Printer-friendly versionJorie Graham: Instructions for Building the Arc

Katia Grubisic
The Fiddlehead", Issue 244, Summer 2010

    The velocity of the telescopic metaphors, the reckless leaps from lyric to narrative to dialogic, the surgical diction, the way the “possible swiftly takes hold” — Jorie Graham is one of these writers who has herself hewn the world from which her poems  emerge. This balance has evolved; in her first book, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, the self was shyly beginning to strain at its sutures; jump ahead to Errancy, and the poet’s gaze is both wide-angled and zoomy, pushing and pulling time out of joint. Sea Change, Graham’s most recent collection, leaps from a dizzying breadth to a startling intimacy: from the enormous scope of an environmental cataclysm in which we are already elbow-deep, to proximity, as a speaker in “Later in Life” entreats us to “feel the heat fluctuate & say / my / name.” Despite the prophetic quality of much of her recent work, however, the poems remain interrogative, interlocutory, even playful. There is a call and response in the exhale / gasp of those long and short lines, a lineation Graham has dubbed “exploded haiku.”
    Ripe with contradictions. Her poetry has always seemed easier to classify or approach through a kind of apophatic assessment — it’s not easy, it’s not easy-listening, it’s not straightforward, it doesn’t circle back on itself and pleasantly resolve, it’s not afraid of treading in the political or the moral. Her work has been called difficult. The risk with this sort of deliberately structured, broadly metaphorical and thematically broad poetry is that it can be talked around rather than delved into, as if readers were trying to untangle the work without acknowledging that they believe in knots. I prefer Brian Henry’s qualification, that it is “thoughtfully unpredictable — as opposed to capriciously unpredictable.” An oblique, sidelong view makes it easier to accept Graham’s daunting intelligence, and a writing that is muscular in its contortions. And yet and yet.
    And yet how forthrightly Graham writes her encounter of the (unpredictable) world. In attempting to contend with the expansive, unknowable future, she — well, language — cannot help but thumb through the explored but still unknown past. Her discoveries and uncoverings have such a strong internal logic, readers might run a finger along “the underworld’s / furniture,” finding it not dusty at all. Up close, it shows a vivid grain: images and turns of phrase that are by turns unfathomable and unforgettable. A wider perspective, across the many years and many books of Graham’s literary undertaking, reveals an imaginatively and earnestly constructed poetics, and offers an eloquent way to navigate in the world.

    Katia Grubisic: One of the things I’ve always admired about your poems is your approach to the speaker. Approach is the wrong word… You seem to manage to straddle the confessional I and the positional I.

    Jorie Graham: Maybe my thinking regarding politics and political activity have influenced my voice, or my sense of “station,” of where the body is speaking from when it uses the mind? I am thinking of the poems in Sea Change, but also of some in Overlord and Never. It would be hard to exclude from my whole being an acute sense of the political — the human — disaster we are both waking up to, and realizing our appalling role in. War, torture, extinction, climate peril — most of the world is in less denial than the US regarding the real disasters that climate change is bringing about — hunger, water-scarcity, wars generated by water-scarcity…. For myself, I wonder what being human would feel like if I didn’t eye the Spring nervously to make sure bees are coming back, for example, or birds. I find it hard not think about animal extinction — and my consciousness, in general, is more than ever before deeply aware of other species than our own — I find it hard to just block them out — species with whom, after all, we are meant to share this place. I spend a lot of time trying to participate in the various movements and consciousness-raising activities surrounding climate peril — both man-made and man-forced. Of course this is not in the least required of any artist — many wonder-inducing works are being made by people who write out of the private life exclusively. But maybe something in the voice of the more recent poems has widened its aperture in order to be more of a “species” voice, less of an individual lyric voice? I think many poets are wrestling with this right now. I am always encouraging my students to try to write in the voice of something not human — not that this is a thing one could actually do — but it is a very tonic illusion, a very existentially bracing exercise. Maybe these things — these deep sadnesses and fear — have made my voice, well, more mature. What can I say. I am older! I think I know more than I did, unfortunately, when I started out.

    KG: You believe that poetry can affect outcomes on a political level?

