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Sacks, Peter


The New York Times (1996)


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Selected Poems 1974-1994. By Jorie Graham. 199 pp. Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press. $23.

Man has already begun to overwhelm the entire earth and its atmosphere, to arrogate to himself in forms of energy the concealed powers of nature, and to submit future history to the planning and ordering of a world government. This same defiant man is utterly at a loss simply to say what is; to say what this is -- that a thing is." By the time Heidegger wrote those words, soon after the first use of nuclear weapons, he had turned his attention increasingly to poets, for it was they, he felt, who might not only reveal what is but do so with the sentient charge and the clarifying beauty needed to turn mankind from ignorant predators to thoughtful custodians of one shared life.

Half a century later, Jorie Graham is one of the contemporary writers most open to this call for revelatory poetic thinking. Her poems are philosophically and historically alert, and their acts of thought arise with almost instinctual urgency from an astonished responsiveness that in itself becomes part of what she names "the vivid performance of the present." Chosen from five volumes, "The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994" -- which won a Pulitzer Prize this year -- allows followers of her rapid and ever-startling development to review her achievement to date.

Take the first poem as a way in. It opened her first book, "Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts," and its title, "The Way Things Work," signals the young writer's intent not simply to address "things" themselves -- one of her great gifts -- but to give an account of reality-as-process, perceived with some degree of generality. Like many of her early poems, this one tracks down the page in brief lines, resembling a pathway. Its first words lead on directly from the title:

is by admitting

or opening away.

This is the simplest form

of current: Blue

moving through blue;

blue through purple;

the objects of desire

opening upon themselves

without us;

the objects of faith.

Fluid yet tautly reined, measuring and releasing their own initiatory energy, these phrases navigate by minute distinctions of wavelength and line length. They also pulse far ahead, the focus on current revealing an interest not in fixities but in the forces that will make up Ms. Graham's "dream of the unified field" (her version, perhaps, of the project of theoretical physics to seek a single theory to account for all the forces of universal nature). And the inclusive flow of mind swiftly reaches other enduring themes -- the limits of subjectivity in relation to "objects of desire," and the question of faith:

The way things work

is that we finally believe

they are there,

common and able

to illustrate themselves.

To judge from the late poem "Steering Wheel" ("though there are, there really are, / things in the world, you must believe me"), the poet's commission does not become easier. And if we check the end of "The Way Things Work," we may begin to see why: "I believe / forever in the hooks. / The way things work / is that eventually / something catches." What are the hooks? How do they catch? Ms. Graham's career is in part a self-renewing attempt to answer such questions while giving eloquent voice to her ethical ambivalence about what the various modes of capture might involve.

Can words "catch" anything at all? If so, can they avoid coming between us and the world's work of self-illustration? Another early poem, "The Age of Reason," asks, "Isn't the / honesty / of things where they / resist?" Sharing that resistant honesty, stressing the artificial relation between word and thing, Ms. Graham reaches with quickened sensitivity for poetry's supply of the associative, sonic and formal properties rustling beyond mere denotation. Never losing sight of the screens of representation, she also develops a genius for apprehending and scrutinizing human perceptions, reflections and desires, whose links to language are somewhat less arbitrary, since they are themselves partly shaped and made available to us by words ("we need to seize again / the whole language / in search of / better desires"). And she constantly reminds us of the resurgent "blizzard of instances" that enliven us all even as they exceed our mental grasp.

"There is a feeling the body gives the mind / of having missed something," Ms. Graham writes, and few poets match the precision with which she finds words for the sensory subsoil that is too often neglected by the intellect. Massed B-52 bombers

sound like a sickness of the inner ear,

where the heard foams up into the noise of listening,

where the listening arrives without being extinguished.

The huge hum soaks up into the dusk.

Minutely observing the visible soil, she writes:

If I look carefully, there in my hand, if I

break it apart without

crumbling: husks, mossy beginnings and endings, ruffled

airy loambits,

and the greasy silks of clay crushing the pinerot

in. . . .

Straining to register "how the invisible roils," she asks:

Is there a new way of looking --

valences and little hooks -- inevitabilities, proba-

bilities? It flaps and slaps.

Scenting, tasting, feeling the touch even of time ("the spike-headed minutes pushing up round her, / up under the thighs, there at the elbows the hips"), Ms. Graham's poetry is among the most sensuously embodied and imaginative writing we have, its added power stemming from the fact that sensation in her work not only registers what is immediately present but also remains tensely and restlessly attuned to whatever may still emerge.

