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Journal Article


Cleveland Review of Books (2023)


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Where Jorie Graham’s To 2040 happens cannot be any place but now. From now, whether that be April 2023, immediately after the volume’s publication, or August of that year, or April 2039, or 2041, the book happens between the moment we begin to read its first poem (“Are We”) and its proximity to 2040. “Are We”—the title extends its syntax into the stanza—“extinct yet.” The sentence happens now, while “yet” projects its answer outwardly, into the immediate future: when does yet happen, and isn’t it surprising that yet didn’t happen already, sometime in the recent past? “Are we // alone,” the poem asks, yet the raven which suddenly interrupts (and, in doing so, answers) the question is not portentous, does not symbolically characterize the yet, a bird alive enough to stay in the poem for a few moments:

“Are We” accommodates the raven, but, acknowledging its presence, the poem must soon revise the kind of question it can ask: “Did / it not enter here // at stanza eight,” poses stanza nineteen, pivoting, “—& where // does it go now / when it goes away”? Where does it go when we turn the page to the second poem in the volume, “On the Last Day,” then the third? Where does the raven go when yet finally arrives and becomes now? After the last day happens—a few hours during which one might sit down to read poems, describe a vase of quince branches, monitor their heart rate, or observe a raven near the stone wall—a different kind of last happens the next day.

To 2040
stages this lingering last, ongoing but changing, relative to a particular time and place, the earth in the immediate future: you’re made to feel the now through syntax and lineation, you feel the impending yet, and as Graham writes in the volume’s title poem, “You feel the suddenly.” This sensation happens as the poem unfolds, and not because the poem dictates that its readers feel this relationship to time; this short, descriptive sentence follows a sequence of longer sentences and syntactical fragments all connected through em-dashes. What might at first read like a syntactical shrinking, the poem emphasizes, becomes an eruption in context: a marked shift, a suddenly that changes our relationship to the time that happens when we read the poem. What do we call this suddenly—“a thing you used to call so casually yr inwardness”—besides an experience only a poem can make for its readers? How is that suddenly positioned in proximity to the year 2040, ten years after “the American experiment will end in 2030” (as is later predicted by the clairvoyant of “Time Frame”)? Can suddenly only happen in the present, nestled within our measured distance from 2040:

Eight sentences in four lines arranged to emphasize the experience of time: the pronounced then, the mind at work now to associate something with “the absence of night,” the movement of hurling forward. Speech had a different function then; speech has a different function now because our idiom for speaking of future is not denotative. Because “it’s hard to know when to break the silence now,” Graham’s poems do not merely describe images of the near future, Anthropocene industry and loss, but enact its immediacy with energetic bursts of syntax contending with their afterwards, their silence: “—& where // does it go now / when it goes away”

To 2040
imagines the degree to which this immediacy can be finely rendered: how acute is our sense of now, and “how far forward r we”? Poems with titles like “I,” “Dis-,” “Can You,” and “Are We” divide and reorganize the material of poetry, these sentences in lines, that readers think about the second of time it takes to register those syllables, as “I” inverts the order of syntactical information:

know myself I
say to my
self so I
cannot be

led astray. Led
astray I say I
know myself more
fully now so I

cannot be made
to do some-
thing I as
an other

wld never

Imagine these sentences organized as prose, how they would read less convincingly—more like Biblical moralizing on being “led astray” and knowing thine self, knowing thine enemy—and how, as a poem, these sentences immediately communicate something about “I” non-semantically. “I,” of course, appears again and again, inflected by the context for speaking. “I wish I could / address you,” as “Dusk in Drought” dramatizes the way an I and a you make us feel as if these sentences are happening now, as we read them arranged into lines. Graham needs the technology of poetry to make immediacy happen; the sentences of To 2040 contract and expand through degrees of extremity—a poem made from terse declaratives, another poem made from only sentence fragments, another a single sentence—to affect a mind not merely working through these problems, ideas, feelings, but to pattern a mind being here, now. 

Yet the immediacy of Graham’s work does not lead to a sense of arrival—that somehow, by the end of the poem, we’ve figured out a message that can be communicated in other words, in utilitarian structures of information. The raven does not need a symbolic function beyond hopping into the poem, then leaving, but where does the raven go when the poem ends? The silence that follows a poem from To 2040 transforms into a kind of absence, with the experience of time concentrated vividly within the poems themselves: 

A poem cannot answer whether or not we’re there yet—when are we scheduled to arrive?—but it can do more than remind us of time, the immediate future and long past: the poem makes time happen formally. “There is time,” and the time that happens within the poem is different from the time it takes to run errands, attend meetings, exercise. When the volume finally arrives at “Dawn 2040,” the difference between yet and now is reconciled, this tension previously determining the syntactical patterns of these poems, yet and now becoming the same moment:  

, you hear
yourself say. I know
what finished is.
I know the just
& then the just
. I am alive.

Because we move between the just now and the just gone, the statement “I am alive” strikes us not as a fact but a realization, a new kind of knowledge that could not have been understood before this moment. The poem wants us to experience this knowledge, continuing through an uncharacteristic imperative: “as I admire yr breathing / wherever u are now / reading this. Inhale.” These are not instructions for meditation—there are no instructions in To 2040—but this is the poem externalizing its now, these sentences breaching themselves. Arriving at “Dawn 2040,” Graham’s yet having disappeared into the past, the present becomes almost unbearable because of what’s missing: “Soon— / now actually— / you must hide / from me.” With the absence of an impending moment, our dwindling proximity to 2040, the correction of “soon” to “now” becomes impossibly dangerous. The poem could “crush” our lungs “with one / inadvertent in- // halation.” Like the raven, though, where do we go to hide? Where else can we possibly go to exceed the present? “The end is / a hard thing to // comprehend,” the poem articulates, then immediately after: “You / did not / comprehend it.” 

You did not comprehend it, but you experienced time, the yet and soon and now, culminating in the end. To 2040 follows the landmark [To] The Last [Be] Human (2022), a collection of Graham’s previous four books: Sea Change (2008), Place (2012), Fast (2017), and Runaway (2020). Robert Macfarlane writes in his introduction to that edition, “Graham’s poems are likewise turned to face our planet’s deep-time future, and their shadows are also cast by the long light of the will-have-been.” Certainly “the will-have-been” continues to be ever-present in her writing, yet Graham’s poems are likewise turned to face themselves, their own sense of time. The title poem ends with another series of questions, just as the book begins: “What was it, u must remember, what was yr message, what were u meant to / pass on?” To describe these poems as having a “message” could not possibily represent their figurative scope: “I wish I could / address you” as simply as communicating the meaning. Yet asking these questions in a particular context—the now in which this book takes place, the sense of time To 2040 makes happen for us—ennacts their immediacy, the reason you must remember.