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Publication Type:Magazine Article
Source:Boston Review, Boston Critic, Inc., Volume 37, Issue 6, Boston, Massachusetts (2012)
Full Text:The Suffering of Others
Ecco, $15.99 (paper) David Micah Greenberg
“Sundown,” the first poem in Jorie Graham’s PLACE, gives us the stakes of the collection:
Sometimes the day
behind you and it is
a great treasure in this case today a man on
a horse in calm full
gallop on Omaha over my
left shoulder coming on
The poem is set at Omaha beach on the anniversary of the day before D-Day. “Sundown” is not a post- but a pre-war poem and an attempt to interrupt history’s violent flow. Graham breaks ordinarily conjoined words—“day” from “light”—suggesting a wedge driven into the moment. Perception inserts contingency into the course of history. The horse kicks up the surf:
each tossed-up flake of
ocean offered into the reddish
luminosity—sparks—as they made their way,
boring through to clear out
life, a place where no one
again is suddenly
killed—regardless of the “cause”
In the horse’s steps, life teems and swarms; gulls come “screeching and mewing,” and sand fleas, “thrilled to the / declivities of succession,” show a microcosmic power to regenerate. In slowed time there is a different scale than history’s cataclysmic sweep. At the end of the poem the speaker declares:
when I shut my eyes now I am not like a blind person
walking towards the lowering sun,
the water loud at my right,
but like a seeing person
with her eyes shut
putting her feet down
one at a time
on the earth.
The figures of rider, sight, and blindness recall Yeats’s late poems, which argue for renunciation of the material world and the aging body, and ultimately life: “Cast a cold eye / On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by!” Graham, in contrast, looks to the earth, and while the speaker shuts her eyes—shielding, perhaps, against self-engendering violence—she remains open to a form of vision that might posit alternatives and an end to history’s repetitions. If there is a renunciation it allows for expansiveness, to “clear out / life” in order to make a place for it.
We know at this point in Graham’s career—PLACE is her twelfth collection—what subjects will be revealed by the expansion of the moment. This is not to call them formulaic, but there is a structure to them, a template set in the ways of the world, or also—for Graham—in a way of seeing the world. Her descriptive gifts are riven with anxiety in a restless, self-hungering cycle that can only find its conclusion in death or world’s end. The pathos and power of the expanded moment and its allegorical representation—its appearance as visionary moment—come from a mind searching the limits of perception and finding almost limitless time, inexhaustible observation, and, yet, limited efficacy.
Graham’s descriptive gifts are riven with anxiety in a restless cycle that can only find its conclusion in death or world’s end.
Graham’s affinity with spiritual, allegorical traditions combining moral and literal truths is also present in PLACE. In “Sundown,” she evokes Donne’s ecstatic and moral voice, and his “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward” (Donne writes that seeing Christ’s death “made the Sunne winke”—not wince). In Donne’s poem, by facing away from Jerusalem, the rider shields himself from the unbearable knowledge of sacrifice. Graham works against the overpowering presence of both the sign and what it signals—her method, as she writes in “Employment,” is “to step into / the stream of blood / for the interview,” from which both noumenal life and phenomenal significance cannot but be asserted.
Graham’s allegories have the world standing behind them: climate change, extinction, and war all exist. But with the poet’s moral and ontological intensity also comes a despair because the world, apprehended in these terms, risks, as the speaker confesses in “Untitled,” further splintering into “the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where / 187 million perished in wars, massacre, persecution, famine—all policy-induced.”
The fact that the speaker of “Untitled” contemplates these 187 million after inadvertently killing her own dog and injuring a neighbor’s in a moment of distraction while driving suggests disequilibrium between immediate, realizable obligations and horrors of such magnitude that they become abstract, or worse, the exclusive province of the sensual imagination, or, even more disheartening, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In “Although,” one of the book’s strongest lyrics, Graham writes, “you think it is wrong, perhaps, to play this game / when we are all / still here,” when the end has not yet come.
