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Book Chapter


Bedient, Calvin


Jorie Graham: Essays on the Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison (2005)


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

Full Text:

Toward a Jorie Graham Lexicon

by Calvin Bedient

beauty – 

five takes:

1. The end of beauty is the inherent sublimity of the present: “Here it is, here, the end of beauty, the present” (“The Lovers,” The End of Beauty). For Jorie Graham, as for Jean-François Lyotard, the new sublime is the Now, as unpresentable and inhuman: Augustine on time plus Heisenberg on indeterminacy. (Of Newman’s canvases, Lyotard writes: “The message ‘speaks’ of nothing: it emanates from no one.”) What can “trap it”? This look? This thought? “The suck of shapeliness” (“Untitles,” Region of Unlikeness)? No, no, no. “You have to leave her be / if all you have to touch her with / is form,” Jorie Graham writes in straining-to-push-you-back iambs (“Noli Me Tangere,” The End of Beauty).

2. Beauty is a fear of not existing. Lyotard: “Existing is to be awoken from the nothingness of disaffection by something sensible over there. An affective cloud lifts at that moment and deploys its nuance for a moment” (Postmodern Fables).

3. Beauty, like plotline, is “digressive” (“Noli Me Tangere”). In contrast, the real of the Now is as instantaneous as it is untotalizable.

4. On the other hand, beauty ends in itself (“a line / brought round . . . , reader, a plot, a / shape, one of the finished things, one of the / beauties (hear it click shut?) a thing / completely narrowed down to love” (“Imperialism,” The End of Beauty), whereas the sublime, an acid thrown on outline, is unlovable.

5. In Swarm – Jorie Graham’s essay at “submission to... untouchable authority” (“Is not the desire now to lose all personal will?”) – beauty is conceived, though only in the hesitation of “as if,” as force (the force conceptualized by modern physics) felt in its narrowing passage through us: “time and submission and event / as we turn the page and meaning follows / as if beauty flowed underneath us as if we were a gap / in the page ... without reality” (“Underneath (Eurydice)”). Beauty is the merciful form of the sublime, but not so merciful as to fail to annihilate us. Where beauty is, we are not; not real; only the beauty is real. In contrast, the sublime has no location at all, no where. We cannot locate our own frequency in relation to its cosmic hiss.

Jorie Graham’s vision, like Rilke’s, like Monet’s, trembles with the cosmic gulps and displacements of quantum physics:

I am a frequency, current flies through. One has

    to ride

    the spine

No peace [of mind] [of heart], among the other


(“Ebbtide,” Never)

Beauty can hardly hold a candle to such raging vibration. As Lyotard states (and overstates), “the economy of the beautiful [is] appalling in view of the ‘reality of the real,’ that is, death and pain” (this may be a reductive definition of the real); and although “the beautiful gives positive pleasure... there is another sort of pleasure, linked to a passion stronger than satisfaction, which is pain and the approach of death.” Now, Jorie Graham does not write beautifully – nothing so self-satisfied and slight. (“Ride / the spine!” This is too true to be beautiful.) Her phrases have a prose-like intentness on seeing ahead (“up, further out”). They reject the narcissism and self-regarding retard of lyrical eloquence. What she conveys, always, is that “Too much is asked.” And, as Longinus noted, “too much” is the hallmark of the sublime.

Why should the shut thing not be true enough


(Open up open open the stillness shrieked.)

(“Picnic,” Region of Unlikeness)

body – 

The body “cannot / follow, cannot love” (“Vertigo”)? On the contrary, it is the fertile soil of the beautiful: “But the wall / of the flesh / opens endlessly, / its vanishing point is so deep / and receding // we have yet to find it, / to have it / stop us. So he cut / deeper, / graduating slowly / from the symbolic / to the beautiful.” (“At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body,” Erosion).

Precisely for that reason, Jorie Graham leaves the body falling behind, just behind, as thought takes over from the senses. Thought: a will to truth-by-analysis. “Next door the roses flow. / Blood in the hand that reaches for them flows” – thus she x-rays. Her writing is powered forward (as distinct from impulsive): “O stubborn appetite: I, then I, / loping through the poem. Shall I do that again?” (“Woods,” Never). A Jorie Graham poem is both reluctantly and relentlessly thoughtful (“Why do we think? What is the thinking for?”)

The heart of the Grahamian body is in its stomach. When this poet says “Dear,” is really a gesture of love or politeness disguising a yelp, a gesture of appeasement? “Dear history of this visible world, scuffling / at the edges of you is / no edge, no whereabout,” etc.

