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Sampson, Fiona


The Guardian (2006)

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Saturday 25th February 2006

Jorie Graham teaches us about the nature of being human with her poetic reflection on war, Overlord, says Fiona Sampson.

Jorie Graham, one of the best American poets, is above all concerned with difficulty. Past work has seen her exploring difficulties of apprehension and of memory amid the existential difficulty of sustaining the self. In Overlord, her latest collection to be published here, she faces the supreme difficulty of war - bringing to it a questioning, an openness to what imagination can make of history and a self-exposure which places her own perceived failings on a continuum with those of war itself.

"Operation Overlord" was the code-name given to the Normandy landings. At this book's centre of gravity, therefore, are poems filled with filmic detail of conflict and death: "one shot taken by a / knee, bullets up through our feet, explosion of Jack's face, more sudden openings / in backs, shoulders, one in a neck, throat opens . . . " ('Spoken from the Hedgerows 2'). Graham shows us, with the collage "Hedgerows 1", that the voice of the unknown soldier or airman is also a tragic chorus. The "lost" are both anonymous and charged with the authority of witness: here, they tell of sacrifice of human life. Graham's characteristic, rhythmically urgent diction questions not what makes a "just war"; but what war, holding up mirrors of death and culpability, tells us about being human.

But Overlord also names a Judeo-Christian deity: the One who does or does not "pass over"; a force of ordination. Six poems are named after attempts at prayer on different dates. Their representation of spiritual struggle is as extraordinary as any in the literature of the last two centuries. Graham shows us both her own abjection - "I need to be curled up this / way, face pressed, knees pulled up tight" ("May 9 '03") - and the processes of prayer:

    If I open my eyes I know what
       there will be: nothing.
    No, really, nothing. So must
       keep them
    shut, face in hands, hands
       holding eyes shut.
    I search around for gratitude,
       as if feeling around in a
    park after nightfall for a lost hat [. . .]

(from 'Feb 6 '04')

This is writing as painstaking as the process it describes; gradually we realise that writing and process are one. Graham, bearing "the whole crushing emptiness / on my back", is praying with - or over - us. Questions emerge which, while representing huge technical control, suggest humility before unseen standards both literary and meta-literary. When, as in the opening poem, or 'Physician', Jorie Graham takes personal dis-ease as a metonym for the guilt of a whole society, she sets herself beyond no pale. Instead, acknowledging her own implication, she demands of the reader similar acknowledgments. Graham's unique project bears witness to how much we can ask of poetry. As she says in 'Copy':

    leads the soul to the frontiers
       of the
          Absolute and even
    gives it an impulsion to enter,
          but this
       is not enough.'