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Magazine Article


Vendler, Helen


The New Republic (1994)



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by Jorie Graham

(The Ecco Press, 146 pp., $22)

Jorie Graham, brought up in Italy by American parents and educated in French schools, has published five books of verse, beginning with Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980) and continuing with Erosion (1983), The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1991) and her newest book, Materialism. The poetry has always been strikingly ambitious in subject matter, genre-exploration and metrical invention. Like all new poets, Graham has mostly been discussed in terms of themes, which range, in her work, from notes on the reality of the self to the inflictions of history, from mutual corrections of identity in marriage to the nature of modern war.

For me, it is fundamentally Graham's rhythms that are irresistible. Here she is, riding with other passengers on the New York subway:

1982 on the downtown Express just out

      of 72nd Street,

having found a seat in what is like a dream,

 the sideways-rocking

   mixed-in with the forward

lunge making me slightly

    sleepy, watching the string of white

  faces lined up across from


the interlocking vertebrae

    of the endless twisting creature's


    watching it lob to absorb the shocks-

watching it twist all one way to wreathe

    the rudderless turns-

watching the eyes in it narrow, widen, as

 the tunelling forwardness

    cleaved to its waiting like flesh-

widen and narrow-blinking-the whole

 length of the train (I thought)

    this dynamism of complex acceptance,

sleepy, staring out....

There is a startling ratio of unaccented syllables to accented ones in such lines; and though the lines are full of trisyllabic feet, Graham's metrical feet do not evoke the galloping effect of classical anapests and dactyls, mostly because she regularly interrupts trisyllabic feet with shorter ones. Sooner or later, too, she checks her rapid hurrying long lines with a brief one, like the one that closes the passage above.

This is one of Graham's characteristic rhythms-the cascading or tumbling one of urgent presentness followed by a lapse into pause or exhaustion. Another is an abrupt, strongly marked spondaic rhythm of disorientation, where in rapid succession the reader may see italics, an ellipsis, a dash, a question or a command:

First this. Then this... Oh, glance-

  gnawing the


criss-crossing the open for broken spots,


what is there? what is

the object? Look: see the face without eyes.

  Don't be

afraid-twitch, lisp, slur-....

Of course, this rhythmic urgency on the page would be fruitless unless there were a corresponding urgency of subject.

Urgency of subject, while it can compel an inexperienced reader into a piece of verse, has no power over someone thirsty for a real poem-and the thirst for a poem is a parching one, as real as acute physical thirst or the longing for sleep. A compelling rhythm is the first sign of a tide of utterance rising to expression. The thirst will be slaked by anything-a dance rhythm, a sly rhythm, a peremptory rhythm, a hesitant rhythm-but only a rhythm will do. And in Graham it finds many such tidal motions.

Then the reader's thirst wants to know what the rhythm itself is athirst for, what it is bent on finding, where the drive of the poem is sending it. If the quest of the poem turns out to be trivial or shopworn or unintelligent, everything collapses and the rhythmic trance is broken. A rhythm makes the experienced reader's ears come alive: an orchestra is tuning up, where will it lead? Does Graham earn her cascades of words, her Dickinsonian dashes, her questions, her italics, her present participles vibrating in the ether of the poem? And if so, how?

She stops, literally, at nothing. Her voice can even move, at a climactic moment, into the tone of biblical prophecy:

Thou didst divide the sea by thy

       strength: thou breakest

the heads of the dragons

      in the waters:

thou driest up the mighty river:

      the day is thine....

By what authority does she assume this tone, invading literature in its most sacred quarters, raiding it, appropriating it for her poem? Such a posture must be earned, or it will become absurd.

The recent modest circumscription of lyric poetry to the personal voice has made most of our poets forget that the lyric can also be magisterially impersonal. (Within the "personal" I include the "class-personal," the voice that says "I, a woman" or "I, a black.") The personal lyric represents the socially marked self; but the impersonal lyric represents what used to be called the soul, but might better, in Graham, be called consciousness. Personal circumstance is acknowledged to underlie the awakening of consciousness, and Graham's poems often begin in individual autobiographical circumstance-but their restless search drives them to ranges of feeling and speech where it really does not matter whether one is male or female, young or old, black or white.