The body is less a tamping down (though it is that) than the forked basis of looking up: “a pronged cry or a tuning fork / this body of which I // am the core, looking up, / or is it airing up... [?]” A body-on-tiptoe, then. Less sensual (though it is so) than an effort to clear out “the starry dizziness / rammed into the eyepits” (“The Break of Day,” Materialism). “The pain of my eyes is piercing” (“Underneath [with Chorus],” Swarm).

The body is baggage in the effort to reach the absolute (“Bottom is there but depth conceals it,” goes a brilliant line in “Middle Distance,” also in Swarm). Partly because of it, the “invisible” is too close (while being too far) to be anything but a more-than-Newman-like blank, like your face when you have no mirror in which to see it: “Eyes closed I touch my face. / My hand hovers like the very question of my face / over my face” (“Evolution I,” Never).

Should we not pity this temporary bit of smudge on the universal vibrations? “My body, my tiny piece of / the century” (“The Dream of The Unified Field,” Materialism). Half opportunity for a connection, half its preclusion. Lovers – “How can they cross over and the difference between them swell with / existence?” (“Manifest Destiny”). Reader – do you have senses available to reinforce my own, “do you taste / salt now if / I say to you the air is salt...?” (“Young Maples in Wind,” Materialism).

At any rate,

dear reader – 

“Stay with me. / Can we make this a thinking, here, this determination / between us to co- / exist” (“The Break of Day”). Thinking: “stringent self-analysis – / a tyranny of utter self-reflexiveness.” “A deep fissure / the days suck round.” A “nearness to the invisible” (“Opulence”).

Only Whitman has made more of the ploy of addressing the reader in the big wind-wet and blow of the pronoun “you.” How seductively he reached across the democratic loneliness to the stranger across the way. The greater the loneliness, the sweeter the promise – and American loneliness, circa 1855, was a continental one, even cosmic, with great slabs of blue skyshell on its head. What a call, then, for the famous imputed hospitality, indeed the infinite readiness for intimacy, of the anonymous “you.”

Whitman eroticized the Reader as his lover and a lover with him of Democratic Flesh (cosmicized flesh) – beginning (why not?) with Whitman’s sweet own. It was partly a bachelor’s make-out fantasy, partly a replacement of the I-thou intimacies of religion (the other religions). Whoever you are holding me now in hand, you touch me into realness, I thank you. It is in a different, philosophically mined atmosphere that Jorie Graham revives the trope of the even-now listening reader (a trope so near to being literal that it has every excuse and, even in the primitive sense, charm; as it traffics in a virtual fast-forward / fast-reverse). Her reader (“dear-are-you-there”) is the uncertain other mind in the age of phenomenological loneliness: a new kind of loneliness, cosmic, too, but always already equivocally in your debt, objects, to which I come with my tin can of thought and its gun-slinger measuring notches, hoping to get a little real by thinking about being.

This ontological loneliness of the mind (Nietzsche, Husserl, Sartre, and others have written of it) was already historically tired by the time Jorie Graham came to it, but neither outlived nor outthought, and she brought and still brings to it a purpose and passion part ethical obligation to, part ferocious hunger for, the truth, also part ambition. She took it up as a way of being necessary to the age, and she is.

Imagine this, imagine that, she characteristically instructs both herself and the reader (and already so in her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts). Imagine your way, even, into the dreamed-of seamlessness of being, like “these men along the lush / green banks,” these fishermen, “trying to slip in / and pass // for the natural world” (“Reading Plato” Erosion). But here, of course, the word “trying” doesn’t even let the imagination cheat. Jorie Graham is terrible with conscience. (No writer who isn’t so is worth reading anymore.)

Jorie Graham focuses on the pathos of the mind as such. But also (if this is an also) on the mind’s persistence, its reliance on itself. The tension in her work springs from the contest (and, in what is beyond unraveling, the cooperation) between analysis and creativity – between grammar and style. Michel Serres illuminates the opposition:

Clarity is paid for... with sterility, invention and speed with confusion and obscurity.... The grammarian to the stylist, Get out of here, confused and irrational mind. The stylist[:]... wily, prudent, rigorous,... you advance one-half a millimeter per century. During this time, inattentive, courageous, intuitive, I create meaning... about life, the world, the tragic, knowledge even, love, neighborly relations.... I make language live at the price of clarity. You clarify language at the cost of life” (The Troubadour of Knowledge)

The analyst in Jorie Graham keeps in check the tempting and terrible capacity of words to martyr themselves in an ecstasy of irrationality. She is formidable, this internal analyst – as powerful as any powerful creative will (and Jorie Graham has this power, as well) could face. Entertainment? Gladiatorial.

