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Journal Article


Contemporary Literature, Volume 46, Issue 4, p.667-687 (2005)


Never; Swarm; The Errancy; Materialism; Region of Unlikeness; The End of Beauty; Erosion

Full Text:

Jorie Graham and American Poetry 

Kirstin Hotelling Zona 

Illinois State University 

While Jorie Graham has claimed that the "central impulse of each new book involves . . . wanting to go into a more moral terrain—a terrain in which one is more accountable, and therefore in which one has to become increasingly naked" ("Interview" 82–83), the arc of her poetic reveals a fundamental crisis concerning self and its attendant claims to agency without which this impulse would wither: "my first person is hidden," Graham tells us in Swarm (2000), "[s]o that I'm writing this in the cold / keeping the parts from finding the whole again" (88–89). At once achingly "naked" and aggressively "hidden," the lyric presence in Graham's poems brings to mind an excellent mid-career interview in which she articulates, with trademark acuity, "the problem of subjectivity" with which today's poets must inevitably contend—the "still operative inheritance of the desire for Romantic fulfillment . . . as it comes into conflict with the distrust of such a desire (the distrust not only of the validity of personal experience but of the very notion of an essential self who might claim to have such an experience)" ("Glorious Thing" 20). In the manner of Yeats and Eliot, Graham's ensuing overview of "the core of what we see happening [in poetry] today" provides the perfect introduction to her own evolving poetic: 

Somewhere between the "I" that takes its authority from an apparent act of confessional "sincerity," and the "I" that takes its authority from seeing through to its own socially constructed nature, there is still the "I" that falls in love, falls out of love, gives birth, loses loved ones, inhales when passing by a fragrant rose-bush—the "I" that has no choice but mortality. That "I" . . . is emerging . . . with a new respect for the mystery of personhood, and a more sophisticated understanding of its simultaneously illusory and essential nature. 

("Glorious Thing" 20)


At stake in this dialectic between the "illusory" and the "essential" self is the conventional agent of moral law, what Geoffrey Galt Harpham depicts as that "luminous figure, central to ethics, of the self-determining, integrated subject" (23–24). As Harpham goes on to explain, the ethical imperative is catalyzed by the "coimplication of freedom and the law, free agency and obligation," so that the "very idea of an 'ethical' law" is, in fact, "strictly inconsistent with the integrated, self-consistent agent"—that "luminous figure"—"who alone, supposedly, can follow it" (27, 26; emphasis added). Of concern here is the catch–22 of the postmodern subject, Graham's guide to "more moral terrain": on the one hand, "seeing through one's own socially constructed nature" affirms an ultimate surrender of self as it locates identity at the nexus of "external" influences; as such, individuality—that sense of oneself as distinct, essential, and wholly conscious—is the product of, not precedent to, desire, locus of will. In this vein, claiming responsibility for the making of reality is, paradoxically, to subject one's self to the larger network of forces—cultural, familial, sensory—from which it arises. Hence, in her debut collection Graham writes that "the way things work" is first "by admitting / or opening away" (Hybrids [1980] 3). On the other hand, such agency inflates the "luminous" self that it attempts to subvert. Though "seeing through one's own socially constructed nature" eviscerates one's sense of autonomy, it empowers one as both analyst and architect of one's experience of being; to understand that we are hostage to our own ways of seeing is to turn the limited condition of subjectivity into a conduit to truth. Thus while Graham insists throughout Swarm that her "first person is hidden" (88), the urgency of her claim consecrates a presence that is anything but hard to find. 

Having begun her career by seizing responsibility for the making of meaning, Graham is now quick to confront the "luminous" presence such authority bestows; it is the interplay, or tension, between these gestures that defines Graham's poetic.1 Moreover, in charting this dance between autonomy and contingency, Graham exposes the cost of critical narratives whose logic depends upon the language of exclusion. Whereas "sincerity" (a supposed hallmark of "confessional" poetry and the personal lyric) culls authority from the illusion of a coherent, if threatened, selfhood, what Graham calls "self-consciousness" (often associated with "avant-garde," "postmodern," or "experimental" poetics) locates agency in the act of tracing one's contingency, in rebuking revelation and apparitions of closure.2 Hardly intractable, it is precisely the play between these postures of autonomy and contingency that charts a "more moral terrain," what Alan Shapiro describes as the "continual dialectic in which [the] power of mind is shaped by and is always shaping the conventions within which it is performed" (11). This "paradoxical habit of mind" is what allows us to mediate "between that which separates so as to discern and order, and that which merges so as to feel, participating in both, restricted to neither, encouraging flexibility of response when our responses grow straight-edged or rigid, and firmness of measure when they're ill-defined and too pliantly at the mercy of occasion" (12). Indebted but hostage to neither the confessional mode nor the repudiations of narrative and self-disclosure it spawned, today's poets and critics are increasingly adept at traversing the personal/impersonal divide, turning arid oppositions into the sort of two-way thoroughfare where "accountability" might thrive.3 In realizing (and exemplifying) this potential, Jorie Graham's poetry is indispensable to discussions of American verse because it clearly locates writerly authority not in the ruptured referent, nor in the lyric "I" who appears to choose one action over another, but in the play between these positions—between presence and absence, desire and dislocation—from which the "I" emerges. As such, her poetic provides a timely framing of the pluralistic state of American poetry, a call to read ostensibly antithetical styles as in fact powerfully symbiotic. 

