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Publication Type:Magazine Article
Source:The Boston Review (2005)
A State of Emergency
By Calvin Bedient
Ecco, $22.95 (cloth)
Jorie Graham wants to see as a god sees, “on time,” but “sight never happens.” The next best thing is the salvage work of “taking it all down,” or so she puts it in “The Taken-Down God” in her 2002 book Never:
We wish to not be erased from the
picture. We wish to picture the erasure.
The human earth and its appearance.
The human and its disappearance. What
do you think I’ve been about all this
half-crazed, pen-in-hand, looking up,
looking back down, taking it down.
But though she has tried with all her heart to believe in and love surfaces—and even in her terror-ravaged new book, Overlord, she recalls (from what other life?) the “frenzied joy of detail”—she has always been a poet of something just outside our gaze (one of her signature words), of the underneath, of the invisible, of something that works its way through matter like a ferocious hunger. “Everywhere the shine covering the through / through which hunger must move,” she writes with bedeviling redundancy in “Impressionism,” one of the new poems, which closes with a creepy image of a child on a bridge (a “girl / in a white frock whose puffed-up sleeves sputter / in the little / wind”—an impressionist sweetie) pulling up on a string 11 crabs wildly feeding on a “bleached-out jumbo turkey-leg and thigh.”
For Graham, an x, a “something” belied by every reduction to definition—what Emily Dickinson titanically called “the missing All”—makes “hollow” word, thought, and story. Standing up to the terror of this truth, resisting it with a brilliance that makes its own plea to be regarded as “something,” has been her perverse and heroic purpose; driving her poems into a struggling, searching, and die-hard length, it long ago became what the poems are about. (“God knows I too want . . . the silky swerve into shapeliness,” she wrote in “From the New World” in her fourth book, Region of Unlikeness, “and then the click shut / and then the issue of sincerity.”) Her seventh book, Swarm, cut the threads of grammar and story but was loaded with intelligible thought even so. Overlord, her ninth collection, returns, as Never did, to her desperate, powerhouse discursivity.
In it she is more than ever obsessed with the x everyone and everything fundamentally is (or fails to be). “Something” even queerer than the phantasm of matter (which is mere “potential,” as Graham reminds us) undercuts characterological differences. “We have to make up / something that will count as difference—real difference” and thus make ourselves “operational,” but difference is the illusory basis of this war and that war, of “empire,” of individuality—of one Jorie Graham in her old farmhouse near Omaha Beach or in her Harvard office, one “Don Whitsitt I flew a B-26 medium bomber / Number 1131657,” one nameless paratrooper in a D-Day glider (“bullets up through our feet”), one foreign taxi driver who puts American flags on his window out of fear, one homeless and speechless old man freezing outside a 7-Eleven. If the “something” had a gaze, it would regard them all as x’s (“I do not know who I am,” says the paratrooper, “but I am here”). The Graham of this book is all but done in by the hopelessness of the differential. In no earlier book could she have conceivably given over three long poems to the voices of “ordinary” others, in this case soldiers who died in Operation Overlord on Omaha and its neighboring beaches.
Not that Graham was ever a poet of her own person, to adopt the word with which she tags the surface personality in Overlord. Always she has tried to break out of the empire of “the middle kingdom of blossom” (Swarm) into the absolute, if by the impossible means of the “thinking” that wearies her, the “thinking” she hates. If she has proved oversized as a poet in the little field of contemporary poetry in English, it is because she continually recalls the great Western tradition of philosophical and religious inquiry. She attacks it as if it could still yield something useful about the “something.” Maybe the terms “God,” “the gods,” “the invisible,” and the like are not entirely exhausted. Look, search, think. Graham refuses to forget, perhaps is constitutionally unable to forget, that the All is missing.
In Overlord she can hardly forgive it, either. She creates the fiction of a (theological, not historical) lord whom she collars and requires to reveal a path of devotion to him, even as she weeps and crouches on the floor in the dark of the lack of him, even as she doubts him. She wavers, weakens, speaks instead of “the gods,” “the deities,” “the powers,” but it is really a single, solving lord she wants; and if she can’t have him, or, better, if he won’t have her, she would very much like to know why.
Well, she knows why: it’s that “he” is not even an “it” but only an effectively inconsequent something (“Back behind, or underneath: infinity or something which has no consequence”). If Graham were a poet of tragic joy (as she unsuccessfully affects to be in the new poem “Physician” and as she sometimes came close to being in the past), she would let the matter alone; she would triumph in her defeat. But she can’t forgive herself for being the mystic who can’t—even as she has made herself the poet who can—invent and work fictions for the maximum disclosure of our insufficiency as persons, tenaciously thinking and feeling her way through layer after layer of perception, and out to its extremities, like no poet before her.
