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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Kate Kellaway


The Guardian, London, UK (2022)


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The American poet faces the future anguished but unblinking in this magnificent collection of her four most recent books 

our of Jorie Graham’s most recent collections have been brought together here and their importance goes beyond the literary. She is a distinguished figure on the American poetry scene, a Pulitzer prize winner and Harvard poetry professor (a much-quoted piece in the New York Times, in 2005, implied she was too successful to be trusted). But there is nothing safe about her unparalleled work. The first collection here, Sea Change, was published in 2008 when the climate crisis was less inescapably in our minds but already Graham’s consciousness of the planet’s precariousness was driving her. She is best read aloud – no more than two or three poems at a time. Too much can swiftly become too much.

The bracketed title, [To] the Last [Be] Human, can be read as imperative and/or as aftermath – present and future co-existing. A number of her poems start like entries from a log book: “Summer heat, the first early morning” (Later in Life). Or “End of autumn. Deep Fog” (End) or “Evening. Not Quite. High Winds again”. (No Long Way Round). She begins with an anchoring in the present moment before projecting away. There is often a movement, as in the book’s title, between control and loss of control, a swerve between her personal sense of self and the endangered universal. She is weather vane, sentinel, about-to-be lost soul. What makes her work required reading is her readiness to go where angels fear to write, to do the terrifying work of visualising the future. The form of several poems adheres to a right-hand margin, which contributes counter-intuitive discomfort, a reminder of the limits of freedom – no hard shoulder upon which to pull up.

I won’t live long, a poem to her granddaughter begins:

enough to see any of the new

dreams the hundreds of new kinds of suffering and weeds birds animals shouldering their

demise without possibility of re-

generation the heart in your tiny chest opening its new unimaginable ways of

opening and to what might it still


The panicky way “weeds birds animals” pile up without a comma leads, without a breath, to the anguished question of how and whether and what her granddaughter might feel. There is no such thing, in this poetry, as an untainted present. The flow, at times, reminds you of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, although more diluvial, and the preoccupation with time of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets – minus the consoling decorum. Every poem is an attempt at orientation – sometimes within a disorienting void. However considered Graham’s revisions, the sense is of being in the moment with her – intimacy the closest thing to consolation.

Strange to say, the moving poems about the death of her parents bring relief because they describe a recognisable world. In Reading to My Father, she sits next to her father’s body:

Day has arrived and crosses out the candlelight. Here it is now the

silent summer – extinction – migration ­ the blue-jewel

butterfly you loved, goodbye, the red kite, the dunnock, the crested tit, the cross-

billed spotless starling (near the top of the list) smoky gopher – spud-

wasp – the named storms, extinct fonts, ingots, blindmole-made

tunnels – oh your century, there in you, how it goes out –

It is, with its impromptu, heartbroken, antiquated specifics, a list altogether different from the rushed, comma-free one. And in No Long Way Round, leisurely grief becomes a thing of the past: “Also how we mourned our dead – had ample earth, took time….” At 72, Jorie Graham is writing for her life – and ours.

Poem (an extract)
The earth said

remember me.

The earth said

don’t let go.

said it one day

when I was