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Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Boston Review, Boston, MA (2015)
An Extra Life
By Lucy Mckeon, bostonreview.net
May 20th, 2015
From the New World: Poems 1976–2014
Ecco, $29.99 (cloth)
A good “selected poems” turns a career back into a voice. The individual books give way again to the maker, now editor as well as composer. Jorie Graham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Dream of the Unified Field did this to wide acclaim in 1996. From the New World, Graham’s second selected poems, does it again, reducing and arranging her abundant career into a fraction of its breadth. The selection leads readers into Graham’s later books’ glorious assaults on the lyric, a form she both loves and finds wanting.
A meditative poet in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, Graham provides a narrative of thought, a beguilement by process, a way for the lyric to forestall its own finality and resist its own composure. What begins for her as beguilement by process becomes a way of reflecting the increasing difficulty of asserting anything like wisdom within the poem. She is opening up the lyric poem to examine its efficacy. She is not destroying it, but examining it, a process as disbelieving and insistent as a mourner with a body. She thinks the hope of the form—to preserve experiences, to refresh our ability to perceive—resides in its ability to change.
Strong readers have long thought of Graham’s best work as “oversized”—as Calvin Bedient wrote in these pages nineteen years ago—and praised her for a dramatic poetry of great scope. The magisterial, expertly lineated self-portraits of her third book, The End of Beauty (1987), and the autobiographical explorations of her fourth,Region of Unlikeness (1991), crossed with the searching philosophical ruminations of her fifth, Materialism (1993), support this picture of the poet as a collagist who can bring together disparate materials in composed contemplation. “The Dream of the Unified Field,” included in From the New World, begins with Graham bringing her daughter a leotard and ends with her quoting a conquistador. Her sense of the inexhaustible yet erratic richness of perception means that her poems often move, sometimes wildly, from the local to the global.
But in the best of From the New World, meditations lead the mind into improvisations more matter of fact than full of grand gesture. The early work collected here teems with moments of observation and description lifted into thought, moments that alternately embrace and attack reality. Graham proves herself Dickinson’s heir in “I Watched a Snake”: “It kept on / disappearing / And though I know this has / something to do // with lust, today it seemed / to have to do / with work.” Associative power reveals the ideas in experience without forcing them out of it. In this way, the early poems predict the later work’s relentless energy and constant shifting through increasingly dramatic line breaks. This later work, fueled by anxiety more than pleasure, is nevertheless still based in beauty’s beguilements, which ask a mind not simply to behold but also to follow and try to capture.
Since the assumption behind a Jorie Graham poem is that a mind is always in motion, it makes sense that Graham is one of the most memorable American poets of rivers, those symbolically rich moving targets beloved of verse since T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes. Rivers recur in her work, from the early poem “Wanting a Child,” which forgoes literal examination of that desire in favor of luxuriant description of a river, to the later “The Surface,” which begins, “It has a hole in it.” (Graham, the case could be made, is surprisingly funny in places, and, like here, formidably matter-of-fact.)
Coherent, signature poems of perception such as these can be found at the beginning and end of nearly every Graham collection, early and late. But the Graham meditative poem often ends not by thinking something profound and saying it—the “and then I realized” moment, which, according to Robert Hass, “is the part of stories no one ever quite believes”—but, as in “Recovered from the Storm,” by doing something: “I pick up and drag one large limb from the path.”
Jorie Graham provides a narrative of thought, a way for the lyric to forestall its own finality.
Among the things Graham does, rather than merely think, is pray. Prayer isn’t about “realizing” things, at least on its surface—it is about getting something. It is a task. Graham restores prayer’s wilder tones and refutes popular claims that it is mere optimistic yearning. Maybe because she has been living in New England, Graham’s prayers feel Puritan in the best of ways: desperate comfort for those stranded in the New World. Inverting Whitman’s expansion, optimism, and proclaimed faith in future generations, Graham’s prayers are at first indebted to restriction though devoted to song: “this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets / what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed.” But her prayers can also be quite harsh: “I don’t know where to start. I don’t think my face / in my hands is right. Please don’t let us destroy / Your world. No the world. I know I know nothing I know I / can’t use you like this.”
Though the addressee of a prayer should be a god, the poem that is a prayer has another, more human work: to put the reader in the poet’s place. Graham’s attention to the body’s pains and struggles in these poems is earthy, awkward, and real. She is less interested in composition here than in making a record of the ability to compose, and you get the sense that she does so out of a ferocious fear that our human abilities are being compromised by how we live. These are some of Graham’s
finest protest poems, since they don’t fight against an idea; they fight from within, against so many American languages with their questionable senses of purpose, from desire (“no one gets what they want”) to productivity to faith.
Sea Change (2008), with its wild line breaks, intensifies this sense of embodiment challenged by changing circumstances, of life withstood rather than accomplished. The first poem in Sea Change deconstructs a famous Middle English quatrain that begins so many undergraduate poetry classes: “Western wind, when wilt thou blow / the small rain down can rain / Christ that my love were in my arms / and I in my bed again.” The point of the Middle English poem is the link between natural form and the form of the human affect. Graham’s poem is interested in how the closeness of this link intensifies with climate change, supercharging the objective correlative with a likeness between endangered person and endangered planet:
One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger thanever before in the recordingof such. Un—natural says the news. Also the body says it. Which part of the body—I lookdown, canfeel it, yes, don’t knowwhere.
As its lines range across the page, the poem anxiously chases down the voice of the wind. Yet the poet’s attention to the wind is challenged by the wind’s catastrophically changing nature, and she finds herself almost unable to do a simple poetic task in the present—describe the wind—without feeling the consequences of history.