A further distinctive and evolving feature of Ms. Graham's work is its stress on delay and between-ness. Poetic form itself, of course, shifts between acceleration and sudden braking, or breaking, between enlargement and arrest. "The Geese" suspends its wavering between the traveling lines of migratory birds and the retentive meshes of spider webs by discovering: "And somewhere in between / these geese forever entering and / these spiders turning back, / this astonishing delay, the everyday, takes place." Two books later, "Noli Me Tangere" begins:

You see the angels have come to sit on the delay for a while,

they have come to harrow the fixities, the sharp edges of this open


they have brought their swiftnesses like musics


to fit them on the listening.

And a still later poem ends: "Is hisses the last light on the reddish berries, is is the much / blacker shadows of spring now that the leaves are / opening, now that they're taking up / place."

With the more aerated reach of these lines, whose roving, irregular lengths mark Ms. Graham's later work, poetry remains the space in which she can best attend to what might otherwise never be made manifest. A source of excitement, even suspense, as one reads through this book is the developing brilliance and volatility, wedded to further innovations (particularly her braidings of myth, anecdote, meta-narrative and commentary), with which she presents a more complex and frequently troubled sense of just what it is that takes place.

What happens, for example, when her wariness about the possible mismatch between word and world, or between selective acts of mind and "the fizzing around the diagram," grows to include a sense of humanity's violent colonizing of the earth? Or when authentic human curiosity (including that of the poet) is seen to slide over into the urge to dominate and possess? What happens when an intense openness to sensory experience, allied to a fierce regard for the liberty of individuals, confronts the fixed gaze of another's point of view ("Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne") or suffers the affliction of another's sexual or political designs ("From the New World")?

To watch Ms. Graham rise to the lure and challenge of such questions is to see her break through to her extraordinarily inventive later work. Poems from her third volume, "The End of Beauty," introduce a cinematic freeze-frame technique to reimagine and reorient the paradigmatic stories of couples ranging from Eve and Adam to Penelope and Ulysses, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, mother and daughter. Magically, the events appear to unfold for the first time:


The gesture like a fruit torn from a limb, torn swiftly.


The whole bough bending then springing back as if from sudden sight.


The rip in the fabric where the action begins, the opening of the narrow passage.

These stories are chopped and stylized partly to create magnifying lenses of attention, partly to subvert all narrative simplifications and to rebel against the enforcements of plot and closure. Eve resists God's ordinance so that something unpredictable can occur; Eurydice eludes the familiar reifying gaze of Orpheus. There is both exhilaration and pathos in all these poems (several of which are oblique, triadic self-portraits). With a strange, almost telepathically compassionate candor, the poet reveals people who wish to be seen and loved -- but without delimitation, almost without features, as if each merited the unrepresentable ineffability otherwise reserved for God.

A brief review cannot trace the ramifications of event, memory, speculation, history, myth and allusion that make up the later poems. "The Phase After History," a poem from Ms. Graham's fourth and darkest book, "Region of Unlikeness," interweaves a description of birds trapped in the house of the writer (she would like to "get the house out of their way") with fragments from "Macbeth," as well as with an account of a student who tries to cut off his face and who eventually kills himself. The effect on the reader is a terrifying experience of crisis and of the tragically engaged compulsions for release, for renewal or for the capacity to face and survive one's own implication in stories of entrapment and unredeemable pain. In "Picnic," what is flickers through a child's memory of adult sexual deceit, a memory bound to that of a frightening makeup session in which the mother refigures the child's face in the mirror -- leaving the speaker in a temporally as well as spatially fractured state of between-ness. Can any surface be trusted? What is a face? Is the very fixing of features the object of a lie? Would a fuller regard for the self and the other resist delineation altogether? No wonder the speaker hovers on the very threshold of predication: " 'is is is is' I thought."

However vertiginous, that last phrase may be Ms. Graham's ontological counterpoint to Sylvia Plath's psychological "ich, ich, ich, ich / I could hardly speak." It marks her distance from Plath's "barb wire snare" of confessionalism (or from the fashionable compounds of identity-based ideologies). And it points to the liberating embrace of her fifth book, "Materialism." After the tragic cast of "Region of Unlikeness," we could call this embrace comedic. Or taking a cue from the afterwords to her preceding collection, which she borrows from Prospero ("the wave drowning me in laughter"), we could say that "Materialism" has the character of late romance. Radiant and manifold, reveling both in language and in the bristling world within and around them, these poems celebrate the thawing romance between "the river of my attention" and that current of reality that has flowed through Ms. Graham's work from the beginning: "I say iridescent and I look down. / The leaves very still as they are carried."

Peter Sacks's most recent books are The English Elegy and Promised Lands, a volume of poems.