the bird and the stone are at the mercy of laws of nature, you feel-hear tensions between gravity and flight at work in the concentrated effort to hold inward the mind. In effect, by die time this event has been classified (together these motions comprise what it feels like, to hold the mind inside), the reader has already recognized it physically as a conflict. This same process takes place over the course of entire poems. At the beginning of the "Manteau de Pascal," for instance, there is a tactile description of Pascal’s overcoat. The coat is "coarse," "elastic," a "wool gabardine mix" that bears a "grammatical weave" (65). Each button is "a peapod getting tucked back in," there is "harm with its planeloads folded up in the sleeves," and night-air inside die rips in the coat, and birds. The poem fits more and more of the world into the coat, so that when you arrive at the last section, when the idea of doubt is finally named—"I have put on my doubting, my wager, it is cold"—what you hear is: "1 have put on my body, my wager, it is cold," because everything that was put into the coat now comprises a body. You believe, because you feel it, that Pascal's doubt involves his whole body, and that the body of the world is at risk.

Graham's other strategy for allowing ideas to acquire sense is to start with speculation and gradually bring it inside, to feel it issue into material. This strategy was explored most thoroughly in The End of Beauty, where different forms of closure and plot were slowly "admitted" (often to a breaking point) into human scenes patterned on myth. That book re-poses a central question from Erosion, "How far is true enough? How far into the earth can vision go and still be love?" ("The Age of Reason" 19)—or, how far into the body can vision go and still be felt? The end of beauty borders on the beginning of understanding, of ideas entering into die world to organize our lives, to help love along, to make it urgent. The poems from Swarm proceed with this same kind of investigation, where ideas like "history" and "universal law" seem to exist apart from the world mid are drawn inside—often forced into—the speakers' lives, to the point where any stable sense of self starts to disperse. Because Swarm is formally very different from Graham's previous work, it is useful to consider how this process works in the new poems.

Swarm is a book of love poems. Love involves the whole cosmos; it involves feeling and knowing the beloved. Every action undertaken in this book, every description and realization, has some bearing on love— that eerie process which refuses any separation between body and mind. 

The main idiom of this book is to be underneath (there are fifteen poems that have "Underneath" as part of their title). The speakers in Swarm find themselves caught under their lovers' bodies, under the law, under judgment, under God. They seek some way to come to terms with these different forms of compelled obedience, to get, in effect, under Empire, below whatever sense of self has been colonized above ground, into die foundations of ancient Rome and Carthage, into the distilled remains of the Forum, the buried past. The foundations of the kingdom are in the body. The speakers want to inhabit the ground, the dirt, the cold soil from graves, so that depth becomes a metaphor for inwardness—slipping into tombs, digging deeper, feeling your way into ash and dark earth. Here the process of discovery is undertaken because there is always something more real, more authentic, farther underneath. The idea of history becomes dynamic when you take it inside your body, when you feel its materials—prints in the dirt, silt, burnt things—when you understand that these are the materials into which all bodies recede. As Graham writes in the poem "2/18/97," "Underneath, always, the soil that brightens and darkens" (13). Underneath, ultimately, are "the wondrous things," the treasures as yet "unperceived" (5)—selves hidden or buried, ourselves at our most private, individual, real. "O my beloved," says the speaker in "Underneath 9," "I speak of the absolute jewels" (11). The hope of these poems is that even our most private selves are connected—in the invisible buried city, in time, in the black earth itself, as pieces of clay and dust—and that, instead of being defined by sprawling claims of an Empire upon persons, "we be founded on infinite smallness" (5).

