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Magazine Article


Lewis, Gwyneth


Times (UK) Literary Supplement (1998)

Full Text:

Jorie Graham - THE ERRANCY
124pp. Manchester: Carcanet.
Paperback, 9.95.
1 85754 3564

Since her first book, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts (1980), regard for Jorie Graham's difficult, infuriating and brilliant poetry has consistently increased although she shows no signs of ingratiating herself with her readers or of making any concessions, whether to our frivolity or to the bluntness of our perceptions compared to hers.

Graham is a poet of high seriousness. The subject of her new volume, The Errancy, is, to quote the notes at the end of the book, the way in which "knightly errancy begins with a gaze". The back cover tells us that "error is the heroic form of finding one's way - a purposeful wandering toward truth, a pilgrimage in which the heart's longing is guide". There are a number of references to the Odysseus story in the poems, and in time the reader begins to see the ambition of this volume. Graham's subject has always been the aesthetics of vision, a theme which has gradually deepened into a religious Preoccupation with seeing. She is a minute observer of nature, but in a poem such as "How the Body Fits on the Cross" she takes observation beyond accuracy:

"For a while I have been watching the shadow / try to fit itself onto its tree. / The slightest wind makes it throb." In the end, this seemingly simple notation is transformed into an insight about the body's relation to the soul, "the two rates of speed laid down upon each other, / almost right, the fit just-off in spots".

Graham's philosophical intelligence, combined with her sensuousness of apprehension, can make her poems seem intimidating or at least daunting. She can hear that "all through the trees and grasses something ticks / at different rates"; she catches exactly how a willow moves, how its limbs are "jerked like a cough"; she can think her way into "my name / flapping in the wind like the first note of my absence" (why else would we need names, if not for other people to call us when we're gone?). Graham is an on-line poet, one who creates the experiences she describes for the reader, not recollected in tranquility, but on the page as you're reading - the experience of scanning for a radio station, of listening to a river at night, of being caught in a traffic jam. She is not afraid of the ambition of her project, nor of sounding pretentious (of which she is sometimes, wrongly, accused). Her lack of inhibitions enables her to go more deeply into the nature of perception and its mimesis than other, more self-conscious poets. Some writers might use this extraordinary acuity to make themselves appear superior, but Graham is a child of Whitman and shares his broad gestures of inclusion. She makes it clear that she's interested in herself only in as much as it helps her to say

For you - for us - I know 1 should listen hard,
but to penetrate what? -. . .
Where are we going, friend?

In the service of clarity she can give us clumsy phrases such as "liquid clutches of impermanence", "exfoliation of aural clottings" and "undulations of cooing". But then she describes a night river in full-blast music:

I can hear its small wrestling-sound,
its pasture of shutting and re-shutting pockets,
its sideways-sound and long sleek zoneless
inherencies ... but cannot see-...
how like a heart I think, imagining that self-

The control of tone here is exemplary. The point is that the kind of truth which Graham is trying to convey on the page - the way in which the world unfolds to our gaze, how we become implicated in its beauties ~ itself resists the easy memorability of pat lyricism. These insights are elusive, and, once seen - on the highway, in a parking lot, wherever - difficult to articulate.

What we receive in these poems is nothing less than the way the world lends itself to our senses and at the same time resists them. Graham's attention doesn't stop at conventional beauty. Sitting in gridlock, she notices her "strangely distant lap"; the whole experience of being caught in a crossroads is made into a religious meditation which reaches its climax as a plastic bag is lifted on an updraft,

"now gathering shine, now quarrying the emptiness for furling laws and, up, up, wielding utter particularity in this pregnant bagfulness, and so

The erotic is another name for Graham's attentiveness, and some of the best poems in this book explore a kind of metaphysics of lust. In "Studies in Secrecy", two lovers look for secrets in each other's hair, ears, necks, eyes. In "The Strangers", Graham wonders whether her hand exists as she makes love, the kind of skewed existential perception that, even if we can register it, most of us can't hold on to, let alone write about. We should be grateful to Jorie Graham for her own heroics of perception, even if they show up our ordinary sight. If we can't see, with Graham, "the spots where the birds must eventually land", at least we know now where we should be looking.