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Magazine Article


McCabe, Susan


The Kenyon Review, Volume 28, Issue 4 (2006)


Overlord; review


Review of Overlord

Full Text:

To Become Something Broken:

Jorie Graham's Overlord

by Susan McCabe

During times of war, we think of other wars, and why they continue, even if we think we know the cost and suffering. In her austere and provocative Overlord, Ptilitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham probes the vicissitudes of identity and embodiment through the central provocation of "Operation Overlord," the military offensive that occurred on what is now called D-Day (June 6, 1944) when the Allies landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy. The book investigates still-haunting traumas, cemeteries, after-lives of World War II, transcribing the testimonies of paratroopers who glided to their deaths. Graham weaves these voices into the cataclysmic present: a world of global warming, contaminated drinking water, minute-by-minute species extinction, the torture of prisoners, homelessness, and the war in Iraq.

Wallace Stevens considered himself to be in the midst of an immense and escalating "pressure of reality." At the outset of World War II, he anxiously articulated, hoping to keep the lyric imagination alive:

This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking

of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not

physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for

millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and

spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.

A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure

of reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of

today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow. ("The Noble Ride and

the Sound of Words," 26-27)

Overlord brings us face to face with a "deadlier degree" of global disaster. We inhabit an age when the Apocalypse "is a common / destination spot for many human minds now" "Passenger"). In earlier volumes, Graham has proclaimed the "ends" of many things, including beauty and truth; she has declared: "This is an age in which imagination / is no

longer all-powerful" ("Covenant" in Never). Yet the poet's doomsday pronouncements have inclined to seize "ideas" rather than "experiences."

Even Swarm, tracing the origins of selfhood and of culture to the broken Roman Empire, obsesses over the processes of intellection even in its most desolate incantations: her swarming bees (and voices) search out a new dwelling-place, and this drive towards tentative shelter cannot be denied. By contrast. Overlord unhitches its "felt thought," snagged in the hedgerows of historic realities, adopting the apocalyptic tenor and terror of The Waste Land, but professes no optimism that the residues of cultural and literary legacy might buoy us forward.

Terry Castle speculates that many recently published World War I histories rehearse the inability to remember the war because "the moonscapes of dirt and filth; dead men in holes, tree-stumps and craters" gave us "our first view of the end of the world. But the end of the world, of course, is only the end of the self writ large; the extinction of 'life itself,' the extinction of one's own life. Perhaps it is so difficult to remember— impossible, really except in nightmares—because in the deepest sense it

hasn't happened yet" (11). World War I emblazoned the psychic topography of apocalypse—and the panic that the world and self might be at an end. What makes Overlord so poignant and arresting is that it makes our demise an imminent possibility. It murmurs in our innermost ear with the urgent directness and strangeness of a nightmare; its stark lyricism is one of empathy coupled with searing valediction. With the grief-struck stance of Cassandra, Graham is a singer of too-lateness. As if we had already turned away from any hope of salvage, her nihilism incorporates husky tenderness towards the human predicament. 

The book has raised some eyebrows in the larger spheres of contemporary poetry and politics, partly because, I believe, Graham redefines the task of poetry. Its province is no longer solely to invent or to praise, for the "groundwater" is not "drinkable anymore" because of "modified com" and "that others / I will never know are being killed in my name" ("Praying [Attempt of Feb 6 '04]"). In one of her notes, Graham describes the blunders and tragedies of the "operation": "beaches were more heavily fortified than had been imagined, and the men came under heavy fire from bunkers on the cliffs above them. . . . Company A lost almost all its officers in the first fifteen minutes [....] A second wave of soldiers found themselves landing in a tide rising rapidly towards the shore's seawall, and in waters filled with many of the wounded and the dead." How do such brutal facts become poetry, or rather to what extent, do they refocus Graham's predominantly lyric mode? With an almost preternatural capacity to "pull back" and "pull up," to gather the absent voices that persist outside of bodily boundaries, Graham resists self-centered insularity.

Identity loses its banks, becomes "reef-like"—absorbing and filtering, for "[t]he dead are still / mixed in with the living" ("Praying [Attempt of June 6 '03]"), washed up "now" near Graham's house in Normandy, the setting for many of the poems.

