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Magazine Article


Stride Magazine, Exeter, Devon, UK (2013)


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'the many promises of vision'

The Taken-Down God: Selected Poems 1997-2008,
Jorie Graham
(196pp, £14.95, Carcanet)

In 1997 the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dream of the Unified Field drew together poems from Jorie Graham's first five collections; subsequently, The Taken-Down God selects from the next five collections: The Errancy; Swarm; Never; Overlord and Sea Change. This new volume complements the first selected poems for it is possible to see Graham approaching, again, the colossal themes of the divine and the material, art and life, but The Taken-Down God also stands independently. Indeed, it is a compelling selection, made by Graham herself, that details the personal and the global concerns that have informed Graham's work in the last decade and a half.

In the past, Graham has described how ninety percent of her time is spent revising the poems she writes; attending to the music and metre of each line. It is no surprise then, that the poems in The Taken-Down God have been chosen and arranged with similar care. The selection feels orchestrated in the sense that the tone and subject matter of each poem echo one another not only between the poems themselves but also between the different collections. This will surely challenge the criticism that readers have often made over the fragmentary nature of Graham's writing.

For example, 'the glance' is introduced as a preoccupation of Graham's in the 1997 collection, The Errancy. In a poem such as 'Thinking' Graham describes a crow and 'my steady glance on him, cindering at the glance-core where / it held him tightest, swelled and sucked'. Here, Graham displays an anxiety regarding how the eye perceives the natural world. Placing 'Thinking' before 'That Greater Than Which is Nothing' highlights 'the many promises of vision' that the latter poem describes. Furthermore, it initiates an exploration of these 'promises' in poems such as 'Woods' and 'Gulls' collected in 2002's Never.

With The Taken-Down God it becomes tempting to suggest points at which Graham expresses particular ideas that direct her later writing; the poems selected from Never seem to indicate such a transition. Importantly, The Taken-Down God has included 'Evolution' with its endnote concerning 'the rate of extinction [that] is estimated at one every nine minutes.' Having explained how this time span 'inhabits' as well as 'structures' Never, it is appropriate that the poems that are included in this selected work concern temporality and environments. By parodying the writer's attempt to achieve a 'finished' representation of the natural world, 'Woods' provides a refreshing ecopoetic stance:
   - oh swagger of dwelling in place, in voice -
   surely one of us understands the importance.
   Understands? Shall I wave a 'finished' copy at you
   whispering do you wish to come for lunch.
   Nor do I want to dwell on this.
   I cannot, actually, dwell on this.
   There is no home. One can stand out here
   and gesture wildly, yes. One can say 'finished'
   and look into the woods, as I do now, here,
   but also casting my eye out
   to see (although that was yesterday) (in through the alleyways
   of trees) the slantings of morninglight [...]

'Gulls' dives ever more deeply into this subject matter and illustrates the 'en plein air' technique that Graham used to write Never. Engaged with 'porting' the natural world rather than reporting it, as Graham described in an interview, the poem becomes obsessively present-tense when considering the birds,

   [...] the whole flock rising and running just
   as the last film of darkness rises
   leaving behind, also rising and falling in
                                      tiny upliftings [...]

As the poem continues it becomes clear that the observer cannot keep up with the observation. As the scene changes with the movement of the sea, the light and the gulls, 'the words' are described 'leaping too, over their own / staying':

   So then it's sun in surf-breaking water: incircling, smearing: mind not
   knowing if it's still 'wave,' breaking on
   itself, small glider, of it it's 'amidst'  (red turning feathery)
   or rather 'over' (the laciness of foambreak) or just what [...] it is.

The Taken-Down God continues to explore these environmental concerns with poems from the collection that follows; Overlord. Indeed, these environmental concerns have led Graham to approach her early themes regarding the divine and material worlds from a different perspective. 'Please don't let us destroy / Your world. No the world', Graham implores in 'Praying (Attempt of May 9 '03)', and later, in another poem, Graham realises the harmful consequences of  'the disappearance of hope' and so declares 'A new illusion must present / itself immediately'. In the light of this it is even more apparent that what is missing in the book is the poem that lends its name to the selected work. It seems like a strange omission as the poem, 'The Taken-Down God', that was originally included in Never would seem central to many of Graham's wonderfully articulated anxieties regarding belief, sight, writing and language.

Yet this is a small problem in view of a selected poems that will appeal to both a reader who is familiar with Graham and who wishes to explore the links between her collections, and a reader who may wish to gain a first impression of Graham's work. As the book concludes with a selection from Sea Change, Graham begins to enact the declaration made earlier, that of 'A new illusion'. In 'Embodies' Graham asks 'what am I to do with my imagination' and later answers (in poems such as 'Root End') that the imagination must envision the future. This attempt to find a way of dealing with environmental change continues to be explored in Graham's most recent Place (2012): a collection that readers will surely turn to after The Taken-Down God in wanting to see the direction in which Graham's work progresses at this uncertain time. 
    © Isabel Galleymore 2013