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The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Company, NY, NY (2015)


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Sunday Book Review
Jorie Graham’s ‘From the New World’

FEB. 27, 2015

Writing about Jorie Graham at this point, seven books after she won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994,” means joining a cacophony of voices. Google her name and you will find her elders, her peers and those she has influenced (and she has influenced most poets younger than she is, and not just in English, whether they know it or not) making cases for and against the importance of her work. People have all sorts of reasons to love or hate her, and even love to hate her for reasons they sometimes can’t articulate. The most evident case for Graham’s importance is the volume of chatter eddying around her name. Tune all of that out and the deeper reasons for her lasting reputation grow louder. Graham’s great body of work, summarized in “From the New World,” her new career-spanning selected poems (one can understand why active poets resist the tombstone of a “collected” volume), has so much in it, more of life and of the world than that of almost any other poet now writing. Or so it seems to me — as anxious, I realize, as everyone else to make my case.

Why, I keep asking myself, do I, too, feel the need to defend Graham’s writing? Why does this so obviously luminous, essential body of poetry still seem to need defending?

The answers, I fear, are the same old, ugly, entrenched reasons: Fellow poets, critics, even readers are threatened by Jorie Graham because she is brilliant, difficult, confrontational, empowered and visionary. Most of all, she has not let the fact that she is a woman dim or compromise any of these qualities. Admittedly, I don’t know how to address in a book review the envy and mistrust that Graham’s powers provoke. So let me discuss what I do feel qualified to address: her brilliance and difficulty.

Among Graham’s generational peers, poets now in their 60s, are such aesthetically diverse luminaries as Mark Doty, Charles Bernstein, Brenda Hillman, Yusef Komunyakaa and C. D. Wright. But only Graham has synthesized all of the available strains — the ageless tradition of poetic contemplation; the half-century trend toward self-revelation; the mischievous, self-conscious cynicism about the very proposition of meaningful language — into a style that reflects the real world back, gives powerful moral commentary and makes our hair stand a bit on end because something real glows in each of her poems. Graham is to post-1980 poetry what Bob Dylan is to post-1960 rock: She changed her art form, moved it forward, made it able to absorb and express more than it could before. It permanently bears her mark.

The title of what is probably Graham’s best-known poem, “The Way Things Work,” slides right into its first line: “is by admitting / or opening away.” How remarkable to ride the crest of Graham’s reasoning — this is one of the great pleasures of reading her. In lines like these, she performs one of poetry’s fundamental tasks, showing how poems lead to the meanings between words, to the things we can’t quite say but still need to express. What, exactly, does it mean that something is “admitting / or opening away”? Admitting what? Away from where? But those are the wrong questions. What Graham is doing here, following Dickinson, Whitman and Stevens, is envisioning abstractions in action, showing the activity of the mind as though with the eyes — like Ashbery, but with feeling. She delineates the difference between “Blue / moving through blue” and “blue through purple,” as she says later in that poem. Recite those lines to yourself the next time you watch the sunset and see if it doesn’t look better.
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For Graham, consciousness and conscience are intertwined. To be aware of something is to have some responsibility for it. For instance, this collection’s title poem revolves around a scene from the Holocaust. Graham wishes she didn’t have to face the unbearable image of “the girl who didn’t die / in the gas chamber, who came back out asking / for her mother.” Of course she craves an easier way out, more pleasant poetry: “God knows I too want the poem to continue, / want the silky swerve into shapeliness / and then the click shut.” But once such an image has entered her consciousness, there’s no way out for her but through.

This is why Graham’s poems can sometimes be long and exhausting. She follows her thoughts all the way to, and then beyond, their conclusions. Sometimes the poems end with an urgent sense of vibrating disturbance, with the knowledge that something is wrong in the world and must be corrected. Other poems find their way to a kind of awe, glimpsing “where the mind opened out / into the sheer drop of its intelligence.”

Of course, Graham risks alienating her readers by going above their heads or too far into her own. At times, especially in the long, many-sectioned poems of the late 1990s and early aughts, Graham can seem almost incomprehensible (as too many critics have too smugly asserted too similarly). Yet this is a symptom of artistic courage and growth: Graham has been fearless about her own artistic development. She’s gone wherever the poems have led her, and after her most hermetic period comes her most public. In the last three books — “Overlord,” “Sea Change” and “Place” — Graham has embraced the role of protest poet, raging against the culture of war and continuing environmental degradation. She has also woven into these poems some of her most moving personal statements.

“Lapse,” a late poem of memory and motherhood, is one of these. In it, she remembers pushing her now-grown daughter in a swing, and finds herself recalling a wish for her child that could also be her wish for everyone: “that you be spared / from anything at all, from everything, and of course also its opposite, / that everything happen to you in large sheets of experience.” Only Graham, to my ear at least, is capable of so capacious an expression of our fundamentally contradictory nature: We want everything and its opposite, all and nothing, but we must settle, everywhere but in our imaginations (for which poems are metaphors), for something in between. Graham is one of our great poets. Her words will long outlast all of this chatter.

Poems 1976-2014
By Jorie Graham
359 pp. Ecco/­HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.

Craig Morgan Teicher is director of digital operations at Publishers Weekly and the author, most recently, of the poetry collection “To Keep Love Blurry.”

A version of this review appears in print on March 1, 2015, on page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Way Things Work. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe