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Journal Article


Kerry Howley


New York Magazine, New York, NY (2023)


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To speak into silence is something very dramatic” is something Jorie Graham is given to say, and it is a statement that seems true when she in particular says it. Silence “is the sound of the earth.” Silence “does not need you to interrupt it.” Interrupting the silence is something one must justify, ideally by becoming the person who can write the book worthy of breaking it. In February 2022, it had been four months since her diagnosis, 15 since her husband was helicoptered to a hospital, two years since she watched her mother die. She lived on an island formed 20,000 years ago by a moving wall of ice.

The day is long, she once wrote. It flirts with nothingness. It always does. The clock in her kitchen read, as it has for many years now, 9:42. She pulled long strands of brown hair off her furniture, a nuisance. She took out a pair of kitchen scissors and cut the rest off her head. The days were diminishing, but they always are. She wrote new poems that felt like the old poems and rejected them. She read others to whom the words had somehow come: Carlo Rovelli, Barry Lopez, Byung-Chul Han, Emily Dickinson; “Always Dickinson.” When she was too sick to read, she watched documentaries. The silence was heavy and unyielding. Maybe it’s over, she thought. Maybe that’s all I was called to do. Every poet, according to Jorie Graham, brings a different quality to silence. “If you read Czeslaw Milosz, the silence he’s writing into has history in it,” she says, “and if you read Dickinson, the silence has God or his absence in it.” Jorie Graham claims she doesn’t know what silence she is breaking. But I’m telling you now, the silence has time in it.

A Jorie Graham poem is a deep burrow into a position from which one can gather nothing but the sense of being terribly alive. It is a nakedness from which story will not appear to save you. There are many writers with righteous self-assurance, and many comfortable with bewilderment, and they are only rarely the same people. It is Graham’s unearthly self-possession in the presence of mystery that renders her poetry so strange. Listen it’s trying / to make a void again. In which to hear itself. It’s too alone, she wrote in 2020’s Runaway, a book full of long fast lines, a work that manages to convey the feeling of time while existing as a person on the internet, overcome, targeted, whelmed by information that never reaches the status of knowledge.

I had hoped to escape. To form one lucid


thought. About what? It did not matter

     about what. It just needs to be, to be

shapely and true.

The strength of Graham’s influence can be felt across the thousands of students who have passed through her classroom, the prestige of a position at Harvard formerly occupied by Seamus Heaney and John Quincy Adams, a solid set of major awards (Guggenheim, MacArthur, Pulitzer) bestowed upon her. Each of her 15 books feels radical within the context of American poetry, none more so than her latest five, which are startlingly accessible and immediate, written as if for a person impatient to understand the nature of matter. There is no one in the world of poetry who hasn’t read her, formed an opinion of her, heard or told or recast a story about her.

The stories have their own trajectory, broken free of the life that inspired them. By winter of last year, Jorie Graham’s public identity had coalesced into a narrative that did not quite feel right to its protagonist; the details so readily lend themselves to mythology the texture of truth shakes free. An uncommonly beautiful American raised in Rome by an artist and a foreign correspondent, educated at the Sorbonne and Writers’ Workshop, professor at Iowa and Harvard. A six-year marriage to Bill Graham, the heir to the Washington Post, during Watergate, at the dinner table while Kay Graham decided whether or not to publish. A second marriage spanning 16 years, to poet James Galvin, this one mythologized in real time as the Contessa and the Cowboy. All of it obscured what it was like to be Jorie Graham, perceiving the surface of a spinning planet. “If you open yourself up and look at a Goya, it could kill you,” she once said. That was what it was like.

Jorie Graham at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in 1982. Photo: Lois Shelton/©1982 Arizona Board of Regents. Courtesy of The UArizona Poetry Center.

When Jorie Pepper was a toddler she lived in a small apartment in Rome that smelled of turpentine and lemons. This was 1953, 1954, her father an American journalist, her mother a Brooklyn-born painter with a storybook name, Beverly Pepper. Money was scarce and the nation lately devastated by not one but two wars. Beverly, painting in the living room, left to fetch something. Jorie was 3 years old looking at the realist scene her mother had rendered — mountains and people and animals. Jorie, alone for a moment, placed her finger in a swirl of brilliant oil. She traced wet loops on the canvas as her mother walked back in. Jorie had never seen her mother lose her temper before; she would never see her lose it again. Beverly picked up her daughter and threw her across the room. From his office Jorie’s father came running. This story is told without the slightest hint of self-pity; it is not a record of trauma, not a failure of affection. That was not what had been communicated at all. “I understood something there,” she says now. The work of art, she saw, was vivid and urgent in her mother’s mind, real, “more real than me.”