Getting really upset about weather has always been the work of poetry, but Graham happens to live during a time of the extinction of many species, of global warming and the melting of glaciers, of shifting human populations and changing ways of life caused by the freedoms (and difficulties) of global capitalism and resulting migration on an unprecedented scale. The context of climate change forces Graham, and readers, to see this work as endangered: Who are we to use the elements to right ourselves when their patterns have gone haywire?
And yet, this is not only an occasion for despair. Graham has always been guiltlessly in love with all that disappears. Her poems memorably make use of delay, disappearance, and doubt, not to deny or even forestall crisis but to endure it: “like a seeing person / with her eyes shut / putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth.” I’ve always imagined Dickinson must have been a little excited to die after all her thinking about it, like an Olympic athlete finally at the games, and you might say the same of Graham, the right person for poetry in the twenty-first century. Hers could so easily be a poetry only of mourning, but Graham is beguiled by, and therefore capable of, creating poetry in which what is experienced in crisis is as important as what is lost. Transmission, human connection, becomes as important as attention.
• • •
One essential function of the lyric is to give the reader an experience she can participate in: to get close. The difficulty of accomplishing this is one of the great themes of contemporary poetry; it can be found in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), among other books. There is a vital problem of community located inside the practical task of the lyric poem: How to get close to the reader? Lately we seem to have equated the ability to answer this question with the ability to write the lyric poem at all. In an earlier poem, Graham attempts to solve this problem of proximity by expanding the idea of what an experience can be: “Is there an America comprised wholly / of its waiting and my waiting and all forms of the thing . . . a place of
attention?” In the later work collected in From the New World, an exhausted fortitude replaces such heroics of reach: “I was not yet so tired of believing— / I was still in the very beginning of being human, / the thing no one can tell another.”
Those beautiful lines appear in Graham’s most recent published collection, Place (2012), a lush and mysterious book. The excerpts in From the New World show Placeto be her return to the meditative poem as a way of transforming the lyric through the power of transmission and connection, not simply outrage or expression of difficulty. The finest poems of the book frame two moments of transmission—the first from Graham’s mother to her and the second from Graham to her daughter. In “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950,” the poet writes of herself as a child before language—essentially, as a young poet in the contingency of that creative state:
may I not squander the astonishments—may I not mistakenly kill brother, sister—Iwill sit once again so boldly at my beginning,dark spot where one story does not yet become another,and words, which have not yet come to me, will not yet try to tellwhere each thing emerges, where it is headingThen, in “Lapse,” she writes of her hopes for her daughter, with a blessing full of range and randomness:my prayer that you be sparedfrom anything at all, from everything, and of course also its opposite,that everything happen to you in large sheets of experience
In the first poem, Graham is a child in the market. In the second, she is a mother with a girl in a swing. In both, the voice longs for transmission, through the body, of the continuation of human experience: the poem exists to create an occasion for this. There is an extraordinary purity in these poems. The poet speaks of her life, “my only time,” writing of the early memory of her mother in the Roman market, with gravity and grace. As a mother, her name for an idea of her daughter’s life is both material and spiritual: “your own unique opening.” When her poem to her daughter concludes, her words for experience are simple and, to my ear, address both her daughter and any reader who has traveled this far. They are an ars poetica of sorts: “I brought you in here.”
Though the reader of From the New World is asked to return, again and again, to the meditative poem, the solo voice, dramatic poems occasionally re-infuse the lyric with energy. One of these, “Prying,” ends the collection. “Prying”—a far cry from “Praying,” though differing only by a vowel—seems to be a new beginning for the poet and a new kind of poem for her readers. The speaker, now cancer patient on the table, is “pried” open. The lyric poem itself is revealed here to be a structure not dead but simply sick, with a human sickness, in need of care rather than autopsy. Care is the work of the community, not simply of the individual. The poem becomes Eliot’s “patient etherized upon the table,” asked to resurrect itself, to pry itself open and include not just one but many voices. We hear that ancient moment of negative capability, of drifting into the dream state that the writing of lyric poetry has always loved, offered up in a terrifying fashion but, still, offered up: “As if I never wake from this blackout again, again this minute they lay it out / on the wheeling transporter, so silent, then the surgical table, / my body, my citizen, anesthesiologists back from coffee break, cables / on Mylar headrest taking my headrest down now, arms into armlock, / then positioners, restraints—day talk / all round / the guidewires in, the intravenous ports, the drip begun.”
And the poet takes what is offered. Her supine mind, unable to escape culture in a moment of institutionalized leisure, must go through many different voices while it waits to hear its fate. The poem has a haywire quality more undefended than anything else Graham has done. In this moment, both poet and poem are pried open; her restless examination of the form of the poem accompanies her examination of her threatened life, which itself requires the restless examination of her body by those who would save it. Though losing time, she retains and intensifies the power to transmit to the reader. The last words of the book don’t ask you to be a patient in order to receive them, just a person: “And you get a little extra life to live now—here—you can still live it.”
From the New World is more than simply a collection of parts of collections; it is the story of how the lyric poem’s claim to give the reader a bit of experience, “an extra life,” might be credibly made. Graham dramatizes receiving that gift—from her doctor—rather than giving it.
The claim of the lyric poem may be little; the origins of Graham’s poems are little as well. They come from a person fascinated with observation, with looking and feeling and simply being in the body, far more than they come from an idea. But the rewards are great. It is remarkable that it takes so much work, so many pages, to hear a horse on the beach, to leave an ocean, to plant a seed. But for those of us who love poetry it is not surprising. It is certainly not bad. It is even amazing.