The series of poems titled prayer attempts, each dated, as if torn from a journal, unfold in penumbral dawn. Their line breaks don't round out symmetrically; self-revision torques but does not veer from an essential plaintive plainness. Praying frequently knots the poet into a fetal position ("curled up this / way, face pressed knees pulled up tight"),

heightening her physical discomfort and vulnerability, so she can "feel the whole crushing / emptiness on [her] back" ("Praying [Attempt of May 9 '03]"). These poems have George Herbert's unadorned diction and humility, but cannot assent to grand metaphors that might adumbrate Him. In the keenest sense, Graham offers us poems of subtraction—the radical removal of stable moorings that might "make up for" or relieve existential suffering. Like the poet, we "operate" in a receptive position, yet whether or not we resist or sink into the "merciless" void, "nothing nothing comes of it." Yet nothingness itself produces an in-between state of spirit and body, a notion meditated upon throughout: "We can be part full, only part, and not die. We can he in and out of here, now, / at once, and not die" ("Other").

It is important that the volume begins with the fact of dissociation, that "[w]e can pull back / from the being of our bodies, we can live in a / portion of them, we can be absent, no one can tell" ("Other"). From her prayer position, with eyes still shut, she can move outside of her body and "can feel the whitening reefs" ("Praying [Attempt of May 9 '03]"). Although she has "only read about" the men drowning as they landed, the poem possesses a cumulative tangibility—^for this is the hyperclarity of hallucination, zooming in upon an empty glass of water to her water-stained pillow to "under there where they are, / the waters filtering through them, the pH wrong, the / terrible bleaching occurring." The "beautiful thin water" is "carrying its devastation in" and, without endstop, flows through the speaker, who can make herself small enough to descend into the "fibrous crenellations of the reef." 

Ecology extends from reef to self and self to reef, absorbing pollutants and damage in a "flood." It is as if Graham cannot help but think of everything (and over-sense it) all at once: "—^god what an orchestration— of all the footsteps / at once, right now, on this planet." She manically vows: "I will put in all the grammars playing themselves out / in all the languages, spidery, all speaking at once, wind moving through / the com,the speakers speaking stopping listening speaking" ("Praying [Attempt of Feb 6 '04]"). It is from such an open vantage point that Graham, poised within this Tower of Babel, gathers a "spidery" skein of voices (and is gathered and broken by them) in the astonishing trio of poems each entitled "Spoken from the Hedgerows." The accounts (drawn from Voices of DDay) merge or overlap (like the buzzing swarm or murmur of angels in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire). The first of these pivotal poems begins:

I was Hoyd West (1st Division) I was born in Portia Arkansas Feb 6

1919 We went through Reykjavik Iceland through the north Atlantic

through the wolf-packs

That was 1942 I was Don Whitsitt I flew a B-26 medium bomber

Number 131657 called the Mississippi Mudcat I was a member of

The 37th Bomb Group and then later the 559th Bomb


Line enjambment bridges one posthumous life with another. The bareness of statistics (date of birth, identification number, name, the remnants of self and family) disarm us; they shiver on the page. Alan Anderson recounts:

I was given

birth November 1,1917, Winchester, Wisconsin. They took us to

Fort Dix for England. We took the northern route in the extreme rough sea of

January. It was thought that this would confuse the

German subs. It didn't exactly work that way.

A convoy ahead of us by a few days was hit, many ships sank.

I saw the bodies of so many sailors and soldiers floating by us

with all the other debris and ice on the water.

The heartbreaking persuasion of Overlord lies in such plain utterances; abstraction melts away.

Stitched into a patchwork of multiple starting-places and locations, Dan of the "392nd Squadron of the 367th Fighter Group" was transported by "an old English freighter ship which had been converted / to bring over the load of German prisoners, whom we replaced // going back to England." The substitution of soldiers for prisoners hints at their interchangeability, the fundamental reversibility of ally and enemy, one of the volume's key motifs of ethical pathos, which comes to the forefront in Soldatenfriedhof," a poem that describes Graham's visit to a German cemetery with its computer terminal sorting bodies by "rank, row, plot, and field." Only buttons or pieces of clothing remain to help distinguish nationalities. In 1947 the American bodies "and parts-of were moved and then "these available German parts and wholes pulled from their / holding grounds and placed in openings Americans / released." Hatreds may have dissipated, yet the desire to divide "identities" from "others" continues; dark irony lies in the "great peace in knowing your person is found" and the desire to "make up as many people as possible" out of the newly uncovered fragments, including the oval tag of the dead paratrooper removed from a baggie and "now placed into / [her] hand."

In spite of her undercutting of lyric elevation, Graham delicately holds (as in her cemetery poem) a conversation with the dead, what might be the Ur-act of poetry. While her concerns in this book echo earlier war poets (such as Keith Douglas whose poem about being a D-Day pilot she quotes), her conjurations are also reminiscent of H.D., the modernist who lost a brother in World War I and lived through the Blitz in London; through seances, she put herself in contact with spirits, including a dead pilot whose experience and death she transcribes in the poem "R.A.F.": "though I did not know / he would come so soon; // he stood by my desk" (486). Likewise, Graham's transmissions address her: there is no steeling herself through formal removal or baroque disengagement, for in fact, "the aim is to become / something broken / that eannot break further."