    JG: I do. Or I think I do. Actually I do not know. I hope. Scientists do write me, as they feel gratitude when poets — on one level — attempt to use poetry to imagine what we consider “unimaginable.” Some scientists have called for artists to work hand in hand with them. Scientists can provide all the information in the world, but if the human soul of the listeners only seizes it as “information” it does not necessarily awaken them to a genuine physical belief that the outcomes being described are in a world co-extensive with this very one in which they are living, with this very time in which their children are growing. It is easy to “capture” information and then shove it to one side of one’s life. The conceptual intellect is great at that. It is in a way the primary job of the imagination to connect the world in which you are, to one in which you have not yet been, or cannot imagine being. And if that connection occurs, it allows one to hope one can be roused to action, or at least to the change of world view which we need in order to envision, and undertake, genuine action. Of course the issue here is that the imagination of the future is something we have lost. We live in a very shallow present tense. People have been describing this for years, in many fields — neurologists, political scientists. Part of what art can perhaps do today is to try to find techniques that reawaken in us a capacity to squint-in a deep futurity — a time four or five generations ahead of us — because it is for those people, people we have no idea will ever even exist, that we are going to be called upon to make real sacrifices, sacrifices in the only life we have, as far as we know. Squinting it in and then feeling truly connected to it — to them — to those humans whose very language we cannot even be sure of, whose features and habits we cannot imagine. For them? we think. But how do we even feel their reality? It is nearly impossible. If it all feels a bit like “science fiction” then we cannot not heed the science, no matter how much we understand and even believe it. The human imagination — in art — has an amazing way of helping into reality things that will from that point on become real, feel real, be thought of as real — and capable therefore of generating action, a need or a desire for action. Just taking this at the simple level of character in fiction — once you meet Emma Bovary, or Mrs Dalloway — will they ever not be real to you again? You can summon them at will. So it is with fact, so it is with scenarios of the future — if we use our sensorial imagination (supplementing our conceptual intellect for a minute) to bring them to life. Then there they are, the facts, the projections, the scenarios, “in life.” You can find yourself in them and them in you. Then what will you do? At least that is one of my hopes. I do think the poems in Sea Change are about much else as well — at the level of art — as in they explore the nature of being at all, not only how to be…. And they do celebrate, and try to render to a people far in the future, what it was like to be alive now. I guess any poem does that. I felt I was trying to address them directly, though — it did not feel easy as I could not figure out who I was. The hard-to-squint-in nature of them goes hand in hand with a dissolving sense of the self-in-the-now. Or so it felt at times writing this.

    KG: You’ve said also that you imagine Sea Change as a far-ahead unearthing in a poetry seed bank — is the conversation between the distant, ancestral past and the unforeseeable future? Between wriggling, bodied life and its erosion? In the fringed lineation? Both in writing Sea Change and now in looking back on it, where does that conversational tension lie, for you?

    JG: Let me try to address what you refer to as the tension between the tones, and how those are enacted in the form. You do offer a number of answers yourself — “bodied life and its erosion” — “fringed lineation” — and I am tempted to just say yes, and leave it at that!
    Through-lines are enacted by the concatenation you refer to as “wriggling, snakelike” as well as “ladders zigzagging.” In other words, the and, and the ampersand, keep the poems accumulative. And accumulation enacts a very particular — potentially very scary — kind of time. The most ruthless kind. “Everything connected by and and and” says Bishop. Tick tock, says the clock. The next minute is only the next minute. No history. Narrative a deafening illusion. Life is a breath and a next breath masquerading as thought, mediation, evolution, story, progress, inevitability — and worst of all, as a thing capable of arriving at some kind of meaning, truth, conclusion. These hum before us as we consider the possible end of human time. But, again, if we hold this alongside the other kinds of life on the planet — living but non-human, living but non-mammalian, geologic, molecular, sub-atomic, and so on — we can feel how much other life is comprised of pure, even seemingly abstract, linkages, patternings, life-lived outside clocktime, historical time, biographical time, subjective time. What is a leaf living? What is a crystal living? I do feel that we spend very little time trying to represent — to ourselves (to begin with) — how partial our kind of life is, and how much we live in a true “garden of eden” of other kinds of “lifeness.” All those many other kinds of Life interest me deeply. I would like the form to be able to represent a kind of ticking, humming, accretion of those other life forms’ presence, and have a deep wish that my language — my syntax — might be able to permit them to cross-over into my human subjectivity. This is an illusion. But one that drives the speaker of the book. Who is expected to hear it?: the cosmos. I began the book thinking a great deal about the waves of human and inhuman sound that are cast out into the universe for all time, as we, as amateurs, understand it. We leave a record whether we wish to or not. We also leave a trace. Those are very different. We have agency in some of the tracing. Only in some — but where we do, the ethical spirit in us is appealed to. So all these different kinds of feeling, thinking, knowing, wishing-to-know, blocked-knowing, blindness, and just plain exclusion from some greater activity of ‘Life’ are putting pressure on how the voice takes action in the poem. Also on what kind of musical resistance that voice — and its subjective desires — encounters. Haikus interest me in great part because of the ways in which the great haiku writers trusted sensation and distrusted emotion. To them there was (and is) a deep fissure between sensation — what the body knows on its own — and emotion — what the human mind and heart do with that sensation, how they tilt it, to what use they put it. A great part of this form (in Sea Change) enacts sensation’s resistance to any use to which emotion and mind would put it.

