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Magazine Article


The American Book Review (2006)


Overlord; review

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The Personal Trauma that is History

Patrick Pritchett

Jorie Graham sets her fever-pitch poems at the seam where the human undergoes the traumatic subduction of history. She writes as if oblivion were always imminent, indeed, as if at each moment nothing less than everything were at stake. Overlord, her ninth full collection, bears many of her signature concerns: how the happenstance of the ordinary produces the shiver of the uncanny; the imperative to look ever more deeply into the ethical knot that is seeing; and how that seeing asks us to address history’s hurts, its longing for messianic redemption. The poems in Overlord continue Graham’s intense examination of the continuing shockwave that is “the phase after history,” as the title of one of her earlier poems has it, but in a more explicit, direct, and even heartbreaking way than before. To achieve this shift, the ecstatic charge of her language, with its pell-mell, serpentine lines, as become somewhat muted, though scarcely minimized. The rhetorical optics capable of mixing a wide-angle metaphysical shot with the most intimate close-up is still very much in evidence. Nothing less will serve the poet’s interrogation of history, which here is taken up as an ongoing trauma, both personal and collective, that refuses to be integrated into the usual narrative and lyric structures.

Overlord attests to and amplifies Cathy Caruth’s well-known observation that “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own... history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.” But the best poems in Overlord are far from a mere adjunct to recent trauma theory. For Graham, historical trauma provides us with the opportunity to recognize, as Jean-Luc Nancy expresses it, that presence itself “is impossible except as copresence.”

Graham’s “big hunger” for modernism’s large scope places her, along with Anne Waldman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in a small company of contemporary poets working to put the ambit back in ambition. Yet with a difference. The poem that wishes to tackle history may no longer afford either the plaintive cri de coeur for a lost order, à la Eliot, or the bullheaded incitements for utopia on the installment plan, as with Pound. The book’s title wraps the code name for the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 into a series of prayers that appeal to and resist the notion of divine agency. Much of the tension in the book springs from the ways in which Graham plays these meanings off one another, complicating our sense of them, and, finally, of history itself, which functions as a kind of overlord of master discourse.

As elegy, the poems in Overlord recall the dead of Normandy through the shadow of 9/11 and Iraq, achieving their work of mourning through a disarmingly straightforward and deeply affecting procedure. The three poems that form the core of the book, all entitled “Spoken from the Hedgerows” – as if to emphasize by repetition the ghostliness of their utterances – are masterful collages of the voices of American soldiers involved in the Normandy invasion. Culled from various memoirs, the voices transcend the collage form, resonating with eerie affect – placid and crystalline transmissions from a vast archive of duty, strife, and suffering:

I was Floyd West (1st Division) I was born in

Portia Arkansas Feb 6

1919 We went through Reykjavik Iceland

through the North Atlantic through the

wolf packs

That was 1942 I was Don Whitsitt I flew a 

B-26 medium bomber

Number 131657 called the Mississippi


The cumulative effect of these three poems is intense: “I do not know who I am, but I am here, I tell you this,” writes Graham, offering not simply a dramatic point of view, but a deep inventory of the need to attest. “I do not know why I speak to you,” says Graham at the close of the second Hedgerow poem. The rest of Overlord seeks to supply a series of tentative answers, each of them speaking to the book’s underlying theme: utterance’s desire to escape itself – but into what?

If “Spoken from the Hedgerows” undertakes a ritual act of remembrance, then the various poems entitled “Praying (Attempt of...)” act as antiphonal counterweights, framing the measured calm of recollection with a fugue of anguish that encompasses the war in Iraq, the biosphere’s destruction, and the profound ache of apocalyptic fatigue. The “Attempt of...” subtitle seems redundant. Isn’t all prayer already in a category of conditional address, uncertain of everything but the lack of a response together with its absolute need to apostrophize? Yet Graham’s deliberate emphasis on the instability of prayer places its practice where it belongs, as something specifically material issuing from a particular body. For prayer is all about the body – its desires, its fears. And its tremblings: “lord of the / human eye, tongue, hand – of lateness”; “I don’t know where to start. I don’t think my face / in my hands is right. / ... my eyes pressed shut”; “Once we stop singing we / only know how to get up and stride out of the room”; and “If I could shout but I must not shout.” In each of these attempts the note of abjection and imploring is sounded over and over, each one adumbrating the most basic cry of all: “This is a poem about wanting to survive.” That is, of wanting to speak the unspeakable, to somehow incorporate into the poem’s economy what is resolutely anti-poetic – the dis-cognate matter of trauma. as she asks in “Praying (Attempt of June 8 ’03)”:

oh lord it is a

small thing, no?, to have to

begin the count

again – the stars, the butterflies, the flies, the


the dead, the rooms, the sand, the words, the

wounded, the roads, the missing limbs.

For Graham, poetry itself is a form of traumatic incursion registering consciousness’s movement toward itself through a series of negations. Like prayer’s address to no one, the poem takes place as the utterance of its own impossibility.

The final poem in Overlord restages an encounter with a homeless man at Thanksgiving whom the poet earnestly, then desperately, tries to feed. How can lyric, “Posterity” asks, address another at his most naked? There are echoes here of Wordsworth’s “Old Cumberland Beggar” as well as of James Wright’s intensely agonizing dramas of spiritual self-loathing. No one could doubt Graham’s sincerity. But the poem veers dangerously close, as Wright often did, to a self-valorizing sentimentality in which psychological honesty becomes fetishistic self-flagellation.

ah friend – that man,

do you know him, the one I have to suppose

you will not walk past, although what

you will do after that is anyone’s guess.

I put my hands in my pockets. I fish out


Sometimes bills if I can. Of course I am

confused. I do not know

the right thing to do.

This somewhat theatrical address to the reader is balanced near the poem’s conclusion by a startling admonition:

how can I write/in a lyric poem that the 

world we live in/

has already been destroyed? It is true. But/it

cannot be said

into the eyes of an other,/as that other will have nowhere

to turn.

There is something unnerving in Graham’s candor. In a poem about the impossibility of mustering an effective response, such failure itself acts as the very mechanism for enabling its articulation. As so often in her work, Graham strives to balance the often ungainly tensions between a non-reductive movement toward caritas and the immediate imperative to respond. “Posterity” rescues itself from sentimentalism by insisting that the only way past the reduction of the other lies in writing toward and possibly through such reductionism, without any hope of closure, refusing to evade the enigma of suffering by remaining present to its least, scattered trace.

The spiritual hazards run by Graham’s poetic risk-taking are saved by a radical magnanimity founded on doubt. She recognizes that the danger posed by even our slightest encounters lies in how they threaten us with a plea for undertaking some small piece of the world’s repair. She raises the stakes of living to their highest wager, asking, after Levinas: “If I am not for the other, then how can I be for myself?”