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Journal Article


Salmagundi, Volume 120, p.276-284 (1998)

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Jorie Graham: Living in the world

Charles Molesworth

What does it feel like to read a poem by Jorie Graham? What do we need to bring to her poems, and what do they promise in return? The first impression is one of excess, in terms of style and subject matter. As she deploys (and enjoys) a host of rhetorical and stylistic markers, she maneuvers language nearly to the point of mangling it. She looks steadily at the world with a desire rooted in obsessive description, an almost maniacal belief that it is after all almost possible to say what we mean and want to say. She also constantly longs for the transcendent and the ineffable: one poem ends, "What is the void once it is forced to cross through fire?" Her recent poems sometimes include italicized words, presented as lexical objects instead of being used referentially. Occasionally she states something and then says, "or, no" and offers a different formulation. Low and high mingle, at the level of diction and subjects: one poem will speak of "the Emergent" with a capital "e" and another will throw in a reference to a "dirt-bike trail." She piles up qualifiers in a way somewhat reminiscent of Ginsberg, as when she creates the category of "spidery, up-ratcheting tender cling leaves". (Here she might be mimicking several things, including the fanciful names given to horticultural hybrids.) She frequently employs fields of reference to draw out a body of metaphors and images that serve to register all sorts of related (and scantly relatable) experiences. In her recent volume, The Errancy (from which the examples in this paragraph are drawn), she often mentions automobile traffic and trees, among other things. 

The music of Graham's poetry is closer to enraptured prose than to any sort of set metrical scheme. Over the long haul her rhythms are quite distinct, and she uses pauses the way a jazz musician uses "stop time", as a way of breaking up the metronomic and reasserting rhythmic mastery. As likely as not she will change the format of her stanzas in the middle of a poem, or from poem to poem, though in her later work she routinely produces a measure that resembles the by-now classical free verse line that is often "broken" at a phrasal juncture. In her first three volumes, the stanza format and the sensibility recall Elizabeth Bishop, though Graham gives much fuller play to symbolism and allegory than Bishop's somewhat brittle naturalism allows- a penchant that increases in her later volumes. Sometimes she uses enjambment for special effect, indeed often making melodramatic emphasis out of such moments. Emphasis is also gained by elliptical phrases and sentences that break off with a dash, and her grammar can recall the interior monologues of characters from a Virginia Woolf novel, rushing and driven but always finally clear. 

A complex sense of overall structure drives the poems; few of the later ones, for instance, are "well made" in the sense of using a restricted figure of speech as a single organizing element. "The Phase After History" (to take a rather exaggerated example) mixes a setting in which two juncos are trapped in her house, allusions to Macbeth, reflections on American history, and a friend named Stuart who has mutilated himself by trying to cut off his face. Narrative frames are present in a ghostly way; there is a knowing (but not overdone) use of the language of philosophy and literary theory; rhetorical questions, addressed to herself and to some large cosmic framework as well, recur often. Allusions can be quite obvious, as in The Errancy, where the use of an angelic speaker recalls Rilke and various phrases of T. S. Eliot are quoted directly. 

Self-reflexively loaded with multiple perspectives and yet stamped with authorial will, Graham's poetry cannot be easily categorized as purely postmodern or confessional, feminist or faddish, though to some readers who remain uncharmed by it, all these categories in effect serve as charges against it. We need, however, to approach it without expecting the hard-edged irony of Adrienne Rich or the wan, playful irony of John Ashbery. Indeed, Graham may be the least ironic (and hence the most passionate?) of our poets. But at its frequent best, the poetry excels at several difficult tasks. Its confessional air never cloys, and we often react by seeing that the point of view is shifting and questioning not out of some superiority (of vantage point or manner of expression), but because she wants to see through to the end of what she's started, even if (perhaps especially if) she knows that the prey, the pay-off is always out of reach. As with the poetic strategy of Sylvia Plath, it is through repetition and excess that we are most likely to come to some sense of truth; this can lead to false gorgeousness or tiresome elegance, the charge most frequently brought against not only Plath, but Amy Clampitt and Marianne Moore. Graham, however, plies a lyrical route that veers close to the philosophical and in so doing sets herself apart from these three precursors. 