In her latest book, Never, her eighth, she is still worrying the scab of mentality (in fact, her work has been obsessed from the first with just a few essential problems). still conscious of being nothing more (or less) than conscious, conscious of the mere “swagger of dwelling in place, in voice” (“Woods”). Once again she is after us, dear Poet that she is, to shore up, dear Reader that we are, our common awkward hesitant self-betrayed inconsequential perishing and persistent inwardness. Not just to think with her, but see, feel, hunger. And hope, even, to be a thinker interrupted: “One turns / to speak. / One wishes so one could be interrupted” (“Prayer [Am I still in the near distance]”).

One recourse is to look to shape? “Look: acceptance has a shape,” she instructs in “Evolution I.” Shape, then, is an acceptance – but essentially an acceptance of itself. In any case, in her typically rather long poems Graham herself doesn’t head directly for economy of shape; she’s too aware – oh, the curse of awareness! – that “The words [are] leaping... over their own / staying . . . / my clutch of / words / swaying and stemming from my / saying, no / echo. No stopping on the temporarily exposed and drying rock / out there” (“Gulls”). She must keep writing and writing, so as to exhaust a need to demonstrate to herself a certain power to pound on the rock, wash over it with an abundance of words. To bear down and bear on.

Which is where we – the dear friends – come in. To be, after all, her words’ echo (if indeed the words are hers: “The” words, in any case).

Can we comfort the poet in her lonely, heroic endeavor, that of trying, trying exhaustively and exhaustingly to find “enough,” and never really having it, not with the mind, especially not with the mind, that “wound of meaning” (“Dusk Shore Prayer”)” “The reader is tired. / I am so very tired” (“That Greater Than Which Nothing,” The Errancy); nonetheless, dear well-meaning futility, at whom my words gaze “straight up” (a Whitmanic trope), words “filled with ultimate fatigue,” it comforts me for all my life is worth that 

slowly in the listener the prisoners emerge:

slowly in you reader they stand like madmen facing into the wind:

nowhere is there any trace of blood

spilled in the service of kings, or love, or for the sake of honor,

or for some other reason.

(“Gulls,” Never)

“We live. We speak at the horizon” (“Prayer [Am I still in the near distance]”). We single out objects. Perhaps we see “fishermen... from the back as they / disappear through the palms” (“The Time Being”). But, really, “Nothing can be singled out.” (Again, from “Kyoto,” still in Never: “Nothing is partial. One must know partiality.”) Phenomenological knowledge consists only of “almost-knowables” in the stream of world without end. (In “Solitude,” the line “Speaking subject: world without end” has a section to itself, because naming what is radically insurmountable). How bear this impure ontological solitude? (Husserl argued that the mind itself is ontological, but regional, for ontology is divided into regions.) Can a poet who is a prey to her own clamoring and altruistic openness to the world at least not hope for a few trustworthy listeners? Really, it is the world itself that Jorie Graham would have listen, just as she herself (as if showing it how) listens to its bird calls. There is no ultimacy of speaking because there is no ultimacy of listening. The Reader is not dear, really. Nor, alas, fond of her as we may be, is the Poet, as such. Just ask her. She will tell you how loveless it is to be a mental castaway.

Pathos. Never, never to be removed. “We exist Meet me.” “Are you listening?” “Dear sentence. . . . I feel scribbled-in. Something inattentive has barely / written me in.” “What should the poem do?” “Come, come, the trouble will not stop, pay attention.” 

A measure of theatrics, then, in place of the final goods: “What do you think I’ve been about all this long time, / half-crazed, pen-in-hand, looking up, looking back down, taking it down, taking it all down.” “You’ve read eough now.” “Look I push the book off my desk / into the flood.”

the glance – 

“The glance? braiding and braiding the many promises of vision.” Or (?) “The glance, however exiled, wanting nonetheless only to come full term / into the absolute orphanhood” (“That Greater Than Which Nothing”).

history – 

Child of metaphysics though he was, Whitman was yet so taken with the horizon of the entities that he wanted the moment of history to be prolonged indefinitely. For him, the interlocutor is not a thou, but a you. He is you, reader. Here in the always already ecstatic state of being (Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe says that to the question “What is man?” the answer, today, is that man is always already the subject, thrown into being), we withstand the invasion of totality by a sensuous, amorous dalliance with phenomena. So, then, we have a story: history is a You becoming a Thou as surely and as slowly as possible. (Levinas, in Totality and Infinity: “as a stage the separated being traverses on the way of its return to its metaphysical source, a moment of a history that will be concluded by union, metaphysics would be an Odyssey, and its disquietude nostalgia.”_