* * * 

From the start, Graham's writing enacts a network of redoublings that signals the dynamic shapelessness of ethicality itself: as the "locus of otherness," writes Harpham, ethics is best conceived as a "hub from which the various discourses and disciplines fan out and at which they meet, crossing out of themselves to encounter the other" (17). An excellent conceptualization of Graham's oeuvre as a whole, Harpham's image recalls an early poem from Erosion (1983) in which Graham points to the interplay between autonomy and contingency that will become so central to her work: "I see, we say, wishing the daylight distances / to be the terrain of the mind, / something you can own by crossing, // not I am seen, or can you see me?" (46). Consciousness, that "terrain of the mind," is mapped by the elastic snap from "luminous" selfhood, or conviction ("I see"), to contingency ("I am seen, or can you see me?"). Our very awareness is buoyed by the shifting tides of coherence and dispersion. With this in mind, we might at times attribute the familiar charge of solipsism within American poetry not to either an overly personal or a deflective poetic but to a lingering habit of seeing these styles as antithetical. 

Emmanuel Levinas, whose presence pulses behind Graham's poems from at least The Errancy (1997) on, illuminates the moral cost of this division by explicating the social nature of thought itself: "The relationship of the individual to the totality[,] . . . [t]his relationship of both participation and separation, which marks the advent and the a priori of a thought . . . is a society." As such, the "condition of thought is a moral consciousness" (17). To "think"—to exist as human—is to be implicated as a moral creature, for consciousness itself is a symptom of social engagement. We are, as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, "ineluctably—existentially—moral beings" (1), a point Graham drives home in a poem from Never (2002): "When I 'think,' it is near the future, just this / side of it. / Something I can't conceive of without saying you" (79). Such bald explication of being-in-relation comes on the heels of Swarm, the book in which Graham's dual drives toward autonomy and contingency compete most aggressively. This aspect of the collection is signaled by the title, whose definition Graham reproduces at the back of her book: " 'SWARM,' in The Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as 'a body of bees which at a particular season leave the hive or main stock, gather in a compact mass or cluster, and fly off together in search of a new dwelling-place, under the guidance of a queen,' as well as 'persons who leave the original body and go forth to found a new colony or community'" (114). On the one hand, Graham's title invokes the impulse to conform, calling forth a community in which individual variations are calibrated to the key of the "compact mass." Moreover, conformity in this case is governed by a queen who is herself subject to the laws of nature, the signals of a "particular season," so that such uniformity seems the incarnation of a universal order. On the other hand, this definition of swarm also encompasses an opposite urge, the rebel will of those who leave the "compact mass" in order to start a "new colony or community"—in other words, the "queens" of the world whose conduit to cosmic law depends, paradoxically, upon a sense of autonomy too strong to tolerate conforming to the "cluster." The dynamic tension sustained within this definition is made more explicit in an unquoted portion of the OED passage wherein swarm is said to share an etymological root with the word swerve.4 At issue here are the opposing impulses toward individuation (the urge to leave the "original body") and toward community (the "compact mass or cluster"), that is, the dialectic between self and other, or autonomy and contingency, that widens one's ethical reach.5 

Typically, Graham's focus on being-in-relation is less concerned with denoting the shifting parameters of self than it is with the dissonance or negative space between self and other that gives shape to meaning. Akin to the Yeatsian antiself, this invisible presence appears in an earlier poem, "Self-Portrait as the Gesture between Them," as Eve's "secret," "what we see swelling forth making the shape we know a thing by" (The End of Beauty [1987] 4). As long as she harbors her newfound knowledge from Adam, Eve is able to "own" him, to mold the range of his imagined responses within the contours of her "narrow mind . . . as if to plant him but never/ letting go." Only when Eve's need to be "owned" herself outweighs her desire for distance does she "give it away / to have him pick it from her as the answer takes the question." This is the "gesture between them," the "gift" that "shifts the scales the other way now in his hand," the "gift that changes the balance" (4–6). Self-portraiture is dramatized here as neither an act of will nor the product of communion, but as the supple continuum they share. 

Eve's illusion of "freedom," of luminosity, is therefore proportional to her capacity to constrain her idealized image of Adam, "like a thin bird she'd found . . . keeping him in this shadowlessness in which he needn't breathe" (4–5). But the cost of such "freedom" is, literally, the arrest of genesis, of creation, rendered brilliantly here as the product of both relationship and story, so that finally Eve must "turn and touch him to give it away . . . that he should read in her the rigid inscription," the plot of his becoming. Only then, when Eve has surrendered her illusion of autonomy to the draw of intimacy, does "a new direction," an "error" in the story arise. As Eve forsakes her mastery in the act of communion, she endows Adam with a state of being, "of being capable" (emphasis added), that in turn engenders an exhilarating sense of difference, "of being not quite right for the place, not quite the thing that's needed . . . and liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error" (7; Graham's emphasis). Ironically, it is being-in-relation, what Graham emphasizes here as the very condition of narrative, that enables a "break from perfection" (7)—from God's master plan. The rewards of this risk are made clear in the buoyant beauty of the poem's final lines, "where the stranger appears in the clearing, / out of nowhere and uncalled for, out of nowhere to share the day" (8). 

