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Publication Type:

Journal Article


Redmond, John


Thumbscrew, Volume No. 12 (1998)

Full Text:

Jorie Graham: The Errancy. Manchester: Carcanet, £9.95.

     In ‘The Guardian Angel of Point-of-View’, Jorie Graham listens to a bird – as many another poet has listened – singing, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, “close to the music of what happens”. The bird’s entrance may seem theatrical – one’s first thought is “well, that’s a thin start to a poem” – and it is theatrical, but it is a staginess which, with respect to any bird in any poem, is both hard to avoid and worth exploring in itself. When a poet is as self-reflexive as Jorie Graham so consistently is, a device which draws attention to itself as a device is not only a good place to begin the poem, it is – to use the poem’s own terminology – a good point of view. The bird’s viewpoint is innocent, but the way it is viewed – by this overwhelmingly visual and undeniably exhilarating poet – is anything but. From the contrast between these two points of view the poem, to use one of Graham’s favourite verbs, unfolds:

the view the very drink for whom these drinkers are
created, these distances
uniquely meant to thread their narrow hurt –
the browsing mind encountering the filament of point-of-view,
the mind outstretched – at first so clean of greed –
a look you would almost call innocence for its
meandering delicacy,
a corridor of premonitions, footnotes, convoys of
intuitions all whispering at once
but slight – gravely steadfast though underneathly glutinous –
still moonlit, though now dawn refines, embroiders, im-
prisons ... The bird has almost done.

Graham responds to the sound of the bird with different ways of looking, then as the poem repeatedly loops back on itself – and the bird is half-forgotten – she looks, over and over again, at the way she is looking. It is hard – both for reader and writer – not to confuse Graham with her point of view. The faint echo of ‘Gerontion’ (“History has many corridors”) in the above passage indicates both the exhausting nature of her revisions and how they are intimately bound up with the ways in which other poets have already seen. Seen and, of course, heard – though for Graham the former has precedence. Seeing, in her work, is not so much believing as it is being. Fervent to the point of feverishness, repetitive to the point of ritual, her images are the visual equivalent of speaking in tongues, the poems filled with the sort of haloed, blurred and ectoplasmic shapes one might find in a psychic photograph:

One of the soldiers rubs his face,
streamings-of-thought starting to glide all over him,
sticky frantics from the network clotting all round,
thickenings, varying,
in which the possibility of shapeliness begins to rave,
brightening most at those edges where the skull feels itself to be
inside of something which it cannot see –

The soldier, to adapt a phrase of Frost’s, is possessed by what he does not possess – possession, in its supernatural sense, being one way of describing the state which many of these poems evoke. At times, her serpentine visual sensibility has a quality as sinister as Plath’s, for example when she describes light which has hooks or minutes which are like little, white worms.

     Graham’s visual style is individual enough, and is caused by the yet more individual shape of her thinking, with its earnest, many-angled way of encountering the given world. One might compare this fundamental aspect of her poetic personality to a Formula One race – as seen on TV – with its turns and spins, with its close-up shots and overhead views, its long curves and its slow chicanes, its flying bits of machinery, its instrument dials, garbled messages and mechanics covered head-to-foot in the gear of their mystery. Like a televised motor-race, the poems always come back to where they start, although always in a slightly different configuration, the whole enterprise involving a set of narrative leaps which can be very puzzling to the uninitiated.

     To figure points-of view is also a handy way for Graham to figure influence. She is able to show the extent to which she sees herself in other poets – in close-up or from a great distance – as something on a larger or smaller scale, or since the narrative, in rolling along, usually mixes such views up, as a composite of such viewpoints. Partly, this reflects the high mid-point which her poetic career appears to have reached. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for The Dream of the Unified Field (a selection of the best of her earlier collections), Graham, in a number of Bloomian moments scattered throughout The Errancy, starts to recognise herself in her precursors. Little bits of poetry by acknowledged masters suddenly flash up in the course of her discourses, the way ‘Sea-Blue Aubade’, for example, suddenly “errs” into Shakespeare:

more days, more nights, more roads, shouts, flowers,
all making towards what pebbled shore,
each changing place with that which went before –
and forwards, forwards, how it all contends,
against the crookedness to be itself, to be at last, the crown...

