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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Gander, Forrest


The Boston Book Review (1997)





This review was reprinted in the book "Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry," edited by Thomas Gardner.

Full Text:

Film director Mai Zetterline, given the opportunity to shoot one Olympic competition in the sixties, chose weight lifting.  “I am not in-ter-ested in sports,” she explained in a seductive Swedish accent; “I am in-ter-ested in ob-sessions.”  After the weighty quotations, the historical dialogues, the lapidary density of Materialism, Jorie Graham obsessively continues to create in her new book, Errancy, a kind of echo chamber of Western literary culture with Homeric and Greek mythological themes, with quotations and allusions to “The Wasteland,” and with references to the poems of Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Rilke, Hart Crane, Coleridge, and Dickinson, among others.  Her treatment of the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel becomes paradigmatic of man’s encounter, fraught by miscommunication, with the other—both the human and divine other.  Divine encounters, several poems suggest, may go unrecognized by those herds of us stuck in traffic, clutching lists of things to do.  Though a few scintillating poems celebrate sexual love, the human encounters described in these new poems are often savage ones or ones in which thought has become tragically disconnected from emotion.  Much of The Errancy concerns the struggle the leaven fatigue and despair with feeling, to reawaken the full possibilities of being.  In a radical and sensuous language, Graham enacts a presence complex and empathetic enough to wrestle some word of blessing from our millennium’s dark last nights.

The lines in The Errancy are contractile, propulsive, often hyperextensive.  They serpentine into quick arpeggios of near-rhyme, stretching across the page horizontally, curling into short appendixes tucked under the lines above them, flicking into dashes, coiling between parentheses.  One sequence of sound patterns stressing vowel reverberations will be interwoven with secondary and tertiary sequences, creating complexly layered rhythmical movements.  The first stanza of “The Scanning” is fairly representative.

            After the rain there was traffic behind us like a long kiss.

            The ramp harrowing its mathematics like a newcomer who likes

                                                                                    the rules—

            and whir of piloting minds, gripped steering wheels…

            Jacob waiting and the angel didn’t show.

            Meanwhile the stations the scanner glides over, not selecting, hiss—

            islands the heat-seekers missed

            in the large sea of…. And after lunch

            the long-distance starts up pianissimo—telephone wires glinting where the

                                                                                    frontage road

            parallels the interstate for a little, narrow, while.

            Elswwhere, from the air, something softens the scape—

            which activity precedes, though doesn’t necessarily require,

            the carpet bombing that often follows—

            And the bands of our listening scan

            the bands of static,

            seeking a resting point, asymptotic, listening in the hiss

            for the hoarse snagged points where meaning seemingly

            accrues: three notes?  three silences?  intake

            of breath: turnstile: a glint in fog: what the listener

            will wait-into, hoping for a place to

            stop…. Jacob waited and the angel didn’t—

We hear firs the echo of “kiss” in “its” and “mathematics.”  But even before those three notes are reinforced by “hiss,” “missed,” “distance,” and pianissimo,” Graham introduces a counterpoint, the growling consonance of “glint,” “gripped,” and “glides” and the long o’s of “show” and “over.”  Look how the word “show” recollects the second syllable of “harrowing” from the second line, and prepares our ears for the deep vowels in “pianissimo,” “telephone,” “old,” “road,” “narrow,” and “follow.”  But the music becomes increasingly intricate.  Our ears must be attentive to keep pace with the changes in rhythm and pitch.  The end-words “while” and “require” amplify the earlier chime of “wire.”  The first tonal key we heard—iss—returns toward the end of the stanza in “listening in the hiss” and “listener.”  Meanwhile, along with the long a’s of “intake,” “wait,” and “place,” and the long u’s of “accrue,” “into,” and “to,” we hear the closely clustered detonations of new tonal patterns: “bands of our listening scan/ the bands”; “Elsewhere, from the air”; “meaning seemingly.”  The words hiss, glint, bands, point(s), and three are each repeated, along with a variant of the sentence fragment “Jacob waiting and the angel didn’t show.”  The whole stanza, gaining momentum as it approaches the sequence of colons, undulates into the clause “hoping for a place to stop” wherein the conceptual and rhythmical meanings converge.  And stop.

There is a lot to say about this heady, improvisational music, even before we acknowledge the significance of the Biblical reference (at one level the poem is about miscommunication), the nod to Wallace Stevens (“for the listener who listens in the snow”), or the allusions—“heat seekers,” “carpet-bombing”—to an impersonal war (another example of the failure to communicate). 