“Can you hear it?” Beverly once said to her young daughter, standing in a field. “What?” asked Jorie, alarmed. “The pull of the earth.” Beverly Pepper claimed to be able to hear it at its center, its molten iron core. Jorie thought she was mad, though it was not a madness one could dismiss. Standing next to her was like standing next to a divinity, a force. Beverly Pepper loved ice cream, vodka, and baseball. She wore clothes she’d made herself from material she bought at the Roman flea market where you could buy back your bike after it was stolen. She was having some kind of crisis and took 10-year-old Jorie on a six-month tour of the world. In Angkor Wat, among the monkeys and the roots and the buildings the roots had thrust up from the earth, Beverly Pepper decided she was a sculptor, not a painter. In Japan, she bought Jorie a kimono and forced her to go to Japanese school with it, though Jorie did not know Japanese, and the family they were staying with sent their own child to school in western dress. In India, she stood on the banks of the Ganges and declared that she and her child would wade into water scattered with the ashes of the dead. I know I didn’t even touch that place, Jorie wrote later, in a poem in which she describes screaming in the hotel afterward, sedated with Demerol. She / tried to hold me to her, I’m sure, / making it worse, / since her body (in particular) was / no longer relevant.

Beverly Pepper the sculptor called her daughter in from playing to hold some metal as she welded. The sparks were cold. She stopped wearing fantastical clothes and pared back to jeans and boots and work gloves; “to get out of the way of the work.” She got commissions and added and added, spent the commission to improve the materials and make the work bigger.

In Rome, Jorie played hide-and-seek in medieval churches and realized only later that the sun had set. She was a good hider. A watcher. “I would hide somewhere, waiting to be found, which is a very interesting condition to be in in a church,” she says. “Waiting to be found. ” Her father was not a practicing Catholic but was expert in Catholicism, befriended a pope and wrote a book about him. “That’s a sacrament,” he would say, “the Eucharist.” Beverly Pepper “would become,” Jorie says, “very Jewish in a Catholic church.” “That Piero is not one of his great ones and let me tell you why,” she would say. “Beverly,” said Jorie’s father, “we’re in the middle of the Mass.” Staring at a fresco, Beverly might say, “He was given that chunk of wall, and he had to deal with that column in the corner, and he had to tell the story he was commissioned to tell.” Perhaps it was sacred to someone, but it was also installation art, all of it.

The financial situation, until Jorie was in her teens, was at any given moment “potentially catastrophic.” When they ran out of money, Beverly would say “something will sell,” and it was slightly annoying to her daughter that it always turned out to be true. “It’s scary to have someone who is both an improviser and a perfectionist,” Graham says. “That’s a hard thing to have as a mother. You don’t know what the rules are.” Beverly could turn her perfectionism on others. “I’m not your sculpture!” Jorie would say. But there was something deeper, something in the nature of being raised by an artist, an uncertainty that went beyond money into the structure of reality. “It was unnerving,” says Graham, “that each piece seemed to bring into view its own way of being made.”

Beverly Pepper working on Contrappunto in 1964. Photo: Courtesy of Beverly Pepper Studio

For months — sometimes for four hours at a time — Jorie Graham speaks to me through her smartphone, a deceptively small object she casually calls “the outermost emissary of a gigantic network, the tentacular outreach of vast systems.” Behind the black screen, a billion voices come or do not come to agreement under the cover of what seems like silence. Lately, she has taken to asking people when they think the sun will set. “They give the wildest answers!” she says, her voice bright with astonishment. “Six-thirty, they say. No, it’s 4:34.”

A life tethered to a phone is a life tethered to a present tense, a stream of insistent notifications (ding!) beckoning the mind back to now. The technology is “fixing us into the absolute present,” she says. “It’s like herding creatures off a cliff or gathering humans into a kind of narrow enclosure where they are highly concentrated, terrified, lulled, narcotized or numbed, driven by scarcity, to survive in the wasteland of the absolute present.” The internet beckons into a flat now, a constant “attending to,” a well of insistent digital need. She notices in the people around her “a sense of shame without a clear source, a sense of scarcity,” a sense of “entrapment.” There is not space for the mind to build a picture of people who do not yet exist.