A Graham poem may recall, for instance, a point where a boy starts firing a gun in your car of the subway, where until this moment you have been noting only the serpentine rocking of the train:

light and blood swirling-us down


on our knees in

     secret, living, living,

my portion of time,

     my portion, full,

(can you stand it?)

     (get down and hide)....

     all things can happen,

wave after wave....

This moment-in which everyone is huddled on the floor, afraid to die-is one illustration of Graham's metaphysical moment, an instant when human beings, no matter what their social identities may be, breathe with one breath, feel one collective horror, think one apocalyptic thought. Another such moment is the time of unendurable physical pain-as it is preserved, for example, in the bite-marks on a Civil War bullet seen in a Memphis museum. Yet another is the moment of transition from one kind of perception to another, as when someone who has been lost in listening to music suddenly with the ending of the music, becomes aware of the light:

When the music ended she noticed

      the light.

The music has ended it said all over the


This is a transition that no one can have failed to experienced sudden crossing from the attentiveness of one, sense to the attentiveness of another sense. After the constriction of human possibility implicit in identity politics, it is like coming into light aria air to move in Graham's enormous world of multifarious change, where import lies in any circumstance, and the import is general to all.

There are five poems in Materalism entitled "Notes on the Reality of the Self"-five separate poems scattered throughout the book, each bearing this title. Whitman speaks, in "There Was a Child Went Forth," of "the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal"; and with the vanishing of a theological sanction for reality (in the notion of the participation of the material world in "the image and likeness of God"), the necessity to redefine "reality" has become a continuing and pervasive effort of modernity, around which Graham has structured her book.

The twentieth-century self inquired into by means of Graham's poems is not primarily defined by personal or social detail. Graham's task is to make the voice of metaphysical and moral consciousness as strong a source of language as the voice of the socially inflected self, which is rooted in nationality, ethnicity, social class, age and gender. The soul-the old lodging for the metaphysical and moral consciousness-was defined by its opposition to body, matter, dust. Graham proposes that the soul, on the contrary, must be materially definable, and she situates her poetry in the wake of the great philosophical crisis about the nature of reality provoked by the scientific advances of the Renaissance.

Since the poet, as Wordsworth said, must create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed, Graham creates the context in which her poems are to be understood by interspersing among them, in Materialism, various central texts from the history of the material understanding of nature, from Leonardo da Vinci on "Movement and Weight" ("Weight, force, a blow and impetus are the children of movement because they are born from it") to Sir Francis Bacon on scientific method ("We must bring men to particulars and their regular series and order, and they must for a while renounce their notions and begin to form an acquaintance with things") down to Wittgenstein ("Objects, the unalterable, and the subsistent are one and the same") and Benjamin ("The angel of history... sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet"). These are merely illustrative snippets from the pages-about thirty of them to 110 pages of poetry-that confront us with the intellectual axes of Graham's present imaginative world.

Prefacing all of this-as frontispiece and jacket-is a preliminary drawing for Mantegna's Descent into Limbo, showing Christ, seen strikingly from the back, his garments swirled about him by the infernal wind, as he descends to fetch from the depths of the earth all those who, since Adam's fall, have been waiting for salvation. By choosing as her emblem a Christ who is intent on his descent into the earth, his face turned toward death and the depths as he passes into matter, Graham declares that the spiritual can arrive at its realization only through the gate of materiality.

How is this to be accomplished in poetry? Graham suggests, quoting from "Sun-Down Poem" (later called "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry") that Whitman is her predecessor in this venture:

We realize the soul only by you, you faithful

 solids and fluids;

Through you color, form, location,

 sublimity, ideality;

Through you every proof, comparison, and

 all the suggestions and determinations of


You have waited, you always wait, you

 dumb, beautiful ministers!...

We fathom you not-we love you.