Graham’s ingenious weave of tone-leading vowels, chords of rhyme, off and slant rhyme, creates a generative syncopative tension.  Each subsequent occasion of hearing an unpredictable rhyme draws together matching sounds, compressing the interstitial words.  Graham loops one pattern of sound through another, controlling the pacing with commas and dashes, and the rhythmic contractions and expansions muscle the poem along like a snake pulling itself forward around uneven anfractuosities in the landscape.  The poems have a distinctly peristaltic momentum.

Such polyphonal sound patterns—the rifts in the riffs—give the poems in The Errancy their propulsive energy.  Profoundly, in their multilayered architecture they also function as analogues to Graham’s phenomenology: the feathered objective and subjective stances, the coexistent perceptions of world and thought and poem.  In the last section of “The Scanning” for instance, Graham can write simultaneously of a flock of geese taking flight, the dialectic between the numerous and the singular, and the poetic process itself:

            …and the birds lift up—

            and from the undulant swagger-stabs of peck and wingflap,

            collisions and wobbly runs-out of the manyness—

            a molting of the singular,

            a frenzied search (unflapping, heavy) for cadence….

The poems are thrilling in their capacity to promote corollaries of meaning that reinforce and extend each other.  So in the last lines of “The Scanning,”

            above us now, the sky lustrous with the skeleton of the dream of

                                                            reason—look up!—

            Jacob dreamer—the winged volumetrics chiseling out a skull

            for the dream—

the skeleton of the dream of reason is, of course, the vertebral line of flying geese (which image replaces the earlier one of war planes).  So it is also the winged angel arriving to wrestle Jacob (as the poet wrestles with the poem) and to rename him (author of a nation, author of a poem).  So it is also, literally, the vision of a skull chiseled out to make room for a new dream, a hopeful gesture—that active “look up!”—” after the old dreams have imploded.  These meanings are collaborative and inseparable.

How do her lines carry the weight of these simultaneous representations?  Partly, it is because of Graham’s accretionary syntax.  Her sentences allow for innumerable revisions (“it held some light in it,/ or, no, it twisted back, peeled back, some light”) and elaborations in a style less common to English, perhaps, than to French or Italian, languages Graham heard as a child.  When she writes, “beneath the glittering exterior-latex, beneath the storyline,” she adds a signifying dimension with the second clause.  Often, through metaphor, Graham collapses the distance between the revelation of narrative and the revelation of her own thinking about narrative, as when—in a poem about Pascal’s coat—she writes, “I have put on my doubting.”  Or she deftly pulls the thread of her own thought out of the narrative fabric, as when she writes in “Untitled Two,” “Overhead sparrows snarl-up, and river, dive,/ making a dark clean thought, a bright renown….”  To make sense of these coextensive realms, the consciousness wedded to conscience, readers must recognize an increasing complexity of presence.

Everywhere in Graham’s poetry, outside and inside, the activity of the world and the discriminations of the mind interact in terms of inscription, revision, and erasure.  In the title poem, suggesting that we, as a species, thought “we would comply, some day” to the notion of human perfectibility, Graham writes,

            … we were built to fit and


            as handwriting fits to the form of its passion….

Revelation, Graham insists, can come only through language.  Later in the same poem, she writes, “she wants to be legible.”  “The Guardian Angel of Self Knowledge,” asks of those he observes, “How will they feel the erasures erase them?”  In another poem, Graham describes “the grammar, so strict, of the two exact shoulders” of Pascal’s coat, and the fabric’s “grammatical weave.”  It is always language which describes and narrates the world.  We see the weeping willow “dragging its alphabet of buds all along the gravelly walk” and “The sun… so poor here in its words.”  The carpenter is “ready to scribble” and the lightning is an “invisible inscripton.”  Graham reminds us that there is no conception of the world, no place to be human, outside of language.  Any new conception of being will require a new poetics, and this Graham provides.

As key words migrate across the poems, much as they do in George Herbert’s The Church, rings of association pass through each other, investing themselves in new meanings.  A much-repeated word like “swarm” (or “corridor” or “glance” or “spoor”) and its variations, “aswarm,” “swarming,” will come to characterize the movement of a flock of birds, formations of people, debris before a storm, Pascal’s decomposing coat, the whelm of thought, and the abstraction of “manyness” in contradistinction to “singularity.”  Each key word is a field of signs.  It doesn’t stand still in its meaning, and there is no closure to our interpretation.  The key words recur in various roles—as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs—and in diverse metaphoric systems; often they do not refer even to the same concepts with which they were associated in their previous contexts.  But these repeating words sustain a dramatic unity, and they tie the poems together as the work of one mind excavating, through language, the corridors that connect one thing with another.

