Printer-friendly version

Publication Type:

Newspaper Article


Bernard, April


The New York Times (1997)


Full Text:


By Jorie Graham.
112 pp. Hopewell, N.J.:
The Ecco Press. $22. 

In ''The Errancy,'' Jorie Graham's new collection, her first since the acclaimed selected poems of 1995, she continues her minute explorations of regions that most other poets either glance at or ignore altogether. ''There was no doorway through which to pass,'' she writes. ''No flaming gateway. No wafer-thin scribble / to understand. . . . / Was it really, then, a pastime, the hostile universe?'' 

Ferociously scorning the comforts of the conventional personal lyric, Graham addresses fundamental questions -- is there a God? what is human will? what does it mean to be mortal? -- or, rather, she addresses how the mind moves over these problems: 

the honeycombing 

thoughts are felt to dialogue, a form of self- 

congratulation, no?, or is it suffering? 

Elsewhere, she writes: 

Around us, toying, like a gigantic customary dream, 

black water circles, perishing and perishing, 

swirling black zero we wait in, 

through which no god appears, 

and yet through which nothing can disappear. 

Current philosophical inquiry has tabled (or claims to have solved) these matters, and occupies itself instead with their subjective applications; while Graham, too, focuses intently on subjective experience, she manages to keep the old questions floating in the air at the same time. In this way, she marries the late to the early 20th century -- and she is decidedly modern in her techniques as well as her preoccupations. It is no accident that direct references to Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, along with echoes of Eliot and Pound, abound here, or that the book's cover illustration, the Magritte painting of Pascal's overcoat, provides a touchstone for the entire collection. Fragmentation, appropriation, stream of consciousness, the stranding of the real in the context of the abstract -- all these modernist tactics are deftly employed. 

If Graham follows one central principle of composition, it can be found in the multiple meanings of the book's title: ''errancy'' means error, but errare, its Latin root, refers to wandering, to deliberate straying from the set path, and evokes the notion of a knightly quest. The poem ''Flood'' is a sort of exegesis of errancy, in its contemplation of a river pulling fragments of life into its own rampaging, bank-breaching current: ''Oh let the river horses run wild as ever they would. / Their hooves: the rocks amid the deep roots loosening.'' 

What carries us along on the journey is the swiftness and intermittent gorgeousness of Graham's diction, and her stern and bracing manner. As she informs us in her notes, the painting ''Le Manteau de Pascal'' refers to the story about Pascal's death -- that he handed his sister a piece of paper on which he had written his proof of the existence of God, and instructed her to sew it into the sleeve of the overcoat in which he was to be buried. This is precisely the sort of puzzle that captures Graham's restless imagination: 

I have put on my doubting, my wager, it is cold. 

It is an outer garment, or, conversely, a natural covering, 

so coarse and woolen, also of unknown origin, 

a barely apprehensible dilution of evening into 

an outer garment . . . 

not shade-giving, not chronological. 

The paradox of Graham's difference from the bulk of today's (still relentlessly autobiographical) poetry is that her spiritual and intellectual concerns have led her to another sort of self-absorbed estrangement from the reader. Unlike John Ashbery, to whom she's often compared, she makes no compensatory effort to charm; and unlike her modern antecedents, she seems unable to find solace in the pure swoon of linguistic music, unable to rely on beauty or pleasure to unify a fragmented vision. Clearly, however, she would if she could; as when, assessing storm damage, the poet asks, ''Am I supposed to put them back together -- / these limbs, their leaves, the tiny suctioned twig-end joints -- ?'' The wistful title of an earlier poem (and the title of her selected poems) is, after all, ''The Dream of the Unified Field.'' 

Equally germane are the final lines to the poem ''Emergency'': 

what should the woman do 

to keep herself in character 

that she might love? 

The turnabout paradox is that the painful honesty from which she writes, her self-imposed chilly remove, should be so deeply affecting. 

April Bernard's most recent book is a collection of poems, ''Psalms.''