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Journal Article


The Kenyon Review, Kenyon College, Volume 25, Issue 2, p.149-168 (2003)



Full Text:

Willard Spiegelman



The Seven Ages. By Louise Glück New York HarperCollins, Ecco Press, 2002. 68 pp. $23.00.

Never. By Jorie Graham. New York: HarperCollins, Ecco Press, 2002. 112 pp. $22.95.

Books by poets whose work we are already familiar with pose different challenges from first books--either work by new poets or work that is new to us as readers-because nothing takes the measure of an artist's progress so well as an examination of her development over the course of a career. If an author has not "found her voice" (curious phrase) at the start, we criticize her for sounding derivative or imitative of someone else. Once she has found or invented the mysterious knot of individual identity and cemented a singular persona, a technique, above all a unique style, we might then-paradoxically--criticize her for a staid, unvarying sameness. Auden was the best example of this-his late poems were mocked for both triviality of subject and self-repetition in method. Greedy readers require, legitimately, sameness and difference all at once.

New volumes by two of the most distinctive poets of their generation suggest the way that "plus ça change plus c'est la même chose." There is no mistaking a poem by Jorie Graham for one by anyone else; and even the more austere, less flamboyant Louise Glück, once one understands her style and obsessions, seems always, inevitably herself. Each is sui generis. How to remain true to the self but also to keep it fluid, changing, and responsive is any artist's greatest challenge. Although readers will differ in their evaluation of individual volumes (some find Glück’s Vita Nova less appealing than The Wild Iris; some think that Graham's metaphysical speculations and syntactic fractures go madly awry in Swarm), it is clear that both poets would agree with Keats that they "would sooner fail than not be among the greatest"; that constant experimentation ("that which is creative must create itself," Keats continues) is the only way to forge a poetic identity. And as Years succinctly said: "It is myself that I remake."

These references to earlier poets arc not gratuitous. Graham has always inclined toward the epistemological dilemmas plumbed and articulated by the English Romantics. Her new book takes an epigraph from one of Keats's letters ("How can I believe in that? Surely it cannot be?"), in which eager wonder competes with incredulity as he views the scenery of the Lake District for the first time. Glück—especially in her new volume—is revisiting Wordsworthian scenes of childhood, developing her ongoing lyrical autobiography with reference to what her Romantic precursor called "spots of time," "the glory and the freshness of a dream," and even “visionary dreariness." If her previous work responded to Plato, Greek myth and epic, to Dante, and to Milton and his God, her latest one suggests that she has been taking a fresh look at poets historically nearer. This is not to say that her autobiographical maneuvers are something novel; in all of her books, especially Ararat (1990), her familial life—as daughter, sister, wife, and mother—has been central. Sometimes overtly, sometimes through parable, dream, and fable, Glück has made her poetry out of lived experience. Bur now, in The Seven Ages, Wordsworthian repetition and a return to the past engage her more fully than ever before.

Glück has always shared the desire articulated by Adrienne Rich, "to do something very common, in my own way," i.e., to remain faithful simultaneously to individuality and ordinary experience. In "Memoir" she says it simply: "[M]y story, in any case, wasn't unique/ though, like everyone else, I had a story, / a point of view" (62). Her double goal affects her subjects (the everyday interwoven with the mythic) and the size of her poems (an economy that inspires depth). her "point of view" generates an exquisite sense of poetic form. Witness "The Muse of Happiness," a subject so atypical of this usually saturnine or skeptical poet that she handles it entirely in sentence fragments except in its exact middle, from which shapely integrated sentences arise. Finally, Glück’s language leans toward the commonplace and away from the mandarin. She always prefers "the simplest vocabulary" as she acknowledges in her autobiographical apologia "Education of the Poet." But the whittling of her austere economies does not invariably result in utter transparency. Because of both repetition and omission, her work contains its own conundrums, the most important of which touch on the very nature of identity.

