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Publication Type:Book Chapter
Source:The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.71-94 (1995)
JORIE GRAHAM: The Moment of Excess
The breaking of style can occur on the largest scale, as when Hopkins invents a new rhythm distinguishing his later poetry from his earlier work; or it can occur, as in Heaney's writing, on the scale of a single poem, as the adjectival style called for by the poet's perplexity before the Grauballe Man is exchanged for the nominal style demanded by the trance of a memory-portent in "Deserted harbour stillness." Whereas a large-scale break in style like Hopkins' can scarcely be ignored by readers and critics, smaller breaks from poem to poem like Heaney's often go unnoticed, and the essential exposition through grammatical form of the thematics of the poem goes unremarked. When a poem is deprived, in critical discussion, of its material body-which is constituted by its rhythm, its grammar, its lineation, or other such features-it exists only as a mere cluster of ideas, and loses its physical, and therefore its aesthetic, distinctness. I want to look, in Jorie Graham's work, at the unit of the individual line.
Historically, the line has been the characteristic unit distinguishing poetry from prose; it is the most sensitive barometer of the breath-units in which poetry is voiced. The very shortest way of composing a line makes a single word (in Cummings and Berryman, even a single syllable or letter) constitute a line; the very longest manner of composition invents a line that spills over into turnovers, or, in a different move, suspends from its right margin an appended short line, what Hopkins called an "outride." When a poet ceases to write short lines and starts to write long lines, that change is a breaking of style almost more consequential, in its implications, than any other. Jorie Graham began as a writer of short poems in short lines, lines with a hesitant rhythm so seductive that one's heart, reproducing those poems, almost found a new way to beat. And then, with a burst of almost tidal energy, Graham began to publish long poems in long lines, poems that pressed toward an excess nearly uncontainable by the page. "Poetry," said Keats, "should surprise by a fine excess," and one form of that fine excess is the long line. "In excess, continual, there is cure for sorrow," Stevens observed in ''A Weeping Burgher," and one of those cures for world-sorrow is the independent, provocative, and exhilarating excess of voicing represented by the long line. Graham's breaking of style, from short lines to long, invites us to consider these and other possible implications of her act. But before I come to Graham's recourse to the long line, it may be useful to say a word about the general presence of the lengthened line in modern verse. There are two chief classical sources of the long line-the epic hexameter and the dithyrambic lyric: the first stands for heroic endeavor, the second for ecstatic utterance. When Hopkins compared "The Wreck of the Deutschland" to a Pindaric ode, he wanted to reclaim ecstatic and irregular form beyond what the eighteenth century had done; but it was chiefly in his sonnets, as we have seen, that he pushed the regular English line to its utmost length, for both effortful and ecstatic reasons. Toward the end of his life, he wrote of his "herds-long" lines:
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old ánvil wince and síng—
Then lull, then leave off.
His several hexameter sonnets sometimes added outrides and even a coda; and finally, in the octameter lines of "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves," Hopkins reached his breath-limit. As we have seen, Hopkins used the long line in several ways—as a container of heterogeneity, for instance, which could nonetheless rise to epic heroism: "Thís Jack, jóke, poor pótsherd, patch, | matchwood, immortal diamond / Is immortal diamond" (198). More interestingly, even, Hopkins used the long line to creep up on something by a chromatic series of words, each one melting ecstatically into the next by almost insensible half-steps: "Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, | vaulty, voluminous, ... stupendous / Evening strains to be tíme's vást, | womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night" (190).
Like Hopkins, Whitman-who brought us the founding American free-verse line, deriving it from the Bible and Macpherson's Ossian--found the long line useful as a container for the heterogeneous; but he also used it to signify intellectual and speculative difficulties. It served Whitman, in its Hebraic coordinate form, for his ongoing repudiation of the old and embrace of the new: "I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes." He also used it to signify spontaneity of speculation, and a ready turn to self-correction, as in the poem "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances," where a single line (l. 9) says of appearances:
May-be [they are] seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but
seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they
would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed
points of view. (120)
In spite of examples of length like those offered by Hopkins and Whitman, the English line tends stubbornly, when left to itself, to return to its more normative four- or five-beat length unless special heed is paid by the poet either toward shortening it-as Heaney deliberately did, for instance, in his volume North when he was seeking a more "Irish" music-or toward prolonging it, as Stevens did in a poem of Odyssean ongoingness called "Prologues to What Is Possible":
He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was,
Part of the glass-like sides on which it glided over the salt-stained water,
As he traveled alone, like a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning.