Yet we don't only overhear the dead souls speak; we vividly see, for instance, what the falling glider pilots on D-Day might have seen:

us—us slowly descending—one shot taken by a

knee, bullets up through our feet, explosion of Jack's face, more

sudden openings

in backs, shoulders, one in a neck, throat open, I happen to see, I see

an eye

pushed back, through the face, then on back through

the canvas skin ("Spoken from the Hedgerows [H-Hour146 minutes]")

In this cinematic unfolding of the "shot," Graham runs together "sudden openings," wounds and explosions, the "we" tracing an "eye" torn from its "canvas skin." As an ironic voice-over, FDR's prayer broadcast pleads: "Embrace these, Father, and receive them,." Such poems resound as visionary, yet caught off guard, they flirt with flat prose. So in another instance, the dead boys are "dragged by riptide" and others 

mostly all still

alive—off-schedule—including the

sweepers—all dragged down, freezing, waves huge—meant to land

where gun emplacements were less thick and channels between lines

of tracer-fire

could be read through the surface of

the beach. ("Praying [Attempt of June 8 '03\")

These lines jerk, misfire and straddle; articulate, inform and stop. Graham "reads through," sifts, receives as much as she ereates, in the brutal throes of "waves now, waves rolling / eternally, / of men, some dead, some still alive, being swept in, being rammed in—" ("Omaha").

Thus Graham intertwines the past and the present with purposeful jaggedness so that in "Praying {Attempt of June 8 '03)," she memorializes "now dead boys, desperate, in these same marshes, hiding, listening hard for / the enemy." Waking in darkness, the poet is both in and out of the present, with the soldier "once again being admitted / to hospital so they can repair him and return him to the theatre, / to make what operational?—why—why am I awake, or is it you, not me, that / is—" This poem, like many others in Overlord, fitfully interrogates "agency" in self and in language, invoking "the enemy" as an aeeident of violent, arbitrary "difference." We are plunged in a world "where the children-turned-into-men of aligned and un- / aligned nations are making their treaties."

Whether "aligned" or not, conventional line-breaks wouldn't be appropriate; she baldly confesses: "I cannot make out what borders are" ("Praying [Attempt of June 6 '03]"). Graham plumbs the dire consequences of borders, intensely probing "shame" with what has been "borrowed" by virtue of being bom into ("whom I stand-in for is not clear"). Graham peels away the "hysteria" of "nowhere to turn":

I have borrowed faith. I have borrowed

words, style, thoughts, obedience. I have borrowed the smile,

I have borrowed the still moonlit field, the hoarfrost glowing in it, borrowed

the phone, called the number listed, called the other number, also

borrowed one person's name, then another's, also gave one to a newborn

person. I have tried to understand the messages. I have tried to take them

back. I do not know where back is.

Relentless catalog ransacks itself, but founders on an inevitable complicity: "It seems that many more people are being killed by us / than they are telling us. I try to imagine the war." Imagination is the necessary act, or rather the strain of recording, palpating, not resisting "the violence of reality," that makes us trust this voice, stripping itself of its accoutrements of belief and identity, and nearly of poetic verbiage, reduced here to "hoarfrost glowing." Graham's spare lyricism shimmers the more intently in disowning glossy brilliance. Overlord emphasizes the failure of both lyricism and prayer, yet does not foreclose upon the non-body that seems to keep reaching from the "other side." This is a book of emotion and re-experience, not solely of idea or formal acuity. Graham insists that language must unveil our violent realities (even if it is "too late"); thus she accumulates and exposes and broods over the many ways people can "now" be persecuted:

There are people

whose names are being typed onto a paper right now. One is on his

hands and knees and cannot find his voice to say please, for which

he might be killed. There is the category of by mistake for just about

everything especially death. There are people who need a driver's

license or they shall not

stay in the country. There are people who if the rent is not paid this month

shall not stay in the country.

At odds with much in contemporary poetry that falls back upon the cushion of domesticated sorrows, Graham bares her skull to the wind; the mind vibrates with the absent, the dead, and the unsaid. She takes her identification with the "other" to the limit. In "Passenger" (one of the best "9/11" poems to emerge), she imaginatively changes place with a poor immigrant cabdriver ("You see of course it's only on this page / we can do that"). He is displaced from his country, not making enough money, and also "seared / [therefore the flags on your windows] [one in the car itself]. / Scared they will say you did IT." 

