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Magazine Article


Howe, Sarah


PM Review (2008)


Sea Change; Overlord


A review of Sea Change.

Full Text:

by Sarah Howe

Sea Change by Jorie Graham. 

Carcanet, 56 pp., £9.95, 

May 2008, 

ISBN 1 85 7 54 984 8

The desire to imagine

the future.

So begins ‘Root End’, a poem towards the close of Jorie Graham’s Sea Change, the latest of her twelve collections. The book is written out of that white space – also a gap in time – across which the imagination strains to leap. Graham’s poetic idiom, with its signature shifts and hesitations, relies on the suggestive power of such gaps. But sometimes they are so wide we can barely follow her across. In her previous book, Graham described the struggle of scientists to develop ‘a language that will still communicate’ in ‘hundreds of millions / of years’. That span goes beyond the limits of conceivable history and into a purely geological time. Yet our containers of buried nuclear waste will still need to bear the message, ‘don’t open this, this is lethal beyond / measure’ (‘Praying (Attempt of June 14’03)’). In Sea Change, however, reaching the future is often as easy as stepping off a pavement. Its poems picture a posterity we can already see at work in the present: ‘fish are starving to death in the Great Barrier Reef, the new Age of Extinctions is / now’.

The Sea Change poems reprise many of Graham’s preoccupations in the two books that preceded them. Never (2002) was similarly haunted by a vanishing natural world. Urgent in its portrayal of an ever-quickening present, where another species disappears ‘every nine minutes’, it showed Graham experimenting with a newly public manner. The dark spaces of Overlord (2005) helped deepen this political voice, with its prayer-like meditations on war and the poet’s helplessness against human suffering. With Sea Change Graham steps back onto this politicized stage, but continues to speak first and foremost as a poet, whose priority is the music on the page.

The most immediately striking feature of Sea Change is the novelty of its visual layout. The poems alternate long lines justified at the left-hand margin with a flurry of short ones that cling to the centre. These minutely cantilevered structures cascade down a ‘spiral staircase / made of words’ (‘Root End’), in a formal tactic that somehow feels at once strenuous and organic. These two margins force a nervous energy on the reading eye as it is dragged up short across the page, uncertain where it will be asked to begin again. Helen Vendler has written powerfully about Jorie Graham’s chameleonic reinventions of style with each successive book. In interviews, the poet herself is fond of quoting William Carlos Williams to the effect that ‘A new music is a new mind’. Graham believes that poems do not record but constitute experience, and the Sea Change poems cast about for a fresh way of experiencing the world. For those familiar with Graham’s career, the short lines feel like a kind of homecoming to the Williams-like compressions of her first two books. The long lines, on the other hand, are deliberately and even excessively long. They explain the book’s extra-broad format, which for me at least has an air of luxury and excitement, like in the cinema just before the film when the curtains draw out the screen that little bit wider:

skins, the flesh, the heat, the soil, the grain, the sound of each birdcall heard over the

millennia, autumn’s maneuverings into winter, splinters of dream-filled times, beauty

that pierces, yes, always we were

vulnerable to

beauty . . .

If we assume that the pentameter is about as much as one can comfortably speak in single breath (try it), these expansive, Whitmanian lines force this moment from ‘Positive Feedback Loop’ outside the realm of human utterance. This is a verse still marked by Graham’s shattering, in Swarm (2000), of the sentence as a viable unit. Her mode here is prophetic, but the enlarged perspective feels hard-earned – laboriously pieced back together from the ‘splinters of dream-filled times’. The breathless and accelerating buildup of single nouns (‘the flesh, the heat, the soil...’) suddenly gives way onto the kind of vast historical panorama with which I began: the speaker demands our focus on ‘the sound of each birdcall heard over the / millennia’. There is an ethical component, too, in this endeavour to prolong the reader’s attention. Graham trains us to sense the lingering spell of past millennia. This act of historical imagination is directly linked, in her mind, to one’s ability to approach a correspondingly distant future (a positive feedback loop perhaps?).

The volume’s title invokes Ariel’s song from The Tempest – the song that Ferdinand believes to be an elegy for his drowned father:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Nothing in him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange

The keynote of this ethereal music is not death but miraculous metamorphosis. These lines, which also underpin several key moments in Eliot’s Waste Land, are themselves

transformed in Graham’s verse into ‘something rich and strange’. The speaker of Never mostly roamed the beaches of an ebbing and liminal shoreline, a poetic terrain once

occupied by Bishop and Stevens. The title poem of Sea Change, however, quickly loses sight of shore, plunging the reader into a deep-ocean world:

. . . & how wonder is also what

pours from us when, in the

coiling, at the very bottom of

the food

chain, sprung

from undercurrents, warming by 1 degree, the in-


plankton is forced north now, & yet farther north,

spawning too late for the cod larvae hatch, such

that the hatch will not survive, nor the

species in the end, in the right-now forever un-

interruptible slowing of the


stream . . .

