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Magazine Article


Burt, Stephen


Times Literary Supplement (1996)

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THE DREAM OF THE UNIFIED FIELD: SELECTED POEMS, 1974-1994. By Jorie Graham 199pp. Manchester: Carcanet. Paperback, Pounds 12.95 - 1 85754 225 8.

The Dream of the Unified Field which includes poems from Jorie Graham's five previous American books, and has won her this year's Pulitzer Prize for Poetry is Britain's belated introduction to one of the best, and most intelligent, poets in the language. Graham's favourite word is "delay", her favourite device aposioposis, her favourite perceptual tactics the second look and backward glance; her poems reopen and examine themselves far more often than they close or click shut. Like all good poets, she illuminates moments, but she is like no one else, neither in her rhythms, nor in her insistence on opening up, scrutinizing, and even reversing our experience of time and space within those moments.

This poet of ongoing self-scrutiny began as an almost childlike botanizer. In Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), she declared an awed trust in first sight "The way things work", she affirmed, "is that we finally believe / they are there, / common and able / to illustrate themselves". Elsewhere, Graham located her work between the "perfect heading" of geese in flight and the fruitless detail-work of spiders whose webs refuse to cohere between, really, spirit and matter, mind and body, where "the everyday takes place". By the more complex Erosion (1983), she had invented a stanza-form whose ins and outs enacted the scannings the poems described; here she is in "San Sepolcro", "going in" through a winter dawn to a Tuscan villa: In this blue light I can take you there, snow having made me a world of bone seen through to. This is my house, my section of Etruscan wall, my neighbor's lemontrees, and, just below the lower church, the airplane factory.

The poem ends at a painting of the Virgin ready to go into labour: "the present moment / forever stillborn, / but going in, each breath / is a button / coming undone, something terribly / nimble-fingered, / finding all of the stops." The stitching and backstitching, the way no line is balanced or resolved until the entire poem has come to rest, are figures for the humble self-revision in which really looking at something consists.

The End of Beauty (1987) expanded her lines and increased her fragmentation; in its ambitiously speculative poems of long lines and swift, numbered, cinematic "takes", one gesture, one look or one thought could be replayed and remade over and over. Graham had also mastered sudden, wide variation in diction:

"Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne" opens in an almost gossipy one-line coincidence of motives "The truth is this had been going on for a long time during which they both wanted it to last"; fourteen sections later, the language has escaped the social along with Daphne herself, who has become not a persona but a medium, an art form: "part of the view not one of the actors, she thought, / not one of the instances, not one of the examples, / but the air the birds call in, / the air their calls going unanswered marry in . . ."

These freeze-frames and double-exposures turned harrowing in Region of Unlikeness (1991), which tackled autobiography, historical trauma and ethical emergency. Its best poem shows the young Graham watching Kubrick's Lolita when a man runs up to the front of the theatre, screaming the President's been shot, waving his hat, slamming one hand flat over the open to somehow get our attention, in Dallas, behind him the scorcher whites, grays, laying themselves across his face him like a beggar in front of us, holding his hat I don't recall what I did, I don't recall what the right thing to do would be, I wanted someone to love . . . .

If Graham is a kind of film-maker in verse, she is also a phrasal Scheherazade, promising always more answers, more closure, than she gives; "The more he enters", Graham says of a reader, "the more she disappears." As with Stevens and Whitman, she is hard to explain in terms other than those introduced by her poems. She has her tics, her imitable Parnassian ("already something other than nothing / was visible in the almost") and her spirals of unrelieved abstraction. But they are as nothing besides the aural and mental originality of her best work. Graham's new readers should start, not with her copious ideas, but with her powers as a poet of description, whose attitudes toward what she sees and hears, and sees herself hearing, can skip astonishedly from the winsome into the apocalyptic: A boy just like you took me out to see them, the five hundred B-52s on alert on the runway, They sound like a sickness of the inner ear, where the heard foams up into the noise of listening, where the listening arrives without being extinguished.

The huge hum soaks up into the dusk.

The minutes spring open. Six is too many.

From where we watch, from where even watching is an anachronism, from the 23rd of March from an open meadow, the concertina wire in its double helix designed to tighten round a body if it turns is the last path the sun can find to take out, each barb flaring gold like a braille being read, then off with its knowledge and the sun is gone . . . .

Through lines like these, Graham ought to find plenty of new readers and her readers, in turn, may accommodate themselves to the sustained listening which the long takes, sinuous self-scrutinies, and startling jump-cuts of Graham's more recent work can demand and will reward.