Since Emerson, American poetry has been a romance with phenomena – loving, driven, querulous at times (Frost), destined. Things in space, or rather the feelings about and the metaphysical implications of things in space, have been its focus and genius. It sprang out of a rebel country in which history drew a chit on the future, and where the antithesis of history, namely the Now, was correspondingly tremendous. It is still tremendous, but history has in the meantime become the Crisis of History and since the 1950s the two great protagonists of the human adventure have lost much of their following. Jorie Graham has responded to this dilemma with more comprehension and with a more nearly constant and lacerated openness than other American poets have done. (Of course, there are European counterparts: Geoffrey Hill, Paul Celan, Inger Christensen. . . . ) This is her work’s principle significance.

What Ortega y Gasset called the modern theme – vitality, immediacy, flesh, joy, spontaneous immanence – was practically an American discovery, is already full-blown in Whitman, though present also at the beginnings of English romanticism, loudest in Blake, of course, and quietest and sweetest in the elegiac “To Autumn.” It tumbles Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman into the same river of metamorphosis. They meant to keep up with what Emerson called “the central flowing forces.” Holding that “ecstasy will be found normal, or only an example on a higher plane of the same fentle gravitation by which stones fall and rivers run,” Emerson knew or said he knew “the Now to be eternal,” and “Being” a “vast affirmative.” He rejected as blasphemous the thought that the world is “two” – “Me and It.” Whitman commanded the moment in American culture when the Me, Phenomena, and History could be seen as tributaries to the same ecstasy, surpassing Emerson through his gusto and more groaning delirious grounding. (Pound tried to repeat it, in changed terms, but the result was cacophonous, and finally apologetic.) Gertrude Stein marks the moment when the phenomenological field was still “all the long way to be in that length which makes no more [and no less] of some cuckoo. . . . It is so cheerful and the breath which is not all of a response is used some more,” but at the cost of reducing history to a succession of essentially untroubled re-compositions. And Jorie Graham, as said, tackles the moment when not only has history become unbearable but American poetry has encountered the impossible in the phenomenological: impasses of consciousness and a subjective and transubjective real increasingly impossible to define.

So for Jorie Graham, neither of Whitman’s twin passions – for history and for phenomena – has survived intact. When she started out (which was not so very long ago), history had long since become humanity’s all but open and shut case against itself (“Elsewhere a people now is being forced / from home”). How dangerous and disastrous human nature is! Of course, what Blanchot called “the writing of disaster” is more centrally and obsessively the subject of Carolyn Forché’s “Europeanized” poetry, in whose work the “American” question of Being becomes correspondingly occluded by smoke and screams. Jorie Graham’s obsession lies on the contrary, apparently nonhistorical side of the pair of yoked crises (a side that nonetheless has behind it the pressure of Western history and of the Enlightenment). Nonetheless, for her the two great categories of experience are inseparable, and steeped in the same general experience of betrayed promise. The earth no longer comes out entirely beautiful from the smoking syllables (Vallejo).

Again, it is in this exemplary and (as it were) sacrificial assumption of both the historical and the philosophical burden of the present that Jorie Graham’s work establishes its significance – both its moment and its stature (her methods and intelligence having stood up to the nonetheless impossible challenge, the writing so brilliantly lit yet so strenuous and adventurous, neither over- nor under-controlled, the lines alive in their breakings, and if often more discursive than poetry needs to be, perhaps not more discursive than the big project of her poetry needs to be). In “History” (in Regions of Unlikeness) the poet says that

what I wanted was to have looked up at the only

right time, the intended time,


the millisecond I was bred to look up into, click, no

half-tone, no orchard of


up into the eyes of my own

fate, not the world’s.

But the world’s fate and her own are effectively the same, insofar as any two such incommensurates can be so. The very logic of the passage argues for their identity. What else could explain the “intended time”? (“Up into the eyes”: how she wants to be looked at, this poet whose own gaze never quits.)

History is no longer “a whole story”; is only a “cold current.” Of course, it has specific aims; in fact, its vice is “to feel the end’s insistence / (on war for instance)” (“Probity,” Swarm). This poet whose own will can on occasion be problematical with respect to her material (straining, as in the allegorical over-reaching of “The Phase After History,” out of big-minded and big-hearted ambition) is nonetheless primed to detect imperialism (witness “Where definition first comes upon us empire”). History is will in excess of “justice” – word she cites occasionally and certainly fathoms, but leaves inert, as rhetoric; it is will in excess of inquiry. Her own poetic will inquires in order to come into (and in neither sense before) being, not to possess it: “We write. We would like to live somewhere.” For all its spectacular determination and self-dramatization, it’s too famished to be imperialistic. No “empire” can be founded in the reciprocal threatened loss of both the object and the subject.