(Collected Poems, 516)
More could be said about the reasons why Whitman, Hopkins, and Stevens were pressed toward lengthening the English line-lengthening it against prescription, against historical habit, almost (one could say) against nature. But I want to move on to Graham, and ask why this pressure arises in her, so that her recent poems sprawl across the page in ways that startle and unsettle us, even while we are enthralled by their urgency, their effort, and their power.
The body Graham first chose for herself in verse was one that above all represented deliberation. That deliberation could be seen-to invoke an organic metaphor she uses in the recent poem "Opulence" (from Materialism)—as a stalk which arises slowly, puts forth a leaf, matches that leaf with another leaf on the opposite side of the stem, ascends a bit further, issues a branchlet, and then presses that branchlet to grow a twig. The narrow poems in Graham's first two books grew by antiphonal lines-the first line flush left, the second indented, the third flush left, the fourth indented, and so on. Step by step, accreting perceptions, the verse-to invoke a different metaphor-descended the page, creating a stairway (often of dimeter followed by monometer) for the reader. Here is a fragment of "Scirocco" from her second book, Erosion (1983):
Outside his window
you can hear the scirocco
Every dry leaf of ivy
refingered. Who is
the nervous spirit
of this world
that must go over and over
what it already knows,
what is it
so hot and dry
that's looking through us,
for its answer?
We see in such lines, which owe much to Williams, the young poet's approach, increment by increment, to a mastery of the world. Most of the poems in Erosion, a book written in Graham's late twenties and early thirties, are composed in these stair-step short lines. They embody a process the poet at times calls erosion, at times dissection, in which something is crumbled, bit by bit, to dust; or something is opened, layer by layer, to view.
The process of-step-by-step investigation of the world is itself defended in the central question, "How far is true?" posed by Graham's harrowing poem ''At Luca Signorelli's Resurrection of the Body." The son of the painter Signorelli has died, and the father, reaching beyond his grief, dissects the body:
from the symbolic
to the beautiful. How far
. . . . . . . .
[W]ith beauty and care
and judgement, [he] cut into
into bone and sinew and every
in which the cold light
It took him days,
until his mind
could climb into
the open flesh and
mend itself. (76-77)
This accomplished, steady, unflinching writing-in-short-lines (which deals out the lines, group by group, in regular six-line stanzas) represents, we could say, a faith in the power of the patience of mind; and in its deliberate respect for the resistance of matter, it intimates the "beauty and care / and technique / and judgement" that the mind must observe in the precise investigative use of its various scalpels. The question "How far is true?" is left open-ended, but that it is the poet's duty to take the symbolic through the beautiful into the true is not in doubt.
Toward the end of Erosion, Graham includes a disturbing poem called "Updraft," its title betraying a force which is the diametrical opposite of those sequential, incremental, and orderly processes-whether natural like erosion or intellectual like dissection--on which Graham's form had depended. The updraft, or convection current, of Graham's poem literally turns the atmosphere turbulently upside-down in tumultuous irregular lines:
[A]II the blossoms ripped suddenly by one gust, one
of dust and silks
by which we are all rising, turning, all
The movement chronicled by "Updraft" is the dissolution of meaning into unmeaning. The poet, now distrusting the closure of form, implores a God-like figure to let Eve, the mother of creation, symbol of the world of formed shapes slip back into the uncreated:
so let her slip
out of her heavy garment then, let her slip back
into the rib, into Your dreams, Your
loneliness, back, deep into the undress.... (71)
The undress exists "back / before Your needle leapt in Your fingers, meaning." The “undress,” then, that the poet longs for is what Kristeva calls by the Platonic name of the chora:--the presymbolic matrix of language, where rhythm and syllable and semiosis have not yet coalesced into sign and meaning. But since we cannot go backward to the chora, we must, in our resistance to closure go forward, by entropy, into randomness and shapelessness.
The long line, therefore, is first generated by Graham as the formal equivalent of mortality, dissolution, and unmeaning. At this point in her writing, it is set against the persuasions of shapely organic form, and against the intellectual intelligibility that is the result of careful deliberative investigation. "The blood "says Graham in “Updraft,” “smears itself against the mind," and this contest, as suffering body disfigures questing spirit, is continued in all of Graham's later books.