That Graham repeatedly draws our focus to the seemingly antithetical strains of self-becoming allows us to reconcile the sometimes overdramatized distinctions that each of her books, read in  isolation, appears to beg.6 Whereas, for instance, the poems of Region of Unlikeness (1991) tend to highlight Graham's fear of authoring, of making meaning (and hence her insatiable desire for it), the poems of Materialism (1993) emphasize an opposite urge—a hunger for rootedness, for crafting agency from the debris of disillusion. Pivoting upon what Levinas describes as the "fatigue of the subject inescapably burdened with itself" (qtd. in Errancy 112; Graham's emphasis), Graham's next book, The Errancy, dramatizes the weight of self-consciousness, the subject's weariness of her own inevitably limited awareness: "Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous, disciplined, beached eye in / its thrall.... The reader is tired. / I am so very tired" (50). But of course in Graham's restless hands, enervation provokes revelation, however provisional, hints of which we find in the prevalence of we's and you's embedded in The Errancy's opening poems. This intimate mode of address signals the contiguity between epistemological "fatigue" and one's capacity for love, the connection that eventually proves antidote to the speaker's frustration with "the limits" of "single aperture" (78). As Graham intuited (if then resisted) early on in her career, it is relationship, the "gesture between them," that compels the "error" so critical to crafting a "new direction." Hence the overt invocation of "that other-than-me who is the I" (Never 68)—lover, God, and, most recently, reader—with which Graham sounds out the "more moral terrain" in Swarm and Never

This hyperdialogic dimension of Graham's work is reflected in the often contrasting claims of her readers, who have, for the most part, focused debate on Graham's approach to narrative. While many champion Graham's increasingly long and fragmented lines as a rejection of limits, of her wish to "undo," in Calvin Bedient's phrasing (225), others, namely James Longenbach and Willard Spiegelman, maintain that Graham's resistance to narrative convention is inextricable from her insistence that limits give us shape, call us all into being. Readings such as Bedient's tend to treat the narrative impulse as prohibitive, a bridle constantly strained by Graham's pursuit of the "beyond" or "underneath." In contrast, Longenbach's reading of Graham underscores his conviction that "all forms of poetry, as linguistic confections, offer one or another screen through which the world is experienced" (9). Thus "just because our experience of the world is discursive, shaped by narratives, it does not follow that we can change the world by disrupting specific versions of those narratives" (165). 

Here (as elsewhere) Longenbach targets the propensity within American poetry to equate stylistic innovation with moral sophistication, as when Helen Vendler asserts, rewriting Yeats, that in "the breaking of style it is ourselves that we remake" (95). Affirming the contingency between self and semiotics, text and context, such thinking refutes the illusory and often oppressive view of self as autonomous, individual, and transcendent. But if followed to its inflexible extreme, such logic merely replaces one form of prescriptive rigidity with another—one that, moreover, reessentializes the very "truisms" it attempts to annul. To suggest, for instance, that disjointed syntax and fragmented lines repudiate a unified self that coherent syntax and narrative form underscore is to inadvertently posit an incarnation of experience that is unmediated by language and, in turn, to assert that in its most disheveled form, the signifier enjoys a fully mimetic relationship with its signified. While tempting, such Prufrockian logic ultimately severs the self from its contingencies via the curious conviction that to experience—and express—the world as incoherent is to abdicate one's agency as a maker of meaning. Such reasoning recalls Nietzsche's rather bewildering pronouncement that because identity is "altogether a necessary  consequence ... assembled from the elements and influences of things past and present . . . man can be accountable for nothing" (39). 

Thus while Graham's poetry points up current debates over poetic form, it also forces us to confront the moral stakes that underpin such discussions. As Graham insists, narrative is urged by our desire for meaning, a quest that pulls us not inward but outward, into the web of connections from which our selves are spun. As Alan Shapiro elegantly puts is, "narrative begins with the desire to move between states of feeling so as to understand and articulate the community of relations which obtains when the poet asks why, as well as how, he feels." In the process, Shapiro continues, the poet "commits himself to a poetry of discrimination and judgment which does not exclude intensity of feeling but does subordinate that intensity to the tracing of the larger context within which it evolves" (40). As opposed to "ordinary . . . storytelling" or "mere anecdote," this "more fundamental" sort of narrative traces the "implicit social, psychological, and linguistic actions in which words, sentences and poetic forms, as well as the particular subjects they illuminate, comprise part of a historical continuum in relation to which the speaking self is defined" (30). Narrative, then, is the symptom of being-in-relation, and not its antecedent. As such, narrative is not reducible to closure, for the neat resolution toward which narrative tends is always checked by the contingencies upon which its progression depends.7 Thus, writes Graham, "unfolding is . . . not the contrary of folding, / but follows the fold up to the following fold— / particles turned into folds that contrary / effort changes over and again—" (Errancy 82). Such a view of narrative equips us to better understand not only the dialectical as opposed  to oppositional nature of Graham's poetic, but also the ethical imperative of such play.8 