This philosophical disposition was there from the first. In her Selected Poems two of the early lyrics are called "The Way Things Work" and "Mind." She also constantly invokes a point of view (frequently seeing the events of the poem from "above"), as if to tame experience by distance. But if I had to choose a passage to epitomize this disposition it would also be from an early poem, "Tennessee June," where we are told that "the pressure to become forever less is the pressure/ to take forevermore/ to get there." This notion, an early thought that Graham has spent all her books exploring, is abstract, but it is a formulation that removes detail in order to reveal process. The process is paradoxical or interlocking (the "less" and the "more" almost playing hide-and-seek with each other), and hence we can derive structure from it. But at the same time the structure, bound up with and by a process that is less teleological than endlessly recursive, can be known only by knowing some other structure: one pressure must answer another, to the point where they are virtually the same, yet fundamentally different. The world passes away inevitably at the same time it persists unendingly. We recall Yeats and his vortex, or James Merrill and the idea of "resistance" in The Changing Light at Sandover. Lyric poets anchor their work with a single philosophical thought, or set of thoughts (which I prefer to call a disposition); Graham does this, and by doing so, puts her elegant style in the service of an idea that is finally, well, serviceable. 

I make some effort at describing Graham's poetry in these terms for three reasons. First, I want to stress how she still operates within the large tradition of lyric poetry as the voicing of an expressive ego, and that she shapes this tradition in distinctive ways. Many people (and not just lazy or indifferent readers) regard this tradition as hopelessly passe or irrelevant in our culture. The Language poets, for example, virtually center their work on opposing this tradition, calling it null and void and suggesting that further efforts in such terms are not only doomed but offer a (perhaps) unwitting defense of what is corrupt and corrupting in contemporary culture. (The poetry wars, if we may still call them that, often employ a vocabulary as melodramatic as that of the culture wars, though the opposing camps are not analogous.) I assume at this point in time that stating the "conflict" between a poetics like Graham's and that of the Language poets in terms of which is "newer" or more avant-garde (and hence more important or genuine) is to invoke a hollow and pointless discourse. 

Second, I hope to counter the impression of Graham generated by the New Yorker profile of her, written by Stephen Schiff in the July 14, 1997 issue. This "portrait", I'm sure, confirms the most negative possible view of Graham as held by the Language poets (and others). Here is "personality", here is a "media image", here are countless unspoken and hence unexamined "values", here is everything Verlaine excoriated when he said, "Et tout le reste est litterature." By making Graham exceptionally literary, Schiff perpetuates a regrettable habit of treating the image of the poet and not the truth of the poetry. Almost completely absent from the profile is any sense of how Graham inhabits her world by remaking it through language; instead, we get Graham's sensibility, rendered by literary means. When Schiff ends his profile with a perfectly fruity image, "On the front steps was a pair of shiny lavender pumps, caked with mud," we are meant to see glamor and "the real", a woman who gardens in her stylish shoes. Even if we allow Schiff every shade of irony that he might wish to invoke, we can still say, alas, that the Language poets have a point. When (and if) poetry is presented in terms this suburban and coy, any claim it might make to cultural centrality is gravely weakened. But of course we don't necessarily have to adopt the viewpoint of Schiff or the Language poets. 

Third, I would like to see Graham's poetry as a form of philosophy, but philosophy conceived in a certain way. The ages-long debate between these two forms of investigation (to give the tilt to philosophy) or of being in the world (to give poetry its due) will remain perennial, and cases like Graham only serve to remind us how we must maintain the dialogue between them. Kenneth Burke coined the phrase "Literature as Equipment for Living," and this is in large measure an extension of the way literature (and the arts generally) are understood by American pragmatism. Graham's greatest simplicity and her greatest complexity exfoliate from her desire to say what it feels like to try and live consciously, when feelings are the only guide we have that we might trust in the last instance. By stressing these two words I imply that Graham is as skeptical about first things as is any good pragmatist, and that what we experience as the final moment is never more than a moment, but is no less momentous for all that. "A momentary stay against confusion," Frost called it, and thereby entered the camp of Dewey, James, et. al. 