Erosion was followed by the volume uncompromisingly entitled The End of Beauty (1987), which marks Graham's definitive break with short-lined lyric. Though the old investigative antiphonies reappear once or twice ("Eschatological Prayer, “Noli MeTangere”), the preeminent move in the book is a struggle against the intellectual and formal dénouement of shapely closure. Rather, there is now in the poet an assent--voiced in a long-lined poem called "Vertigo"—to uncertainty and unpredictability: this is the vertigo felt as one abandons old and predetermined ways In favor of the pull of the unknown beyond the precipice of the new:
She leaned out. What is it pulls at one, she wondered,
what? That it has no shape but point of view?
That it cannot move to hold us?
Oh it has vibrancy, she thought, this emptiness, this intake just
the Start of a story, the mind trying to fasten
and fasten, the mind feeling it like a sickness this wanting
to snag, catch hold, begin, the mind crawling out to the edge of the cliff
and feeling the body as if for the first time-how it cannot
follow, cannot love.
The dizzying extension of the mind, as it crawls out to the edge of the cliff of the conceptual, presses Graham to her long lines and to their "outrides"-small piece-lines dropping down at the right margin of their precursor-line. Graham's combination of indefinitely stretching right-edge horizontality with occasional right-edge vertical drops refuses both the model of step-by-step upward mental advance and the model of investigative penetration inward from the beautiful into the true. Rather, Graham redefines the human aim of verse as an earthly, terrain-oriented lateral search (which can reach even the epic dimensions of the Columbian voyage) rather than a vertical Signorelli-like descent into depth or, as in "Updraft," ascent into prayer. Earthly desire itself is the thing allegorized by Graham's long horizontal line, desire always prolonging itself further and further over a gap it nonetheless does not wish to close. In this search by desire, mind will always outrun body. And the linear ongoingness necessitated by the continuation of desire means that the absence of shape, far from meaning dissolution and mortality, now stands for life itself.
In the poem "Pollock and Canvas," Graham, searching for a nontranscendent vertical which will be comparable to her earthly "desiring" horizontal, finds a metaphor for her line in the fluid drip of Pollock's paint between the body of the artist and his canvas spread on the ground. The line of paint, let down from the brush, is like a fishing line sinking without effort into the water: this cascading line is not epic, like the Odyssean one questingly covering distances toward a horizon; rather, it is ecstatic, living in the possible:
the line being fed out the line without shape before it lands without death
saying a good life is possible, still hissing still unposited,
before it lands. without shape, without generation, or form that bright fruit[.] (84-85)
At this moment, the long vertical line, "fed out," is pure middleness, the unposited, the possible, the "formless," the ethically indeterminate. It has not yet tethered itself to shape, to ending, to decision; it has not yet plucked the apple of the Fall.
To write a poetry of middleness, of suspension, is Graham's chief intellectual and emotional preoccupation in The End of Beauty. In that aim, she defers closure in many poems by a series of ever-approaching asymptotic gestures, each one of them numbered, and each advancing the plot by a micro-measure. Her model for this use of the long line seems to be the cinematic freeze-frame, by which an action sequence in film is divided, like the flight of Zeno's arrow, into minutely brief "shots," or elements. To place each of her elements into stop-time, Graham tries the experiment of numbering the freeze-frames sequentially, so that the unfamiliar appearance of a number punctuates on the page each quantum of perception delivered by a line or lines.
This experiment-affixing a number to each perception-packet-is tried in only six of the twenty-six poems in The End of Beauty, but these six are the dual self-portraits in which the volume finds its cohesion:
"Self-Portrait as the Gesture between Them"
"Self-Portrait as Both Parties"
"Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne"
"Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay"
"Self-Portrait as Demeter and Persephone"
"Pollock and Canvas"
These poems have a collective importance beyond their mere number. Why, we must ask, does this forcibly stopped numbered version of the long line predominate in the self-portraits (of which "Pollock and Canvas," despite its title, is surely one)?
