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Magazine Article


Oliver Dixon


Tears in the Fence, Issue Winter, Number 58, Dorset, UK (2014)


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Multiple Things Happening At Once
Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review of The Taken-Down God: Selected Poems 1997-2008 by Jorie Graham (Carcanet 2013)

    If the adrenalin-fix rollercoaster of consumerism has in recent times juddered into reverse and left us dangling, our pockets upturned, where does this leave poetry, that ecumenical resource once deemed “classless and free”? With rent, energy-bills and inflated food-costs taking up most of our flatlined incomes, a £10 outlay for 60 pages with a lot of white on them seems an extravagance. The libraries and independent bookshops where one could dip into and browse new authors are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. Publishers like Salt, faced with dwindling sales-figures, have decided to forego poetry-books altogether.
      How should poets adapt to the crisis? Cut the high-brow folderol and seek a wider audience by acting as “a branch of the entertainment industry”(Hugo Williams), offering zany or epiphanic  frissons to console us through this dark age? Or – as Nathan Hamilton’s recent anthology Dear World and Everyone In It implies – go the other way and locate a new hip readership among poetry-admirers bought up on the jumpy fractals of the internet but perhaps too young to remember A Various Art and the Second New York School?
     If poetry-sales are down, we are in fact undergoing something of a creative boom in terms of the quality and range of what’s being written, and the sheer number of able poets emerging. This ferment of poetic energy at a time of economic downturn seems to speak of a questioning of bankrupt dominant paradigms and – like the resurgence of interest in self-directed activities such as rural walking – a turning away from the spurious, profit-driven hoohah of Cameronite Britain, where the ‘grand projects’ of multicorporate enterprise give way, like MDF stage-scenery, to reveal a gaping moral vacuum and the insidious ‘managed decline’ of public services and local communities.
      Yet in the context of the international scene, the hemmed-in, self-limiting nature of much British poetry, quietist and apologetic rather than confrontational even where the approach is not mainstream, still seems apparent. If we are looking for a figure of global stature whose work embodies the determination to elaborate a more authentic discourse, a more ethically -invested  voice which could help us come to grips with this bankruptcy and “make reality feel real” again, Jorie Graham would be a natural choice. One of the prime indications that we have recently entered some kind of poetic renaissance was last year’s awarding of the Forward Prize for Best Collection to her most recent book PLACE, almost the first winning volume that wasn’t a predictable safe bet by an established British mainstreamer – notably, she was only the fourth woman to have won the prize in its twenty year history and only the second American. Coming in the same year that Denise Riley, an excellent English poet who had been relegated to the avant-margins throughout her career, won Best Single Poem, Graham’s recognition seemed a momentous one.
       Although The Taken-Down God doesn’t include work from PLACE, the appearance of a new Selected Poems this year can only augment the groundswell of interest fomented by the Forward win, as well as provide a necessary continuation for readers - like myself – who were enamoured of Graham’s earlier Selected, The Dream of the Unified Field (1996, Carcanet). Despite possessing a remarkably distinctive register and manner that owes little obvious to any other poet, Graham is not the kind of writer to find a mature style and stick doggedly to it; rather, the plot-curve traced by her eleven volumes is characterised by the same restless, exploratory energy as their individual poems, a concern with pushing at the boundaries and straining the limits of what the previous book had seemed to accomplish, which is frequently at the same time a straining at the limits of poetry itself and what poetry can ask of its readers. Graham makes this explicit in her Paris Review interview ( – by the way, a source of invaluable contextual insights for anyone wanting to engage with her work – when she talks about each book being born of  “the need to explore new terrain“, of having not only their own thematic drifts but their own rhythmical impetus and how these two facets are intertwined.
     The evolution of Graham’s poetic in Dream of the Unified Field, from the short-line stanzas and metaphysical “argument-building” of early books like Erosion through the transition to the more expansive, multi-layered syntax of Region of Unlikeness and Materialism was a gripping enough journey, although one that sometimes left the reader footsore at the roadside or temporarily waylaid in an interpretive ‘selva oscura’. The Taken-Down God charts a pathway that is at times more challenging still, progressing further in the direction of open-form, paratactic structures that seem to hover around clusters of imagery or references without ever settling into unitary narrative or formal resolution.
      The difficulty we encounter in coming to terms with these poems, however, is inextricable with Graham’s long-term desire to “implicate the reader” in the whole complex process of generating meaning. Of all the contemporary poets who have assimilated literary theory into their work, consciously or otherwise, Graham (a student at the Sorbonne in 1968, as the earlier piece ‘The Hiding Place’ delineates) is perhaps the most convincing. Highly “writerly” in Barthes’ terms ( ie. demanding that the reader proactively and playfully collaborates in restoring the text to legibility) her poems work hard to problematise the dualism between text and audience, insistently hauling her or him into the scenario of the poem to confront them with the paradox of how language brings sensory-data across and attempts to motion-capture the flux of time; language that is saturated with historical and political residues: “How does one separate the acts of human will from those very acts of observation the poems undertake? There’s moral entanglement there. Is there a way of taking in the world that is not manipulative?”(ibid.)
        Whereas a recurrent preoccupation of the older books was to revisit and recontextualise memory-deposits from her childhood and youth, the vividest passages in The Taken-Down God arrive when Graham manages to envelop the reader in her immediate experiences even as they unfold, “porting rather than reporting” in a startling way that somehow reconfigures the writing-process of the poem as the reading-process. Part of this is Graham’s attempt to incorporate as many levels of cognition as possible into the poem’s purview and to enact “multiple things happening at once…the punctuation involves an attempt to nest everything into the here”(ibid.)
        In ‘Woods’, for example, from the volume Never, the I-narrator flicks hesitantly between wanting to evoke a sighting of a goldfinch and a reluctance to stake a claim on the bird and fix the “wind-sluiced avenued continuum” in language, the poem ultimately parodying the complacent set of tacit conventions any realist text rests upon (“Can we put our finger on it?/…I cannot, actually, dwell on this./There is no home”). This flags up a further theme within The Taken-Down God that was less evident in Dream of the Unified Field: an ecological anxiety placed in the context of man-made depredations, the poems’ harried sense of time related to Graham’s awareness that “the rate of extinction (for species) is estimated at one every nine minutes”(Footnote to Never). This concern for the endangered living world is linked to a groping towards the numinous and devotional (cf. the several pieces called ‘Praying’ in Overlord) which seems a search for a frame of reference beyond the destructive human one.
       The exhilarating formal experimentation of this Selected – from the short, spaced-out single-line units of Swarm, through the rangier, prose-like rhythms and found-language in Overlord to the heavily-indented patternings of Sea-Change – manages to track audacious forages through philosophy and the history of ideas that amount to the most ambitious ongoing project into the role and scope of poetry we are privileged to have access to; yet at the same time these are vibrant, breathing poems in themselves, shot through with urgency and hard-won beauty. Against middlebrow assumptions that poetry should be a humanist salve in this difficult economic climate, Graham reminds us again and again “what poetry can, must, and will always do for us: it complicates us, it doesn’t ‘soothe’; it helps us to our paradoxical natures, it doesn’t simplify us. We do contain multitudes.”

First published in Tears in the Fence, Winter 2013
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