Even if Heidegger called being “the disclosive appropriating Event,” he meant by that its becoming apparent, not its becoming property. As “eminent potentiality,” it cannot be property. It is a “clearing,” a word Jorie Graham adopts from him:

  and the clearing


is entered – look; there is no one way to go – 

light floods a bit, one feels a center, all directions shine from it,

[is a center sought?] . . . 

(“By the Way,” Never)

Being is the openness of subjectivity, untotalizable, not subject to accumulation: “For the summer of the clearing is long / once you enter the first person.” If it can be “said,” it is only in many ways. It is not a “story,” whether a master-narrative or petite, a conte. It is, rather, “the clearing where / the spine of the picked-clean story shines” (“Ebbtide,” Never.)

the invisible (underneath, something, something else, the x, the absolute) – 

The unrepresentable Jewish deity has been superseded, or reinterpreted, as invisible vibrancy – as Nietzschean force, a continual excess of something dynamic over form, something self-explosive, non-self-identical). “There is a god here but it is not shaped. / Is moving around us” (“Underneath [Always],” Swarm). By contrast, I myself “am held to myself   by force. / No voyage   home / over blossoming’s   broad back. / Forced down instead into the stalk” (“Underneath [Calypso]”). In fact, almost everything we know “is choked into the forced / becoming visible . . . guards of the / imprisoned prisoner” (“Little Requiem,” The Errancy).

The invisible, the x, the “something” (alternatively, the “something else”), the “underneath,” thus indifferently pushes us both up and down on ourselves. Like the Spinozan “underneath” cause, it “exists entirely in its own movement, the infinite productivity and dynamism that alone make it what it is” (I quote from Warren Montag’s preface to The New Spinoza). It is “What carried universal law as meaning secreted within / itself” (“Miscellaneous Weights and Measures,” The Errancy). Deus sive natura, in Spinoza’s famous definition in the preface to Ethics IV: God, that is, nature. It is “metamorphosis” such as Emerson, as the author of “Brahma,” would understand it – not warm and Whitmanic, but featureless: “unincarnate – / tireless dimensions – / metamorphic yet unpliant” (“That Greater Than Which Nothing”). Taking, however, when pulled our way, the form of desire (“the . . . inalienable / welding of matter to / desire” [“Miscellaneous Weights and Measures”]).

The force cannot be seen, any more than “Being” can; in fact, it is the cause and huge background of Being, the latter only as wide as subjectivity is. In “Opulence,” Jorie Graham bears down on the birth-process of an amaryllis with a vengeance, determined to detect the immanent cause. Overheated and overwritten, the poem flails at its subject, as it makes audible, kinetic, appetitive, and pulsing – “bits of clench, jolt, fray and assuage – bits of gnaw and pulse, and, even, ruse” – the “something from underneath” that coaxes “the packed buds up.” (“Coax” and “packed buds” are cuts from Roethke’s “Cuttings,” but the force that drives this amaryllis through its green fuse would have shattered his father’s greenhouses.) It may be the only poem in which Jorie Graham forces the force to disclose itself; its fever brings out by contrast the poise (if desperate poise) of her characteristic work.

The five hundred B-52s “fully loaded fully manned pointed in all the directions / running every minute / of every day” in Grand Forks, North Dakota, as splendidly evoked in “What the End is For” (in The End of Beauty), make even “watching . . . an anachronism.” They are the visible and audible equivalent of invisible force. Try talking over the noise! They blot, as the falling darkness does (and perhaps something in us wants to be “shapes the shapelessness was taking back”), the supposed reality of individuation. At the powerful close of the poem, even Orpheus’s head, always already torn off and drifting, can be heard singing only “until the sound of the cataracts grows.”

Julia Kristeva’s contention that a woman’s being (her psychical bisexuality) “never adheres to the illusion of being” comes close to catching Jorie Graham’s poetry by its skirts, and yes, Kristeva has in mind the girl’s perception that “she is not the phallus” and her consequent “disappointment with regard to the symbolic link.” Jorie Graham keeps trying to love “the small hole inside I’m supposed to love,” but it’s a black hole, in which (again) uncreation reigns. Is hers then a woman’s version of the metaphysics of Being, stemming from what Kristeva names a female “paroxysmal . . . ambition bordering on martyrology”? If so, the whole age is feminine, its sublimity masochistic, its secret pleasure the pornography of the void. Lyotard has argued as much, and we have but to recall Celan’s sublime of destitution, o einer, o keiner, o Niemand, o du, and reflect on why for poets it is so compelling and so populax. 