Like many American poets after Stevens, Graham emphasises flow as a kind of all-encompassing condition of the poem. Instead of assuming some static point from which one can make sensible, empirical observations, her style assumes the flow not only of what she is observing but of the observing itself. There is considerable room within it for random elements, for turnings-aside from expected lines of development, for what, in her current metaphor-of-choice she calls “errancy”. This word, which brings to mind the image of a knight-errant refers, according to the dust-jacket, to “heroic wandering”, finding one’s way even while taking the wrong paths. Graham’s style gives precedence to verbs and prepositions over nouns and pronouns. An object is merely the temporary outcome of an action (or a set of actions). As she puts it in the concluding line of ‘The Strangers’, “They’re flowers because they stop where they do” – itself a recasting of Stevens’s “A glass aswarm with things going as far as they can”. 

     Given the influence on her chosen mode of Stevens, Ashbery, and to a lesser degree, Eliot, Bishop and Plath, it is fairly safe to say that American readers are likely to be more comfortable with her work. Readers on this side of the Atlantic who do not dismiss her lightly with “I can’t make head or tail of it” are still likely to ask, “why does she take herself so seriously?” If we were to compare her with probably the most influential poet from this side of the Atlantic, Paul Muldoon, then the differences, at first sight, seem wide. Where Muldoon is deceptively casual and humorous, Graham is determinedly earnest and heavy. But if we leave such surface matters aside, and the way Muldoon’s poetry responds more to linguistic triggers than to visual ones, then there are surprising similarities. Both poets are, in a deep sense, moral. Both create ambitious forms which aim to capture the way we experience things moment by moment. Both attempt to register the unpredictable movements of the mind (think of Muldoon’s phrase “which made me think/ of something else, then something else again” – and any poem by Graham). Both are mordantly interested in fate as it is manifested in the repetitions of life (think of Muldoon’s ‘Yarrow’ – and any poem by Graham). And, for both, the poem is a partly willed construction on which the wholly unwilled exerts itself.

     Like all styles, Graham’s has its limitations, its “limits of aperture”. She is best when she happily discovers her ends, when she doesn’t know where the poem is going, rather than in such overdetermined poems as ‘Le Manteau de Pascal’. When attempting a character study, on however large or small a scale, she tends to imagine how she would feel in the situation of her subject, rather than how the subject would feel. It is almost impossible to imagine her as a social novelist. It’s notable too that she often renders other people’s conversations as background noise, like the party she overhears in the first poem in the book, ‘The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia’:

                          how small they seem from here
the bobbing universal heads, stuffing the void with eloquence,
and also tiny merciless darts
of truth. It’s pulled on tight, the air they breathe and rip.

In ‘Untitled Two’ she describes some girls walking through a large parking lot. After three one-line sentences in its middle, the poem concludes with a grandiose, convoluted sentence of 45 lines where the girls’ conversation is rendered as if from a great distance:

and then another takes her turn, voice rising quick and bright,
and two now interrupt – high-heeled – scales of belief,
quick blurtings-out like a bright red jug
raised high into the waves of light,
which their onrush of chatter fills now, spills,
and then a hard remark, slammed in, a lowering again
of tone, quick chitter from the group, low twist of tone
from in the midst, and then a silence – like a wing raised up...

Graham often achieves her bird’s-eye-view of things at the expense of other tones and intensities. I suspect this is because her style depends on being able to charge everything with significance – nothing is allowed to just happen – and to recreate mocking or scatological dialogue, for example – the kind of dialogue one occasionally finds in Frost or Lowell or Ashbery – would undermine this process. While there is an unusually wide variety of tones in her poems, there is only one voice.