These fears surface most actively in PLACE’s topical “policy” poems, related to foreclosure and unemployment. In “Dialogue (Of the Imagination’s Fear),” Graham’s figure of the imagination balks and recoils against its own fertility. After a rich description of bulbs struggling to burst up in front of neighbors’ houses, the imagination says it is unable to account for the owner of the flower beds’ anticipation of homelessness: “but why, says the / imagination, have you sent me / down here, down among the roots, as they finally take hold” when “there is a / woman crying on the second floor as she does not understand what it will be like / to not have a home.” The imagination of the allegorical, sensual, and revelatory mode decries its limited abilities to encounter a neighbor’s suffering.
• • •
“What is the job today my being / asks of / light. Please / tell me my job,” the speaker beseeches in “The Bird that Begins It.” PLACE is reflective about the potential vocations of the poet, her place in the world, given the imbalances between imagination and efficacy, being and action. Part of Graham’s vocation is to feel unseen and significant movements. In Never, for instance, she senses the seven-minute interval marking the extinction of another species and in “Earth,” in this volume, the planet spinning on its axis.
Poetry itself is not exempt from the crises of purpose Graham describes in PLACE; these worldly challenges also make it more difficult to articulate poetry’s value or even to evaluate its quality. One strand of debate demeans sensitivity as part of a formula that signals the lyric speaker is uniquely attuned to personal or political suffering. Yet it is one thing to denounce treacle and another to disparage attention. Feeling, the ability to respond in personal terms to war, is one of Graham’s measures of her own success, but the late poems in PLACE also recognize that visionary intensity alone does little to stop war.
Poetry itself is not exempt from the crises of purpose Graham describes.
In the book’s closing poem, “Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011,” the speaker contemplates what its stones have witnessed, while encountering a wedding rehearsal and imagining a soldier who lost his arms, as an ancient king depicted there in statuary also had:
In late morning a
short time before
the explosive device hidden in the basket of fresh laundry went off, Private
who still had arms then,
reached down in secret, weapon in one hand, to feel the clean fabric. Actually
to smell it. Clean, he
thought. He used to hang it out for his mom. . . . He remembers the lineup of
all blowing one way
in the early evening, in Indiana, and for a blinding moment he realizes they had
brothers, his father, his uncle, they had all been pointing—in their blues and
In this account, the soldier’s downfall is his imagination—providing a moment of distraction and nostalgia, a false sense of direction and home. But the poet sees some salvation in her attempt to imagine Private Jackson’s thoughts because this strategy allows greater human grounding of the consequences of war, in contrast to the splintering which the idea of catastrophe can cause—the fatalistic awareness of 187 million dead, or the attempt to rise to presence against the extinction of species. Graham risks condescension by attributing to Jackson a banal image. Nonetheless, the sympathetic imagination provides the basis for the speaker’s encounter with the bride-to-be:
May your wishes
come true I say,
guidebook in hand. Tomorrow, she says. I can’t wait until tomorrow.
“She sees me mean it,” Graham writes earlier in the poem, and there is a sense that the poet’s work is not only to communicate the scale of inhuman carnage but also to witness and reflect others’ hopes and frustrations—to establish moments in which mutual recognition is possible.
Despite the rift among their critical proponents, despite obvious differences in structure and effect, both experimental poetry and Graham’s lyricism share a reliance on heightened subjectivity. Graham’s monumental encounters between self and policy and Susan Howe’s reconstructions of colonial texts in That This both elevate the individual consciousness—the ego in crisis or in fragmentation. What may be missing from these efforts is an acknowledgement of others’ subjectivity.
The late poems in PLACE attempt to overcome the solipsism of the lyric so as to develop more capable encounters with others. The poems do not fully accomplish this task, as the figure of Private Jackson is not fully realized, and the speaker in “Lapse,” the penultimate poem, pushes a pre-verbal child on a swing—it is significant that the remembrance of that moment stops at the point at which the daughter may herself speak. Still, in this work is the hope that poetry may produce a more ethical form of perception, where history finds instantiation in the material world and among the people who bear responsibility for its witness and its improvement.