The invisible is the terrible. Is us. Is too much to be us. Is too much for us. “What is it cannot be judged? / What is it / corporeal but still concealed? . . . We are in a drama” (“The Break of Day,” Materialism). Jorie Graham, dramatist of the thinking of the invisible.

now (here) – 

The “Now,” that great American subject, is an ecstatic unconcealment; or would be so if . . . if it were more than a theory? “The ecstatic relationship,” Heidegger said, “cannot be represented. As soon as I represent it, I have two objects, and I am outside the ecstatic relationship.” So the poet of the Now tries to present what cannot be represented:

The path of thought also now too bright

So that its edges cut

So that I’m writing this in the cold

keeping the parts from finding the whole again

(“from the Reformation Journal [2],” Swarm)

The poet emulates the “substantial polyvocity of being” by “reproposing its viscosity,” Umberto Eco notes in Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition; but the only real evidence for Being is its own, which is “luminous.” To try to say Being darkens its luminosity (“the world is all that is displaced,” Michael Palmer says, punning, of course, on Wittgenstein’s statement that the world is all that is the case, and Jorie Graham speaks of “the stump interpretation” and comments, in “The Taken-Down God” in Never, on “this constant incompletion as it tries to be (softly as possible) over this page”; hence the appeal, even to her, though as a poet she doesn’t often work the silence, of silence: “how neatly silence describes the thing” (“Underneath [ Eurydice]”). Again, “I’ve listened where the words and the minutes would touch,” she says, but there was “slippage” (“Noli Me Tangere,” The End of Beauty).

One of Jorie Graham’s urges is to say that something “is” – is in time (even in the sense of to rescue) – despite time’s instant self-dissolution. Augustine relled witht the question; Walter Pater was famously poignant on it; and Jorie Graham worries it obsessively, when she is not courting its opposite, the “horrow” of uncreation (see, in particular, “Miscellaneous Weights and Measures”). Why? Because she feels overcome by Sorge (Care) – feels assigned by destiny to save the phenomena and subjectivity (the two regions of being) in one and the same breath: “A curtain rose. I felt an obligation. / I tried to feel the thing that blossoms in me . . . / the whole world intelligently lit / up there in front of me” (“Untitled One,” The Errancy). Past, present, and future phenomena: “In the ‘then,’ writes Wener Brock in his commentary on Heidegger’s Existence and Being, “the Care speaks in ‘anticipation’ . . . ; in the ‘now,’ in the mode of ‘rendering present’; in the ‘at that time’ in the mode of ‘bearing in mind,’ in relating to the past.” The past: “Remember . . . / The bright brief hatchlings buzzing the pane. / Remember . . . / brief strips of sunshine playing the dirt. / . . . Oh brilliant drowning” (“The Lovers,” Swarm). Again, “One cannot keep all of it. What is enough / of it. And keep – I am being swept away – what is keep? A waking good” (“Evolution,” Never). The present: “One must see the cowbird spread its tail – just so – and / shut it again, clean, just / after landing. One must know” (“Kyoto”). The future: “what there is to be thought: love: / begin with the world: let it be small enough” (“Afterwards,” Never).

So this poet who leaves the door ajar so that “uncreated substance . . . can show up anytime” (“It is the law in her dress of things we want let in. / It is the world made strange again / we want invited in”) is nonetheless also up early to look – she’s as hungry to see and hear everything as she is one who waits “blindly for / uncreated substance,” for “the other sceneless thing, . . . / where there is no subject” (“Miscellaneous Weights and Measures”). Such is her vacillation and hesitation between the near and the far side of Being.

One of the ways Jorie Graham differs from Gertrude Stein (who was to her ago what Jorie Graham is to her own, namely indexical, a definitive philosophical presence in poetry) is in not trusting even in theory to what Husserl called intuition (immediate and direct knowledge). Does it seem to you, too, stranger, that something died? / Something we could call the great thereness  of being.” (“Untitled,” Region of Unlikeness). (“Thereness” is here, as for Heidegger, that which our existence has been thrown.) Always Jorie Graham has to think about the here and now even while imagining herself in them, and so she cannot unlock what is plenipotentiary. (“When do I say   yes / And it become again a form of joy?” [“5/3/98,” Swarm].) For only immediate perception could conceivably be adequate. Gertrude Stein theorized and anticipated this adequacy all but endlessly: “the full service is in the height of a rich thick sandy sticky silence. There is no dispute when there is harmony. All the date is in the place.” Again: “Soon to have an eye, soon to have plenty of them,” etc. Always the upbeat note. By contrast, here, from “Covenant” in Never is Jorie Graham on the insufficiency (yet so tormentingly more than that) of the “me” and the “here” and the “now”:

At peak: the mesmerization of here, this me here, this me

passing now.

