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Magazine Article


Kirsch, Adam


The New Republic (2000)

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by Jorie Graham

(Ecco, 114 pp., $23)


An admirer once approached T. S. Eliot with a question about “Ash Wednesday,” perhaps his most obscure poem: “What did you mean when you wrote ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree’?” The poet replied: “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.’” This is the expected response, the only possible response. If poetry really is the best words in the best order, then no paraphrase or explication of a line can ever be as accurate as the line itself. And yet it is impossible to deny that Eliot’s line is strange—so strange, in fact, that is asks us to ask what it means. 

The line announces itself as allegorical. Thinking of the leopard, the wolf, and the lion that accost Dante at the beginning of The Inferno, we are convinced that Eliot’s three leopards have some symbolic meaning; and, following Dante, it is natural to take the leopards as symbols of bodily appetites, violent lusts, which have destroyed the poet (“fed to satiety / On my legs my heart my liver”). But unlike Dante’s symbols—unlike the elaborate allegory at the end of the Purgatorio, where the “twenty-four old men, crowned with lilies” are quite specifically the twenty-four books of the Old Testament—Eliot’s allegory is missing its key. We cannot “read” the symbol completely.

It is this experience of meaning withheld that, as much as anything, signals that we are reading a Modernist poem. Our encounter with such poetry can be described in two ways, the theoretical and the phenomenal. The theoretical level of communication proceeds directly from poet to reader over the head of the poem. On this level, the opacity of the symbol is itself a statement about the limits of communicability; it seems to instruct that language itself fails before the most important information, that the profoundest truths can only be gestured at. But it is crucial to remember that this theoretical statement is a secondary experience of the poem. It comes after the phenomenal experience that we have immediately when we read the words. First and foremost, we respond to the poem’s sound and its literal meaning. These are the bedrock of any poem, and they must be secure and available if the theoretical superstructure is to hold. Only if the poem is linguistically and formally enticing will a reader—that is, a reader who does not have a professional interest in understanding poetry—devote the time necessary to embark on the toil of theory.

It is at the phenomenal level that we read a poem. At the theoretical level, by contrast, we “do a reading” of a poem, in the academic phrase. To read is to allow the poem to shine out as what it is, to take in what it presents. To “do a reading” is to apply to the poem a technique whose product hovers above or alongside the poem itself as a ghostly presence.

The theoretical approach to poetry, moreover, is especially common in the discussion of new poetry. New poetry is usually considered at a level of generality so far removed from the poems themselves that—as is evidenced by the jacket copy and blurbs on most books—virtually any description of a poet could be applied to any other poet. To say that a poet writes “about desire,” “about the body,” “about knowledge,” tells us literally nothing about him or her: Shakespeare, Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Eliot himself all write “about desire.” But such an assignment of themes provides a rough-and-ready way to categorize, and to direct our reading of, unfamiliar poetry. It promotes not the language, but the meaning; and even more, the elusive meaning.

This process has been exceptionally visible in the career of Jorie Graham, who is among the most difficult writers, in any genre, in contemporary American literature. She has been received with virtually unanimous enthusiasm, even though hardly enough calendar time has passed for her poems to be fully understood by most readers. The reason, I think, is that Graham writes about important and difficult subjects that most poets do not approach. Her poems are not mired in personal history and group identity; they treat nothing less than epistemology and metaphysics. And this makes them well suited to critics, who instinctively ask what a poem is about rather than what it is. Indeed, the key to understanding Graham’s poetry is that, more so than even most Modernist poetry, it lives and breathes on the level of theory, with a corresponding diminishment of its phenomenal presence. Graham’s verse demands “readings” even as it resists reading.


What really happens when we encounter one of Graham’s poems? The logic of her verse is not just allegorical; it is positively algebraic. In allegory, the meaning of a symbol may not be immediately evident, but the symbol must have some more or less natural relation to what it symbolizes. To take the Dantean example: men are not books of the Bible, but old men are commonly thought to be wise, to be teachers of wisdom, and the books of the Bible also teach wisdom. In algebra, by contrast, the signifier is totally arbitrary; it s an “x,” and so it quite literally “stands in” for something else, in that it must be removed for the equation to be solved. When, in reading Graham, we find lines such as these:

opening and shutting to feel them rub

against each other in here now

(only in here),

the shut dark, the open dark—

and in between the ________ where the

suspicion of meaning

begins. . . .

or lines such as these:

I swear to you this begins with that girl

on a day after sudden rain

and then out of nowhere sun (as if

to expose the what of the hills—

the white glare of x, the scathing splendor 

of y,

the wailing interminable _________?). . . .

we know that we are being instructed to read algebraically, to solve the poem for “x” and “y” and “______.”

