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Zakary Sonntag


Under a Warm Green Linden (2021)


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Time on the Mind: A Review of Jorie Graham’s Runaway — February 20, 2021

by Zakary Sonntag

With her 15th collection of poetry, Runaway, Jorie Graham redoubles herself as a foremost talent in poetry of the Mind. The book searches for the boundaries between essence and impermanence, and shows us— thrillingly, scarily—that impermanence reigns.

Equal parts imagination and sophistication, Runaway traffics in the thematic hallmarks we’ve come to expect of Graham—time and evolution, history and the nature of god—and in this way it fits neatly into a oeuvre in which each additional collection adds nuance, depth, and heightened relevance to those that came before it. But the magic of Graham is that despite the familiarity of the territory, nothing about this book is predictable because she presents these motifs with such originality the work has the qualities of a debut. Yet to

liken Runaway to a debut is entirely wrong. This is a work of immensity that becomes richer with each re- reading. It is poetry that always feels a few steps ahead, and it takes courage to follow after, but it promises not to leave you behind.

At the heart of this book is an author attempting to reconcile the back-and-forth of time and form, and trying to negotiate an identity despite the oscillations. It shimmies vertiginously across eras and perspectives with a science-fictive quality, intensified by invocations of apocalypse and time-travel. We see this vividly in the poem “Thaw,” where a cautiously brave speaker gropes for orientation amidst ruin:

I must not get the time confused. The times. There is a coolness in it which would have been new

Spring. I can’t tell if it’s smell, as of blossoms which would have been just then

beginning, or of loam.

…                                                                  One of us looks up to where the sky had been.

Our prior lives press on us. Something with heavy re-

collection in it presses. Not

history anymore of course but like it. Is it five minutes or 500 years.

“Thaw” captures the pain and incomprehensibility of change present throughout Graham’s work, which from the outset has relentlessly reimagined human relationships with time. However, despite or because of the craziness Runaway conveys of our moment, Graham’s latest creates the sensation that you wouldn’t want to

live at any other time than this one.

Graham, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her collection The Dream of the Unified Field, is an old hand at these types of clever ontological explorations, and she’s been a canny chronicler of the Mind’s interconnectedness with its surroundings for at least as long, as we see in “Mind” from that collection:

The slow overture of rain, Each drop breaking Without breaking into The next, describes

The unrelenting, syncopated Mind. Not unlike

The hummingbirds Imagining their wings

To be their heart, and swallows Believing the horizon

To be a line they lift And drop.

Fast forward 25 years and we notice Graham is luring us with rain again. Like “Mind,” Runaway’s opening poem, “All,” welcomes us with rain, introducing the collection and serving as an example of how expertly she refreshens her preoccupations.

After the rain stops you can hear the rained-on. You hear oscillation, outflowing, slips.

The tipping-down of the branches, the down, the exact weight of those drops that fell

over the days…

the sum of the last not-yet-absorbed, not-yet-evaporated days.

Runaway is replete with the in-between, not-yet, and as-if moments, inviting liminal sensations, at which her work has always excelled. Although different from earlier collections, which explore explicit historical personages and events, from mythic figures like Penelope, to Werner Herzog, or the events of

WWII, Runaway has much less metonymic reference. Here the homages are quieter, the settings more metaphoric. Without the contexts those metonymic figures provide, the reader is urged to find bearings even deeper in the speaker’s mind. Be warned, though, because to identify with Runaway is to experience precariously toggling states.

One of the collections most beautiful poems conveys the sense of lostness exacted by time’s guarantee of uncertainty—from “[To] The Last [Be] Human”:

Today I am getting my instructions. I am getting them from something holy.

A tall thing in a nest.

In a clearing. There is a little dread no memory and everything’s looking for

Signs. We don’t know if this is the way forward or the way

back. Do you? Is it a hundred yards or a million years. A small conifer

appears to be laughing. Wind would be nice but it’s only us shaking.

The poem goes on as an example of Runaway’s fluid use of pronouns, more various here than any of her previous works. The switch-ups build a sly tension and give the speaker’s voice an intense, at times schizophrenic, internality. Picking back up in “[To] The Last [Be] Human,”

lungs tight as fists inside, yr name just about stripped from

u if u try to say it out

loud…             We are never sure

what was memory, sweet, burning, gigantic, silent—

long erasure underneath the wind—which comes by so in- frequently we all stop when it

arrives. You remember u understood completely that u r are lost

We see in this poem the epistolary quality that threads through the book, but its swapping pronouns and perspectives gives the feeling of fragmented consciousness. These poems can be read as letters from a past- self guiding a future self. They are spoken to the ether. They are from Earth speaking to the reader.

In some poems the perspective embodies such observant detachment we feel emplaced in the mind of cyborgs, as in “My Skin Is,” where a woman contemplates her reflection with eerily invasive remove.

“What shall I call it, shall I pass, meandering among the humans, among their / centuries, no safe haven this as if, this spandex over a void.”

“I see you net that skeins me in, tight inside / my inwardness—at this border judged—at this edge bleeding when hit.”

“Look how full of / void it is this capture, this skin no one can clean, and thoughts right there / beneath—of course you cannot see me for this wrapping.”

“must I ceaselessly be me, reinvent you, see the artifice us.”

The force of these simultaneities can be disorienting. One of Graham’s brilliant tactics, however, is the way she uses page space and lineation to balance these multiplicities. For instance, the majority of the book is written in long-lined quatrains, a reserved structure that helps contain the brimming force of all that simultaneity. Interesting, too, that quatrains, as Graham expressed in a conversation with Jericho Brown in 2020, are the traditional vehicle for the ballad and the hymn, which “share the sensation of having an audience that congregates. There’s a kind of moving together or a community [implied by the quatrain].” Therefore the quatrain becomes a figure for gathering the massive mind of Runaway, its multiplicity of inner- states as well as its expansive and permeably inclusive consciousness, as if the book were congregating all these energies for a ritual undertaking.