So as to leave what behind?

. . . . 

And to have it come so close and yet not know it:

. . . . 

how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot


get away with it – the instant – what holds the “know”

And later: “the covenant: yes: that there be plenitude, yes, / but only as the simultaneous emptying – of the before, where it came / from – and of the after (the eager place to which it so / ‘eagerly’ goes)” (“The Covenant,” Never). Too, in “Chaos,” in Region of Unlikeness, the poet remarks on “the sensation of lateness pulling up out of // the sensation of there not being / enough.”

In Jorie Graham, then, one longing – she says it is “The Longing” – “is to be pure” (“Prayer”) – purely here, purely now. In Poetry as Experience, Lacoue-Labarthe says that “the immediacy of the god. . . is – as tragedy attests – man’s death, or plunge into turmoil,” and this is one explanation of the longing (just hear, again, in fascination, the roar of those five-hundred B-52s). But (in this section) let us put a happy face upon it and bring back the word plenipotentiary, an overflowing plenitude of the sense of being. The reality, of course, is to be, instead, transitive and, as it were, serial, instead, “frame after frame of nowhere // turning into the living past” (“Breakdancing,” The End of Beauty). So (and I quote from “Imperialism” in the same volume),

What I want to know, dear are-you-there,

is what it is, this life a shadow and a dust-road have,

the shape constantly laying herself down over the sparkling dust

she cannot own – 

What can they touch of one another, and what is it for. . . . 

(), [] (parentheses, brackets) – 

Except in Swarm, her hair shirt volume, Jorie Graham is discursive. She does not cut and reappear over here, laughing at rational connectivity’s slow and infuriatingly sane feet of gravity. Not exactly; but her signature use of frequent parentheses (she starts them buzzing like plucked taut strings on the page), and in Never of brackets as well, is a prairie I mean practice of aides, of goings-underneath, if still within layers of sober reflection. They advertise that thinking is equipped for all directions, at least by way of exceptions and qualifications; thinking is an angle artist (“She tried every angle. [. . . ] [ . . . ],” etc. – “Estuary,” Never). Just as modernist painters alternately broke up the plane of flat space and reduced sprung and cubic space to flatness, so Jorie Graham multiplies, scatters, and tilts lines of thought, even as she keeps the progress of thinking subservient to grammar (else would it still be thinking? And if there is not thought of the sublime aporia of being, what is there? Nothing but psychosis, as Hegel and Nietzsche suspected and as Lacan obsessively theorized in splats of dissatisfied paragraphs?)

point of view – 

“The points-of-view are dead, they come and go,” they are fugitive oyster spits in relation to “the great thereness of being,” to the “something else” that has always already started to pool (again) all around them (“Untitled,” Region of Unlikeness). Niche persepctives, as Nietzsche called them. Fragmentary in relation to the unimaginable whole, wich they yet seek to seize, hold down, bite clean. Always the outline must be amended by the invisible (see “I Watched a Snake”), or else one can never become “blossomfree,” as Jorie Graham puts it in “The Lovers” – dire and angelic with absoluteness. The new absolute: the impossible totality of all directions and perspectives.

“The world is a desperate element.” Both the point of view and its unpresentable opposite are untenable: the first “dead,” the second unlivable. Where to turn? “The glance reaching her shoreline” in “Orpheus and Eurydice” wants “only to be recalled” and wants “only to be taken in” – pure ambivalence. In the framework of the (meta)physical realm of Force, cognition and perception are place-holdings where there is no place.

