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Jeremy Noel-Tod


Supplement to The Sunday Times, Times Newspapers Ltd, London, UK (2013)


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The Taken-Down God: Selected Poems 1997-2008 by Jorie Graham

Pulitzer-winner Jorie Graham has had a glamorous life, but her poetry is very much rooted in the nitty-gritty of nature

Jeremy Noel-Tod
14 July 2013

Jorie Graham is an American poet with a wide experience of the world. Her early life alone warrants a biopic. Born in 1950 to a sculptor and a journalist, she was raised in Italy and France. In 1986, she was involved in the student protests in Paris, and went on to study film-making in New York. She then married into the Graham family, publishers of the Washington Post, at the time of the Watergate scandal.
After that, it might be said, her career became more conventional, though no less glamorous. Moving to Iowa, she began teach on America's most prestigious creative-writing programme, and later succeeded Seamus Heaney to a professorship at Harvard.

Graham's celebrity was confirmed when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for The Dream of the United Field, a selection from her first five books. The Taken-Down God selects from her next five, which appeared over the following decade. As such, it serves as a companion volume to her latest collection PLACE, which won the Forward Prize in the UK last year.
Long admired in America for her ambitious interweaving of philosophical and scientific ideas, Graham is also a poet who insists on the importance of first-hand observation of the world. Drafted in artist's sketchpads, her capacious verse attempts to shape and press a sense of the complexity of things upon the reader.

Graham's signature style is one of long, indented lines and dash-ridden sentences. Challenging the eye to follow its jagged paragraphs, this is verse that tries to attend to every second of perception.
One of her signature subjects is birds. Here is a crow launching into flight, captured in phrase-by-phrase detail, as it might have been seen by Gerard Manley Hopkins: 'wing-thrash where he falls at first against the powerline, / then updraft seized, gravity winnowed, the falling raggedly / reversed'.
And here is a grotesque 'mess of geese', which might have frightened Sylvia Plath: 'Groping their armless way, their underneaths greening. / A slow roiling. As of redundancy. Squirming as they sponge / over the short wet grass - bunchy.'

Anything that moves in a Jorie Graham poem is a potential metaphor for a thought process. Thus, the geese are also a 'mess / of conflicting notions' and the poem about the crow is simply titled Thinking.
The problem with always thinking about thinking in poetry is that self-consciousness can be an uncritical muse. Graham's voluble monologues buttonhole us into hearing them out. But the rhetorical questions and quizzical digressions of the lecturer do not always make for compelling verse ('space and time can be subdivided / infinitely many times. But isn't this sad? / By now hasn't a sadness crept in?').
The poems included in The Taken-Down God are at their best when they have a scene squarely before them. In Never (2002), the poet repeatedly walks along the beach, sketching the whole commotion of birds, water and light.

Watching a flock of gulls standing along the shoreline, she notes how they will suddenly run away from a wave, 'leaving behind... / almost a mile of white underfeathers, up-turned, white spines / gliding over the wet / sand, being blown down towards / the unified inrolling awayness of white'.

Running in and out like waves themselves, Graham's free, irregular lines let rip in such descriptions. She is not a carefree poet, though. Anxiety is the dominant emotion of many poems, as they confront the disorder of a world they cannot control.

In her most recent collections, she has begun to write about the threat of climate change. Sea Change (2008) features her longest line yet as she restlessly traces connections between the individual life and the global ecosystem. 'Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms', begins the poem 'Embodies'. It is a worrying instance of seasonal disturbance. But the sentence does not stop for one-and-a-half pages, eventually arriving at the dark thought that humanity has always had an irrational belief in its ability to 'stave off / the future'.

These poems are arresting in their determination to see beyond the comforts of civilisation. The clouds in the sky do not care about us. 'Look out for them', we are warned, 'their armada is not aware of your air-conditioned / office'.

Graham does not offer poetry as a way of transcending environmental crisis. Instead, she uses her searching, associative sentences to think along the fragile chain of being: from the in-/dispensable plankton of the North Atlantic to the 'useless hands' of the writing poet.