The self-portrait, as a visual genre, has always depended in some mirror-strategy by which the painter can depict an object normally inaccessible to vision: his or her own face. Not all self-portraits display the necessary mirror, but even those that do not do so prompt the viewer to some reflection on the
difficulty of realization necessitated by such a portrait. Some self-portraits—Vermeer's of the artist in his studio, for instance—obliterate the face of the artist, as Vermeer substitutes the inscrutable rear view with black hat as an index of that necessary but suppressed subjectivity of the painter which plays a role in every painting, no matter how "objective." Parmigianino, as Ashbery has reminded us, paints himself reflected in a convex mirror so as to emphasize the distortion inevitable in any stratagem for self-representation.
Graham's facing up to the complex strategy of her own dual self-portraits is articulated most visibly in her numerically interrupted frames. They say: "Look at yourself in a frozen moment; write it down. Gaze again; write it down. And now glance a third time; and write it down." The alternations of consciousness as the pen succeeds the gaze are not concealed; rather, they are inscribed on the page, number by succeeding number. By "baring the device," as the Russian Formalists would say, Graham's self-portraits prevent an easy slide by the reader-or by the poet herself-into an introspection unconscious of problems of representation.
But what does the affixing of prefatory numbers have to do with Graham's break into the long line? The conventional view of the poetic line, as I have said, associates it with breath; and indeed, a good deal of theorizing about the material base of poetry links it to the inspiration and suspiration of the single breath as its measure. The physiological regulation of breathing makes natural breaths roughly isometric-in, out; in, out. And isometric breathing is the basis for regular lines, orderly and successive ones. But the gaze has no such isometric rhythm: a gaze can be prolonged at will, held for inspection, meditated on, and periodically interrupted. It is the gaze, rather than the breath, that seems to me Graham's fundamental measure in the numbered-line poems. By this choice of the gaze over the breath, Graham redefines utterance; and what utterance becomes is the tracking of the gaze, quantum-percept by quantum-percept, bundle by bundle. In Graham's recent poetry, a trust in the vagaries of the perceptual replaces the earlier poetry's trust both in the physiologically regulated order of breath and in a teleologically regulated order of truth. Since the apotheosis of the perceptual is necessarily an apotheosis of the moment, Graham is as interested in the (numbered) interruptive pause as in the significant perception; and her sequestering of the pause as a good in itself can be seen most clearly in "Pollock and Canvas," the most interesting test, in The End of Beauty, of her freeze-frame lines.
"Pollock and Canvas" is a poem in three Roman-numeraled parts, but only Part II affixes numbers to its lines. Part I is a conceptual summary (in the past tense) of Pollock's "drip" practice, linking him with the wounded King of The Waste Land and the Parsifal legends, a King suspended between life and death. The intermediate state of the King-alive but not life-giving, wounded but not dead-is summed up in Pollock's question as he bends over his canvas, refusing to let the brushtip touch it: "tell me then what will render / the body alive?" (The End of Beauty, 82). Pollock, though accomplished in the conferring of shape, resolves to keep his canvas safe from the death of final formal shape ("his brush able to cut a figure / on the blank and refusing").
I pass over, for the moment, the numbered Part II, to look at the way the poem concludes. Pollock's Part I terror of the conclusiveness of final shape is answered in Part III of "Pollock and Canvas," which envisages a way out of formal shape. That formal shape (beauty, love, the figure), once it has been conferred on the canvas, permanently settles over a piece of life and determines it. The only way out of the conclusiveness of that formal shape is the admission into it of elements of chance; and Graham's figure for that possibility is God's rest after He made the world, a point at which the unintended, the serpent, can slip into Paradise:
And then He rested, is that where the real
begins—the now—Then He rested letting in chance letting in
any wind any shadow quick with minutes, and whimsy,
through the light, letting the snake the turning
Graham's conclusion is that the adventitious, the aleatory, the not-yet-true will eventually, without God's intending it, become part of the Creation:
Then things not yet true
which slip in
The things which slip in are part of the Keatsian "fine excess," and, since they are a "supplement" to what was intended, have their formal equivalent in whatever in the line seems arbitrary, unintended, added by chance, as though the line had had to expand to take such things in.
In "Pollock and Canvas," long lines exist, it is true, in both the Amfortas-suspension of Part I and the Jehovah-chance of Part III. But the quintessence of the species "long line" in the volume The End of Beauty—which I take to be the long line intermitted by the long numbered pause-is achieved in Part II of "Pollock and Canvas," where, though Pollock cannot entirely avoid the forward pull of temporality, he attempts to spatialize time as much as possible by inserting between each gaze a pause, representing ecstatic being:
Here is the lake, the open, he calls it his day; fishing.
