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the [tk] Review (2012)


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Call and Response: Jorie Graham’s P L A C E

“A poem is the cry of its occasion.” So says Wallace Stevens, an adage that quite succinctly captures the spirit of poetry since at least modernism, if not since its infancy in song. Such a heightened attention to the present is what readers today expect from great poets; and with lines like  “I saw the vivid performance of the present,” from her 1992 collection Materialism, populating her verses, Jorie Graham meets this expectation with astonishing ease and clarity. Confronting the here and now—emotionally, physically, psychologically, environmentally—in an ever-evolving array of variations, Graham seems to be very the embodiment of Stevens’s assertion in contemporary poetry. And from the very title of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s newest collection P L A C E: New Poems (Ecco, $15.99), any reader familiar with her work might expect these verses to proffer more of the same: a pulsing, urgent reply to the call of the present; the need to exist fundamentally; and, as one speaker in P L A C E proclaims, to ability of a poetic persona to “rise now / to the moment when right words / are needed.”

Such a merited conclusion, even drawn from a single line or title, pays due tribute to Graham’s laudable expansion on her now-trademark themes and craftsmanship on display in P L A C E. However, the present evokes a more ambiguous attitude in a vast number of Graham’s poems, old and new. One of her primary concerns has always been the individual’s seeming lack of agency in the universe and the unrelenting passage of time—not its immediacy. Place is, after all, the concept frequently pitted against time in opposition. A location is steady and reliable; it may change over time but is nonetheless something we can return to even if only to reflect upon other changes that have occurred since the last present moment we stood there. For Graham, history is a main platform for this idea. Her many works regarding the biblical creation saga, for example, figure the first man and woman as part of an intricate pattern of stitches; similarly, Penelope, the patient wife of Odysseus, almost collaborates in entrapping herself in the “hurry” and “delay” of her present, unweaving her cloth every night to preserve her longing. The new poems, too, are saturated with images of finality and protracted decay. “END (November 21, 2010)” paints a landscape ensconced in “Deep fog… . Fog all over the / field… . in /there this / animal / dying slowly / in eternity its / trap”; likewise, “DIALOGUE (OF THE IMAGINATION’S FEAR)” juxtaposes the vacant lots of foreclosed houses—where “We stand still. Let the cold wind wrap round go / into hair in- /between fingers”—with the natural renewal, and energized arrival, of “Spring!”

This apparent defeat of life in the present is also clear in Graham’s form and style. Her poems are notably long and discursive, addressing deep ideas with deep images and a highly introspective tone. To title a poem “OF INNER EXPERIENCE” indeed implies the lines therein will be something of an accretion, if not an explicit derivation. They describe and draw conclusions from multiple occasions of present experience—even if they are as rich, as they are here, as “Eyes shut I sense I am awakening & then I am / awake . . . first winter morning coming on all round.” There is also “LAPSE (Summer Solstice, 1983, Iowa City),” whose seemingly specific title—an irregular moment in time and place, a disruption of the normal rhythm of days—belies its real duration: the poem stretches across three entire pages without a single stanza break. It describes the speaker pushing her baby daughter on the swing for the first time, an experience that only reveals to her “the given you shall never enter / no matter how long time is—never—” Homing in on time and place, as other poems do, this title recalls the motif of x and y axes prominent in earlier collections: in the system of Cartesean geometry, these represent time and distance and often show trends or spans, not a single instant. Time and place are part of an intricate design, one whose meaning only comes into focus when perceived from an aerial view.

This sense of plotting finds further manifestation in Graham’s structures. “LAPSE” is one of few in P L A C E that does not follow Graham’s preferred poetic shape, which consists of text bifurcated down the page. With this form, she creates a visual dichotomy not only reflective of a carefully contemplated and honed style, but also a doubleness, a resistance to taking a stance on a singular moment or location. As in the following example, the enjambed lines align the form with their rotational content:

Listen the voice is American it would reach you it has wiring in its swan’s neck
                                                         where it is
                                                         always turning
round to see behind itself as it has no past to speak of except some nocturnal
journals written in woods where the fight has just taken place or is about to
                                                         take place
                                                         for place

These poems, despite their ambiguity about the past and future, seem anything but urgent. They perhaps even condemn the “occasion” from which they sprung as a futile, searching loop.

