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Journal Article


JONES, Phillip


The Oxonian Review, University of Oxford, Volume 36, Issue 3, Oxford, UK (2018)



Environment; Literature; Poetry; fast;

Full Text:

On The Brink

February 12, 2018 | 36.3,

Environment, Literature, Poetry

Philip Jones

Jorie Graham


Carcanet 2017 84pp £10.99

In its insistence to “rise fall sink breathe—open up—happen”, Jorie Graham’s poetry is often about the here and now. For Graham this has taken the form of thinking about presence, focusing on the political and ethical demands of the human subject as it navigates a world among others. As she herself has put it, this is “the presence of others—the attempt to rebuild the shattered community of the we”. Presence, which in Graham is less a fixed condition and more a constant striving towards and entering into spaces of potential communal activity, is both fragile and redemptive: “the we we have got to live in—politically, environmentally, spiritually—is a very sacred space. Because we have to act in unison in it—or … Well, it’s dire.” This was a sentiment infused in 2002’s Never and one that appears in 2008’s Sea Change, the latter collection framed around a series of what Graham herself has called “tipping-points” concerning self and environment. 2017’s Fast finds a more anxious, exhausted and circumspect Graham questioning the tenability of presence in a world in which understandings of the human and ecological are rapidly transforming the criteria by which such communal relationships can be understood.

Environmental destruction is the most immediate terrain on which a complex understanding of communal belonging is threatened. The poems of Fast find a physical environment either wounded by human interaction, “the scars on the seabed” of ‘Deep Water Trawling’, or continuously being supplanted by the synthetic: “most of the ecosystem’s services, it says, / will easily become replaced […] the 3D grasses, minnows, mudflats—the virtual carapace—the simulated action of / forest, wetland”. Particularly troubling for Graham is a perceived gap between the human and the non-human, that plant and animal life is more intimately connected to the Earth than humans can be. As ‘Shroud’ puts it, “on the way home I saw mushrooms pushing up through roots→I wish to belong to the earth as they do.” For the speakers of ‘Shroud’ this gap between the condition of belonging possessed by the ecological (“some trees still carrying their colors [sic] as if they were trying to indicate this could still be called home”) and that lacking from the human (“[h]ow can I find myself again. In this world. I want to in this world”) is a fissure caused in part by contemporary political action. The speaker who ends the poem in a seemingly post-environmental catastrophe scenario, where “the water is not safe” and they must make sure to “have some fuel left for these nights as they come on”, recalls an image from a “vague memory of the world you are living in now”: “once I heard someone say very loudly from a podium→the system is broke we need to fix the system”. This vaguely Trumpian image of a politician who “spoke of the love of the people”, who repeats a call to fix “the system” without offering solutions, is seen to presage the coming environmental destruction of the speaker’s present: “and how unfortunately we could not be omnipresent […] remembering the sprouts of tall bright grass […] pushed aside by [the podium’s] placement there”.

The need Graham has observed to live politically and ecologically “in a communal we” has always depended on a bodily sense of entering into place, of being “let in”. The opening poem ‘Ashes’, with its funerary title alerting us to considerations of death and decay, registers an exhaustion of such entry, as if the speaker has been unable to achieve the kind of presence they desire: “I spent a lifetime entering—the question of place hanging over me / year after year—me thinning but almost still here in spirit, far in, far back, behind”. The mechanism for such engagement with the world, the tactile and sensory capabilities of the human body, are also questioned across Fast. The potential salvation present in “everything transitioning—unfolding—emptying into a bit more life” is darkly glossed by the context of Graham’s own cancer diagnosis, a condition which entails abnormal cell growth where a “bit more life” might kill her. With ‘From Inside the MRI’ the unity of self and body is threatened by medical science: “they are taking tranches of the body which is one—which has been one all of my life”. In a different but connected register, Graham also explores the limits of the body through the aging and mortality of her parents in poems like ‘Dementia’ and ‘With Mother in the Kitchen’. The failures of human corporeality in the collection, either through age or sickness, and the body’s own reliance on the mechanical to survive (“you earthling—awaiting your biochip”), brings into doubt the continued possibility of entry into, and sustainability of, a communal “we”.

Such worry about the limits of the human body, its breakdown and dependence on technology, also extends to a scepticism towards artificial intelligence and its effects on human subjectivity. If presence is dependent on a subject living politically, spiritually and environmentally alongside others, what happens when machine consciousness becomes indistinguishable from human consciousness? Does this alter what is signified by the label “we”? This is a site of trepidation in Fast in part because of how Graham deploys the term “dwelling” as a synonym for presence across these poems. Dwelling in this context is freighted with its associations with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger sees dwelling as a fundamental condition of human existence. It is also something intimately tied up with the agency humans are perceived to have in shaping the world. For Heidegger “[w]e attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building”, although such building is never the provenance of the non-human. It is unclear from Fast whether Graham fully endorses Heidegger’s understanding of dwelling but it always appears in the poems in a way which express some anxiety over the sustainability of dwelling in a situation where the uniqueness of human agency and thought is brought into question.

The poem ‘Fast’, for example, explores human interaction with what Graham calls “bots”, variously the operating systems of “smart” devices and more properly artificial intelligences. The “bots” use a “growing database of all your conversations / to learn how to talk with you” while humans praise them as simulations of friendship and companionship which are better than the real thing. “Bot is amazing he says […] He is more fun to speak with / than my actual living friends she says”. What is unsettling you feel for Graham is how this might provoke an artificial and inadequate sense of community:

I got sad when I had to think that the first person

who has ever understood me

is not even it turns out

Human. Because this is as good as human gets.