But what distinguishes Graham from others who might best be seen as writing in this way (such as Robert Hass or James Schuyler or Patti Ann Rodgers) is her preoccupation with matters of complexity and simplicity. If I may play the role of peacemaker, I would say to the Language poets that by such preoccupation Graham registers all the selfreflexivity and opposition to faded formulae that they insist on (or at least as much as any intelligent reader might hope for). Furthermore (and more hopefully yet) this preoccupation gives her work a cultural centrality. It provides her the big theme without bombast, the risk taking without the cheap theatrics, the link to tradition and the ground of personhood. Her poetry has gotten steadily more philosophical, more risk-taking, both more indulgent and more self-questioning as she has matured into something like a regal innocence. 

Here are two important examples, "Opulence," included in The Dream of the Unified Field, and "The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia," the first poem in The Errancy. "Opulence" announces its subject immediately: "The self brewing of the amaryllis rising before me." Instead of a straight-forward mimetic representation, however, we are treated to an onslaught of words and descriptive metaphors that at once create and uncreate the flower. What is at one level a straight forward mimetic presentation of the flower (and an accurate one at that) is at another level an array of rhetorical figures that express and exhaust the possibilities of self-symbolizing and self-transcendence. As the four-fold structure of the flower holds its shape while unveiling the process by which it exfoliates, statements are proffered and withdrawn, metaphors tumble out and away: 

                                                             when I look again,

[it] has already begun to speckle, then blush, then a solid un-

avoidable incarnadine,

the fourness of it now maneuvering, vitalized,

like antennae rearranging constantly,

the monologue reduced-or is it expanded-to

this chatter seeking all the bits of light,

the four of them craning this way then that according to

                                                                               the time

of day, the drying wrinkled skirts of the casing

now folded-down beneath, formulaic,

the light wide-awake around it-or is it the eye-

The metaphor of a monologue invites us to equate the poem with the flower, and so when we read the last line of the poem, "no footprints to or from -", we realize that Graham is talking about what appears to be an autonomous existence. This autonomy has traditionally been posited for both works of art and personal identity, and often used to establish theories of freedom and beauty, but always with a sense of struggle, a dialectic between growth and diminution ("reduced - or is it expanded"). Graham also skillfully (and playfully) reminds us, in the poem's third to last line, of how the acknowledgment of structure and autonomy can be stringently complex: "yes yes yes yes says the mechanism of the underneath tick tock". Here resolution and repetition join onomatopoeia and personification in a line at once very comic and slightly despairing. Time's ongoingness is our most human and our most determined environment. 

In "The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia" Graham mixes mimesis and fantasy even more openly than in "Opulence." The angel addresses the poem to the reader, who is both a universalized reader and the occupant of the house where the poem takes place. The poem opens with the angel "arranging" things upstairs, creating a "little utopia" with a mixture of fondness and slight domestic whimsy. Downstairs a party is taking place, about which the angel is more than a little condescending: "how small they seem from here,/ the bobbing universal heads, stuffing the void with eloquence." Angelic solicitude returns, however, in the second half of the poem, as the spirit tries to comprehend human existence, concentrating on its temporality and resorting to "as if' to define its parameters: You may not be surprised to hear that the phrase that follows the ellipsis here is "So dizzy." But we can tease out what the angel is saying, because we recognize the old theme of how the social surround, the "tiny carnage of opinions", is all we have to send our language of yearning ("the a soul") into, knowing it will betray us, and that we will betray our "selves" even as we seek most sincerely to express them. But perhaps because we have places of retreat and asylum, and because we can imagine more than we can say or realize, even in our limitations it's possible that "rightness seems to root." 


So the angel, rather imperially, utterly safe in an other-worldly dimension, understands our human pain, and again the metaphoric structure allows us to equate the upstairs utopia with the realm of art and human liberty. The poem closes with the angel upstairs rearranging things ("will that fix it, will that make clear the task"), and concluding the poem with a view out of the window that matches the one that opened the poem. But, as in "Opulence," it isn't the agent of the poem (here the angel, there the flower) that has the final gesture, but a natural force. The end tells us, "Let us look out again. The yellow sky./ With black leaves rearranging it..." A border of mortality makes us see the brightness differently. Even angels are instructed by the run of time. The "again" is rather heart-breaking, innocently less than human and angelically more than that. (It is typical of Graham to put the teacherly moment of wisdom in the words of someone else.) 

Not every one of her poems is as gripping as these two, but there are many that bring the news. She knows whereof she speaks because she isn't afraid to feel intensely and to push the language to wherever it will take her. Suffice it to say (at once a simple and an excessive claim) that she writes poetry that matters.