    KG: With each book, you’ve seemed to strike out in a fairly different mode. Sea Change is a return to em-dashes, irregular lineation, the abdication of linear narrative… It sidesteps narrative, puddle-stomping through associative metaphor; there is something baroque, disjunctive, what I would call alienated metaphor — each image reaches within its predecessor, or elsewhere, to upend and compound itself.

    JG: I am not sure it totally sidesteps narrative. I am not sure a thing in time can, actually. Especially in as much as pretty much all poems are some form of dramatic monologue or another. No matter how disjunctive. Where did it say dramatic monologue was anything but disjunctive? It all depends on how internal or external it is. It goes back to your question about who is listening. If a desire for persuasion is at work, for example. So non-linearity per se does not equal disjunction. It might actually enact an attempt to grow closer to the mind and heart at work. In this case, as I said above, I wanted the something not-human to have its place in the drama as well. To open up enough to let its time in. As I said above, I would never say this is — in art — anything but an enactment, illusion. Although in my heart of hearts I probably believe it is more possible than that. But I cannot defend that feeling or belief. As for the use of images that wash over other images, carrying each preceding one in its marrow, or memory — yes — that’s right. It thickens — compounds is the term you used. It creates a kind of simultaneity in time — which as I said the poems are after (as that is just a representation of another kind of time) — all the while having to keep moving along as the breaths occur, as the clock ticks, as one’s life both ravels and unravels.... I think of it as the way the body carries all prior memories in its flesh at any given moment and yet has to clear it out in order to act — and yet all the prior sedimentary life is there in the action which feels “free,” “unique,” “present.” Clarity does tend to want to rip things apart into the singular, the distinct, the now, the “I feel,” or eros. Unity does try to let the whole creation buzz at once, in onceness — which can feel like death, or course, or dissolution, or the great terrifying harmony of agape.

    KG: I recall what you said while you were in Montréal — that poetry can be a more moral art, a means of refracting the world more truly, because its complications are as circuitous, or webbed, as human nature, as the world. So how does so-called complicated poetry get readers to trust it?

    JG: Well, to paraphrase Eliot: poetry has to be complex to do justice to the complexity of reality. But, first off, honestly, readers have to read poetry in order to become readers of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to get readers to trust it. Readers have to come to trust themselves in their act of reading. This does not mean that rigor is missing from the act of reading. No. Just the clenched desire for instantly unpacked meaning. Poetry is a language that asks for a very different reading-instrument than the one we apply to prose, philosophy, journalism, scientific study. It is closer, perhaps, to how we learn to read a musical score. And yet, because it is a sequence of words, we tend to grow enraged if it “resists the intelligence almost successfully” as Wallace Stevens put it — indicating that might be what a true poem needed to do. One might want to ask why that is its job — to resist, to frustrate certain reading expectations and habits, to ask that a reader think of how to take in language by means that perhaps bypass the conceptual intellect’s desire for instantly resolving meaning: reading in a state of “negative capability,” says Keats, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. One needs to ask why so very many poets, over the centuries, have asked the poem to hang on to its capacity to resist first-off reading. Of course there is an alternate tradition — Wordsworth comes to mind straight off — and then you have Hopkins, Blake, Dickinson, Crane, Berryman and so on. This resistance has many effects on a reader. And yes, they partake of the ethical, they stray over into the formation of the ethical nature of the reader. As well as the creation of their spirit — the enlargement of it as it comes to trust un-knowing as a form of knowing. It’s like discovering you have a body when you only thought you had a brain! What on earth is the body telling you — can you hear it — it is certainly going to affect your moral life, but also your affective and, down the line, your intellectual life as well. But listen to your own description: “it’s not easy, it’s not easy-listening, it’s not straightforward, it doesn’t circle back on itself and pleasantly resolve…” — doesn’t that sound like actual lived life? Try reversing it. You will find yourself saying no, no — that would be an advertisement trying to sell me something, something very untrue to the nature of how existence occurs.