* * * 

From the beginning, Graham's conflicted approach to narrative has signaled a primary ambivalence toward intimacy, the "gift" that "shifts the scales the other way." At issue for Graham is the "self-portrait," that apparition of wholeness that is, paradoxically, enabled only in relation, via "the gesture between them." At once agent of "accountability" and prophylactic to contingency, this "luminous" self pivots between authoring and being authored, ethical arrest and agency. As such, it embodies both the ethical potential of narrative and its morally indifferent underside. Graham explores this nexus most forcibly in late mid-career poems such as "From the New World" and "The Dream of the Unified Field" in which she confronts the disturbingly possessive side of love, and hence the proximity between surrender and control. But while each of these poems dramatizes the seam between intimacy and individuation as a continuum between the quest for narrative closure and social oppression, they diverge significantly in their capacity to risk human connection in the face of this understanding. Indeed, a number of Graham's readers chart the weakness in her work along these very lines. In her review of Region of Unlikeness, Bonnie Costello criticizes the way poems such as "From the New World" proffer "imitations of Heidegger and allusions to the Holocaust in place of the poet's . . . struggle to wrest beauty and meaning—however tentative and qualified—from the abyss of language and the randomness of experience" ("Big Hunger" 39). Five years later, Longenbach accounts for Graham's subsequent development in similar, if more forgiving, terms: "This positive argument (the finding of freedom within narrative) is far more complicated and interesting than Graham's negative argument (the unequivocal association of narrative closure with oppression)" (169). 

As both readers attest, Graham's conflation of narrative closure and oppression is most stultifying when her own need for meaning is caught in the cross fire. At such moments it seems that Graham herself is seeking refuge in the oppositional logic her poetry often works against; by stitching so tightly her own search for meaning to atrocities such as the Holocaust, Graham is able to abandon, however momentarily, the very quest for "accountability" that drives her to write in the first place. At the same time, though, it is precisely Graham's capacity to confront the disquieting underside of meaning-making that endows her best poems with so much poignancy. While in "From the New World" Graham may indeed fail to "wrest beauty and meaning" from horror for fear of engendering their terrifying opposites, she does conclude the poem by acknowledging that one can only move beyond systemic oppression via an act of (narrative) revision: "At the point where she comes back out something begins, yes, / something new, something completely / new, but what—there underneath the screaming—what? // Like what, I wonder . . . // like what, I whisper, // like which is the last new world" (Region 16). Though left unnamed, the "something new" that the speaker seeks in this poem about human fallibility gone terribly wrong is propelled by her own need to process the heinousness of the Nazi death camps without aestheticizing them in the process. What the speaker finds so disturbing—what she can confront head-on only at the poem's very end—is that such processing is inevitably impure; her dual effort to render fully the horror of the Holocaust in an attempt to visualize "something new" depends upon an act of association, specifically the "like" that links one image or memory with another in the pursuit of meaning, so that the more rigorous her repudiation, the more bound her language becomes to that which she abhors.9 

However stuttering, Graham's emphasis here attests to the fact that we are always shaped in part by what we disdain, a discomforting condition of being that Graham explores more thoroughly, and thus successfully, in "The Dream of the Unified Field." While "From the New World" stops short in the glare of its own understanding, the woman of this poem confesses from the start her complicity in what she most dreads. The poem begins, typically, with the speaker's plainspoken address to her daughter: "On my way to bringing you the leotard / you forgot to include in your overnight bag, / the snow started coming down harder. / I watched each gathering of leafy flakes / melt round my footfall" (Materialism 80). But the speaker's paced observations collapse quickly into a swirl of interpretation as, ironically, she searches for the most accurate means of description: "Nothing true or false in itself. Just motion. Many strips of / motion. Filaments of falling marked by the tiny certainties / of flakes. Never blurring yet themselves a cloud" (80). Cognizant of the shift from exterior to interior that the move from onlooker to artist has enacted, the speaker realizes that what began as an act of generosity—bringing her daughter the leotard, observing the world with care—is also a means of controlling that which will always elude her grasp: "black Lycra leotard balled into / my pocket, / your tiny dream in it, my left hand on it or in it / to keep / warm." By locating the speaker's transition from giving parent to controlling guardian at the nexus between observation and interpretation, or self and other, Graham suggests that the urge to love is always underpinned by one's search for meaning, or control: "Child" she writes, "what should I know / to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane?" (85). Hence the speaker is both "in" the storm "yet moving easily through it," at once autonomous and contingent. 

As the poem progresses, Graham probes the lineaments of this experience more and more explicitly, so that eventually the speaker is observing her own method of observation, an act at once so self-absorbed and selfless that Graham depicts it as a birthing: 

The storm: I close my eyes and,
standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside
thing. Once I was. . . . once, once.
It settles, in my head, the wavering white
sleep, the instances—they stick, accrue,
grip up, connect, they do not melt,
I will not let them melt, they build, cloud and cloud,
I feel myself weak, I feel the thinking muscle-up—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
but inside. . .
. . . a splinter colony, new world, possession
gripping down to form,
wilderness brought deep into my clearing,
out of the ooze of night,
limbed, shouldered, necked, visaged, the white— 


As she severs her self from the storm ("I close my eyes"), the speaker is able to feel herself as a self ("I was. . . . once, once"). But such fullness is fleeting in the absence of connection with an outside world, so that the speaker "feels" her self "weak[en]" as her "thinking" grows into a full-term "possession," a "form"—the poem whose delivery enacts a simultaneous enlargement and erasure of the mother's/poet's being as she is swept up into the time line of history: "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—" (86). When the "form" birthed by the speaker's "thinking" is taken up into historical narrative, the local specificity with which the poem began is eclipsed entirely, as the speaker's voice morphs into that of Christopher Columbus: 

anchored by these footsteps, now and now,
the footstepping—now and now—carrying its vast
white sleeping geography—mapped—
not a lease—possession—"At the hour of vespers
in a sudden blinding snow,
they entered the harbor and he named it Puerto de 

San Nicholas. . . ." 