The entire organization of Graham’s poetry on every level—theme, narrative, syntax, metaphor, titles, footnotes—is also algebraic. At every level, something crucial is left out, which the reader is meant to find and put back in—or, just as significant, to be unable to find, a failure which itself becomes part of the poem’s theoretical freight. To understand what is involved in the attempt to read Graham, consider a characteristic passage. This is the beginning of “The Guardian Angel of Point-of-View,” from The Errancy, which appeared in 1997:

A mourning dove. And again what you suffer

seems, ah, as if yet unlived through.

The bird keeps calling. You are in the middle

of the call.

There is thirsting in this work.

I must uphold—faultless—each outline—up—

each sloughing-off of meaning

into form. Ah…the bird keeps calling.

Behold—says my headless swording-in—this 

A gibbering, then a surprising fastness,

then the opulence of

the stilled thing, seen

There is a thirsting for ever greater 


for ever more refined

beginning. Desire for a stillness that truly un-

folds. Thirst,

because I’m never wholly in creation,

unlike these I am compelled to witness, there, everywhere. . . .

Oh to taste the limits of the single aperture.

To have that one beam burn from one’s head—

the snapping of a retina—no errancy—

and starched, voracious—(plunder without narration)—

this view the very drink for whom these drinkers are

created . . . . 

It is evident that one cannot read this poem as one usually reads a poem, with confidence that the poet will tell us more or less what she is talking about. We can measure the magnitude of the deprivation if we compare Graham’s poem to another English poem that begins with a birdcall:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One moment past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thy happiness—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Here Keats presents us with two things—himself and a nightingale—in a clear, though rich, relation: the poet is listening to the bird singing, and is having an emotion in reaction to that song. The nightingale is not named in this stanza, but the title tells us what is being addressed, healing the one potential gap in our knowledge.

In “The Guardian Angel of Point-of-View,” graham, too, writes about hearing a bird singing, and her reaction to it. But her title says nothing about a bird; she directs us to look for an angel, which will not be found in any literal sense. And her rapid, choppy style does not pause to set the scene. Basic information is given in the wrong order, or not at all. We are forced to fill in the gaps, to provide paraphrases and references—in short, to interpret, to “do a reading”—from the very beginning.

At first there is just a bird, and no song; but the reader, familiar with a tradition of bird poems from Keats through Arnold, hardy, and Frost, tacitly “reads” the song into the bare statement “A mourning dove.” And the third line justifies such an interpretation, for we are told that the “bird keeps calling”—that is, it was calling all along, from the beginning. Similarly, we amend the poet’s syntax: Graham says “you are in the middle of the call,” but we know that she is the one writing the poem, that it comes out of her experience, not ours, and so for “you are” we read “I am.” And this emendation, too, is justified: for in the sixth line, she changes to the first-person, “I must uphold.”

These are trivial corrections. We know automatically that the poet means something slightly other than what she says. Thus are we prepared to make a more substantial sort of correction, or interpretation, when we come upon the line “There is thirsting in this work.” The work referred to seems to be simply listening to a bird, which would in no circumstances actually make one thirsty. We take the word “thirsting,” therefore, as a clue that Graham means more than just standing-there-and-hearing. Thirsting implies activity, and one of her frequent themes is that perception is active, not passive. So we discount the actual word “thirsting,” with its specific meanings, and replace it with something more general: “There is effort, or labor, in this work.” Similarly, in the tenth line, Graham gives us a series of words relating to the birdsong: what she hears is first “gibbering,” then “fastness,” then “opulence.” These words, too, are inapt. Perhaps a bird’s voice could gibber, but to hold fast is a tactile image, and “opulent is in still another category, with social implications of liberal magnificence. So we turn from the words themselves to the progression that they imply, a sort of less-more-most of perception: first a chaos of sensations, then a fixed sensation, then a richly detailed sensation.

