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Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond, VA (2015)


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Saturday, March 21, 2015 10:30 pm
By CHRISTIAN HARDER Special correspondent

Jorie Graham’s “From the New World: Poems 1976-2014” contains outstanding poetry selected from 11 of the author’s book-length works.

This collection has characteristics of the perfect art exhibit — smart staging has transformed the artist’s familiar work into something foreign and riveting. Graham, an expert designer, has organized poems from disparate books into a seamless whole. The book manages to showcase changes in Graham’s intricate poetic sensibility without diluting the unique, visceral effect one receives from reading her work.

In 1995, Graham won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book of selected poetry, “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Her latest effort exceeds that one; Graham selects from broader sources and has an enlarged view of her writing. Half the material in “From the New World” is from books that preceded her success in 1995 and half from the six books that followed.

Graham is famous for poetry that resolves and increases the mystery of the world. She resides in the moment in which “the world / unfastens itself / from the deep ocean of the given.” Everywhere, page-length mists of imagery — similar to an online word cloud — cohere around invisible thematic centers. Her tempered excess refreshes the ubiquitous minimalism of our time. Nothing beats the type of breathless verse found in the poem “The Bird on My Railing”:

the still wet iron of
my fire
escape’s top
railing a truth is making this instant on our clock
open with a taut
unchirping un-
breaking note —

It is a pleasure to watch Graham’s superior voice develop. In selections from “Erosion” (1983), lines shrink and enjambment abounds. “The End of Beauty” (1987) introduces an explicit concern with classical subjects. From “The Errancy” (1997) onward, a more deliberate spatial play is established — substantial indentations turn poems into a spilling and breaking tide. Graham’s verse is at its best where these traits combine, her energetic stanzas tempered by complex formal structures.

The failings of this collection are few and particular. Some poems seem a bit too topical. Take “Treadmill,” an otherwise fine piece that is done a disservice by its conceit — all the elevated language refers backward, humorously, to an exercise machine. Worse, some poems are mechanically political. In “Guantánamo,” phrases such as “there is no law, you are not open to / prosecution” dull the senses. Or, from her new poetry, “Double Helix”:

Venus is almost big as earth was lush at origin had
oceans imagine yet has no
water anywhere
today. Venus
had runaway
greenhouse. Could Earth.

Though metered and euphonic, the verse here does its subject no favors; in fact, it renders the whole attempt absurd. Like images of trash-littered beaches crammed into the final minutes of a nature program, this clumsy moralizing damages an otherwise engaging production. Graham’s subtler politics (of power, metaphysics, feminism, violence, the organic body) are superior.

This book deserves to be read. The poetic investigations collected here are distinctly beautiful, and as relevant as ever. Graham offers an antidote to the bitter skepticism that characterizes our age; her sprawling verse confounds the cynical judgment of the critical mind. These poems detach us from comfortable moorings, leaving us pleasantly adrift. Here is exceptional proof that contemporary poetry retains access to the sublime.