(Materialism 86) 

Because Graham has partially "rewritten" the passage from Columbus's diary with which she goes on to conclude the poem, she—as mother, poet, author—cannot be absolved from the narrative of enslavement with which the poem ends. Consequently, gesture of intimacy that introduced the poem is not deflated but rendered more complex. By threading the trajectory between the speaker's love for her daughter and Columbus's colonization along her need to "possess" the unknown, this poem dramatizes the dilemma of "accountability," of ethicality itself: in search of "more moral terrain" we are compelled to acknowledge the human connections through which we come to think of our selves as selves. But awareness of one's contingency is, paradoxically, what empowers one as individual, as gatekeeper of an "inside" distinct from the "outside" wherein one's consciousness as such takes root. As this poem suggests, our sense of interiority—locus of the "luminous" self—grows in direct proportion to our engagement with the world beyond; the more microscopic the speaker's descriptions become, the farther "inside" of herself she plunges, as if through layers in a deep lake: the surface warmth of an "I" walking along the snowy street; the subsurface cool of motherhood; the cold pocket of memory, of dancing as a girl in Europe as her daughter does before her now; into the murky underneath of the mind-in-motion; past the remnants of history; then suddenly—the onrush of earth at the moment of "possession," the threshold between Graham's voice and the passage by Columbus wherein the speaker hovers for an instant as both utter presence and absolute absence, what Harpham depicts as the "subject qua subject, the hero of its own narrative, enjoying both the power to do what is required and the freedom not to do it" (24). But as Graham's poem makes clear, the more empowered one becomes as agent (as choice-maker, as author), the more blinded one becomes to the other whose presence underpins one's agency—whose presence, that is, begets the very need for "accountability." 

* * * 

By keeping in mind Graham's focus on the counterintuitive nature of ethical agency, we may better understand the moral urgency at the heart of Graham's stylistic innovations: as she becomes more concerned with the site of relationship as that which both enables and arrests "accountability," her poems grow more fragmented, full of forced digressions, as if to shade us from the blinding "luminosity" that self-consciousness bestows. No book of Graham's exhibits this more thoroughly than Swarm, in which discursive fragments, white spaces, dashes, and a conspicuous lack of conventional punctuation summon some of Graham's most unadorned admissions of love, as in the conclusion to "The Veil," wherein the speaker says simply, "I can never think of you / without smiling" (22).10 The dynamic coexistence of extreme fragmentation and transparent tenderness throughout Swarm can be read as an answer to one of The Errancy's most pressing questions: "what should the woman do / to keep herself in character / that she might love?" (100). Graham seems to be responding to this question directly in "For One Must Want / To Shut the Other's Gaze," the poem at the dead center of Swarm that, according to a note, "animates the book throughout" (Swarm 113). The title of this poem revises a line from Emily Dickinson's poem "I cannot live with You," in which the speaker expresses passionate commitment to her beloved by proclaiming the impossibility of their union. The longest poem in Dickinson's oeuvre, it begins like this: 

I cannot live with You—
It would be Life—
And Life is over there—
Behind the Shelf 

The Sexton keeps the Key to—
. . . . . . . . . . . . 

I could not die—with You—
For One must wait
To shut the Other's Gaze down—
You—could not— 

And I—Could I stand by—
And see You—freeze—
Without my Right of Frost—
Death's privilege? 


At issue in both formulations is love's often agonizing pull between intimacy and individuation, a pull that Dickinson's speaker ostensibly declines: she cannot commit to a lifetime with her beloved because the cost of enduring his eventual loss looms greater than the rewards of consummation. 

Though slight, Graham's revision is crucial, bringing into relief the uncomfortable emotions that Dickinson attempts to displace. By changing Dickinson's "wait" to "want" ("For One Must Want / To Shut the Other's Gaze"; emphasis added), Graham draws our attention to the palpable will that, typically, complicates the professions of weakness that pepper Dickinson's poem. To "live with" love, Graham implies, requires an act of commitment that, paradoxically, disables one's source of desire ("the other's gaze"); longing is not possible when the gap between lover and beloved is closed. Consequently, desire—the seam between self and other—secures a sense of autonomy, a "luminous" fullness that always threatens to unravel in the midst of consummation. In this light, Dickinson's reluctance to "live with love" may be best understood as an unwillingness to forsake the sensation of isolation that emerges in the midst of longing. Instead, she remains suspended in a state of prolonged, electric desire, what she describes in the concluding lines as "White Sustenance— / Despair" (164). 