What, precisely, would that ritual purpose be? Graham has talked about the need for bringing more imagination to our relationship to time. In her conversation with Brown she spoke of the “Seven- generations” tradition practiced by the American Indian Iroquois, who weighed critical decisions against the imagined implications on those living seven generations in the future.

“What I’m trying to do is move the ability to think realistically in the direction of the future as if we were seven generations, maybe ten, looking back. And bring it to life as if it were a reality that we inhabit now,” Graham said.

But this doesn’t totally represent what’s happening in Runaway, because the book isn’t merely brining the future to the present; it’s brining the “Oh great forwards and backwards” at once into thought, shuffling past, present and future like cards in a guessing game.

At times the book’s aggregation of all that time and perspective can be frustrating. It can feel too deliberately fragmented or esoteric in ways that uninitiated readers might shrink from. But in the same breath, some of the most oddly begun poems will finish with rewarding clarity. And anyway, how can one turn away from pieces, however peculiarly begun, that open with lines like this?:

“The corpse at the heart of our theorization of us. That turn back look. Once again. / Ignoring the mirror. Baroque Turn”—from the poem “Becoming Other,” a piece that links dual subjectivities in a single mind, like cranially conjoined twins.

Graham is someone intent on disabusing the world of received ways of thinking, which entails a requisite disorientation. And, yes, it can be scary, but also liberating. She doesn’t give us maxims for living, but sometimes the greatest insights come from the quality of the questions raised, and brilliant are the quandaries raised in her work. At times those questions may be elegantly direct. We see so in “Evolution,” from

Overlord, her 2005 explorations into the nature of human power and dominance examined against the history of the Allied invasion of Europe (code named Operation Overlord):

Do you believe that after you die some part of you

lives on?

Do you pray in hope of reward?

Do you agree or disagree with the following


it bothers me my life did not turn out as I


Also there are people on the beach. And wind accepted by waterfilm. Look: acceptance has a shape.

And fate—is it accepted by waterfilm?

Other times the questions are subtle, and in Runaway inquiries are rarely punctuated with question marks. There is a sense, too, that the various collections of Graham’s oeuvre are in correspondence, backwards and forwards in time, with one another.

The book Never, published in 2002, is reminiscent of Runaway in the language it uses to articulate time’s traipsing through the psyche. There, in the poem the “Philosopher’s Stone,” we see time in layers and quantities:

“It’s like this. There are quantities. There’s on- / goingness—no—there’s an underneath. Over it we lay / time—actually more like takes and re- / takes by / the mind (eyes closed) then clickings of its opening-out and the mind fills / with gazes—thousands over some visualizations.”

In Runaway, the poem “All” expresses the way one can hear time in the sound of rain “tipping into the sound of ending which does not end, / and giving us that sound. We hear it. // We hear it, hands / useless, eyes heavy with knowing we do not understand it, we hear it, deep in its own consuming, compelling, a dry delight, a just-going-on-sound not // desire, neither lifeless nor deathless, the elixir of / change, without form, we hear you in our world.”

Graham’s treatment of god, too, is an interesting point of comparison. In Never, the poem “From Behind Trees” approaches the gods as entities transformed by history: “So it / is right here, where I am peering, where I am supposed to / discern, / how the new gods walk behind the old gods at the suitable distance.” In Overlord, a remembrance of WWII, the author views creation and gods as destructive. In Runaway, there is a resigned, if not pissed-off, attitude toward a “no-good god come to assume we are halfwits.” The author expects to “surprise this god who thinks he knows / what he’s made. Well no He does not know. We might be

a small cavity but it / guards a vast hungry—how bad does that hurt you, fancy maker—you have no idea / what we turned our backs on to come be in this field of earth and tend” (from “I’m Reading Your Mind”).

Herein is a strain of the book’s central metaphor—the poem conveys petulance reminiscent of a runaway orphan angry at abandonment. The metaphor of the runaway finds wide application in this work: runaway climate change; runaway capitalism; runaway inflation; and runaway time.

There is despair. There is loneliness. There is the inexorable feeling of what it means to be lost. But the book is not hopeless. There are poems that show us the beauty of a baby’s first steps and gorgeously imagine the unencumbered awareness of a child. And even if the book cajoles the feelings of being unmoored and orphaned, it nonetheless shows how the signs surrounding us don’t need to necessarily point to any specific place or outcome. One great wild muse of Runaway is wind, which gusts out of the book with such visceral potency it may as well be turning the pages for you.

After the wind just stops you still hear The Wind’s wild almost, its approach and retreat, and how it kept on Circling as-if-trying, as if about-to-be, an almost-speech,

Loud, full of syntax, casting about for life, form, limit, fate. To be bodied. To strut. To have meaning. How easily we wear ourselves

as if it is nothing to have origin, whirl, outcome,

and still be. After the high winds stop you’re forced to hear

The freshness of what’s There. It smacks, shimmers—this sound of

The scarcely there, this adamantly almost, all betweens, sub- Siding till adjustment—and then the wide re-blanketing evenness sets in….Gone.

Passages like these makes it easy to see why Graham has been called “Our most formidable nature poet” (
Publisher’s Weekly). By her own account Runaway is one her four “eco-books,” which include Sea Change, Place, and Fast. Yet to call her a nature poet fails to do justice to the multifariously imaginative power and the “vast hungry” at the heart of her work—work that never feels wired-in, and, in the case of Runaway,

seems to arrive just on time.