Whitman's rapturous immersion in "faithful solids and fluids" is an aspect of American romanticism that cannot be repeated. Graham's landscapes of material perfection are almost always broken in on by historical catastrophe. Yet catastrophe itself is only the social version of the biological catastrophe that is organic dynamism, always pressing toward its end. The material soul is mortal; and when Graham wholly inhabits a material phenomenon-say, the blooming of an amaryllis-it is the ineluctable curve toward death that the poem follows, even though it is called "Opulence":

The self-brewing of the amaryllis rising

  before me...

   stepping out of the casing



something from underneath coaxing the

  packed buds up...

till the four knots grow loose in their


and the two dimensions of their perfect-fit

  fill out and a third,

                   shadow, seeps in...

the four of them craning this way then that

  according to

                   the time

of day, the drying wrinkled skills of the


now folded-down beneath, formulaic,

the light wide-awake around it-or is it the


yes yes says the mechanism of the

  underneath tick tock-

and no footprints to or from the place-

no footprints to or from-

Since nothingness both precedes and follows being, and there is no risen Jesus to leave footprints behind as he walks away from the Sepulcher, the soul, defining itself from what it sees of the various beings "outside" it, learns the lesson, from the amaryllis, of its own essence, its perishable nature, as the very "tick tock" of "the mechanism of the underneath"-"evolutionary progress itself"impersonally extinguishes what it has evolved.

Graham's "Notes on the Reality of the Self" confront not only the transience of the materially constituted metaphysical self, but also its radical incompleteness. Just as the bushes in her backyard bending under the force of the wind-utterly responsive to its force-are wholly responsive to a nearby force-the sound (strong, urgent, metallic) of a brass band practicing nearby-so human consciousness can respond to, and draw its own sense of itself from, only a limited range of phenomenological stimuli available to it. Here are Graham's backyard bushes, deaf to the band-sound that deluges them:

For there is not a sound the bushes

       will take

from the multitude beyond them, in the

  field, uniformed-

(all left now on one heel) (right) (all fifty

  trumpets up

to the sun)-not a molecule of sound

from the tactics of this glistening beast,

forelimbs of silver (trombones, french


(anointed by the day itself) expanding,


bits of red from the surrounding foliage


       in all the fulgid

instruments-orient-ablaze where the

  sound is released-

trumpeting, unfolding-

       screeching, rolling, patterning,


scintillant beast the bushes do not know


as the wind beats them, beats in them, beats

  round them,

them in a wind that does not really even



in which these knobby reddish limbs that

  do not sway

       by so much as an inch

its arctic course

       themselves now sway-

In this, the most brilliant of the "Notes," With its untrammeled natural energies of light and wind, and its equally untrammeled human energies of hand music, all focused on the bending bushes unconscious of the hand, Graham adopts a voice of such piercing responsiveness that one wants to call it "subjectivity" and a voice of such pellucid reportage that one wants to call it "objectivity." It is this interpenetration of spirit and matter, to that each is known only by the the contour it gives the others that Graham means by both "materialism" and "subjectivity." And Graham's emblematic wind of fate and anthropomorphized swaying bushes are such highly conventional emblems that they do not compromise the impersonal identify of the narrator.

Perceptual spirit, even fated spirit, Graham tacitly argues, can find itself indistinguishable from matter, must construct itself out of the forces and fortunes of matter, can find its predicate only in the predicaments of matter. Not that this is an easy thing to bring about convincingly in poetry-but Graham makes it happen, with her passionate conviction that it must be done.

Perceptual spirit, fated spirit: that, indeed, can be shown finding itself in matter. Ethical spirit, however, is another story. If we realize ourselves, as Whitman thought, in those "dumb, beautiful ministers," silent phenomena, can they be the means through which we "realize" ourselves as moral agents? In moral cognition about the self, yes, insofar as it is a fundamental moral act to admit circumstance rather than to deny it-and this is the grounding moral act of art, to see, as Stevens said, "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Several of Graham's poems concern this fundamental accuracy of moral observation, in which evaluation keeps shifting because life does. In the first of the self's "Notes," a thawing spring river, at first swollen, turbid, choked with leaves ("all content no meaning"), brings the question,

Is there a new way of looking-

valences and little hooks-inevitabilities,


bilities? It flaps and slaps. Is this body the


I know as me?

The giant body of the river gradually becomes invested as an adequate locus for the self as it rearranges the meaningless leafy flotsam of the past year into new, released motion:

thawing then growing soggy then

the filaments where leaf-matter accrued

  round a

pattern, a law, slipping off, precariously, bit

  by bit,

and flicks, and swiftnesses suddenly more

  water than not.