But unlike Dickinson's poem, Graham's appropriation is conspicuously bereft of first-person assertion. Indeed, the only speakerly presence we can fish from its sea of floating and parenthetical fragments is a plaintive, interrogative voice: "What are you thinking?" asks the speaker in both the closing and opening lines, echoing the refrain of "explain," "explain," that permeates the book at large. Of course, the urgent questioning throughout the poem contradicts the lack of concrete or corporeal referent, but it is precisely this tension that Graham is attempting to capture in this poem about love. Having largely forsaken the markers of singular perspective, Graham attempts here to straddle the gap between autonomy and contingency, a move, as Andrew Osborn has observed in reference to Swarm as a whole, that allows her "to achieve a staggering vulnerability without pretending to relinquish the top-down perspective of one so devoted to analysis" (5). In this way Graham is responding directly to the dilemma of "accountability" that she confronts in "Dream of the Unified Field": acutely aware of her perspective as both singular and partial, as something she "possesses" only because her being is hostage to an other, the speaker of Swarm is determined to dampen the "luminosity" of authorship that "analysis" bestows so that she may realize more fully the self-in relation—the mother lode of the "moral terrain" that Graham so tirelessly seeks. In the process, Graham insists that autobiography and strategic incoherence are compatible tools when approaching the writing of poems.11 For, as Graham discovers, the "increasingly naked" poem does not narrate a lyric presence rising Venus-like from its tangled moorings. On the contrary, the speaker of Swarm is so vulnerable because she has thoroughly abandoned the illusion of autonomy without forsaking her accountability—her role as agent, author, lover. Thus the fractured syntax and aborted lines in Swarm anchor neither an autonomous nor a contingent speaker, but the palpable play sustained by these illusory extremes. That this lyric presence (what Andrew Osborn hails as a "self-portrait as the between") is essential to the ethical act of "accountability" is underscored by the epigraph to the collection by Saint Augustine: "To say I love you is to say I want you to be." An ultimate act of confession, "to say I love you" is also an overt affirmation of being-in-relation, an homage to the paradox of self-becoming. As Augustine observed, to love is to bear no less than the burden of creation, for only in relation are we summoned to be, and hence able to fail, to cease being. 

Unlike the early celebrant of Hybrids who reveled in her capacity to will the "way things work" into being, today's Graham is both more assertive and more exposed, a "woman of clay . . . who can kill and be killed" (Swarm 109). As such, she is able to exhale while composing Never, to acknowledge unapologetically, "These lines have my breathing in them, yes. / Also my body was here. Why try to disguise it" (Never 10). Such confidence comes as a relief, ushering in Graham's most operatic, musically dazzling poems to date. In sharp contrast to the short, fragmented lines that permeate Swarm, those in Never unfurl in seemingly endless undulations, cresting and collapsing again and again like the actual ocean waves that Graham examines so often in these pages. In the simultaneous building and falling of the wave Graham finds the perfect image with which to capture the condition of ethical awareness, wherein one is at once empowered as a self yet aware of one's self as utterly bound by the other: "just under the wave a thickening where / sun breaks into two red circles upon the / carried frothing— / white and roiling, yes, yet unbreakably red—red pushed (slicked) under / each wave (tucked) and, although breaking, always / one—" (Never 27). In observing the way the reflection of the sun is stretched into "two red circles," yet how the constant back-and-forth of the wave contains them as also "always one," the speaker both collapses and sustains the distance between her "point-of-view" (26) and the wave she observes: "then it's sun in surf-breaking water: incircling, smearing: mind not / knowing if it's still 'wave,' breaking on / itself, small glider, or if it's 'amidst' (red turning feathery)" (27). But as Graham announces toward the end of this collection, such liminality is not an impediment to connection—with the world and its inhabitants and, most overtly, with the reader—for this version of "possession . . . [is] of another kind. . . . My pen is / a bypath. It has come in from outside" (96). 

This remarkably supple and expansive lyric presence is symptomatic of Graham's understanding that "Nothing is partial. One must know partiality" (65). To know one's self as partial is, paradoxically, to sense the unbreakable totality of being of which one is always a part. As such, one is poised for "accountability" not only as poet, but as inhabitant of this earth in each inescapable moment. Steeped in this consciousness, the Graham of Never echoes Walt Whitman, the father of "confession," who famously proclaimed that "what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (26). It is crucial, however, to remember that the Whitmanesque breadth of Never follows fast on the heels of Swarm, the book, we may recall, that is "animated throughout" by Dickinson's penchant for indirection. Despite her thirst for dizzying topographies, Graham's quest for "more moral terrain" leads deep into the heartland of American poetry, an expanse made fertile by cross-pollination. In summoning repeatedly the stylistic poles of American verse, Graham renders the expanse between them no more impassable than the distance between the poet's eye and the world it observes. Sustained by this challenge, Graham does much more than span the demarcations we often hold dear in our mappings of American poetry. By staking no less than one's moral capacity at the crossroads of autonomy and contingency, Graham's poetic suggests that the well-worn oppositions of last century may indeed prove our most powerful source of communion as writers in the one to come. 