Yet what seems to the comparative benchmark for human stagnation in these examples—the natural world—also calls up the present with the most vigor and force. Continuing to explore crucial environmental concerns from earlier collections, most notably Sea Change (2008), Graham embraces the present as a state of unknowable flux, at times terribly disconcerting. Interpreted as such, the present remains Graham’s impetus for poetry but without its traditional concision. Her long lines are, rather, perfectly shaped to capture the experience of Earth’s rotation in “EARTH,” where a speaker apostrophizes to “my planet,” attentively observing

                           as you

                                make your swerve,

                                dragging the increasingly

yellow arc across the room here

                                on this hill and

                                I shall say now 

because of human imagination:

                                here on this floor this

                                passage is

                                your wing, is

                                an infinitesimal

                                strand of a feather in

                                your wing, 

this brightening which does not so much move, as

                                the minute hand

                                near my eye

                                does, as it 

glides—a pulling as much as a pushing—of event—

                                so that you are never

                                where you just were

Precision saturates these lines, from the definite articles to adjectives and verbs: “the” room and “this” floor are where the smallest, “infinitesimal” units of time can be traced; the “is” at the end of lines reinforces the concreteness of being (indeed, the “present” tense) in this setting—and even within the line itself. Through both its conceptual and formal manifestations, then, place literally captures an occasion from start to finish.

It is when this microscopic situation conflates with human imagination—another Stevensian territory—that Graham’s idea of place takes on its greatest meaning. Here, we see imagination taking the lead in transforming the shifting ray of light into a bird’s wing. This may seem a lovely, yet ultimately arbitrary, metaphor at first, but it reflects a dominant manifestation of place in P L A C E: sound, like songs and music, is a placeholder for or evidence of a particular moment in time, which is uttered in a particular location forever changed by its presence thereafter. Birdsong is the form this takes in the natural world: bird on a speaker’s rail accompanies the sun’s movement across a flower “at this exact / speed—right now—right here—now it is gone—yet go back up / five lines it is still there,” and when it emits just one note we feel “the visible heat of its / inwardness … until the whole / shape of the song is wisped- / up and / shuts, / the singing / shuts, the form / complete, the breath-bird / free to / rise away into the young day and / not be—” Embodying a fleeing, yet utterly complete sensation locked in poetic memory, such sounds echo throughout P L A C E. This one occurs at the end of the first of its five sections; another replies in part four, where divine redemption is found when, after the speaker wakes to the church bell whose message “stays for its millennia / the same, dripping in flames,” the congregation offers “everything they have. They sing.” All of time, all experience, exists in these sounds as a way to give meaning to the present.

But what, essentially, are these so saturated sounds? Graham’s lines, of course. With their innate musicality and rigorous respiratory demands, they are songs unto themselves. In such a connection between form and content, then, lies the inherent value and urgency of P L A C E. The effortless way she navigates transitory states in enjambments—“The transition from one state to the / other—they / give, you / receive, provides its shape”; the turns that make literal the etymological root of her “verse”; the connection of speech, breath, and writing to time such that putting pen to paper erects a bridge ensuring “that tomorrow be invested / with today”: all of these characteristics show her actively trying to preserve the present and all of its aesthetic and social implications. In an environment where change is the norm, nothing is certain, and questions about human agency arise with each natural or technological crisis, poetry may seem a feeble reply to such overwhelming exigencies. But as a prophet of environmentalism and champion of the will over crushing, cosmic fate, Graham uses poems to poignantly acknowledge that the earth—and ourselves—are places that need our dire attention.

In an earlier collection, Graham’s speaker asks “What should the poem do?” P L A C E offers a searing answer to this plea. As a vessel of experience, a shape to mark the now and direct us toward a better one, the poem becomes “the expanse- / column of place in / place humming….To have / a body. A borderline / of ethics and reason.” Indeed, Graham not only creates such a place for us as a poet, but she makes it one we would want to inhabit for eternity—and make ourselves worthy of inhabiting. She eagerly, swiftly, answers the cry of her aesthetic occasion—her own lines that “whisper into my ear we need you”—as an unignorable presence in the landscape of American poetry. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without her.