Already the algebraic logic of Graham’s poem is evident: understanding her language is a matter of replacing arbitrary or half-appropriate words with the concepts for which they stand. And the same sort of interpretation is reprised, on a higher level, when we come to Graham’s even more gnomic, and obviously philosophical, statements:

I must uphold—faultless—each outline—up—

each sloughing-off of meaning

into form.

What can this mean in relation to hearing a bird’s song, which as sound has no visual “outline”? It seems again like a statement about the active and constructive role played by the listener. Hearing is not just a matter of receiving sense-data from the outside; it requires “upholding … each outline,” that is, imposing fixity on something essentially formless. Exactly how this is connected with the description of the birdsong “sloughing-off … meaning into form” is not clear: meaning and form seem to be equivalent in this context. It may express a semi-mystical feeling that the birdsong embodies a higher meaning, or a higher level of reality, which decays into a merely aesthetic perception of form; but this interpretation must remain tentative.

We can go on in this way and reach a certain understanding of the poem. We may conclude that this poem is “about” the desire for perfect attentiveness to nature, which is impossible to satisfy. Graham writes that she longs for “ever greater aperture”—or openness, awareness, receptivity—so that she can really take in the birdcall, hear it completely and hold it in the mind, so that this fuller act of perception might reveal a higher truth. And this “thirst” for a more complete understanding of the material world is distinctively human; it is what keeps us from being “wholly in creation” like the complacent animals, untroubled by what surrounds them.

But even this level of interpretation must be superseded when we come to the most opaque passages of the poem.

Oh to taste the limits of the single aperture.

To have that one beam burn from one’s head—

the snapping of a retina—no errancy—

and starched, voracious—(plunder without narration)—

this view the very drink for whom these drinkers are

created. . . .

All these line breaks, dashes, and parentheses are, at most, interchangeable techniques of pacing, and unhelpful to the work of understanding. We are left with a baffling set of ideas, which stand in no clear relation to one another. A few lines previously, Graham has been asking for “ever greater aperture,” but now she asks to “taste the limits of the single aperture.” This seems to mean: to experience the largest receptivity possible for a single human’s senses, that is, to be resigned to the limits. But this is followed by the wish for “having that one beam burn from one’s head,” which implies not the consummation but the destruction, and thereby the transcendence, of the beam (the eyebeam) of an individual’s “point of view” (to look back to the title). How do these two statements stand in relation to one another? Are they the same? Or does the second intentionally go beyond the first? Or must we reread the first in terms of the second—say, by reading “taste the limits” not as “enjoy the uttermost” but “devour or consume the limits”—and, in so doing, taste them as we taste food when we consume it? And is “the snapping of a retina” a snapping open or a snapping shut? Or is it a snapping like firewood when it is burned away?

All these must remain “readings,” provisional at best. But a clue to the proper understanding may be held in what follows. (Reading Graham often requires this retrospective rereading, not—as with many poems—for pleasure and enhancement, but for bare comprehension.) We come upon this obscure line:

this view the very drink for whom these drinkers are

created. . . .

The most natural interpretation of this line is: this view, the natural world, is a drink intended to satisfy human beings, the drinkers who thirst. But the grammar suggests the reverse: that humans as drinkers are created in order to serve the view, the “drink.” The situation is further complicated by the use of “for whom” instead of “for which”: “whom” suggests a personal antecedent, a human referent, but in this case it is referring to “the view,” which is thus personalized. In what sense can it be said that humans are created for nature, and not vice versa?

Interpretation can proceed with the guidance of the word “errancy” in this passage. The title of Graham’s book, remember, is The Errancy: clearly, a passage in which the word appears is of central importance. Errancy is an unusual word, and in her notes Graham seeks to illuminate it with a quotation, from a scholarly book, which points to the connection of “errancy” with the Latin errare, to wander (whence the phrase “knight errant”), and thus with “error.” Errancy is a wandering and an error; or, to put it another way, errancy is the region of freedom which allows for both productive wandering, as seeking, and aimless wandering around.