Kirstin Hotelling Zona, associate professor of modern poetry and poetics at Illinois State University, is the author of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson: The Feminist Poetics of Self-Restraint (Michigan, 2002) and articles on subjectivity and sexuality, feminist poetry, and feminist pedagogy. Her poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies. Her current projects are a critical book on ethics and American poetry and a volume of poems. 

Works Cited 

Bauman, Zygmunt. "Introduction: In Search of Postmodern Reason." Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. 1–9. 

Bedient, Calvin. "Like a Chafing of the Visible." Salmagundi 120 (1998): 220–43. 

Burt, Stephen. "The Elliptical Poets." American Letters & Commentary 11 (1999): 45–55. 

Costello, Bonnie. "The Big Hunger." Rev. of Region of Unlikeness, by Jorie Graham. New Republic 27 Jan. 1992: 36–39. 

Dickinson, Emily. "I cannot live with You." The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, 1960. 317. 

Graham, Jorie. The End of Beauty. New York: Ecco, 1987. 

———. Erosion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. 

———. The Errancy. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1997. 

———. "The Glorious Thing: A Few Questions with Poet and Educator Jorie Graham." Interview. Conducted by Mark Wunderlich. American Poet (1996): 20–23. 

———. Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. 

———. "An Interview with Jorie Graham." Conducted by Thomas Gardner. Denver Quarterly 26.4 (1992): 79–104. 

———. Materialism. New York: Ecco, 1993. 

———. Never. New York: Ecco, 2002. 

———. Region of Unlikeness. New York: Ecco, 1991. 

———. Swarm. New York: Ecco, 2000. 

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. Getting It Right: Language, Literature, and Ethics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. 

Hejinian, Lyn. My Life. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987. 

Hoover, Paul. Introduction. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Hoover. New York: Norton, 1994. xxv–xxxix. 

Howe, Susan. The Europe of Trusts. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1990. 

Jarman, Mark. "The Grammar of Glamour: The Poetry of Jorie Graham." New England Review 14 (1992): 252–61.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Introduction. The Best American Poetry, 2003. Ed. Komunyakaa. Ser. ed. David Lehman. New York: Scribner, 2004. 11–21. 

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other. Trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. 

Longenbach, James. Modern Poetry after Modernism. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 

Matthews, William. "Personal and Impersonal." Sontag and Graham 11–13. 

Molesworth, Charles. "Jorie Graham: Living in the World." Salmagundi 120 (1998): 276–83. 

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 

Osborn, Andrew. Rev. of Swarm, by Jorie Graham. Boston Review (Feb.-Mar. 2000): 1–6. 

Ostriker, Alicia. "Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness." Sontag and Graham 317–31. 

Otten, Thomas J. "Jorie Graham's _____s." PMLA 118 (2003): 239–53. 

Shapiro, Alan. In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980–1991. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1993. 

Sontag, Kate, and David Graham, eds. After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2001. 

———. Introduction. Sontag and Graham 3–8. 

Spiegelman, Willard. "Jorie Graham's 'New Way of Looking.'" Salmagundi 120 (1998): 244–75. 

———. "Repetition and Singularity." Kenyon Review 25 (2003): 149–68. 

"Swarm." Def. 1a. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 

Vendler, Helen. The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. 

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002. 


1. In more general terms, a number of Graham's readers have observed that her work resists easy labeling. Charles Molesworth, for instance, notes, "Graham's poetry cannot be easily categorized as purely postmodern or confessional, feminist or faddish, though to some readers who remain uncharmed by it, all these categories in effect serve as charges against it" (277). More assertively, James Longenbach claims that "Graham exemplifies what is best about contemporary American poetry: her distinctiveness is based on acts of inclusion, a hunger to align herself with a wide array of contemporaries and precursors" (160). 

2. Though a number of (usually emerging) poets and critics challenge the poetic divide to which I refer, evidence of its stronghold within discussions of American poetry is still ubiquitous. See, for example, Paul Hoover's introduction to the still widely circulated Norton anthology Postmodern American Poetry (1994), wherein Hoover defines "postmodern" poetry as "an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the narcissism, sentimentality, and self-expressiveness of its life in writing. Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time" (xxv; emphasis added). On the other hand, in his introduction to The Best American Poetry, 2003, Yusef Komunyakaa deplores the "folly" of the "so-called new avant-garde," which "seems like an attempt to undermine the importance of recent history, to introduce tonal and linguistic flux as the center of the poem—anything goes because the poet or the poet's speaker doesn't exist. It's death in language" (15; emphasis added). Note how both sets of claims pivot, albeit toward opposite ends, upon the absence/presence of the speakerly self. It is for this reason that both authors are able to invoke William Carlos Williams in support of their ostensibly antagonistic convictions (Hoover xxxvi; Komunyakaa 15). That the collections of poetry amassed by these editors thankfully resist the reductive comments found in their introductions suggests once again the degree to which poetic discourse has internalized the impersonal/personal dichotomy as critical compass. 