In an endless quest for the simultaneity of ‘now’, Graham’s clauses pile together,

connected by the strange and delicate strings of ‘&’ and ‘Also’. Her run-on syntax binds the poems into a kind of living tissue, which means that cutting out passages like this for quotation does more than the usual violence. Caught in the swell of these surging and receding lines, the speaker’s mind itself becomes liquid, (‘the body of the ocean which rises every instant into/me’). The emotion that pours from her is ‘wonder’, but unlike Miranda’s it is tinged with fear, as she watches an ecosystem thrown off course by a subtle disruption to the flow of plankton. The ‘sea change’ of the title, we discover, is the ‘warming by 1 degree’ of these food-rich undercurrents, which will doom first the cod hatch and then the species as a whole. The line breaks at prefixes such as ‘un-’ and ‘in-’, reminiscent of those imposed by Marianne Moore’s syllabics, give an impression of arbitrariness. This tiny formal device gestures towards the workings of a larger and capricious ‘Fate’ (Kyoto accords anyone?). They also suggest how easily a word like ‘in- / dispensable’ may pivot into its opposite.

In Sea Change, the influence of haiku is everywhere felt. Many of the poems begin with the form’s classic strokes – an autumn moon, a blossoming branch:

Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve

blossoms on three different

branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring or perhaps none on

just those branches on which

just now

lands, suddenly, a grey-gold migratory bird–still here?–crisping, (‘Embodies’)

Graham writes with a nature poet’s desire to catalogue the exact progression of ‘autumn’s maneuverings into winter’. However, as the brooding understatement of ‘mistake’ implies, this is not the natural transience of swirling petals Bashō mourned. Graham has created perhaps the only moment in literature (the final scene of Waiting for Godot included) where the budding of a previously bare tree signifies a menacing portent. The haiku’s nearreverential concentration on seasonality is here skewed into something altogether different, thanks to the climate changes that trick a Normandy plum tree into blooming in October. Her enumeration of the ‘twelve’ blossoms on ‘three different branches’ is almost a parody of the descriptive precision for which Graham is famed. The poet goes on to recount how she at first reached out ‘to see if /those really were blossoms, I thought perhaps paper / from wind’. The level of detail, we realize, is motivated by incredulity at the perception.

‘Embodies’ is the first of several poems that go conspicuously through the motions of doubting and adjusting their impressions. What the speaker at first takes for a ‘greygold migratory bird’ turns out, by the poem’s end, to have been ‘a hawk after all, I had not seen / clearly’. Ever an acute observer of the mechanisms of perception, Graham is driven to spell out the process of double-takes and recalibrations by which poetic accuracy is achieved:

Full moon, & the empty tree’s branches – correction – the tree’s


expose and recover it. . .

One is reminded of the autumnal musings of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 – ‘When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs’ – which displays a tree in successive, conflicting, states of foliage before the mind’s eye. The ‘correction’ emblazoned across the opening line of ‘This’, the collection’s third poem, tells us that the branches are not empty, and yet resists disclosing the nature of their adornment. This habit of self-correction is acted out at the most minute verbal levels (‘Evening. Not quite.’) until it becomes, in ‘No Long Way Round’, an ethical imperative: ‘an obligation to what we called telling / the truth.’

Much has been made of Jorie Graham’s ability to hold, in a single line, the sensuously precise against the portentously abstract. Many critics have questioned whether her recent books have lost control of the balance. David Orr perceptively writes, in The New York Times, that there’s ‘something strangely bleary in Graham's writing – as if she's just noticed something interesting and motioned the reader over, only to stand in his light, blocking his view with her own viewing.’ But while Orr considers this self-evidently a failing, the partial occlusion of our view by Graham’s subjectivity is what makes revelations like this one tick: ‘The sound of / servants not being / set free’ (‘This’). What is the sound of servants not being set free? The ghosts of Ariel and Caliban swim up, protesting the postponement. But still that snippet of sense data keeps its ‘secret mood’. The poem’s title – ‘This’ – motions the reader over, pointing carefully at something here, very close, worthy of notice, but then refuses to offer an anchor for its bare deictic. Likewise, the speaker of ‘Later in Life’, overhearing the suburban street-scene of a father calling for his child, compares love to ‘a thing floating out on a frail but / perfect twig-end.’ This image (if we can call it that) courts the danger of baffling obscurity, right up until that last phrase. With the intensity of a magnifying glass, the words ‘twig-end’ direct our focus onto a single point at the tip of a tree branch. Slowly the floating ‘thing’ materializes: a leaf unfurling from a stem so fragile it can barely hold it up. That length of twig marks out the span of the human imagination, the limits of our empathy.

Empathy – the imaginative crossing-over into another’s experience that is part of the work of poetry – is pushed to uncomfortable limits in the closing lines of ‘This’. With an insidious abruptness, a ‘torturer’ appears:

–look up: the torturer yawns waiting for his day to be

done–he leans against

the trees for a rest, the implement shines, he looks up.

This tormentor of prisoners, caught disarmingly on his tea-break, appears to feel no more immediate guilt than ‘the torturer’s horse’ of Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, ‘Scratch[ing] its innocent behind on a tree.’ Suffering is happening somewhere, just out of frame – the only hint the glint of an ‘implement’. Finally ‘he looks up’, mirroring the exact gesture the reader has just been instructed to perform. Do we meet eyes? This shared and scripted movement creates an uncanny bond, against which we find ourselves totally disarmed. As one of the poems says, ‘make of your compassion a crisper instrument / you will need its blade.’ At first I struggled with the disquieting idea that compassion might be a scalpel, wielded with a necessary precision. Then I remembered its opposite number, in the torturer’s knife.

