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Etter, Carrie


The Liberal, Issue 6 (2005)

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Review Of Overlord
The Liberal
Issue VI September/October 2005

by Carrie Etter

In her new collection, Overlord, American poet Jorie Graham examines her consciousness in the post-September 11 world. Graham's previous work employs the same methods - a probing intelligence, exquisite linguistic precision and demanding, discursive monologues, yet Overlord presents a new depth of commitment in its impassioned investigation of human powerlessness in the face of manmade destruction.

Overlord refers foremost to Operation Overlord, the Allied plan to create a second front in Europe with the Normandy invasion. The opening poem, 'Other', connects the nature of human consciousness with its formulation of the other and concludes with lyric urgency:

This is what is wrong: we, only we, the humans, can retreat from
ourselves and not be altogether here.
We can be part full, only part, and not die. We can be in and
out of here, now,
at once, and not die. The little song, the little river, has banks.
We can pull up and sit on the banks. We can pull back
from the being of our bodies, we can live a
portion of them, we can be absent, no one can tell.

This idea lays the foundation for the Normandy poems, beginning with 'Soldatenfriedhof.' Here Graham recounts a visit to the German cemetery La Cambe, where she uses a computer to "find [the] fallen", often only identified by the least remains - a tooth or a piece of clothing. Further on in the collection, three poems titled 'Spoken from the Hedgerows' draw on historical accounts to give voice to American soldiers in the operation. Rendering the men distinct yet common, these poems powerfully convey their humanity and their suffering during the event.

The speaker's present-day visits to Omaha Beach forges a link with that past. In 'Omaha', the speaker envisions the men in that water, and their powerlessness. As she declares,

Agency! What is that? The drowned wash in to receive
their bullets, the living wash in to receive
theirs. They cannot really be told
apart. [...]
There never was an alternative.
No one after a point could have stood up and walked away
in fear.

The importance of Operation Overlord, the poem goes on to suggest, arises from its function in the present. There is "always an audience / for all this slaughter and laughter - / 'later on'". The war has left a "change upon us", Graham insists,

But the fall - the falling of it
even after it's done - the fall: continues.
Because there is no way to get the killing to end.

Graham presents this post-September 11 sensibility - a sense of individual impotence in the cycle of violence - as agonizing and destablising. After the 'Spoken from the Hedgerows' series comes one of two peoms in the collection entitled 'Disenchantment'. Exploring Gerhard Richter's work, the poem progresses toward the command to "love beauty", but ends "Embracing brutality and importance. Some joy. Some preliminary sketches." The poem strives to render the expanse of this existence (and Richter's art), and in particular the brutal and important; joy, in such an environment, is limited.

The book's title also refers to the God to whom Graham addresses six of the volume's twenty-five poems. Each is titled 'Praying (Attempt of [date])', with dates ranging from 8th June 2003 to 19th April 2004. The use of gerund indicates a hesitancy to call the act an actual prayer, given the speaker's lack of faith. The creation of the other and its relation to war arises early in the first 'Praying', as the speaker ruminates,

why is it so terrifying Orion's still here, this late in,
the story, hunting all night, pack of hounds all over the sky,
also prey all over the sky, sometimes his prey by accident being
his beloved
hounds, yes - is it that we cannot tell each other apart, so we
have to make up
something that will count as difference - real difference -

This strain of thought leads to consideration of the alliances between nations and the need for soldiers, and proceeds to the confusion during the early hours of the beach landings. Commanding in its inventive progression, the poem ends with the speaker's childhood memory of counting stars and panicking when "losing [her] place". So she begins again, and the counting of stars becomes not only of prayers and starlings, but of the dead and missing too.

In what Graham calls "the fullness of existence", these poems grasp at redemption and understanding, finding much to praise and much over which to despair. Overlord's philosophic evocation of this predicament makes it a document of the times; necessary, disturbing reading.