To a reader familiar with Heidegger, such a sentence has a familiar sound. Heidegger is a presence in Graham’s verse; in earlier books she has used epigraphs and titles drawn from his essays. So it is not as preposterous as it might sound to look for clarification to an essay by Heidegger, one which is not specifically cited in Graham’s notes. In “The Anaximander Fragment,” we find the following passage:

As it reveals itself in beings, Being withdraws. In this way, by illuminating them, Being sets beings adrift in errancy. Beings come to pass in that errancy by which they circumvent Being and establish the realm of error (in the sense of a prince’s realm or in the realm of poetry). Error is the space in which history unfolds. In error what happens in history bypasses what is like Being.

Without going too far afield, it is pertinent to mention that one of Heidegger’s central concepts is that human consciousness, human being, serves as a clearing, or Lichtung, within Being—in the sense of a clearing in the forest, an open space in which things can be seen. There is a way, never definite, in which Heidegger implies that Being as a whole would be bereft or impaired if there were no human beings to provide this clearing. As a result, humans owe to Being the proper use of their clearing, which is to think about and to protect Being; this thinking is what allows Being to appear, to be disclosed. In the clearing, things are visible, “lit up,” or, as the above passage says, “illuminated,” by Being. But this is only possible because they are let loose into “errancy,” or freedom, which also makes it possible for them to be ignored or concealed; this is how we can “bypass what is like Being.” The human realm is one of error as well as of truth, of missing things as well as seeing them.

Now, equipped with this passage, we may return to Graham’s problematic line. She seems to be suggesting, in a Heideggerian sense, that “these drinkers” are really created to serve nature, or Being, by “drinking it in”—that is, eagerly and carefully regarding it, taking note of it, thinking about it. This connects back with the initial image of the birdsong, which stands in for nature or Being as a whole as one of the things which must be wholly, attentively perceived: it tells us, Behold this, and take care for and of Being. And this perfect attentiveness would transcend errance—“no errancy”—in that it would become impossible to “bypass” or to mistake what we perceive. We would become united with Being, instead of being an “aperture,” or a clearing, in Being.


This “reading,” lengthy and digressive as it is, provides one possible interpretation of one part of one poem. So one can imagine the sheer effort of patient reading and re-reading, of solving and cross-referencing, that is necessary in reading a whole book of Graham’s poetry. And even when we have done our “reading,” we are left with the question: is this what she intended? It is of the nature of her poetry that it is impossible to say for sure. If we read her algebraically, it is always with the proviso that she alone—if even she—guards the complete solution, the master key that might unlock the poem.

There are two possible explanations for this withholding. The first is that Graham knows that much of what she writes is unintelligible—at least at first, and sometimes at last—and consciously works the experience of failure into the texture of the poems. We are led to this conclusion by the way in which the theoretical and phenomenal experiences of Graham’s poetry chime: her poetry is often “about” the frustration of our perception by distractions and the limitations of the senses, and many facts of her work are deliberately intended to frustrate the reader.

There are her titles, which are often grand (“Short History of the West”) or obscurely philosophical (“What Calls For Thinking,” a Heideggerian title; “Which But for Vacancy”) or just obscure (“Underneath (9)”), but almost never stand in a distinct relation to the poems that they name. And there are her intricately unhelpful notes. They do not at all elucidate; they further mystify by hinting at secret references—quotations and allusions so minor that nobody but the poet would know they were there, but whose presence adds another source of complication for the reader to unravel. There is, for instance, this note from Swarm:

David Jones’s work—especially in Anathemata and In Parenthesis—provided inspiration for this work in a very general sense. “Underneath (Upland)” is an example of his influence in terms of tone and voice.

Such a note is either fantastically scrupulous (every writer could name dozens of other writers who provided “inspiration in a very general sense”), or a private thank-you written in public. Or else it is another clue: we are led to believe that if we knew the work of Jones, we would understand Graham better. But since so many writers are similarly invoked—in the notes to Swarm alone, we encounter Gunnar Ekelof, Traherne, Dickinson, Anne Carson, Hölderlin, Cixous, Susan Howe, Donald Revell, Aeschylus, and Michael Palmer—to follow Graham’s leads is functionally impossible. We are left with the bare sense that if we had read everything that Graham has read, we would understand her.