In Overlord, Graham’s feeling of deprivation has reached a new stage of crisis. Hopelessness is one consequence; an increased disregard for beauty, another.
This hopelessness has been shaped not least by humanity’s failed experiments at making itself something through “difference,” which, phantasmagoric though it may be, has only divided humanity against itself: “The Abyss has gone plural.” Here Graham’s exceptional capacity to remain at once poised and appalled before the famine of being called “being here” has finally given way to helpless tropes of enumeration. The contents have spilled, like the stars Graham says she counted as a child in a “Loud tiny voice. So adamant, stern. Up into the hundreds, many / hundreds. . . . Then suddenly, / terrible, losing my place—ghastly, whole night sky; / unraveling—and where was I” (“Praying [Attempt of June 8, ’03]”). Obsessive numbering has replaced the conviction that anything counts, even the “something.”
Hopelessness, then, at every level of reflection. Consider the tree in the various orders of Graham’s thought. In the category of fullness and emptiness, it “flowed out to its bark”—so the child Jorie Pepper thought as she lay sick in bed. “It ticked out its being to its leaftips down into its roots. It could not be / absent” (“Other”). In contrast, to the adult Jorie Graham the 300-year-old tree outside the farmhouse window is a “little flash . . . taking form in my neuron chamber,” an “unknowable, unreachable specter of transience / only my own and never my own” (“Disappointment”). In the civic, uncivil category of history, the tree is “the tree of law,” a hanging tree (“Commute Sentence”). And in the geopolitical category, it will eventually have, amid a dry waste, “drifts of birds” at its feet (“Copy”).
Under the one rubric “historical,” the last two categories naturally bear the brunt of the book’s hopelessness. “History has worn us down.” History is empire; empire, killing. War begins in the evil of the differential. As Walter Benjamin put it in his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Once forced “into the hell / of action,” Graham writes, “we only know how to kill.”
A “state of emergency” indeed:
Where one must find ways to take cover.
Where one must run
quickly as possible, hoping to catch the
attacks. Across alley. Into
As for flags, nations—“I cannot make out what borders are. . . . Why we needed to cut it like this.” In sum, we have “covered [our] stratum”—from terror of what is above or below it—with “murder and a forgetting” (so Graham puts it in the praying attempt of June 6, 2003, the anniversary of D-Day). I think she means a metaphysical as well as a historical forgetting, very much in the sense developed by Jean-François Lyotard in his essay on “the jews,” the scapegoats of the missing All.
Our abuse of the earth is just one manifestation of our presumption that we possess a righteous “difference” as a species; an Operation Consumption, as it were, sustains our illusory importance and agency. In “Praying (Attempt of April 9 ’04),” Graham reluctantly offers hope to a girl who weeps in her office doorway over an updated report on global warming: “One must be so careful / re the disappearance of hope.” Then comes (for readers’ ears only) a reaction: “Let her weep . . . Tell her to tell the others. Let the dream of contagion / set loose its virus.”
Why write without hope (at least a hope that does not have to be dug out of the dirty crannies of despondency)? Graham is too perplexed to say. To prevent a “retreat” from oneself, as “Other” suggests? Well, there’s that. Somehow to be an instrument for others? But “whom I stand-in for is not clear.” Besides, to write is perhaps inevitably to take aim, as empire does: “me shooting / the very sound up now / with faulty weapon.”
And what of beauty? Once, for Graham, the exalting “end of beauty” was the impossible present (“The Lovers”); now beauty ends in urgency, which casts it aside. Beauty is a veil (Kant, Nietzsche), but we must tear down veils: if we can’t find the underneath, which is so like nothing, then there is nothing. Some hope there has to be: “There is a reason I / have to go fast. Have to try to slide into / something I can feel the beginning of.” Graham’s increasingly direct, hands-on treatment of her subjects, which began in Never (“I am not relying on / chance any more I am trying to take matters / into my own hands”), translates into a poetics of hurry. Hear the breathlessness. Flat and transparent, the poems wash up on the pages like the last gasp of a wave. Nuance is sacrificed. So is the brilliant range of strategy, the prism-rich presentation of situations, the tautness, the inexhaustible difficulty of The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, and still other of the author’s books. But adhering passionately to its own terms, Overlord always absorbs and often compels. It is an internally enormous and inescapable assessment of where we are now—our deadly stratum.