It is on her phone, against the advice of her oncologist, her husband, her daughter, that Jorie Graham reads the news: Ukraine, flooding, famine. “She can’t help it,” a friend said of the way Graham ushers modernity into a poem. Runaway involves encounters with Siri and the Nest app. The internet is ever present and real and beneath the threshold of visibility, and in this it resembles time, which is to say it’s the kind of thing Graham is capable of making felt.

Jorie Graham won the Pulitzer in 1996, by which time critic Helen Vendler had already credited her with channeling a “new sort of poetry.” Here were rapture, ecstasy, and despair, in a poetry that coalesced into “clouds of thought, accumulating and breaking open,” the wonder of a thinking mind unable or unwilling to close in on conclusion. There was, in this trilingual poet, “an unembarrassed range of cultural and linguistic reference,” a playful historical erudition that allowed her to traverse time. Here was a poet engaged, according to the poet Joanna Klink, in “a relentless back and forth” between herself and an object she happened to come across, an encounter not relinquished until “something unexpectedly gives way.” Here was a poetry unconcerned with character, fighting to escape the bounds of personality.

Graham is now 72, but even as a young woman she was fascinated by the idea of late work. “It’s that feeling,” she says, “of, like, what does it mean to say of life each time: ‘There’s a new room I haven’t entered yet, and as long as I’m alive, my job is to enter the next room and potentially be mauled or changed or fail.’ ” In 1978, eight years after his suicide, she descended the Guggenheim’s spiral at a Rothko exposition; the paintings grew more recent as she went on. Once he hits Rothko, she thought, he does great Rothko. One could see Rothko becoming Rothko, and then … years of the same. At the beginning of the very Rothko Rothkos, it was as if a light exuded from the back and the sides, a bright window whose horizontal shapes occluded the light. But in the late-Rothko Rothkos, “there’s no light coming through anymore,” she says, “as if the blinds have been drawn. He knows he’s trapped spiritually. You can’t be trapped aesthetically and not also be trapped spiritually. If your work is your life, then if your life comes to a point where you’re trapped, you’re like any animal, if you can’t get out, you’re done. If you can’t move forward, you’ve been hunted into a corner, even if you’re the hunter.”

There were the poets who exceeded themselves when time ran short: Elizabeth Bishop, Keats (yes, Keats, at 24, knew the end was coming, the work grew late), and Yeats, especially Yeats, who “lifted off at the end.” There was Jackson Pollock. “Pollock hits Pollock. He does the drip paintings, and everybody loves that. And then he wants to change, and he actually tries to reintroduce figuration into his abstraction. But he’s the guy who’s not supposed to do that. He self-destructs not long after. I always thought they didn’t want him to change.”

They don’t want you to change. Jorie Pepper married Bill Graham and enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was never comfortable with her work; she had to choose between him and the poetry. She did not choose him. She next married James Galvin. They lived very visibly in Iowa City, emanating the air of writerliness students came from all quarters seeking.

Before celebrated poet D. A. Powell was celebrated poet D. A. Powell, he was just another of Graham’s students at the Writers’ Workshop, and she asked him one day to run the class, which he did, but it was not a class in which much was workshopped, because the students spent most of the three hours discussing the tantalizing mystery of Jorie Graham’s absence. Students describe leaving her office hours crying with gratitude, the sense of having been understood. She would spend three hours on the 29 lines of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” spinning out references to art and history students would not understand but would seek immediately after at a bookstore owned by a poet who was a poet precisely because, years previous, Graham had changed her life. It was all one could do to keep up. “A mind like quicksilver,” in the words of former student and acclaimed poet Robyn Schiff. One prominent writer told me he assumed her talks were rehearsed, so fully conceived and clean of cliché did they appear, but he has since been in enough rooms with her to know she simply speaks with a fluidity other people would have to practice. She might casually bring a Caravaggio into the conversation in 1997 and in 2022 a student might see the same painting and recall her words and think, Oh. Oh yes. I see what you mean now. She walked home barefoot to feel the grass under her feet. If you invited her out she might say, “No, I’m just going to sit here,” and stare into the distance. She was “fun to shop with”; she wore all black, to “get out of the way of the work,” but she would insist you try on everything. She was playful in the way of someone unafraid.

Jorie Graham had five miscarriages until something nestled deep in her uterus and she began to worry about something new. Her heroes were Bishop and Dickinson, both mothered though not mothers, and she wondered if she would be trading one kind of power for another.