According to Helen Vendler, lyric poets (including Graham) often invoke the "soul" as abstraction, where "the human being becomes a set of warring passions independent of time and space" (5). This points to the critic's larger genre distinction: "The lyric is the gesture of immortality and freedom; the novel is the gesture of the historical and of the spatial." It is this general rule that Overlord so magnificently overrules; the book retains the abstraction of spirit, but positions it dead center in the historical, about to lose all footing. Half-guiltily, the poet confesses in shorthand: "Know I am supposed to use the poem, however sorry, / to lift the subject to a place of beauty" ("Posterity"). If we are "operational," is it as citizens succumbing to passivity, left to "practice" a "no to each part," a kind of ascetic subtraction until "you are not breathing now" and "you are watching," helplessly: "the water running / out, the animals dying, the soil turning to dust, any wind to much wind."

This is a bleak volume indeed. For Robert Lowell, a poet also in the apocalyptic vein, the "season is ill," but Graham announces: "My person is sick," for "there is no longer / personal illness"—only larger, ever-mutating communal disease ("Physician"). Obsessively reading the Physicians Desk Manual, the poet searches out unclassifiable symptoms (if the volume weren't so resolutely somber this poem might carry the comic-existential, hypochondriac overtones of Woody Allen). In another poem, Graham describes an odd eye ailment, symptomatic of a multitude of other environmental banes: "The third eye has / an infection or an allergy the doctor can't tell he gives it drops. / The feathers of the extinct." The implication is that we are sick with what we have seen, with what we have jointly imagined and made possible; the doctor can barely heal others

or the planet, let alone himself. For on a beach walk (one of poetry's most favored peripatetic landscapes), it is hard "to tell the plastics from the kelp— / green lettucing, wiry reds, soggy, / whitish, papery, brushing— all intermeshed—a tire track"; this wrecked landscape, like the Balkanized countries that haunt The Waste Land, imposes its "distant surf /now pulled aeross the whole—rip where /jet-skis cut" ("Europe"). There appears nothing left for the lyric but to condemn and lament: "What are you leaving, species of mine, / people, fuels, enemies, other—you, you there." Graham deliberately prods us, even more than Eliot's invocation of Baudelaire, with the conspiring reader as double: "You! hypocrite lecteur!mon semblable,monfrere."

Eliot is, of course, not the only lyric predecessor of Overlord. The book memorializes James Wright in "Posterity" with a snippet from "To a Blossoming Pear Tree" ("so near death it is willing to take / any love it can get?"); but this fragment is adjacent with, irreconcilable really, with what Graham quotes from her own nearly unspeakable self-interrogations: " 'how can I write / in a lyric poem that the world we live in / has already been destroyed? It is true.' " Do we remember what hasn't yet happened?

Wright clearly stands for romantic desperation, and the lyric of unquenchable longing; and Graham, for all her absoluteness, does not entirely abandon this intonation, for breakdown and breakage, even in the always already apocalyptic, is finally the condition of her own act of witness and absorptive overhearing. In the midst of our finale, Graham pulls us up to the task and to the fact of our betrayal of those who die, whether we like it or not, "in our name." Still, Graham—embodied as her own open book—casts a desperate lifeline to the reader (both as reprimand and minimalist solace):

I'm actually staring up at

you, you know, right here, right from the pool of this page.

Don't worry where else I am, I am here. Don't

worry if I'm still alive, you are ("Dawn Day One, Dec 21 '03")

The D-Day pilots survive in hedgerow and memory, and in our reading of these poems. Their lasting out our own possible extinction demands a faith without faith.

The tide Overlord has multiple resonances: the lording it over by governments and the military; the diminished "lord"; and another ghost, Emerson's "Over Soul within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other." The sense of connection (with reader and dead soldier) tenuously hold, yet find no larger container, no transcendent union and no ground beneath: "There is no underneath / It is all souvenir" ("Upon Emergence"). Yet with Emerson, Graham might Still agree: "Our being is descending into us from we know not whence." Overlord arduously descends into the half-dark, taking us always one step lower into the "new now," which strangely, feels like a blinding ascent.

Works Cited

Castle, Terry. "Our First View of the End of the World." The Chronicle of Higher Education.(5 November 2004): 6-11.

Graham, Jorie. The Dream of the Untied Field: 1974-94. New York: Ecco, 1996.

—. Mwer. New York: Ecco, 2002.

---. Overlord. New York: Ecco, 2005.

H.D., "R.A.E" Collected Poems: 1912-1944. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1942.

Vendler, Helen. Soul Says: On Recent Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.