3. A number of critics have emphasized this growing characteristic among today's poets. For example, in categorizing "the elliptical poets," Stephen Burt complicates the confessional/experimental dichotomy, suggesting instead ways in which some contemporary poets bridge, and thus reconfigure, the oppositions once so central to discussion of American poetry. Along these lines, editors Kate Sontag and David Graham claim in the introduction to their collection After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography that the exceptionally "pluralistic" state of poetry in America is bound by the "issues of self and other, private and communal identity, confession and reticence, sincerity and artifice" (5). Or as William Matthews puts it in the opening essay of the book, "the 'personal' and 'impersonal' are intricately braided, and thus both difficult and perhaps not even useful to separate, in the way a craft—let's say the craft of poetry—is practiced" (12). 

4. This passage from The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, reads as follows: "[the] etymological meaning [of swarm] may be that of agitated, confused, or deflected movement, in which case SWARM and SWERVE might arise from parallel formations on the same base" (355). 

5. In the introduction to his collection of essays Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality, Zygmunt Bauman provides an argument concerning the transition from "pre-modern" to "post-modern" times that parallels the point I am making here: because "the endemic ambivalence" of the moral condition is "acutely uncomfortable," "much of human inventiveness was dedicated throughout history to designing ways of alleviating the burden [of such pain]." In the premodern era, such designs were principally religious in nature, wherein the "inevitability of sin" was accepted and efforts at alleviation were concentrated on "ways to assuage the pain [of ambivalence] through the clear-cut prescription for repentance" (3). In contrast, modernity ushered in a "remaking of the world . . . that promised life free from sin." Legislation, the primary "tool" of this "rebuilding," "meant designing an ethical code: one that . . . would actually prevent evil from being done" (3–4). Hence "the modern project postulated a world free from moral ambivalence; and since ambivalence is the natural feature of the moral condition, by the same token it postulated the severance of human choices from their moral dimension" (4). Consequently, argues Bauman, it is precisely the postmodern "demise of the allegedly unified and ostensibly unique ethical code" that allows for "moral responsibility"—what Graham calls "accountability"—to "rise into full flight": "Choices between good and evil are still to be made, this time, however . . . with full knowledge that a choice has been made. . . . With choice comes responsibility. And if choice is inevitable, responsibility is unavoidable" (7). 

6. Several of Graham's early readers (understandably) depicted the arc of her work in just these terms. See, for example, Bonnie Costello's "The Big Hunger" (1992) and Mark Jarman's "The Grammar of Glamour" (1992), in which Jarman discusses the stylistic differences between Graham's first two books and her third, The End of Beauty, claiming, "[h]er change of matter has included a change of heart" (253). In contrast, readers informed by Graham's later collections are able to insist on the continuity established through the dialogue Graham enacts between each of her books. James Longenbach, for instance, points out that The End of Beauty "looks like a 'breakthrough' only if we ignore the ways in which the book that followed it, Region of Unlikeness, now seems like a retreat to the presuppositions that underlie many of Graham's earlier poems" (163). One year later, Willard Spiegelman observes that although "Region of Unlikeness and Materialism break with some of Graham's earlier patterns of composition . . . in fact the same tenacious holding on to and reluctant letting go of the world, a looking at and a looking away from it, informs even the poems in Erosion. . . . The constant search for a 'new way of looking' forces itself continually upon and through this poet" ("Jorie Graham's 'New Way'" 275). See also Spiegelman's review essay on Swarm and Never ("Repetition"). 

7. In this way (among others), my articulation of Graham's poetic departs from what Alicia Ostriker calls "the poetics of postmodern witness," wherein the poet "formally, stylistically" represents "a crisis that is at once global and intimate." While I find Ostriker's focus on "the simultaneous impossibility of objective witness and of subjective wholeness" (329) very helpful in thinking through the lineaments of my analysis, I do not believe this sort of friction is only, or most successfully, expressed by poetry that formally "refuse[s] to pretend to coherence" (320). I consider at length these and related issues of style later in this essay. 

8. Thomas Otten offers a timely interpretation of Graham's notorious use of blanks and syntactical gaps that demonstrates just the kind of reading I am advocating here. These blanks and gaps, argues Otten, are "forms of equivocal matter [that] equivocate at the point where it is an askable question whether the spaces between us connect or divide, whether the transitory is present or absent, whether the amorphous is solid or dissolved." As such, these "materialized blanks, the stuff of late-century culture, become a way of giving shape and solidity to an ethical dilemma" (246). 

9. Otten puts forward a provocative and, as far as I know, the most positive analysis to date of "From the New World." For instance, in contrast to my reading of the poem's ending, Otten claims that the "substitutions of figurative language—the logic of like and as—are left dangling in incompletion because as tropes of comparison they are precisely unsuited for representing the incomparable" (247). I would say yes and no to this reading; whereas Graham clearly struggles to articulate the "incomparable" nature of the Holocaust, her effort turns (most interestingly) upon her understanding that representation, art, is only possible as a product of association, of comparison. Hence while we both read this poem as "giving shape and solidity to an ethical dilemma" (246), we part somewhat in our explications of ethical agency. 

10. In his excellent review of Swarm, Andrew Osborn alludes to this tension: "Swarm—the title flickers, noun and verb—is Graham's most vulnerable book to date" (1). 

11. Here Graham joins a host of writers who invoke and complicate the autobiographical in their work, including Lyn Hejinian in My Life and Susan Howe in the books that make up her collection The Europe of Trusts. Such writers challenge the conception of self upon which the personal/impersonal divide is often centered.