Emily Dickinson did not learn to tell clock time until the age of 15, a secret she kept from the father who had tried and failed to teach her. Heavily pregnant, Jorie went to Emily Dickinson’s grave. She approached the gravestone; no answers came. She walked to Emily’s stately home, yellow with green shutters. She just needed to see the space where Emily worked; she would know something then. Through the gate, at the top of the steps, three women answered the door. Three women, in Jorie’s line of work, are “The Fates.” She did not have an appointment and so The Fates told her she could not come in. “Please,” she said, “I just need to see her room.” She needed to see where this woman had worked, where she wrote. She began to cry. The women let her go to Emily Dickinson’s room. Her desk was not there. It was on loan, The Fates said, to Harvard. The spot where the desk had been was very empty, and so in place of the desk, someone had placed, by the window, a cradle.

She named the baby Emily. Everything changed. “You have a child in your arms who you know is mortal,” she told a friend. Graham pushed her soft daughter high on a swing at dusk in Iowa City and she found new access into the nature of reality. She had thrust someone into time. “That gash you create in the evening air at your highest,” she wrote in “Lapse” —

your own unique opening

which you can never fill,

cannot ever crawl back through and out,

except when that one moment comes and

     it will open and you will go,

I brought you in here I think in the


in the grass and the town and the blinking


in the dozens of lowering suns circling us

     in them.

The working artist’s daughter had a daughter. Beverly, nursing a martini, gave 4-year-old Emily a martini glass full of milk, taught her to play poker, and kept the money she won from her granddaughter. Beverly’s work had grown to enormous proportions; she melted down iron and made clean sets of 15-foot pillars in competition with the sky. “Nothing is ever big enough,” she said. She cut into train cars. She transformed wide swaths of land with towers and amphitheaters, work that followed the contours of the earth. She placed 40-foot iron pillars in Federal Plaza, a block-length parkscape that comprised one of Manhattan’s largest permanent installations of sculpture, as if she had willed the molten core of the earth upward toward the stars.

As an adult, Graham began to notice in her mother a nervousness born of insecurity. Beverly Pepper was the only woman in the room, in the studio, in the factory. She had grown up very poor, sharing a bed with siblings in half a house in Flatbush, and had not been educated in the same institutions of other artists of similar caliber, had not been backed by the same critical vocabularies. Sometimes, in public, a kind of mid-Atlantic accent crept into her speech. She could name-drop, and given her social life in Rome, she absolutely had names to drop: Fellini, Antonioni, Vidal. A review so brutal it would be mentioned, decades later, in the reviewer’s obituary sent Beverly Pepper to bed for two weeks. (Everyone in here, Graham wrote later, wants to be taken off somebody’s list / wants to be placed on somebody else’s list.) She got up and removed herself from the New York art world. Beverly Pepper would spend increasing amounts of time in Italy, and until the last days of her life, she would never stop working.

Emily was raised in her mother’s office as her mother had been raised in Beverly’s studio. In the summers, they retreated to Wyoming, where Emily had no other children with whom to play; in a patch of light pouring through the kitchen window Jorie extended her hands and formed two puppets, Baba and Gro-gro, a bunny and an alligator, long-standing characters whose ongoing and ultimately irresolvable conflict (Gro-gro wanted to eat Baba’s ears; Baba could turn its ears to stone) endured for years in the family psyche. Jorie transformed a broom and wool sock into a horse. Once Emily, bored, 7, having heard some reference to the American Civil War, asked her mother what that was. Jorie took a beat. Her explanation began with the French Revolution.

Emily attended public school in Iowa City. What Jorie Graham describes as her “first encounter with the school board” involved a complaint about multiplication tables; namely, her child was not being required to memorize them “as generations and generations before her had, such that they look at three times three and they can pull out, from within themselves, the nine. They know it. They’ve got the answer inside them. You’re now saying: You don’t have to have it inside you. You just punch it into this machine, it has it inside it.” At a dinner party at the home of Mark Strand, she met Peter Sacks. He was a handsome tall South African, an Olympic-level swimmer, a scholar and professor who would soon devote himself to painting. Uselessness, she wrote, is the last form love takes. She married him and the marriage was not like the other marriages. Her success was also his.