The lake, the middle movement, women's flesh, maya.
And here is the hook before it has landed, before it's deep in the current[.] (82-83)
This pregnant section of the poem-enacting space, middleness, incarnation, illusion, suspension-speaks directly of what the double excess of the long line and the long pause mean to Graham-a way of representing the luxurious spread of experienced being, preanalytic and precontingent. This condition has Romantic affinities; but Graham does not want to be laid asleep in body to become a living soul. Rather, against Wordsworth, she almost wants to be laid asleep in mind to become a living body. Her maya contains no access to Wordsworthian transcendence; rather, she accepts its blessed stoppage in prolonged sensual illusion, that excess that is, in Stevens' terms, the cure of sorrow. The incarnation of this maya as it takes place "between the creator and the created" (83) is the Stevensian moment of credences of summer, of human existence without temporal entrance or exit, represented paradoxically by "of the graces the / 8 / most violent one, the one all gash, all description." This grace is the Muse of eternal process, who has replaced for Graham the meditated, investigative, and shaped Muse of product.
Graham's long line, representing being-in-process, continues, after The End of Beauty, into Region of Unlikeness (1991); but in the later, more autobiographical volume, the line drops its earlier partner, the open numbered space, which had represented being-in-pause. The gaze turns to single autobiographical self-portrait (which replaces mythological dual self-portrait), and the plot of narrative replaces bundled quanta of perception. Instead of dwelling on Region of Unlikeness, I want to turn to Graham's most recent book, Materialism (1993), because in it she combines the long line with its apparently ultimate narrative partner, the long sentence. Since the long horizontal line of extension in space toward the horizon is itself already formally effortful, it becomes even more epically taxing when it is joined to the long sentence (the conventional equivalent of temporal and conceptual complexity). To the long horizontal axis is added a long vertical axis. Graham had used long sentences to good effect as early as Erosion, but there they were strung down the page in very short lines. In The End of Beauty, the lines were longer, but the long sentences appearing there were usually interspersed with shorter ones, alleviating the effort of suspension. In Materialism, the combination of horizontal and vertical prolongation is carried out to the utmost degree, so that the poems literally construct visual plane areas ("tarpaulins," to use Ashbery's word from the poem of that name) in which words cover and spatialize being.
Total coverage is the ultimate effect toward which Graham has been tending with her long lines ever since they first appeared. This area-effect has affinities with other literary structures (the epic simile, the Miltonic verse-paragraph, the Whitmanian catalogue, the Moore encyclopedia-page), since all of these represent what Graham calls, in one of the titles of Materialism, "The Dream of the Unified Field." In that dream (in Graham's version), the whole world is extrapolated out from whatever center one chooses as origin. Stevens conceived of this effect, in "The Man with the Blue Guitar," as one in which the twang of the blue guitar would be "the reason in the storm," incorporating the whole of the storm while giving it a focal point and intelligibility:
I know my lazy, leaden twang
Is like the reason in a storm;
And yet it brings the storm to bear.
I twang it out and leave it there.
(Collected Poems, 169)
Against Stevens' brisk storm, we can put Graham's enveloping storm in Materialism:
The storm: I close my eyes and,
standing in it, try to make it mine.
. . . .
gripping down to form,
wilderness brought deep into my clearing,
out of the ooze of night,
limbed, shouldered, necked, visaged, the white—
now the clouds corning in (don't look up),
now the Age behind the clouds, The Great Heights,
all in there, reclining, eyes closed, huge,
centuries and centuries long and wide,
and underneath, barely attached but attached,
like a runner, my body, my tiny piece of
the century—minutes, houses going by—the Great—
anchored by these footsteps, now and now,
the footstepping—now and now—carrying its vast
white sleeping geography—mapped—
not a lease—possession.
Graham compares this constant human desire for aesthetic possession of all space and time (the Great Heights, the long and wide centuries) to Columbus' desire to possess the New World; the hubristic dubiety of both enterprises is set against their spiritual ambition. Such undertakings are instinctive and unavoidable,
Graham suggests, in creatures of mind and appetite. The human appetite desires metaphysical and intellectual, as much as material, gain. It is the limitlessness of the claims of intellect and of desire that Graham's recent ambitious poems are most inspired by, and most appalled by as well.
