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Newspaper Article


The New York Times (2008)



Sea Change

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By Jorie Graham. 

56 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $23.95. 

For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems. 

Such poetry succeeds as grandeur; it fails as portentousness. In “Sea Change,” Graham traffics in large statements (“the / end of the world can be imagined,” “fish are starving to death in the Great Barrier Reef”), but at times her thought can seem muddled, her diction puzzlingly imprecise, as when she writes that love is “like a thing floating out on a frail but / perfect twig-end.” How do we respond to a poet who is certain about the Great Barrier Reef but evasive about what stands before her eyes? “Sea Change” is Graham’s 11th book of poems. Like her strongest earlier books, “The End of Beauty” and “Swarm,” it feels simultaneously vexing and alluring. In “The End of Beauty,” Graham leaves blanks in her lines (“looking into that which sets the ______ in motion”), as if to render as literally as possible the strenuous effort to accommodate language to things. In “Swarm,” the poems occasionally break into two simultaneous columns, as if to represent the inevitable ambiguity of language. But Graham’s poems harness that ambiguity more subtly than these easily parodied formal gestures suggest. Her writing has always been distinguished by a theatrical gregariousness, and in “The End of Beauty” and “Swarm” she succeeds in making the poems less wildly histrionic, more precisely focused, by placing roadblocks in the way of her endlessly run-on syntax.

This marriage of the contrived and the sublime may be the clearest mark of Graham’s American heritage, and the poems of “Sea Change” bear it openly. Once again, the book is distinguished by a formal gesture that feels both gimmicky and necessary: the poems alternate violently between long lines set at the left-hand margin and short lines set in the middle of the page. Imagine reading this passage in the middle of a wide page —

... a chain suspended in
the air of which
one link
for just an instant
turned to thought, then time, then heavy time, then

— and then jerking your eyes to the left-hand margin to encounter this single long line:

air — a link of air! — & there was no standing army anywhere.

This shift from fragmented short lines to the amplitude of a long line feels like a release from constraint, and the release feels magical when it embodies Graham’s greatest wish: to wake up in a world no longer doomed to political and ecological disaster. “Sea Change” is not only a book about the end of the world. The poems reflect the difficulty of reading the signs of our impending doom, and Graham’s challenge is to reimagine what looks like certain death as a prelude to rebirth. When she says in the title poem that fields and trees are “characters in an / unnegotiable / drama,” she is talking about the irremediable effects of  global warming: the sea has changed. But Graham wants the fate of the Great Barrier Reef to be as equivocal as the “thing” at the end of the branch. The phrase “sea change” also invokes Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s “Tempest” — the song telling Ferdinand that his father is not drowned but reborn: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” These lines are also central to  T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land,” and “Sea Change” stages a similarly ambitious contest between annihilating and redemptive visions of our future. 

The most alluring moments in “Sea Change” feel both grand and very small: “Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve / blossoms on three different / branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring.” “Sea Change” could use more such moments: located, concrete, mundane. Without their ballast, the inability to name things seems coy, and the bold statements about global warming seem shallow — the kind of remarks made at a dinner party where everyone already agrees. 

At the same time, however, the impact of the small moments — the plum tree blossoming in autumn — depends on the intersection of the coy, the bold and the muddled. Graham’s most arresting writing tends to occur near the end of her poems, when a gesture signifying closure suddenly erupts from her more murkily wayward language: “one day a swan appeared out of nowhere on the drying river, / it / was sick, but it floated, and the eye felt the pain of rising to take it in — I own you / said the old feeling, I want / to begin counting / again, I will count what is mine.”

Graham is thinking here of Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole,” a poem about growing old that is also a poem about incipient global catastrophe: “All’s changed.” Counting the swans, observing them closely, is for Yeats a way of reinhabiting ordinary life, as it is for Graham. Except that Graham is suspicious of the work of precision: to her, it feels like “ownership,” as if to name the world certainly were to lock it down, close off possibility, get it wrong. 

This suspicion is commendable philosophically and politically — especially if one’s subject is the end of the world; nobody wants to be Chicken Little. But it’s poetically problematic, since poems thrive on precision, and with a skilled poet like Graham, the avoidance of precision should not be anything but precise — a conscious choice to appear confused and incomplete. Why would a poet feign the inability to find the exact word for the thing at the end of a branch? Are a poet’s errors of perception comparable to the mistakes that raised the temperature of the Gulf Stream, forcing a plum tree in Normandy to blossom out of season?

Rather than answering such questions, Graham asks them, leaving herself vulnerable; what is intended as open-endedness may also feel, again, like portentousness. But the fact that some aspects of Graham’s work are more fully realized than others seems, while not uninteresting, oddly beside the point. What matters, as with Ashbery and Glück, other poets who perpetually challenge the terms of their own achievement, is the shape of the career — not only what she has done but what she will inevitably do next. There will be “a time again in which to make,” Graham writes, “the imagined human / paradise.”

James Longenbach is the author, most recently, of “Draft of a Letter,” a collection of poems, and “The Art of the Poetic Line,” essays on poetry.