But this is as much as saying that if we knew what Graham thought, we could read what she writes. And this notion leads naturally to the second possible explanation for the great obscurity of Graham’s work. Perhaps this obscurity is not deliberate, or it is deliberate but nonetheless a failure. In this case, Graham’s poetry is obscure because it is not turned sufficiently outward to the public realm; because it refuses to leave behind the private wellsprings in which all poetry begins. With Graham, this is not, as it is with many poets, a matter of narcissism, a mere autobiographical listing of things that happened to, and resonate for, the poet. In such cases we generally comprehend what the poet is saying, but do not care. In Graham’s case, however, we may care to understand, but we may be unable to; or we may not care enough to devote the effort that is required for understanding.

Very often one feels that the effort Graham expects really is too much to ask. Living inside what is clearly a rich and active mental world, Graham may forget that her readers live in other worlds—not necessarily more impoverished, just different—and that her language must be sufficiently clear, or explained with sufficient clarity, to bridge the worlds. But instead of this inner clarity, which must proceed from out of the poem itself, she gives us masses of external hints, as though she could re-create, through appropriate reference, the environment in which her own thinking takes place. There is an air of self-congratulation about the enterprise. (This tactic was most obvious in Materialism (1993), a book that contained dozens of long extracts from Bacon, Da Vinci, Brecht, Audubon, and miscellaneous others, as though we would know, with these texts in hand, how to read the texts that came from Graham’s mind.)


In her new book, Graham’s obscurity has taken a great leap forward. Her first style—the style of Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980) and Erosion (1983)—was already complex, but still comparatively lucid. From The End of Beauty (1987) to The Errancy, Graham becomes progressively more obscure, more allusive, and her lines take on the choppy expansiveness of “stream of consciousness.” But in Swarm there is a reduction even more radical than the previous expansion. Instead of putting in more information, more fleeting thoughts, more images, she is now taking out virtually everything.

I have reduced all to lower case.

I have crossed out passages.

I have severely trimmed and cleared.

Words, in Swarm, are stranded in an expanse of blanks:

Mastery     scarcity     desiccation     noon



name of



The gods that sleep in museums. . . .

(constitution     ceremony)

(take that look off     your face)

Reading a line such as “mastery scarcity desiccation noon” is like encountering four points in an empty space. Having learned to read Graham algebraically, we must now read her geometrically, and recall the maxim that any two points define a line. In Swarm, Graham is counting on the mind’s inclination to compose a figure from points, to join the four words into a meaningful unity.

In fact, reading Graham’s earlier work requires this same operation. The line in Swarm is just the radicalization of a technique that she has often used: the juxtaposition of words from different categories of discourse, with a tacit challenge to draw the connection between them. Thus, in the title poem of The Errancy, we find “a slippery utterly ash-free delinquency,” “bloody translation,” “rumorous diamond-dust,” “christened bonfire,” “scorched comprehension”: all of them little unbalanced equations, which we must paraphrase and expand into meaning.

Reading Swarm requires us to perform such operations in almost every line. Once again there are some guideposts, concealed and ambiguous, to help us in our interpretation. The title of the book uses the word “swarm” in a particular way, as Graham’s inevitable note tells us: we are to read it not in the usual sense, as a chaotic mass, but in the technical sense of bees that “leave the hive … and fly off together in search of a new dwelling-place,” or “persons who leave the original body and go forth to found a new colony or community.” For “swarm,” in other words, read “colonize,” “begin again.”

Or, by another specialized extension of meaning, read “be born again.” The epigraph of Graham’s new book comes from Augustine: “To say I love you is to say I want you to be.” This quotation immediately situates us in a Christian context; and, reading carefully, we find Christian images and references buried throughout the text. The book as a whole can be “read” as a record of a spiritual journey, even as a turning toward Christian belief. After years of struggling to receive or to impose an order on the world, Graham seems to resign herself to the possibility that only the traditional deity can secure meaning and order.

The citation from Augustine puts us on the lookout for Christian ideas and images. And the first poem of the book is titled “from The Reformation Journal”—another Christian  term, implying not just the historical event but the spiritual state of resolving to start out again (to “swarm”), to resolve on amendment in the religious sense. As a “journal,” it seems to record the poet’s own experience of reformation. The first line of this first poem sounds, at least, like a disavowal of past error:

The wisdom I have heretofore trusted was cowardice, the leaper.