Gertrude Stein, together with Virginia Woolf, the other modern English-language writer preoccupied with the vicissitudes and ontological status of the point of view, was also poised to be devastating towards it, as in: “There is no use in a pencil, there is no use in any direction of succeeding in experience” (“England”). But her perspective on perspective includes an exit-clause, which is identical with Heidegger’s notion that “success” on the pathways of experience consists in continuing on the way: “Experience means eundo assequi, to obtain something along the way, to attain something by going on a way” (Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience, 98). So conducted, “there is not one single objection,” in Gertrude Stein’s words, to the mental life: “The wholesale cloth is not handled with a sprinkler [not addressed everywhere at once, as with a sprinkler], it is so handled that when there is no obligation there is every inducement it is so handled that pathways are mended [by continuing along them], it is so handled that there is a single sound [the auditory equivalent of the invisible, an impossible singularity, here posited as self-presentable, much as in Jorie Graham’s description in ‘Studies in Secrecy’ of ‘the chittering of manyness’ at the ‘suction-point’ of the unseen, a chittering ‘made to / clot / into a thrumming singleness’].” Though lucid, Gertrude Stein does not suffer the aporia of the part/whole problem. Jorie Graham almost always has the harder mind, even if she is unnervingly intent on having it.

story (plot, outline)

1. “Brittleness, shapeliness. . . meaning. . . the ticket. . . the idiom in you, the why” (“Soul Says”).

2. A cover-up for nowhere, notime, nohow. “Oh it has vibrancy, she thought, this emptiness, this intake just / prior to / the start of a story, the mind. . . feeling it like a sickness this wanting / to snag, catch hold, begin” (“Vertigo,” The End of Beauty). “Are you still waiting for the true story? (God’s laughter)” (“Underneath [9],”) Swarm). Representation is exile: “Exile   Angle of vision. / So steep   the representation . . . / Centuries lean up into its weave, shudder, go out” (“The Veil,” Swarm). Story’s come-along means, starting up from “always and everywhere” (“Little Requiem”), can’t get us to “the sharp edge that we seek. . . . / the true roughness,” the thing “glittering with exaggeration – / dazzling the still philosophies” (“Willow in Spring Wind”). And yet, dear are-you-there, dear restless Ulysses, “How else to keep you” (“Underneath [Calypso],” Swarm).

3. Consolation. “I who used to be inconsolable (and the world // wild around me) can stand here now . . . one must grow . . . consolable. Listen: / the x [‘Now: feel the creature, the x’] gnaws, making stories . . . whole long stories which are its gentle gnawing” (“History”).

4. Broadly used, a term for anything not chaotic and indescribable. No, even chaos may be part of the story. But “the apparent strengths of the story” (emphasis added) are “well-drawn,” like the “fields and, closer-up, a saucer-magnolia / where one bud, today, has just begun to rip / into view” (“Which but for Vacancy,” The Errancy). Even the grass tips conceive “their paraphrase of wind” (“Oblivion Aubade”), and the willow drags “its alphabet of buds all along the gravelly walk” (“Willow in Spring Wind: A Showing”). The world is mad with the potential for story. But, again, it means nothing. What is a story? A fiction. “Far into the cave of seem” (“Flood”).

thinking – 

1. Earnest, sincere: “the thinking she so laid / down hard, the gesture that of the practiced / plasterer spreading the thin gesso / on the church wall” (“Estuary,” Never).

2. Squaring: “there, she / thought, / is my thought before me. Like a planted / thing in its pot. Not quite in nature / yet still alive / and – most crucially – self-evident” (“Exit Wound,” Never).

3. Devout: “When I ‘think,’ it is near the future, just this / side of it. / Something I can’t conceive of without saying you” (“Via Negativa,” Never). A “you,” possibly, of vain incarnation, or the temptation to tame the Other, which “threatens to . . . cast us down from the height of its appearance” (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII).

4. Failing. Its Western flair/flare on the wane, “the captains gone but some of us / who saw the plan drawn out / still here – who saw the thinking clot-up in the bodies of the greater men” (“The Guardian Angle of the Private Life,” The Errancy).

5. Corrosive; moving off. Secret ally of the “something else.” “My sweet mind shouldering / so willingly the impossible / as if craning forward to see round / some bend” (“Probity,” Swarm). Yeats: “man’s life is thought, / And he, despite his terror, cannot cease / Ravening through century after century, / Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come / Into the desolation of reality” (“Meru”).

waiting – 

to exist. “As if it really / were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back / in, given and given never to be received.” “Having waited a long time and / still having / to wait” (“The Dream of the Unified Field”). Now wakeful, now narcoleptic (as splendidly imagined in “nights ripen and fall off / into our flesh / narcotic the waiting” (“Underneath [Eurydice]”).

Gertrude Stein: “patience . . . all the whole way is uplifted with that.” Jorie Graham: “married to hurry / and grim song” (“Of Forced Sightes and Trusty Ferefulness,” The End of Beauty).

“Waiting is different from patience, friend” (“Picnic,” Region of Unlikeness).