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Dwight Gardner


The New York Times, The New York Times Company, NY, NY (2015)


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Review: In Jorie’s Graham’s ‘From the New World,’ Flux Is a Whirling Constant

FEB. 10, 2015

Wild is the wind that rushes through so many of Jorie Graham’s poems. It sends birds spiraling aloft. It ripples lakes and ponds, making the sun glint. It pushes around the leaves, blades of grass and tree limbs that appear in stanza after stanza. Updraft or downdraft, her gusty poems declare, Hang onto your hat.

These ventilations underline Ms. Graham’s obsession with flux, with impermanence. Truths held dear one moment, her poems imply, become lies in the next. Like the fluttering world, her work resists being caught on anyone’s hook. She is drafty and oracular at the same time. Meaning can be hard to come by. You chase it at your peril, as if it were a sheaf of pages blown onto a highway. The following demand, in a 1993 poem, is very Jorie Graham: “Tell me something and then take it back.”

Ms. Graham is a central figure in the last four decades of American poetry. Her poems, with their long verse lines and Emily Dickinson-like dashes, are as instantly recognizable as Joni Mitchell’s voice on a turntable. She holds an influential position at Harvard, where she replaced Seamus Heaney as the Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory. Her book “The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994” (1996) won a Pulitzer Prize. A sense of brewing drama has clung to her from the start.

Her new book, “From the New World: Poems 1976-2014,” is an important consolidation of her work. It reshuffles but does not essentially alter our sense of her verse, which has grown somewhat more political and environmentally minded over time. We watch the length of her lines expand and contract. But her voice has barely changed. This is a poet who, for better and sometimes worse, arrived almost fully formed.

The poem “Recovered From the Storm,” from her book “The Errancy” (1997), is in many ways an archetypal performance. The gales have come, leaving “Twigs, seeds, nuts, limbs scattered over the streets,/distemper’s trophies gathering around our footfalls.”

Ms. Graham refers to bits of trees on the lawn as “blithe footnotes,” reminding you that her poems are inquiries into linguistics as well as into nature. She is fond of phrases like “alphabet of ripeness,” “green clarifications,” “nouns of large clamshells” and “the dead in their sheer open parenthesis.”

In “Recovered From the Storm,” the children may be safe upstairs, but the speaker is left not merely with painful yard duty but also vexing questions:

Why are we here in this silly moonlight?
What is the mind meant to tender among splinters?
What was it, exactly, was meant to be shored?
Whose dolled-up sorceries against confusion now?

It’s rarely so easy to quote Ms. Graham’s verse. Sequential thought is not among the qualities she prizes. Her antecedents can refer back to nouns that have entered the witness protection program. It is not uncommon to run up against a phrase like “this field with minutes in it called woman.” Or lines such as these, from a 2002 poem:

The noon hour is itself always a firstness
of something.
Also, elsewhere, who is hungry?
How small are they? How? I step on parts of
faces, only parts. A whole face, what is that?
These are questions you hope are not on the final exam.

Her poems tend to be difficult, but not in an academic sense. She leads you to the door of comprehension, often enough, only to close it on your ankle. To remain with her, you must be willing to suspend reason and allow her language to flow over you like a syntactic spa treatment.

At their best, her sentences call to mind something Beckett said about Joyce’s more cloistered work: “His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” At other moments, you will wonder if any major American poet has so reliably come so close to willful opacity and nonmeaning.

At certain gray moments, while reading “From the New World,” you may find yourself silently nodding at snippets from Ms. Graham’s poems that speak like pre-emptive criticism: “impregnable dribble”; “vague iridescence”; “Imagine your mind wandering without its logic”; “How thick was the empty meant to be?”; “this dance of nondiscovery”; “By now hasn’t a sadness crept in?”

And yet. And yet. If you grow tired of the birds and the updrafts and the trees, sensing this poet has gone to the well too many times for the same imagery, it is interesting, in her later poems, to find her circling topics that haunt the American imagination, like the lingering effects of World War II and the detentions at Guantánamo.

In a poem titled “Guantánamo,” political and personal are allowed to bleed. Covering perhaps too much ground, Ms Graham declares in a not-untypical excerpt:

... words it seemed were everything and then
the legal team will declare them exempt,
exemptions for the lakewater drying, for the murder of the seas, for
the slaves in their
waters, not of our species, exemption named
go forth, mix blood, fill your register, take of flesh, set fire,
posit equator, conceal origin, say you are all forgiven, say these are
counter-resistant coercive interrogation techniques ...

There are new poems about economic inequality as well. Being Jorie Graham poems, the “for sale” signs on a lawn “are bent and ripple in the wind.” Ms. Graham was born in New York City, was raised in Rome and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Her occasional interest in marginal lives can’t dispel the sense these poems have of being written in rooms with very high ceilings.

In Ms. Graham’s best poems, meaning seems to rush past her. There is real drama in watching her try to catch up to it. There is something fantastic about the way she so convincingly declares:

There’s no way back believe me.
I’m writing you from there.

Poems 1976-2014
By Jorie Graham
359 pages. Ecco. $29.99.

A version of this review appears in print on February 11, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Swept Up in a Gale of Change.