The purpose of the torturer’s unprepared-for cameo suddenly becomes clear on turning the page. The word ‘torture’ is placed crisply into the air, echoing over the

landscape of the following poem, ‘Guantánamo’, where it is made loud by dint of its absence. This masterly transition reenacts the way in which (as Karen Greenberg explains) ‘torture was to be banned from the premises’ of Guantánamo Bay, ‘but only as a word’. In a lecture she gave in 1991, during a previous war, Graham argued for the poet’s central role in combating the euphemisms governments use to dull the horrors of conflict:

When words like justice and morality become deprived of any meaning – as in, for instance, Mr. Bush's vacant phrases of last Tuesday: ‘All wars are fought for a reason. But a just war is fought for the right reason, the moral reason. Our use of force is moral’ – when these words become husks of significance, when they are cut off not only from their denotative and connotative life, but also from their history of meaning, when they can be deployed as mere sound, as a jingle that will sell a product. . .we are in a terrifying dark indeed.

There is, as ever, something unspeakably eerie about how this paragraph could have been redelivered a decade later with no significant alterations. The only change is an innovation in vocabulary – the familiar yet imperceptible process by which prison camp became ‘detention center’ and prisoner of war ‘detainee’. The job of the poet, Graham says, is ‘to try to constantly restore words to their meanings’ and thus ‘keep the living tissue of responsibility alive.’

Her poem ‘Guantánamo’ grapples with the nature of this responsibility. Graham’s longstanding preoccupation with the anatomy of the eye resurfaces throughout the book,

but here is particularly resonant. In Overlord, she recounted the results of a scientific experiment in which the image of a cross was fixed into a monkey’s retina at death. In

‘Guantánamo’, she tests out the hypothesis that witnessing – the (non-)act of watching something happen – is the same thing as complicity:

& acts being

committed in your name, & your captives arriving

at your detention center, there, in your

eyes, the lockup, deep in your pupil, the softening-up. . .

The (televised, imagined?) pictures of the ‘detention center’ pierce deep into the viewer’s pupil and are re-created there. That italicized ‘your’ indicates an accusatory raising of the voice that has already alienated some readers, as has the apparent narcissism of the poem’s ending: ‘you are asking me to lose myself. / In this overflowing of my eye, / I do.’ But that awkward rhyme, eye / I, is too deliberate, too meant, to be easily reduced to egotism. As Graham made clear in The Errancy (1997), she limits the poems’ focus to herself only so she can reach an ‘us’: ‘For you - for us - I know I should listen hard. . . / Where are we going, friend?’ ‘Guantánamo’ is ever alert to the shifting play of accountability that attaches to pronouns. Thus, ‘you are not open to / prosecution’, but ‘the legal team will declare them exempt’ (emphasis mine). The same pronoun-game was played to great effect in Overlord’s earlier meditations on our political climate. In ‘Praying (Attempt of June 6 ’03)’, the first step in trying to imagine the war is recognizing that it is at once very distant and very close to home:

It seems that many more people are being killed by us

than they are telling us.

Note the treacherousness of that passive, ‘being killed’; the uneasy counterpoint of ‘they’ and ‘us’; the venomous vagueness of ‘seems’. The internal chiming of ‘us’ insists that the

same people are doing the killing and hearing it reported from afar. As a populace, our collective responsibility for war is at once shouldered and disowned. ‘Agency! What is

that?’ scoffs another of Overlord’s poems, as the drowned soldiers of the D-Day landings wash in ‘to receive / their bullets,’ and ‘the living wash in to receive / theirs’ (‘Omaha’).

Later on in ‘Guantánamo’, Graham complicates that accusatory note in ‘your’ without entirely softening it. The poem’s authority turns against itself, startlingly, midcourse:

. . . say you are all forgiven, say these are only

counter-resistant coercive interrogation techniques, as in give me your

name, give it, I will take it, I will re-

classify it, I will withhold you from you, just like that, for a little while, it won’t hurt

much, think of a garden, take your mind off

things, think sea, wind, thunder, root, think tree that will hold you

up, imagine it holding you

up, choose to be who you are, quick choose it, that will help. The moon is colder

than you think. . .

The speaker accomplishes the act of ‘empathetic’ crossing-over from which we shied at the end of the previous poem; her voice merges into that of the torturer. On the one hand, ‘Guantánamo’ enters seamlessly into the jargon of a regime shielding itself from

accountability (‘counter-resistant coercive interrogation techniques’), exploding it from within. On the other, the poetic voice cannot help but be contaminated. The language of lyrical description, which had earlier called us to imagine a plum tree or waning moon, now becomes part of the interrogator’s arsenal: ‘think tree that will hold you / up, imagine it holding you / up’. In this masterstroke of the collection, Graham rests the whole authority of her poems, and their didactic voice, on shifting ground.