The appetitiveness of the mind, and the infinity of the world's stimuli, generate the excess of Graham's long horizontal lines, which generate, in their turn, her long vertical sentences. Any given poetic idea begins to produce, in Graham, a version of an aesthetic Big Bang with its vertiginous perceptual expansion and its receding conceptual distances. We can see this happening in the recent unpublished poem "The Turning." The poem is about dawn in an Italian hill town, and it begins with several brief successive noticings (not quoted here). Each noticing creates a brief sentence, and then stops. Nothing can take wing. The poet cannot yet feel her way into the heterogeneity, simultaneity, chromatic change, spontaneity, and self-correction present in all acts of extended noticing. Eventually, the reason for the fizzling-out of each perception is formulated: there is either a war between the world and its perceiver, preventing their interpenetration; or else there is an indifference between them, making them remain on parallel tracks without intersection:
There is a war.
Two parallels that will not meet have formed
In spite of successive tries, the desired tarpaulin, area, square, updraft, thrown cloth, has not yet been found. Not until inner feeling and outer perception begin to meld, and the poet's body becomes, kinesthetically, a form of the world's fluid body, can the world be re-created in language. The poet declares her creed: that the sun must come up in her before it can come up on her page; and it must come up on her page before it can come up for her reader:
The sun revolves because of our revolving in
The wall is the poet's new perceptual blank sheet of paper. At the beginning of her observation of the dawn, nothing is inscribed on her mental "wall" except Stevens' command to himself at the end of "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," where he addresses the Earth, saying that poetry requires "that I / should name you":
Fat girl, terrestrial, my summer, my night,
How is it I find you in difference, see you there
In a moving contour, a change not quite completed?
... This unprovoked sensation requires
That I should name you flatly, waste no words,
Check your evasions, hold you to yourself
Become the soft-footed phantom, the irrational
(Collected Poems, 406)
Faced with her recollection of Stevens' command, Graham, "phantom-eyed," must name the "soft-footed phantom," the earth as it presents itself on this Italian morning. But how is she to articulate the area, the cloth, the tarpaulin to be cast over this infinitely opening piece of reality without stiffening it into lifelessness?
It is within the moment of an unlooked-for chance event, when a single bird moves, that the poet finds she can rise unexpectedly with it into unimpeded voice, combining bird, soul, light, church-bells, swallow-flocks, and human beings into a single long—almost unending—sentence which constructs the second part of the poem (quoted here) from the words "Bright whites and citrines" to "I look down into the neighbor's garden":
Bright whites and citrines
layerings, syllables of
the most loud
that stick (no departure and no return) to their single
(I saw men yesterday, tuck-pointing, on their scaffold)
lecture on what
most matters: sun: now church bells breaking up
in twos and threes
which works across in
forked, suddenly cacophonic
(though at the level
of the inaudible) large differences of rustling, risings and lowerings,
silence where the wings
en masse lift off—and then the other (indecipherable) new
used and the flock floats in
a flying-in-formation sound which
I can see across the wall (as if loud)—shrapnel of
against the brightnesses—
fistfuls thrown (as if splattered) then growing fantastically
in size (also now
rising swiftly) as
they come—a stem of silence which blossoms suddenly
as it vanishes from the wall—(turning, the whole
turning) exfoliation of aural clottings where all wings open now
and pump—vapor of accreting inaudible—
innermost sound scratchy with clawed and necked
indecipherables (a herald)—whole flock now rising highest just before it
turns to write the longest version yet against the whole
length of the wall where the churchbells
have begun to cease and
one name is called out (but low, down near the Roman
gate) and one
car from down there sputters
up—(the light brightest now, it almost
these walls these streets the light the shadow in them
the throat of the thing-birds reassembling over the roof
in syncopated undulations of cooing as they settle....
I look down into the neighbor's garden.
In order to maintain itself, this long-lined and outridered long sentence depends on several grammatical techniques of prolongation-present participles, appositions, relative clauses both adjectival and adverbial, parenthetical insertions, a colon, additive conjunctions like "and,» negations, comparisons ("as if”), co-temporalities ("also”), successivities ("then” and "just before”), repetitions ("now... now"), qualifications, and nominal simultaneities ("these walls these streets the light the shadow in them I the throat of the thing").