Why is cowardice “the leaper”? Is it not courage that enables one to leap forward into the unknown—to make the “leap of faith”? This remains impenetrable, though one is left—as always—with the sense that a fuller “reading” might resolve what seems like a contradiction. Still, we may proceed on the assumption that Graham is writing about a spiritual turning point, a new beginning. So when we reach this line:

A “he referring to God may be capitalized

or not.

we are confirmed in our approach. This book will apparently discuss God, though it is unsure of exactly how to address Him. 

This uncertainty resounds again in the poem’s last lines:

explain     asks to be followed

explain     remains to be seen

Paraphrasing these compacted lines, they seem to be a request: “Please explain to me this idea: ‘asks to be followed.’” Who or what is it that asks to be followed?

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

Jesus demands that we follow him; and yet this is difficult, because we cannot be sure that Jesus was God. That “remains to be seen”—and it will be seen, when God himself is seen, at the Second Coming.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . . For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.

Such intimations can be found throughout Graham’s book. Many poems seem to meditate on the difficulty of belief, specifically Christian belief, even though the titles and the contexts indicate that they are telling stories out of Greek mythology. There are a series of poems in the book called “Underneath”: “Underneath (9),” “Underneath (Upland),” “Underneath (Calypso).” (It is typical of Graham that the first poem in this sequence to appear in the book s (9), followed at intervals by (7), (1), (2), (3), (8), (11), and (13). Perhaps the misordering and omission of some numbers is significant; perhaps we are meant to rearrange them and read them in the indicated order; perhaps not. One is left mainly with an impression of willfulness.) “Underneath (9)” is divided into four sections, named for the seasons; and this suggests that Graham is telling the myth of Persephone, who is dragged “underneath” the earth, to Hades, for one season every year. And yet, lodged within this pagan armature, we find Christian ideas:


Explain    duty to remain to the end.

Duty not to run away from the good.

The good.

(Beauty is not an issue).

A wise man wants?

A master.

Beauty—that is, the pure sense-perception which has long been a concern for Graham—is no longer the most important criterion. Now goodness is the most important; and goodness, according to the wise man, Is submission to a master. The theme of submission, of obedience, again situates us in what might be a Christian context. This theme returns in a later poem, “Underneath (With Chorus)”:

The pain of my eyes is piercing

I feel your presence beside me

I know your voice in the blackness

Why should I see

Oh narrow crossroad

What is that you beg so urgently

A beginning?

A delay?

To have the god reveal to me my duty

Obedience is hard

No good life endures beyond its season

Do you know why I yield

When I have heard your reason I will know

Graham’s note refers us to a translation of Oedipus Rex, which explains some of the imagery in the poem: “the pain of my eyes” refers to Oedipus’s self-blinding, and the “crossroad” puts us in mind of the Sphinx sitting on the road before Thebes. But the final lines pursue the idea of submission, of obedience, without understanding: one must “yield” before “hearing the reason” for yielding. Oedipus did submit to Fate, but not willingly and in advance, only after being punished for his pride. To yield before “hearing the reason” is an entirely different idea. What’s more, these lines put us in mind of lines from an earlier poem in the book, “Underneath (7)”: “Blessed are those who have not seen/yet have/believed”—a line with clear echoes of the Beatitudes. And so the “crossroad” can be reread as a Christian symbol: the road of the cross, the way of Christ, which is “narrow” (“strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”).

There are enough Christian images in the book to dispel, or at least to dispute, the Greek-mythical structure which it announces. Or, to put it another way, it is possible to perform a “Christian reading” of Swarm. And in this reading we can make more sense of that strange line with which we began:

Mastery      scarcity     desiccation     noon

The first three words propose a series—most, less, least—which the fourth seemingly fails to continue; in its place should be something like “desolation,” “destruction.” It seems we are being told to solve the line, with “noon” as the variable. How, then, can “noon” be interpreted as equivalent to “desolation”?

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

The sixth hour is noon, and the time is the Passion when Jesus’s degradation—from mastery through desiccation—is completed in abandonment. Here, it seems, we find the place where “noon” means not day but darkest night.