    KG: Where do you go after environmental apocalypse? You’ve commented that “the central impulse of each new book involves wanting to go into a more moral terrain — a terrain in which one is more accountable.” What, or whom, were the poems in Sea Change accountable to? You’ve already written a poem entitled “The Phase After History,” which is at once personal and specific, and sweeping, enormous, bated; “No Long Way Round,” the final poem in Sea Change, ends “there are sounds the planet will always make, even / if there if no one to hear them.” If an occasion cries in the forest and no one writes its poem…

    JG: I have begun writing again. Just recently. After a more than three-year silence. Those silences are always strange — although this one has been the longest by far — because, as you say, even in the total silence, it shifts. The voice shifts, the poems seem to keep growing in some subterranean way. And when the voice re-surfaces, it is always somewhere further down the road than one could have ever imagined. So one actually reads one’s first new poems with a kind of strange incomprehension, and one has to learn to catch up with them, so to speak. One has to read them very, very carefully and hurry down the road behind them and get on board before they move on without one. One has to learn not to butcher them by trying to turn them into poems one already “knows.” The last poem in Sea Change — from which you quote the final lines — was the last poem I wrote until very recently. I kind of took myself out of the picture.
    I could say I would like to find a way to stay out of the picture — but that is one of those theoretical positions which are interesting as hell but just academic. The truth is, you are the one speaking. You are the one accountable. You are the one making the choices. There is no one else there. You do have a self, your self, no other. You are free to call yourself a “site of intersections,” all you want. No one can deny it. It is also true, in its way. But is it deeply true? Is it morally the most demanding position? I do not think so, and, for me — and I really do not speak for others — it is not useful. You can call your subject position a construct all you want; it feels kind of right, but is it sufficiently demanding, are the pressures it generates enough for a wakeful life? For me, it feels like too much self-accountability is lifted. The problematic self is heavy, it is there in one’s shoulders, on one’s soul — it is no illusion. It is vertiginous, horrific. It is, as Yeats would have it, one’s dying animal. It always amazes me how suddenly mortal illness wakes people up. Should we wait for tragedy to strike to be suddenly aware of our bodies? And the words that remain (should some remain): they will be your words: they will go under your name. So, you better work hard to show up for your life — whatever work you do — and try to undertake, as Stevens says so beautifully, the act of mind in the process of finding “what will suffice.”

    KG: You’ve speculated that contemporary poets are tangled in the “failure of Utopian thinking and its attendant desires”… Does contemporary writing merely suffer from that, or does it actually deal with it? Is this the death of transcendence? The anxiety of transcendence? Much of the work is existentially anxious — about itself, its place, the looking, the speaking. Either as a professor of writing, as a reader or as a writer, what do you hear, in poetry’s current incarnations?

    JG: That remark about the failure of Utopian desires was made more than a decade ago. Utopian desires, or the remnant traces of them, are now more part of the problem, in many ways; at any rate they are delusional (unless one subscribes to some end-of-time theology). We face much more than the death of transcendence. How to get the imagination to take on the death of the world is a whole other matter. I am obviously not saying the world is going to die — we have no way of knowing such things, nor do our best scientists. But the imagination of the death of our species has kenned into view. It just simply has. We have to take it on board somehow — and it affects voice, stance, form, notions of aperture and closure (of course), and all manner of searching-for-escape. And isn’t that what the form of a poem is enacting, after all — the search for escape. Call it knowledge, epiphany, illumination, failure of illumination (initiation into unknowing), or transcendence — “what are ideals of form for,” says Frost, “except to get us into legitimate danger that we may be legitimately rescued”…. I have loved and repeated that quote for thirty years. I loved the idea of what a “legitimate danger” (as opposed to one trumped up to get a poem out of it) might really be. I loved, even more, the notion (related to your question) of what “legitimate rescue” might be. I now look at those terms and they feel totally trumped by our actual predicament. It’s like waking up and the whole activity has changed, in some respects. Who is crazy enough (or in enough denial) not to be anxious? This doesn’t mean one has to write poems out of that anxiety. But really, it is a very difficult problem to get around and remain accountable to one’s subject, and honest. Short answer: it suffers from it. Does it deal with it? The question is, perhaps, is there any way for anyone to deal with it, to take it into mind, to believe enough to let one’s self feel what is “in the pipeline” as they say, headed our way. It might make us crazy. It might make us believe the Rapture will come (or its previous MGM version, the Cavalry) and we’ll just get plucked up to the right hand of God, just like that, just in time. You know, Sarah Palin country. But in our myths, Noah survives. His family is forced to survive and witness and begin again. We have to be stern as Noah, wise, practical, trusting in vision and capable to doing good carpentry. We have to try to save the non-human in us and well as the non-human outside us. We have to be very calm, and our poems have to find the right instructions for building an arc.