The tension in these poems between the idea of history and the person in history expresses itself formally. On the page, these poems seem suspended. Phrases proceed sometimes without logic, without punctuation, sometimes even without situation. In Swarm, ideas made inward splinter and unsettle the self, which has to rearrange itself into a different order to keep speaking, to survive not having a "first person." The title of the book calls attention to this activity. Like a swarm of bisects or honeybees hovering together in the air, densely in motion, the self reassembles its parts—grains, bits of filament, syllables—in order to remain whole but still fluid. The swarm is a mediating, angelic cluster, a colony in which one can retain one's identity and yet participate. The urge to dismantle the first person and recoalesce into a more expansive self is something various "experimental" poets of the last century have explored, and certainly the poems from Swarm are indebted to the fractured, reaching prosodies of poets as different as David Jones and Michael Palmer. Graham recalls Jones's thematic preoccupations as well (especially as these are worked out in The Anathemata and The Sleeping Lord), staging her poems in die period of Rome's rise and fall. She is thinking about the foundations of Western culture: its productive and destructive collisions with the private self, about the ways such conflicts can create voice and a sense of identity. As Helen Vendler has observed, many of Graham's poems manifest a kind of vertigo-effect, a "rapid zooming, in alternatively short and long lines, between getting close and gaining distance" (246). In these poems, instead of accelerating a moment in history as she does in The End of Beauty, revealing all the things that can happen in a freeze-framcd second, Graham slows it down, magnifies the instant, and as a result the lines are much shorter. There is a kind of condensation of attention that occurs in each poem, and moving from image to image is an archeological activity: you exhume the ruins of an object or a situation until it starts to take on sharp feature and relevance. The short line is an indication that the world appears in shards and must be built up, line by line—that the self has not yet organized into a first person who can speak in full sentences. And yet a self does speak. A number of the poems begin with fractured, insistent demands, like "Needed explanation," "Explain given to / Explain born of," "Pick a card." A line, in other words, is built out of very little and has to carry a great deal of voice. Likewise, in die minimalism of this style, the speaker cannot avail herself of many words. Because there is a scarcity of names, there is pressure on each word to convey more meaning, to call up more history, to reach out more precisely to what's there. (This is in profound contrast to The Errancy, which is propelled by a radiant flood of diction. There die "I" can fill and empty itself of language as it needs, because language is abundant.) The stage directions that surface periodically in Swarm evidence this physical struggle for words. Frequently the speaker motions toward what would make her most whole, as in "Middle Distance":

The "frontier labyrinth" (gestures)

All the people in history (gestures)

The heart in my throat (spotlight on wilderness) (37)

Or the speaker is left, stagestruck, helplessly enacting desires without being able to articulate them in formal sentences ("For One Must Want / To Shut the Other's Gaze"):

(Offstage: pointing-at)

(Offstage: stones placing themselves on eyes) (55)

Having to build a self out of fragments, having to begin again in language, is the central problem of Swarm. The atom "[lays] its question at the bottom of nature" (4), and here the questions are always: what is the least one can say, in order to be understood; what is the least one can sense, in order to feel alive; what are the fewest materials a self needs, in order to hold together; what can you give up, in love, and still remain who you are; what is most minimally given, certain, true.

At those places when the speaker is most shattered, when the universal terms don't fit the private life, the poems tend to point it out, and one word that conies up repeatedly is "enjambment." "This is love," the poem will say, "this enjambment." At first glance it may seem peculiar that when the speaker is most stuck, most compromised by forces outside herself, it's called love. But these are the places where the speaker is die closest—die least separate from—other selves. The word enjambment comes from the French, and it originally meant to straddle, to encroach upon. Many of Graham's new poems are built out of enjambed lines. Although the lines are broken up horizontally with gaps and caesurae, the phrases are threaded through—vertically—with spirit. Something, you feel, is not going to let them fall apart. This is love, this wanting to hold and be held up by something outside oneself.

The price of enjambment—love—is confusion; your sensibility disturbed; your first person suspended. As the borders between lovers are undone (Daphne and Apollo, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Calypso and Ulysses), and as Rome's northern borders collapse, the speakers in these poems are faced with bewildering pain. The formal paring-down that happens in the line and in the diction is a figure of suffering. It is present as well in the images of desiccation and dust that run through the book: the recurrence of high noon, of choking, of straining to see above ground in excess sunlight, of razing forest, clearing or felling trees, of not being able to visualize an end. But this state of airlessness and middleness can be suffered, is willingly suffered, because there is the promise of life further underneath, the promise of regathering and re-feeling a more spacious sense of self. As different speakers acknowledge at various points in the book: "having lived it / leaves it possible" (4). When the speaker in "From the Reformation Journal" says, "O my beloved, 1 am asking" (5), she does so in the hope that the beloved can be reached, that the ground will hold them both up, that the idea or the spirit will (as the Sibyl says) "come down through the sentences / to breathe" (25). In its most vulnerable form, this is the hope that human beings have that life will help them.

