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Caldwell, Roger


Times Literary Supplement (2003)

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At a suitable distance
Roger Caldwell
Times Literary Supplement

27th June 2003

Jorie Graham doesn't make things easy for her readers. Certainly she takes open form to its limits - one feels that she is now compiling texts that only intermittently break free into lyricism. If, for admirers like Helen Vendler, she restores a sense of grandeur to American poetry, to her detractors she is guilty of grandiosity. Her intellectual range is wide, but there is little sense of the philosophical rigour that some have over-generously attributed to her work. She makes great use of scientific lexis - atoms and vectors and infinitesimals - but with no great precision of reference. There are lines which neither make much sense nor seem distinguished as poetry (it is hard to know what to make, for example, of "O sweet conversation: protozoa, air: how long have you been speaking?").

In Never, she asks the question that Heidegger reintroduced to philosophy: "Why is there something rather than nothing?".

She doesn't succeed in answering it. (Neither, for that matter, did Heidegger.) Rather, she uses it as the basis of a sense of wonder at existence itself, at the copiousness and variety of life, and to capture a sense of life as lived through time, no instance of which can ever be repeated. This she does through a variety of means: for example, by exploration of evolutionary time; by having different historical times intervene on each other (as in "Estuary", which juxtaposes the years 1000 and 2000); and, most often, by attempting to catch the lived moment, somewhat in the matter of Virginia Woolf. The latter makes for some of her most vivid writing: there are passages in her work which seem to "take off", where image tumbles after image in a hectic chase. This is writing not only about time but against time: she compares the current extinction rate of species (on one estimate one every nine minutes) to the length of time it takes to read one of her poems.

There is much, however, in Never which is less than inspirational. An esoteric punctuation involving a bizarre system of round and square brackets confounds the reader and gives the impression of unfinished work. The arrangement of words on the page frequently militates against any attempt at reading aloud: the habit of ending a line on the definite or indefinite article has become a sort of cliche of manner. She also italicizes words or short phrases in an apparently random way where no such emphasis is required. Frequently, the muse of eternal process leads her out towards randomness. There is nothing new in this - we have had modernist collage and postmodernist inconsequentiality with us for a long time now - but it is doubtful if this arbitrariness of presentation best serves the peculiar nature of Graham's gifts, which are considerable.

It is easy to find poetic forebears in her work - "the / gold-fringed, gathered garment-furl" is there by way of Hopkins, just as "the outline of seem" is there by way of Wallace Stevens. At times, she sounds like Rilke gone a little bit out of kilter. Above all, hers is a romantic sensibility operating, as she ruefully notes, in "an age in which imagination / is no longer all-powerful". Frequently, Graham reminds one of Shelley - in the sometimes ethereal quality of the language, the kaleidoscopic quickness of ideas and rapidity of movement of the verse, and in the desire to embrace everything, whether compatible or not -in this case both Darwin and the vanished or vanishing gods of Holderlin. She notes "how the new gods walk behind the old gods, / at a suitable distance".

Much of the writing in Never has an almost solipsistic feel. Even when Graham refers to human love this is curiously disembodied compared to the corporeality of her previous volume, Swarm: the word "think" and its cognates dominate these poems as never before. Again and again, we are referred to the seashore and an apparently solitary thinker examining the records of marine life strewn along the beach and observing the infinitely various movements of the waves, seeing the breakers as so many breaks in time:

'One feels word should be sent to us from some source. It is all roar and cry and suck and snap. The pebbles on the pebbles roll. One feels one has in custody what one cannot care for long. Too much is asked. Nothing is coming back the way it was.'

But it would be wrong to think that a mood of rueful meditation dominates this volume. There is a buoyancy in Graham's poetry, a freshness of vision which is rare in contemporary poetry. With her abundance of present participles and her indefinitely extended syntax she is very much the poet of the felt moment and pregnant with possibility. For this, it is possible to forgive many of her obscurities and obfuscations.