We read “zero,” for example, first in “The Errancy” as “zero/ at the heart of the christened bonfire.”  In this case an expression for the spirit, it also reminds us of Emily Dickinson’s “zero at the bone.”  It recurs later in the poem as part of a discrete image—“first fruit hanging ripe—oh bright zero—/ right there within reach.”  And zero continues to crop up, flowering on its own terms in new contexts, and then dehiscing across the collection into other poems and other connotations.  In “The Guardian Angel of Private Life,” the two words—“zero of”—huddle by themselves near the right margin.  Syntactically, they are connected through the preposition to “the bright mock-stairwaying-up of the posthumous leaves.”  But visually they mingle with the words in the line directly below them: “zero of” “the heart.”  What develops through the repetitions is not a unity of meaning, but an endless impulse to propose meanings.  Zero resurfaces in an image of liquid shade, the “swirling black zero we wait in/ through which no god appears,” and in an abstraction for a “hundred worn, black steering wheels,/ gigantic sum of zeroes that won’t add.”  In “The Guardian Angel of Not Feeling,” the speaker gasps: “oh look, the tiny heart/ mouthing and mouthing its crisp inaudible black zeroes out.”  The meaning of such key words, carring into each of their occasions the history of their use in preceding contexts, becomes more than the sum of their meanings.  In their multiple roles, Graham’s key words are polysemous, binding the poems together in a matrix of interconnectedness.

And so the poems are sewn together like a garment, like Pascal’s coat (imagined by Magritte in the painting reprinted on the book’s cover) into which Pascal’s sister, at his deathbed, stitches his dream of reason, his “irrefutable proof of the existence of God,” as we read in “Emergency” after the central poems “Le Manteau de Pascal” and “Manteau.”  The metaphor of Pascal’s coat and the dream of reason might remind us, again, of Herbert whose poem “Divinity” is a meditation on the way that reason and definitions have “jagged” the “seamless coat” of Christ.  But Graham’s dream, on the death-bed of a millennium, is less apodictic, more tentative and gestural than either Pascal’s or Herbert’s.

Much of The Errancy seems to be written at dawn (five poems include “Aubade” in their titles) after another rough night at the end of a century that has seen the failure of various utopian dreams.  At such times, “Even the accuracy/ is tired—the assimilation tired—/ of entering the mind.”  The guardian angels specified in several poems speak sadly.  Thy notice the list in our “exhausted hand” and importune us to “put it down.”  They see “The form of despair we call ‘the world’” and bother to speak to us of “happiness.”  They tell us to “Behold… this” and we hear birdsong.  But fatigue, habit, and disillusion as easily shatter countries as sink human spirits.  When we look at the world through Graham’s poems, we must recognize among ourselves the rapist, the child-beater, the drifter, the potential suicide, and the children crying for their murdered parents as well as the love saying “I love you” and “saying the words again,” the lover who in a beautiful act of stillness, says she will “take your breath into [her] hair.”  Graham’s dream is to find a means to be true to it all.  “How consent to that honor” she asks at the end of “Little Requiem.”

In the penultimate poem in the collection, “Recovered from the Storm,” the speaker goes out among the broken limbs, torn-up bushes, and “drowned heads of things strewn wildly” about her yard at dusk in the wake of a storm, wondering “Am I supposed to put them back together—”  It is too much confusion; no one could make it cohere.  And yet she ends the poem with a gesture that in itself is all-important: “I pick up and drag one large limb from the path.”  Rather than offering a mystic expiation of the sins of the world, rather than facilely asserting that good will triumphs, Graham proposes that in a “hostile universe” we can at best take one small step toward justice.  In such humble acts—expressed in the “look up!” of “The Scanning,” in the lovers of “Against Eloquence” kissing “as if trying to massacre difference,” in the quivering, tender stillness of Eurydice bent over Orpheus, her mouth at his fingers “though not so much/ as grazing them”—we may find not redemption, Graham suggests, but the inertia to prevail against the fatigue of a culture come to the end of its utopias.

Motivated by the dream to honor both singularity and manyness, Graham’s most trenchant impetus is to connect thought and feeling into a sensually energized language of wakening presence.  Within the poems, language itself is repaired, made capacious enough to transmit the divine, recharged with connectedness.

For two decades now, Graham’s poems have been exercising the major muscles in the throat of our language.  If you haven’t been listening, I’m telling you there’s a new music out there, and this book, The Errancy, is its finest performance.