The "ground" here is the dirt, the foundation, the idea that exceeds my life and your life and supports us both. It is also, as I've been suggesting, the ground of language. In what is perhaps the most beautiful poem in this book, "Underneath 13," Graham writes:

in our work we call this emotion

how a poem enters into the world

there is nothing wrong with the instrument

as here I would raise my voice but

the human being and the world cannot he equated (102-03)

Not only is it impossible that the world bend according to our wishes, it is not finally desirable. You and I, world and self, cannot be equated and must not be equated. But there is a middle ground where persons give up some sense of themselves for the sake of what we have in common—ideas and ideals—and where ideas shape themselves, become less general and less damaging, in the presence of another laughing, breathing person. A middleness, a lovely space opens up which allows ideas—true things and things "not yet true"—to slip into the real and become true ("Pollock and Canvas" [End of Beauty 87]). The mutual undoing between idea and person happens in this penultimate poem of Swarm, in the always breaking and regathering ground of language, and in the lyric refrain of "push past," "have faith," "undo":

touch where it does not lead to war

show me      exact spot

climb the stairs

lie on the bed

have faith

nerves wearing only moonlight lie down

lie still patrol yr cage

be a phenomenon

at the bottom below the word

intention, lick past it

rip      years

find the burning matter

love allows it (1 think)

push past the freedom (smoke)

push past      intelligence (smoke)

whelm       sprawl

(favorite city)      (god's tiny voices)

hand over mouth

let light arrive

let the past strike us and go

drift       undo

if it please the dawn

lean down

say      hurt      undo ("Underneath 13" 103-05)

Like the poems that precede it, this poem refuses to acknowledge a difference between sex and love. Here the body of the beloved and the body of meaning—what that body means to the lover—have the same meaning. This blurring between person and idea is what enables the speaker, at last, to say "We exist":

there is in my mouth a ladder

climb down

presence of world

impassable     gap


I am beside myself

you are inside me      as history

We exist     Meet me (105)

Problems are not solved in poems, at least not in any philosophical sense; they are imagined. Poems allow you to feel, deep in their music, the impact and urgency and relevance of a problem. In Graham's poetry, one overarching problem is how to make shared experience intensely inward, intensely felt. In an essay she wrote a long time ago about silence, Graham says that what interests her most is how to "wrench a uniqueness, an identity, from the all-consuming whole" and, the other side of this problem, how to be "united with the unknown, to break out of this sepa-rateness" we feel (413). Her poems imagine ways of bringing universals— the world of idea and spirit—into experience, to "press spirit into service" (as she says in the Holderlin prayer), to see mind restored to body and sense. The difficulty in Graham's poems comes from the pressure of one world (the world we have in common) laid down upon another (die world of the self). In Swarm, Graham imagines to its utmost possibility how this "hallowed" world of ideas might find its way down into the sensuous realm; how a person might loosen the constraints of being a self without giving it up completely:

       (you should sue how the appointed 

take their lethal

medicine, here in Carthage

love, in Rome) (to make themselves marble) (although some blur 

even as they drink) (far from the 

patria) sweet thing of mine

I hold in with my

boundaries my having watched for so long

the ruined temple wondering

how docs the hallowed come down to

the swag of clay and night as a broken

arch. The bluebird cries. ( "Probity" 95-96)

How far is true enough? How far into the earth can vision go and still be love? Says the poem: there is no deep enough. To feel an idea means to inhabit the problem widi the full force of your body and your mind, rather than just to think it. It creates a situation out of words which is concrete, visceral, real; one in which you are forced to consider deeply, to choose, to act, to be known by your action. The way you work for meaning when you read Graham s poems is part of this process, and so are those moments when you feel that something has been arrived-at, broken-through-to, or revealed. As Wallace Stevens writes in his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," the poem allows us to feel die beauty within the conflict, to feel

the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems ... to have something to do with our self-preservation, and that ... is why the expression of it. die sound of its words, helps us to live our lives. (36).

Works Cited

Eder, Richard. "A State of Withdrawal," New York Times Book Review 2 Jan. 2000: 9. 

Graham, Jorie. The End of Beauty. New York: Ecco Press, 1987.

—.  Erosion. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

—. The Errancy. New York: Ecco Press, 1997.

—.  Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

—.  Materialism. New York: Ecco Press, 1993.

—.  Region of Unlikeness. New York: Ecco Press, 1991.

—.  "Some Notes on Silence." Nineteen New American Poets of the Golden Gate. Ed.

Philip Dow. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1984.

Kirsh, Adam. "The End of Beauty," New Republic 13 Mar. 2000: 35-42.

Stevens. Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1991.

—.  The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1951.

Vendler, Helen. "Fin-de-Siecle Poetry: Jorie Graham." Soul Says. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Joanna Klink's first book of poems, They Are Sleeping, was recently published by the University of Georgia Press. She teaches at the University of Montana and is writing a book on Paul Celan entitled You.