Printer-friendly version

Publication Type:

Magazine Article


Ramke, Bin


The Boston Review, Volume 21, Issue Summer, Number 3 (1996)


Full Text:

The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994
Jorie Graham
The Ecco Press, $23

There are many reasons for the publication of a Selected Poems, chief among them the renewed availability of the poems themselves. Yet while none of Jorie Graham's books has ever gone out of print, no poet in recent memory has been so well served by the publication of such a one-volume compendium. There has been no doubt as to the significance of Graham's place in the troubled arena of American poetry since World War II -- her poems were noticed by major critics well before she won this year's Pulitzer Prize -- but we had nothing to chart the intensity of her progression over the past 20 years until the appearance of this book. And its title, like the titles of each of her books, is full of new-critical irony as well as astonishing forthrightness. As with the unified-field theorizing of physicists, should the dream hovering behind these pages ever be realized, then the act of dreaming would have exceeded its human dimension.

Oddly enough, it's the future that this collection suggests, rather than the mere reciting, or recanting, of a past. Jorie Graham's work makes constant reference to the world outside itself, insists on her own poems as readings of other, sometimes horrifying, historical contexts and texts. If read as an aesthetic statement, a poetics, then the following passage from Jonathan Schell's The Fate of The Earth might account for some post-wars poetry (i.e. the World Wars, and for Americans of Jorie Graham's generation, Vietnam):

A nuclear holocaust is an event that is obscure because it is future, and uncertainty, while it has to be recognized in all calculations of future events, has a special place in calculations of a nuclear holocaust, because a holocaust is something we aspire to keep in the future forever, and never to permit into the present. You might say that uncertainty, like the thermal pulses or the blast waves, is one of the features of a holocaust. Our procedure, then, should be not to insist on a precision that is beyond our grasp but to inquire into the rough probabilities of various results insofar as we can judge them, and then to ask ourselves what our political responsibilities are in the light of these probabilities. This embrace of investigative modesty -- this acceptance of our limited ability to predict the consequences of a holocaust -- would itself be a token of our reluctance to extinguish ourselves.

"Investigative modesty" and "our reluctance to extinguish ourselves" are phrases applicable to Jorie Graham's project. Note that even my use of the catch phrase "poetic project" contains a hidden calculation of futurity. And Graham's is a poetry whose concerns cling to time, fearfully or boldly by turns. When the world thought its greatest threat was of destruction by nuclear weapons, tacticians and strategists considered merely delaying the use of such weapons to be a victory. While their ultimate banning might have been desirable, the world meanwhile remained livable by means of delay. Further, by implying that "events" might be "obscure" because "future," Schell suggests the centrality of delay to recent history, including recent poetry.

Delay is a concept central to poetry and art. The arrow of time is inexorable, and the danger of dynamism is corruption and dissolution, which one can only delay, not deter. Perhaps the Grecian Urn suggests the possibility of an ultimate deterrence, and perhaps Eliot's Still Point feels available to some believers. But the famous pace of modern life (one can measure Modernism from the 18th century if one chooses) forces us to confront change with such ferocity that strategies for delay are commonplace, even subconscious. One of Graham's early poems refers to how ". . . this astounding delay, the everyday, takes place" ("The Geese"). In such a line, Graham suggests that the everyday, in which we live, asserts itself slyly, not by assuming dominance, but by negotiating a little space for the human in the shadow of the threat of the future. "Self Portrait as Hurry and Delay" is a poem from her crucial third book, The End of Beauty (note the importance, and the potential irony, of titles again). Aside from the need for delay to provide a space within which lives can be led, there is the need to delay in order to examine; there is the examined life to consider, but also the examined art.

Jorie Graham described in a 1992 Denver Quarterly interview a sense that even the making of a poem is merely a momentary stay against the inevitable dissolution of the genre, of poetry itself:

I feel like I'm writing as part of a group of poets -- historically -- who are potentially looking at the end of the medium itself as a vital part of their culture -- unless they do something to help it reconnect itself to mystery and power. However great their enterprise, we have been handed by much of the generation after the Modernists -- by their strictly secular sense of reality (domestic, confessional), as well as their unquestioned relationship to the act of representation -- an almost untenably narrow notion of what that in between space is capable of.

That "in between space" is part of the project of delay, of rediscovering the present before the ravages of the future.

