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Eder, Richard


The New York Times (2000)



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By Jorie Graham.
114 pp. New York:
The Ecco Press/
HarperCollins Publishers. $23. 

When an artist begins to paint, Andre Malraux wrote, his studio fills with all the painters who have influenced him. Then they leave, one by one, until he is painting alone. Then he too leaves. Think of the sturmless-und-drangless serenity of Beethoven's last quartets, of the recessional note in Shakespeare's ''Tempest'' and ''Winter's Tale,'' of Matisse's late paper cutouts. 

Jorie Graham cites dictionary definitions of ''swarm'' -- the title of her new collection -- not only as migrating bees but as ''persons who leave the original body and go forth to found a new colony or community.'' Through most of these 37 poems her theme is reconsideration, renunciation and migration: in part from beliefs and loves but mainly and most strikingly from the previous instruments of her art. 

''The wisdom I have heretofore trusted was cowardice, the leaper,'' is the first line of the first poem, which continues farther down: 

I hide my face. 

I have reduced all to lower case. 

I have crossed out passages. 

I have severely trimmed and cleared. 

Locations are omitted. 

Uncertain readings are inserted silently. 

Abbreviations silently expanded. 

Not all magi are Prosperos; only the rarest can break their staffs to greater effect than a splintered length of wood. Only a supreme artist can depart the studio to greater effect than an empty room. Graham is a remarkable and original poet, but in ''Swarm'' the renunciation she reaches for is beyond her grasp: it is a starvation less austere than grandiloquent. 

As Graham tracks her spiritual journey -- not from one hive to a new one but, seemingly, from hive to the negation of hives -- her withdrawal from the sensual, the material, and from the bite and snap of language and image, suggests whispering to incite attention. Caesuras -- a white space inside the lines (''What ofthe quicksand'') or 

a double-spaced gap between them -- create a poetry whose very words seem to shun one another's company: bees too fastidious for honey-making. 

Graham has always been a difficult poet -- risking a privacy of purpose,'' the otherwise admiring J. D. McClatchy wrote when he included her in his anthology of contemporary American poetry -- but so have many modern poets: Mallarme, Rilke, Pound, some Eliot, Stevens. For that matter, Shelley and Donne can be difficult; and Hardy and Frost. 

But even as the brain struggles, the neck hairs lift. Reading poetry can and ought to be a hunt. We must see something flash in the bushes to incite us to go after it; and going after may not mean catching. In the mechanicals' playlet in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' Snug the Joiner is enjoined to leave a gap in the neck of his lion suit so his eye will show through. The message: behind the mystifying there is an eye. True, it is to reassure the ladies, not transfix them, as art does. But a gleaming and specific eye shows through virtually all of Shakespeare's creatures; and through Rilke's difficult angels and Stevens's blackbirds. 

This is poetry's objective correlative; the jolt of a specific sentience that stands for an abstract and diffuse concept without disappearing into it. It is the Greek moving van -- metaphora painted on its side -- that transports our furniture to an unseen new life but remains its chugging self. The correlatives in ''Swarm'' tend to swallow up their objects: they're metaphors departing without the furniture. 

Rilke, like Graham (her high questing owes quite a bit to him), favored the spiritual imperative, the word of command. But Rilke will write: ''if drinking is bitter, become wine''; and a wine stain gets tattooed under our skin along with the message. Graham's imperative goes: 

Be the experiment. 

Forgo explanation. 

Touch pain with great curiosity. 

From ''become wine'' to ''be the experiment'' is the distance between a tattoo and a Post-it note. It's true that ''with great curiosity'' is a Post-it that incites returning the call, and, in fact, there are poems in ''Swarm'' that do considerable inciting, and sometimes more. They have a strength and suggestiveness that recall the exultant metaphysics of Graham's earlier poem ''The Geese,'' with a woman hanging out the wash, and the double songlines of geese coursing overhead and spiders recalcitrant in the grass; and ''San Sepolcro,'' a winter dawn in the birthplace of Piero della Francesca. (''There's milk on the air, / ice on the oily / lemonskins. How clean / the mind is.'') 

In ''Swarm,'' amid the vagueness of passage and change (through what? to what?), and despite the unattributed pronouns, the transitive verbs curtailed of direct objects and the chains of parentheses whose descant (not this, not that) suggests poetry's purpose is not to bestow but withdraw, there are still lyric moments: ladders let down for an instant from the empyrean ponderings and footfalls overhead. 

There is ''2/18/97,'' with its theme: time to go. (Departures have a redolence in Graham that swarming and arrival tend to lack. Crumbs of comb adhere to the old hives.) It begins: 

Of my life which I am supposed to give back. . . . 

Along with the gentle lawns of this earth of course. 

A sudden rain sweeping the petals along. 

And pebbles the rain won't move. 

And these bodies someone has put before me. 

And this body someone has put me within. . . . 

Underneath, always, the soil that brightens and darkens. 

There is the haunting ''Desert/ 

Dune,'' its theme of a poet's dislodgement and fatigue inseparable from the title image: 

Can't you feel its adjectival backbone slither, 

grainy shifting and reshifting, 

as if constantly tired again of being just the world - 

describe, describe - 

and later the incomparable: 

wind bursting up like flames off dune - 

a wind aflutter on his animal - 

and, after nightfall: 

then cooling sand, then crack of voices riding by, 

some laughter ticked-out over sand, 

deeper and deeper into the open, 

following the seriously wounded narrator. 

Here and elsewhere, notably the title poem, Graham shows that her remarkable voice has not weakened. Perhaps her use for it has. Poets may exhaust not their gift but tolerance for their gift. Even if their eagles, like Prometheus', remain voracious their livers can give out. Compare Graham's 1987 ''Orpheus and Eurydice'' with the Eurydice poem in ''Swarm.'' Both are told in Eurydice's voice, but in the new poem the stress is almost entirely inward: Orpheus all but disappears. 

The significant contrast, though, is in vitality. In the earlier poem there is a stirring, like the almost imperceptible stirring of the air before an earthquake. Orpheus is about to turn his head. Upon this moment, subliminal but terrifying as a scream, Graham hung a woman's fate: 

What she dreamed, as she watched him turning with the bend in road (can you 

understand this?) -- what she dreamed 

was of disappearing into the seen. 

The new poem, likewise, is a meditation on the male imprint. It is generalized, though; seeded with images that perform gracefully without really arresting or striking. It lacks the sacramental turn (the outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace) of the earlier piece. 

''Swarm'' is mostly overtones -- it withholds notes. ''This is not a pipe,'' Magritte inscribed under his painting of a pipe. This is not a poem, is what Graham seems to claim for these poems. From the painter it was an in-your-face paradox, and enlivening. From the poet it is turning the face away, and less enlivening. 

Richard Eder writes book reviews and articles for The Times.