She and Sacks would both ascend to Harvard. She published book after book, eight of them, during this marriage. When she criticized his work, he took it with grace. When he criticized hers, she had what she lightly characterizes as “meltdowns.” He is willing to go through that, she marvels. She taught thousands of students, including, recently, a Ph.D. candidate named Amanda Gunn who was studying poetry, ephemerality, and Black pleasure. During the course of Jorie Graham’s workshop, Gunn was struck down with debilitating depression. Graham called her in bed. “I’m in bed,” Gunn said. “I can’t get out of bed.” It seemed to Gunn that she couldn’t write about anything else until she wrote about the depression, which she did not know how to do. “What if you don’t write about the depression,” said Graham. “What if you write from the predicament of it.” Amanda considered this: the predicament of it. “You’re in bed,” said Graham. “You can’t get out of bed. What’s in the bed?” In the bed there were candy wrappers and Gatorade bottles and romance novels. I’ll tell you what there is in this bed, writes Amanda Gunn in her seven-part series on depression, included in her forthcoming debut.

In 2020, Beverly Pepper was 97 years old, housebound in Todi, which is to say it was hard for her to get to the airplane hangar at the center of her home where she oversaw the fabrication of her works. She was so frugal her barely working refrigerator spoiled her food and made her sick. Jorie bought her a new one, and Beverly spoke as if it were an unimaginable luxury, this new appliance; she never stopped thanking her daughter for it. “How many people have a Jorie Graham writing about them?” Beverly said looking up from the notebook where she was still, at 97, sketching coiled sculptural forms. Imagine the feeling of efficacy; you are so determined that your child be open to experience you drag her around the world, force her into the Ganges, and she answers with a new kind of poetry. Has any parent ever succeeded so well? “Why aren’t I in more of your poems?” Beverly once asked. The truth was that Jorie didn’t feel a pull to her mother’s art. They weren’t asking the same questions. She was just Mom, always working.

Jorie could sense her mother roaming the earth, searching for sites for works that were not yet settled. There were three sets of 40-foot Cor-Ten columns, of which two had been placed. As Beverly became disoriented, among her last words to Jorie were “put them in desert light.”

The moment Beverly died in her home in Italy, Jorie watched a woman rise from a prayer and lean in to listen for the sound of Beverly’s breath. Jorie watched the woman leave the room and return with others. She watched her mother’s body as it was undressed and bathed. Jorie watched from her office at Harvard, between classes, through a surveillance device she had set up in her mother’s room and repeatedly told her caretakers not to block. It was on the Nest app that she watched her mother die.

People had always misunderstood the nature of Jorie Graham’s privilege. It wasn’t money, of which, for a long time, there had been none. It was the inborn conviction that a life devoted to art was a life devoted to a deeper reality; her mother’s painting not just real, but more real than me. It was a conviction she passed on to generations of students, some of whom went on to become hallowed literary figures. “There was a way of being in that classroom,” Schiff says, “where you never questioned: Is this endeavor important? Does this art form matter? These questions just were not posed.” Here was a professor, says poet John Beer, who taught poetry as a “site for the disclosure of truth,” not merely of self-expression or an investigation into the operations of language, with a conviction not even particularly prevalent in other poets. This was an ethic but also an inheritance.

In a lecture Graham asserts that a single oar hitting the water is a dramatically different aesthetic choice than many doing the same; colder, more piercing, more resonant. Her parents were dead; she was now the elder, first in line against the barrier of mortality. Put them in desert light. It fell to Graham to coordinate the fabrication of four of her mother’s massive columns, each of which would weigh over two tons, a tremendously complex job laden with logistical obstacles. She had to follow the price of steel, the fluctuating cost of labor in a pandemic, the endless contracts that accompany a work of public art. These tasks filled her with anxiety, at every turn a problem.

COVID kept her in the house in Martha’s Vineyard. She was not writing; she had not yet become the person who could write the next book. “Every time I go to the blank page,” Graham says, “I feel there must be yet more to be initiated into in this life. There must be more.” The more had not revealed itself. Peter, a picture of masculine vigor, wore a wet suit to the beach and plunged daily into the Atlantic. One day in November 2020, he was running along the seawall at full speed when he slipped and felt his pelvis, sacrum, and hip shatter on rock and then the cold Atlantic on his shivering, now useless legs. He was a 70-year-old man with eight distinct fractures threatened by a rising tide from which he could not walk or crawl. He dragged himself on his elbows up the shore for 40 minutes. It was winter, the temperature in the low 40s; no one came. The sky had never seemed so big. Several times he passed out and came to again. He screamed; no one heard. He expected to die. Half a mile up the shore, a dog ran up to him, followed by its owner. Jorie was not allowed to see him, not when he was taken from the beach or cared for at the local hospital or helicoptered to Boston. For 30 days, COVID protocol kept them apart. When he came home, he was confined to the second floor of the house; his head throbbed with a new pain. Jorie was strong through the worst of it, but as he recovered, she felt filled with a terrible awareness.