This renewing collection allows us, for instance, to read from Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts in the light of Materialism. What Graham's skill shows is not so much a renewal as a salvation of the earlier poems by enriching their context. Just as we can hardly read the early Yeats while pretending ignorance of the greater, later works, those of us who knew best the more recent large and complex Graham poems are now invited to reread the earlier, and to see in them, perhaps for the first time, their full complexities and compulsions. For instance, consider how a later poem, "Notes on the Reality of the Self" (the second one) from Materialism, begins:

In my bushes facing the bandpractice field,

in the last light, surrounded by drumbeats, 


there is a wind that tips the reddish leaves

exactly all one way, seizing them up from

underneath, making them

barbarous in unison. Meanwhile the light insists

they glow

where the wind churns, or no, there is a wide gold


of thick insistent light, layered with golds, as if


as if laid low from the edge of the sky,

in and out of which the coupling and uncoupling

limbs -- the racks of limbs -- the luminosities of

branchings -- 

offspring and more offspring -- roil -- (except when

a sudden 

stillness reveals

an appall of pure form, pure light -- . . . .

The drama of this poem is in part a re-envisioning of a poem from her first book, including its title:

I Was Taught Three

names for the tree facing my window

almost within reach, elastic

with squirrels, memory banks, homes.

Castagno took itself to heart, its pods

like urchins clung to where they landed

claiming every bit of shadow

at the hem. Chassagne, on windier days,

nervous in taffeta gowns,

whispering, on the verge of being

anarchic, though well bred.

And then chestnut, whipped pale and clean...

It was not the kind of tree

got at by default -- imagine that -- not one

in which only the remaining leaf

was loyal.

The earlier poem's formality was "well bred," while the more recent exhibits a nervousness "on the verge of being / anarchic." Yet the sacred naming, and the trinity of names, and the conversation with the things of this world, and the urgency beneath the elegance of language, these qualities were strengths early and late. In each poem the world opening into the window, through the window, becomes a world of light and leaves, and yet the tiny ironic "joke" (an O'Henry allusion? -- the last remaining leaf that saves the life of the hospitalized little girl by providing a symbolic focus through the harsh New York winter...) turns into barbarism (note the mimetic origins of the word barbarian), the barbarism of conformity, of a world in which light is appalling / paling, and the wind and sun conspire to form (which is perhaps the same as deform) the self. Both poems are appallingly beautiful, as they touch, lightly, everywhere at once. Graham was taught three names for a tree in part because she grew up in Italy, was educated in France, and of course spoke English with her American parents. It is only clichéd thinking that assumes such a situation implies three "worlds," or that chaos must ensue from such an absence of unity. This trinity of languages, like the god of Catholicism, achieves a singularity not by suppression of any two languages' implications, but by accepting, in Helen Vendler's words, "an unembarrassed range of cultural and linguistic reference, which she does not censor."

Jorie Graham has said that for her, each book is a critique of the previous. She has also spoken of the need she felt in her poems to respond to the pull of closure, to resist its devastations. The Dream of the Unified Field demonstrates how each book successively (and successfully) re-opens the previous, and proves (and improves) the ability and need of the poem to delay, to resist, to digress and progress. As she wrote in "The Visible World":

. . . Tell me something and then take it back.

Bring this pellucid moment -- here on this page now

as on this patch

of soil, my property -- bring it up to the top and out 


sequence. Make it dumb again -- won't you? -- what 

would it


Graham's politics, if you will, involve her in a severe sense of "truth": of language and earth and family and nation being as clearly seen, as uncompromisingly loved, as is humanly possible. As the threat of nuclear holocaust has diminished from Western imagination, Jonathan Schell's analysis of the centrality of uncertainty and delay remains vibrant and formative. In a previous time, one assumes (or pretends), it was possible not only to profess the world without end, Amen, but also to believe and behave accordingly. More recent experience suggests we must love even inconstancy itself as the very medium through which our lives travel, as ether was once the medium through which everything moved. Jorie Graham has taken inconstancy, which earlier had been angst and anxiety producing, and made an art from it. Others have, too, but none in the same ways out of language. She questions Christian eschatology over and over, cyclically, throughout this book. If she resists closure, it is because Apocalypse is a dangerous desire, an excuse for inattention to the present. And while throughout this collection we find retellings of myth and märchen, we find that each telling resists summary as each becomes enactment rather than monument. In spite of the "difficulty" of much of her work, this collection, read beginning to end, read as a kind of novel, as a roman, is breathtakingly clear, crystalline, and compelling: you see my tiny

golden hands

pushed, up to the wrists,

into the present? Star I can't see in daylight, young,


and airy star -- 

I put the seed in. The beam moves on.

("The Visible World")

The moving on, and the modesty, are responses to -- and implicit in, one hopes -- the fate of the earth.