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Magazine Article

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The Nation, Volume 265, Issue 3 (1997)

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THE ERRANCY. By Jorie Graham. Ecco. 112 pp. $22.

Jorie Graham stands among a small group of poets (Dickinson, Hopkins, Moore) whose styles are so personal that the poems seem to have no author at all: They exist as self-made things.  Each of her books has interrogated the one preceding it, and The Errancy feels like a culmination.  It is her most challenging, most rewarding book. Graham has not simply forged a style; she is exploring the very notion of what it means for a poet to have a style—an exterior mark of an inner vision.


"It has a fine inner lining but it is/as an exterior that you see it-—a grace." Graham makes this remark about the coat in which Pascal was buried: A note containing his unrevealed proof of the existence of God was sewn into its sleeve. The remark also describes Graham's notion of the self: Whatever we know about it we know as purely external sensation. In "Easter Morning Aubade" a woman attempts to "clench the first dawnlight inside her skull" but the world refuses to stand still. The woman looks past sleeping soldiers to a boy dropping a pebble into a river; the stone enters the water just as the scene enters the woman's mind, but the stone is immediately lost. No fathomable depth exists beneath the surface.

...as he stares I can see

that the place of disappearance has

     disappeared,

it cannot be recovered, his eyes darting

     over the moving waters,

and how a life cannot be lived therefore,

     as there is no place,

in which the possibility of shapeliness

     begins to rave,

and the soldiers awakening, of course, to

     the blazing not-there,

and the 30,000 mph of the sun's going,

rubbing its disappearance now all over

     this,

and the hand going back into the dirt at

     one's feet, fingers feeling around

for another perfect stone, wanting to see

     it once again, that opening.

These lines are in part a response to Piero della Francesca's Resurrection: The soldiers awake to find that Jesus's body has disappeared just as the stone disappears beneath water, just as the place of disappearance disappears before it can be preserved in the mind. Graham suggests that revelation cannot happen only once; we need the continuing experience of an exterior world if we are to imagine an interior. Yet the precise nature of that space— the space within the skull, beneath the river, beyond the body—remains obscure to us. The result is a poetry of what Graham calls "intractable thereness," apoetry both vividly sensuous and enticingly elusive. "No back-of-the-mind allowed," she says in "Little Requiem," insisting that the surface of things is all we know. In "The Guardian Angel of Self-Knowledge," an angel looks down at people scraping away their surface characteristics in order to reveal their inner truth. This supposed act of self-revelation is in fact an act of self-annihilation: "who will they be when they get to the bottom of it?... Who will they resemble when they're done with resemblance?"

Graham's own integrity is on the surface: The difficulty of The Errancy consequently feels earned, essential to the texture of its language. The poems rush irresistibly forward, and like sparrows unspool-ing above the parking lot in "Untitled Two," they "quote each other endlessly." Metaphors used to describe Pascal's coat ("its raveling hem") reappear in other poems to characterize a river or a shadow; metaphors of "folding" or "pleating," inspired by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, appear in various contexts to describe the coat, the body or the relationship of surface and depth. In addition, two sequences of linked poems are spread throughout the book: One consists of aubades, or poems addressing dawn, the other of poems spoken by angels. While these repetitions do not give The Errancy anything like a systematic wholeness, they allow us to participate in the difficult process of making and remaking sense.

As the title of her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dream of the Unified Field suggests, Graham has always been interested in this process. But throughout much of her earlier work, she was suspicious of ordering devices—story, closure and plot; in the opening poem in The End of Beauty, for instance, Eve disrupts the divine "plot" and finds that she likes "that error, a feeling of being capable because an error."

Throughout The Errancy, in contrast, Graham depends upon a more complex and more precarious sense of error. "The point is not that there would be no error if there were no truth," remarks Jacques Lacan, meditating on the notion that all human knowledge begins with errancy—with the infant's misrecognition of its reflection as another person: "Error is the usual manifestation of truth itself." Similarly, Graham's poems now suggest that there is no human experience outside of discursive structures like plot and closure; we are capable of knowing ourselves only because we resemble other selves. Errancy is no longer the discovery of world elsewhere, but rather our very state of being.

Graham emphasizes this point in several ways. In "The Guardian Angel of Point-of-View," she says that "truth" simply is "the path without the crumbs"—a wandering with no hope of return. In many poems, words like "storyline" or "programming" are used to describe natural processes, suggesting that it is not possible to break through the structures of human understanding. These poems are not less formally disruptive than Graham's earlier work; but now that freedom may be found within (rather than beyond) discursive structures, the disruptiveness feels like something we want to live with rather than move past. In "Le Manteau de Pascal"—one of several long poems—Graham presents Rene Ma-gritte' s painting of the coat as an image of formal transgression. Because the coat is "ripped," "distracted," open to "abandonment," willing to be "disturbed," one might think that it merely disrupts or occludes truth; in fact, it is precisely because the coat is ripped that we are able to see the "star-pocked" sky behind it.


The sky shivers through the coat because

     of the rips in it.


The rips in the sky ripen through the rips

     in the coat.

There is no quarrel.


The Errancy is marked by Graham's interest in philosophy and literary theory, but the poems have none of the arid consistency one might associate with these modes of writing. Graham's older notion of error as a deviation from truth occasionally resurfaces, and such inconsistencies are crucial to her dramatization of the errant processes of thought itself. While she insists that there can be "no back-of-the-mind," she nonetheless honors our insatiable need to imagine a world beneath the surface. In "Emergency," the most harrowing and beautiful poem in the book, Graham walks beside a river at night, imagining a world beneath the black surface, imagining that she could join that world. The river talks back:

why are you still here the house of cards

     will fall it slushes

struggle, get up and be, climb back onto

     the walkway the city has provided,

the little path, good-bye, catch-up with

     the story, where you left off,

that is the only subject of your poem,

you have no other form but story,

and various assortments of cause and

     effect—publicity, existence,

how to travel faster at night— 

go-—repeat where was I? where was I?— 

drifting thoughtfully towards common

    knowledge,

the war is over, the stars are in me...

If part of Graham longs for transcendence—for a world of lush interiority, a world beyond discursive structures—the river resists her desires, sending her back to the city's world of story and plot.

Unlike her last entirely new book of poems, Materialism, which begins and ends with poems set beside the river, The Errancy begins and ends with poems set within the city: It is only here, Graham insists, that we might find "liberty spooring in the evening air." Still, by imagining an inner consciousness for the river in "Emergency," Grahamhas already violated the river's wisdom. And as "Emergency" unfolds, the city becomes a place where the "war" is far from over: A woman strikes her baby and waits for it to breathe, her own identity dissipated by the horror of what she's done. "Let us pray," intones Graham. "Let us pray to be a torpid river, Lord." Having forced herself not to indulge in fantasies of interior-ity or escape, Graham nonetheless reaches for those fantasies—the proof of God's existence hidden in the fold of Pascal's coat.
Recently, Graham remarked that poets
seem to be "yearning for permission to break past their own remarkably sophisticated understanding of the ideological premises of their enterprise." Graham does exactly that: These poems offer sophisticated meditations on identity, language and culture, but the poems are deeply moving because they turn against their own best discoveries, refusing to settle for the consolation of what is merely right. The Errancy provides all the satisfactions we expect from poetry—aural beauty, emotional weight—along with an intellectual rigor we don't expect. No one but Jorie Graham could have written it.