Graham looks so scrupulously at the earth that the scrim between her will and the river's will vanishes and she sees the dissolution of her own old patterns enact itself in the river's freed throat. That is a practice of inner cognitive morality.

Social morality, on the other hand, is carried in Graham's poetry by narrative, with extended reference in Materialism to incidents from the Holocaust, colonial exploration, the Russian Revolution, novelistic practice (Madame Bovary), Tiananmen Square and local American life (the gun-wielding boy in the subway car). The poet is sometimes an attender to social history, sometimes a participant in it. Though the encapsulated short narrative has often served Graham well, I found some of the historical incidents here, notably the Holocaust narrative forming nine of the seventeen sections of "Annunciation with a Bullet in It," too long for the proportions of the lyric. And some of Graham's attempts at collage ("The Break of Day for instance) seem strained. There is a limit, after all, to how many disparate things can be made to hang together: and a poem bringing into mutual relation Plato and The Golden Bough and Heidegger and Marx and Madame Bovary seems to me in danger of incoherence. Yet such a poem can contain pieces of dazzling writing. Here is the poet speaking as Adam, out of whose rib God will tear Eve (created matter):

I feel the skin tighten like Saran Wrap now,

  the god finishing up

the form-privacies are added-the starry


      rammed into the eyepits-deep in-

the symmetry like a forked shriek

  effected-two and then

                 two-His thumbs

smoothing it out-

and Balance struck through the top of

  me-down through-

steel rod-slicing the parts of the visible

forever from-

severing the front from that parched earth

  behind me now-

cramping me in,

the sill of nothing to nothing,

this orphaned forwardness now swelling

  up, starched-a cancellation but

                            of what I

can't say-and mended (whoosh)


Keats wrote that "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream-he awoke and found it truth." In the gap between Keats's idealized dream and waking, on the one hand, and Graham's tortured and violent separation of self from being, on the other, we can see the gap between a naturalized supernaturalism and a late, disbelieving materialism.

"We are in a drama," says Graham, and her rendition of the dramatic force of aesthetic attention and choice ("What am I/ supposed// to take, what?") restores to poetry, if in a different vein, the impassioned idealism of Shelley. The combat against nostalgia in Graham is especially fierce in this new volume. As she encounters, on her way through life, the various cliches of our moment-abortion-clinic protests, drug addicts, television, the commemoration of 1492-she makes of them something that claws out toward a larger order, a more comprehensive view, while maintaining the coursing emotions proper to poetry and missing from conventional metaphysics.

Perhaps the most congenial single philosopher for her verse is Wittgenstein, in the passage she quotes from the Tractatus:

2.026 There must be objects, if the world

    is to have an unalterable form.

2.027 Objects, the unalterable, and the

    subsistent are one and the same.

2.0271 Objects are what is unalterable

    and subsistent; their configuration is

    what is changing and unstable.

2.0272 The configuration of objects

    produces states of affairs.

2.03 In a state of affairs objects fit into

    one another like the links of a chain....

2.04 The totality of existing states of

    affairs is the world.

What would a poetry be that took as its theory these passages? It is the poetry that Graham has invented in Materialism-philosophically stern in spite of its verbal opulence, morally severe in spite of its allusive spangles. It is not what has generally been thought of as "women's poetry." Graham's fierce sense of the philosophic universal may help remind American poets that there is a dimension of the lyric that goes beyond the merely personal, the merely social. It is a dimension we find in Emily Bronte and in Emily Dickinson-austere, renunciatory, far-seeing, but also detailed, intimate, saturated with phenomena.

Graham relies on a prolonged moment of phenomenological observation to spin out her poems; and she has become perhaps a prisoner of the present participle, hovering over the ground of perception. Through the present participle she hopes to hold at bay both the temptations of the historical past, threatening lyric with narrative, and the abyss of the unknown future, threatening lyric with closure. In keeping with this desire to prolong the lyric moment, Graham was originally attracted to paintings as vehicles of suspended attention. Now, she has substituted the senses as more primary vehicles, bending over nature as the mind once bent over art. In each case her aim has been to suspend closure while appearing to hurry toward it. What will happen to her poetry when death is taken, not as an inevitable end to be held off as long as possible, but as the condition of all existence?