It is only of course after the fact that we can name these grammatical means accelerating the perceptual thrust of the sentence; during our actual stretched assimilation of this long cascade of words flung over a page we are, to put it imaginatively, participating in making the sun come up, the birds awaken, and the churchbells ring. Such an epic sentence—as the town turns from night to morning—is a human, and therefore effortful, Fiat lux. It cannot have the concision and effortlessness of the divine illumination of chaos, because it is made from a human sensing and concentrating body striving to comprehend a moment in one internalized physical and mental gestalt. And that human body is replicating itself in its aesthetic body of words, rather than replicating the outside world in a direct mimesis. The poet has to substitute, for the metaphysical divine will and the intellectual divine Logos, a frail human eye and an even frailer human will, which must concentrate fiercely to translate into internal kinesthetic sense-response "the most loud invisible" of the light and "the vapor of accreting inaudibles," the silent flocking of birds. The poet must translate these first into a consciousness of her own internal physical mimicry of the external stimuli, and then, in turn, she must translate that internal kinesthetic mimicry into the visible and audible signs of English, a language with its own internal constraints on expression. The order of linguistic signification, which succeeds the orders of perception and kinesthesia, is represented in the poem by the moment when "one name is called out.” Every genuine poem, as Mallarme insisted, aims at being "one name”—a single complex and indivisible unit of language proper to its moment and irreplaceable by any other. As the poet lifts the silent and the nonlinguistic and the nonpropositional from perceptual import to kinesthetic import into semiotic and rhythmic import, one form of suffering—seeing the day go by unregistered and unrecorded—is brought to an end.
The poet's subsidence into rest—after the epic but also ecstatic effort of turning dawn into words—is almost painfully brief: "I look down into the neighbor's garden.” There are still things unheard, the poet reminds herself (the petal-fall); there are still things her transcription has been unable to incorporate (the pine tree unincluded in the long central sentence):
What if I could hear the sound of petals falling
off the head that
when it’s time?
What if I could hear when something is suddenly
The pinetree marionette-like against the wall—but still,
Whose turn is it now? Whose?
A new sentence begins to brew in the poet's compelled heart: she has "done" one bit of morning, the turn from dark to light, from nested birds to flying flocks, from silence to churchbells, from sleep to the crying of a single name—but "Whose turn is it now? Whose?"
The alternating rhythms of silence and naming become ever more anguishing in Graham's work, if only because each poem, at this point in her pursuit of the lyric, demands of her that she leave out nothing. This is a demand to which all serious artists eventually come—"O mother, what have I left out? O mother, what have I forgotten?" asks Ginsberg in "Kaddish"—and, implicitly, all readers test long lyrics by asking "What should have been included here by way of observation, reflection, qualification, and conclusion, and was, to the detriment of the poem, left out?" (Even shorter lyrics must, to succeed, convince us of their completeness; they do it by a sort of Dickinsonian implosion, in which an implied prehistory of ignited totalization is condensed into charred post-hoc indices of itself)
At this moment in her writing, Graham chooses to show us her expanding universe by means of a slice of it in conic section. The cosmological excess that Graham has been insisting on recently can be read as a corrective to the current lyric of personal circumscription. It is especially a corrective (in its descent from Dickinson at her most metaphysical and Moore at her most expansive) to the lack of grandeur in much contemporary American poetry. Just as the personal is always in danger of becoming petty, so of course the grand is always in danger of the grandiose; and the Great Heights (as Graham has called them) can, unchecked, become parodies of themselves. Graham's capacity to descend from the Great Heights to an unremarkable single dawn in an anonymous town suggests that she understands the Whitmanian ecstatic sublimity of the ordinary as well as the Shelleyan heroic sublimity of aspiration. She has shown, in still other poems, that she possesses self-irony and historical irony, both of them useful balances to the vaulting mind and the universalizing voice that have impelled her approach to the edge of the precipice of perception by means of her triple excess—her long lines, her long pauses, and her long sentences.
From The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham (Harvard University Press)
John Keats, Letters, ed. Hyder Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 2: 238.
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1955), 61.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poetical Works, ed. Norman H. Mackenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 182.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: A Comprehensive Reader's Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Scully Bradley (New York: New York University Press, 1965), 155.
Jorie Graham, Erosion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 8-9.
Graham, The End of Beauty (New York: Ecco Press, 1987), 67.
Graham, Materialism (New York: Ecco Press, 1993), 85-86.