Have we found Christian meaning in Graham’s book, or have we put it there in a “reading”? Even though this understanding of Swarm seems to offer a good way to navigate much of it, there is still something disquietingly unlikely, even arbitrary, about it. It is reminiscent of those readings of Moby-Dick in which the whale is made to stand for various capitalized concepts. Yet Graham allows us no choice but to read exegetically, theoretically; for, unlike in Moby-Dick, there is no phenomenal presence, no immediately comprehensible story. Indeed, the phenomenal experience of her poetry is a theoretical experience. To read her is to “read” her.

Difficulty is not, in itself, a reason to reject or to ignore a poem. Especially in reading the poetry of the twentieth century, one often willingly assents to Allen Tate’s statement that “poetry … demands both in its writing and in its reading all the intellectual power that we have.” Yet there is a distinction between the difficulty of obscurity and the difficulty of complexity. The latter emerges naturally from any attempt to capture a new feeling or a new idea. When Cleopatra tries to exculpate Antony from the charge of wantonness with the phrase, “his delights/Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above/The element they lived in,” there is an extraordinary concentration of metaphor that is difficult to unravel. And there is a different sort of difficulty when Eliot writes “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”: he is proposing a symbol whose logic is not immediately evident. But in both of these cases, the difficulty is in balance with a kind of perfect composure, a reserved simplicity: the poet has written exactly the right words, and the words form a natural and self-subsisting artifact. The reader’s work is to figure out how to use that artifact, how to become accustomed to its contours; nothing more.

With Graham, however, the difficulty seems rather to be a case of the poet not having written the right words, or having left some of them out. The poem seems unfinished, because it dwells in the poet’s mind, and not in the public realm where poet and reader discuss things in common:

go back

need more

having lived it leaves it    possible

explain inseparable     explain common

(the phone rings at dawn) (very occasionally)

One reads these lines with a sense not of interesting tension, but of slack juxtaposition.

Graham’s lines certainly do not remain in the reader’s memory as coherent wholes. Musically, her poems are defined by their erratic pace; they use line breaks, repetition, empty spaces, and punctuation to chop up semantic units. In this Graham is like most contemporary poets, for whom the choice of a free verse is barely a choice. If anything, her verse, because it is more complex than the standard phrase-by-phrase lineation, is more interesting than most. Yet these techniques are never strong enough to impede the mind’s stubborn tendency to read for meaning. Generally, one simply skips over Graham’s breaks and puts the sentences and phrases back together.

Free verse, especially the radically free verse that Graham uses, is often defended on the grounds that it is more faithful than formal verse to the rhythms of thought, to the vicissitudes of consciousness. And some such reason probably lies behind Graham’s musical decisions, since the way it feels to think is itself one of the major subjects of her poetry:

needed     explanation

because of the mystic nature     of the theory

and our reliance     on collective belief

Yet if we consider what really happens when we read these lines, it is clear that they sound merely like prose: “It needed explanation, because of the mystic nature of the theory and our reliance on collective belief.” We register the point about the mind’s rhythms only theoretically, after we remind ourselves that what the ear hears is not the same as what Graham has put on the page. When she does have a “sound effect,” it is generally harsh and melodramatic, a row of heavy stresses: “Wind-hurryings. Low-lying of stoppages”; “the stout-fibered living wood.” When the ear is not sensitive to a continuing pattern, from which subtle deviations can be made, it takes such loud noises to make it pay attention.

Why, after all this, should one go to the trouble of reading Graham? Her answer is to turn the question around on the reader, asking, in effect, “Howe can you admit that you are unable to read these poems?” To read her is to come across the poet in the midst of an evidently profound deliberation, whose grammar and concepts we must deduce; and if we cannot or will not do so, then we risk missing out on the profundity, and it is our loss. But surely there is no important idea. metaphysical or epistemological, that is immune to the forms of art. To imply otherwise, to suggest that there are thoughts or feelings that are too big or too deep to be made meaningful or beautiful, is really to misunderstand the nature of poetry. The poet’s work does not end with the opacity of the mind, it begins with it. As long as Jorie Graham asks her readers to fill in her blanks and solve for her x’s, she has not realized, or even approached, poetry’s greatest and truest possibilities.