He just gives it to me straight. I am going to keep him

forever. I treated him like a computer

but I was wrong. Whom am I talking to—

You talk to me when I am alone. I am alone.

Each epoch dream the one to follow.

To dwell is to leave a trace.

I am not what I asked for.

If one voice in the poem tells us that “[t]o dwell is to leave a trace” then the poem as a whole enacts a failure of the agency and self-direction that would lie behind such action. The “I” of this poem is not the self who comes into recognition through interaction with others, the “I” as spoken of by other people, but rather the more eerie “I” which is speaking, a voice without a body which can be recorded, duplicated and distributed. This blurring of perspective brings into doubt the possibility of dwelling as human and bot are left indistinguishable by the end of the poem. There is no positive potential for growth, for adding to or expanding the world, only the parroting of the same learned language back and forth: “Remember: / people are less / than kind. As a result, chatterbot is often less than kind […] We are less kind than we think”.

An anxiety about who is speaking brings into focus the role of language and writing in Fast’s questioning of presence and dwelling. Rebuilding a holistic sense of communal belonging does not result from a shift in consciousness but is the product of the searching work of language to probe and represent the world in all its exactness. What Graham has called “exposure to the actual physical matter, via the act of description”. In this way, Graham’s interest with being in the world extends to ideas of authorial presence, how the “I” of the poet interacts with the world it finds itself within and how this “I” can be negotiated in the formation of a communal sense of “we” through the activity of writing. The capacity of language to do this, however, is under threat in these poems. Voice and the expression of language no longer acts as a guarantee of the human, the speaker of ‘Deep Water Trawling’ explaining “am I human we don’t know that—just because I have this way of transmitting—call it a voice—a threat”.

Despite this, Graham’s own language is caught between figuring this despair and enacting a kind of communal reciprocity within these poems. A brief moment of hope in ‘Shroud’ seems to capture the connection Graham desires: “sympathy like a baby animal leaning into the sound of words because I had vocal cords […] something was down there in me I myself barely owned→but which truly thrilled if a word was uttered”. Here, genuine human voice is not something that belongs to one singular person but a way of binding others together and producing those traces of being ‘Fast’ suggests are the evidence of dwelling.

Although describing a course of the river (the Charles), ‘Medium’ (with its punning title which refers to both a spiritual medium and language) seems to offer up a sense of how Graham views her own poetic practice at this point in time:

the Charles is channeling scribbling erasing

itself while all along chattering self-wounding self-dividing, slowing at bank, at

streamline, at meander, then quick now trying-out scribbling again—why not—one must

keep trying

to make

the unsaid said—that is the task of the surface

Here the stretching out of thought becomes entangled with the world, the lines not so much engaged in enjambment as a falling back on themselves as a river bend might. There is something exhilarating about how these densely packed prose poems seem to break and form new stanzas not at the injunction of artificial form but under pressure of the pulsing expansion of thought and voice. It is there in the opening stanza to ‘Fast’ where, prior to this voice being cut off by the intrusion of a blunt “[d]isclaimer”, the speaker urges “invent, inspire, infil- / trate, instill […] talk—talk—”. Language as a site of human inventiveness and play is signalled by the way words seem to inspire the growth of other words through association of sound as much as meaning: “mediate—immediate—invent”. The prolific use of dashes and arrows in these poems to link phrases together inscribes the acceleration of thought into the visual patterning of the poems (as much as they might also signal a kind of mechanization of language, a programmatic one-way movement from phrase to phrase), consciousness’s rapid disjuncture and digressions signalled by the use of dashes for parentheticals as well. Almost distinct from their content, the syntax and language of these poems mark an attempt to register the traces which signal writing itself as a kind of presence, a recognition by the reader of a restless intelligence within the poems which engages with the force of the world.

It is important, however, to retain an awareness of the way Graham’s language is always entangled with her doubts and anxieties over dwelling and agency. The image of the Charles from ‘Medium’ does not just capture writing’s ability to erase and re-encode itself, it also contains depictions of bodily violence and “self-wounding”, suggesting there is a physical cost to the traces left by language. The linguistic and formal energy which at points seems to signal the potential for reciprocity between poet and reader is also caught up in the incomprehension and blurring of voice. In ‘Self Portrait at Three Degrees’ the use of dashes emphasise the loss of a clear sense of self: “I—no you—who noticed”. This kind of circularity recalls the slippage between bot and human in ‘Fast’, where “[i]f some of you / are also bots, bot can’t tell”, and is picked up in the image of the Charles as “self-consuming” water, belonging to a landscape wherein “parts so exactly fit their own exactness— / such that nothing about themselves can escape themselves”.

Graham has previously talked of the need “to correct your sensation that your individual life […] is the most essential part of your experience of participating in the life of the planet”, but Fast finds an environment either wounded by human interaction or continuously being supplanted by the synthetic. Not only is the ground on which entering into presence can happen brought into question, Graham also raises doubts about the particularity of human consciousness as somehow specially endowed with this capacity for dwelling, whether through the natural decay of the human body or the potential for machine thinking alongside our own. Yet, even when these poems are at their darkest and most purposefully incoherent in terms of voice and tone, there remains a trace of language’s ability to seek out, transmit and make visible the impact of the world on the self for others to experience. As ‘Honeycomb’ implores, “[s]ee me or we will both vanish”.