A place was found for the columns, now known as the Stanford Columns. Something was happening to Graham’s memory of her mother. When she died on the screen of the phone in Jorie’s hand, she was suddenly dispersed, not there. With time, she became memories and stories. With more time, she became others’ stories. She became what she left: the art. Beverly Pepper had gotten out of the way of the work. For the first time in her life, Jorie could see the work. These sculptures, she saw, did not attempt to convey, as other such sculptures might, a feeling of weightlessness. They made you feel the weight, the gravity under which they bore up. When finally erected, the Stanford Columns would convey not a sense of historical but of geological time. The light would move around them, time passing through each of the four in its own mysterious way, and to commune with them would be to know something about when the sun would set.

Eleven months after her husband’s fall, an acupuncturist suggested she get a pelvic ultrasound. She first heard the oncologist’s words as serious endometrial cancer. The word, though, was serous, which was worse. During her previous cancer, the doctor had spoken of being beyond scans. They spoke now only of being between them. The surveillance would endure.

There would be no next book, she assumed now. She felt overwhelmed by an unwelcome silence. Terror came in strange waves. Her mother was dead and her husband shattered and the decades she had expected to have — 97 years her mother had been granted! — cruelly diminished. There was Ukraine and the pandemic dead and most of all the rapid destruction of the thin film of life on the surface of the earth Emily’s young daughter would inherit. It was surprising to her, her inability to make peace with the diminishing days. She had written of bringing a daughter into time and of watching her parents leave time and none of that understanding diminished the shock, now, of her own place in it. Despair loomed, a closing in, and it did not promise a new music. The thought, first and foremost, of leaving behind her family. You have to keep living, she had written in Fast. You have to make it not become waiting.

The doctors told her to walk to mitigate what might otherwise be irreversible nerve damage. A neurologist friend told her the key to preventing “chemo brain” was a forceful imagining, a synesthetic exercise of the synapses. She was ill and slow but she put on one shoe and another, she put on two scarves, she dug out a hat. She walked and she imagined. The path she walked through the island remote and wooded, the trees tall and bare in the bright winter sun, ascended by dry winding vines; nothing in view precluded the possibility of an ancient world. She was conscious of the feeling of each muscle of her feet on the surface of the earth. In late winter, the light is slightly changing — you feel every last leaf and rock all sensing that change is upon us, and the earth is turning, and everything is reawakening.

Her work was to forcefully imagine incipient spring: roots sending out sugars, bulbs underfoot cracking open with first tendrils, sap in trees rising. She wanted something to flow through her: the vertical pull of the earth. Its molten core. The current that sparks a dividing cell. She did feel it. She felt it, coursing up from the earth through the tips of her fingers. At home, at her kitchen table, she wrote: The years pulled their lengths through us like long wet strings. She wrote: Give me a day back.

Her mother was receding into the past, leaving new space — a literal expanding set of fields of pastness till the huge currents of the “ancestral” opened up for me. With this new experience of the past came a new relationship to the future. She could cast herself into it and write back to the present. The silence, she saw when the music finally came, was stronger now. She did not have the luxury of the line unfurling across the page. She would need to hammer back with strong, short beats.

Grief is a form

which can shape this

if you want a shape.

But you can also sit here

a long time

without ever again

needing a shape.

She called the book To 2040 and, though it felt somehow unfinished, sent it off in July. The clock in the kitchen read 9:42. It was late summer now on the island, and it would not rain. It would start to rain, but each drop would evaporate before it reached the ground. Virga, they call it. “It’s gone to Nantucket,” people said of each storm. “It’s gone to the mainland.” The Vineyard stayed dry through lightning.

When the rain finally broke, she walked outside and sat on a low stone wall. The rain felt different than it ever had before, because she had never before been bald for it, never before felt fresh drops on her bare head. What a blessing, she thought.

What time will the sun set today? What is it you are doing to justify interrupting the sound of the earth? On a late summer evening on an island on a planet, Jorie Graham sat on a stone wall in the rain. The light turned to darkness. She walked inside to her kitchen, in thrall to something, and she wrote without stopping. We are / alive in the death / of this iteration of / earth. It was the last poem of the last book, and she hasn’t written a poem since.

Jorie Graham’s Late Work.pdf7.14 MB