Lyric address is cnlc.ial to all lyric utterance. Who is speaking? And to whom? In many of Glück's poems we may find ourselves surprised to be addressed, or else discomfited to break in on a conversation in medias res. The much anthologized "Mock Orange" (The Triumph of Achilles) begins with the confidential but angry charge: "It is not the moon, I tell you." And it requires another sixteen lines for readers to realize that she is addressing women in general but no one in particular. In the second book, "Horse" is spoken by a man to his young bride, but readers often automatically, but wrongly, assume that the speaker is a version of the poet herself. Earlier, in "The Pond" (The House on Marshland), the speaker addresses an unspecified "you," a potential lover of whom we learn nothing else. One could go through all of her volumes and discover the same phenomena. In all of them, even when she addresses or even mentions people who we infer are genuine in her life---the mother, the father, the sister who lived, the sister who died, the husband (in a marriage now dissolved) named John, the son named Noah—Glück heightens the simplest act—of naming and address through her chastened tones, some chilling, some angelic, some merely propositional. In "Moonbeam" (The Seven Ages) she addresses a "you [who is] like me, whether or not you admit it" (5). That is all we know of the addressee. Glück has always responded, she has admitted, to "poetry that requests or craves a listener ... I need to feel addressed: the complement, I suppose, of speaking in order to be heeded." As a child she took to Keats and Blake, feeling that they were talking directly to her. As an adult, reading Stevens flummoxed her; she felt "superfluous, part of some "marginal throng." But often her poems make us wonder: who is the "you" to whom she speaks? In the new book sometimes it is the proverbial reader: "I call to you across a monstrous river or chasm / to caution you, to prepare you. // Earth will seduce you, slowly, imperceptibly, subtly, not to say with connivance" ("The Sensual World" 6). Sometimes she seems to be talking to herself: "You were // a beast at the edge of its cave, only / waking and sleeping" ("Decade" 38). At least once it might not even be a person but an inanimate titular figure, her version of Wordsworth's single tree in the Intimations Ode:

And it was always this we discussed or alluded to

when we were moved to speak

The weather. The quince tree.

You, in your innocence. what do you know of this world? ("Quince Tree" 42)

Although the adolescent Glück reveled in Keats's poetry, as an adult (she once said in an interview), the only poem of his to which she returns with excitement is the mysterious late fragment, "This Living Hand," in which the dramatic situation of the speaker and, even more, the identity of the addressee are thoroughly ambiguous.

Glück is also a master of dialogue, but the practical problem of quotation marks complicates issues of identity. Only one poem in the volume ("The Traveler") uses them. Otherwise, dialogue is signaled by italics or by nothing at all. We cannot tell for sure who is speaking to whom. Midway through "Stars" the "unsatisfying morning" addresses the waking poet. The last fourteen lines look like this:

I will never be banished. I am the light,

your personal anguish and humiliation.

Do you dare

send me away as though

you were waiting for something better?

There is no better.

Only (for a short space)

the night sky like

a quarantine that sets you

apart from your task

Only (softly, fiercely)

the stars shining. Here,

in the room, the bedroom.

Saying, I was brave, I resisted,

I set myself on fire. (11-12)

"I" is the morning light; "you" is the recalcitrant poet. But who is the "I" in the final, italicized remarks? The stars of the night sky that penetrate the poet's darkness and become her symbols? Perhaps "There is no better" begins a response by the poet herself in which she separates the night sky from the daylight. In this case, both the tonality and the effect of the poem's conelusion have altered radically.

Identity is shared, just as life's roles and human articulations melt into one another. A covert continuity in human speech (or human and superhuman speech, as above) matches other temporal or generational continuities. In "Mother and Child," the mother addresses her offspring, but the absence of quotation marks forces us to understand that the child literally repeats the parent and her words. He also, of course, repeats the genetic material of both his parents and his grandparents. The poem's ending can legitimately and eerily be heard as coming from one or both of the pair:

This is why you were born: to silence me.

Cells of my mother and father, it is your turn

to be pivotal, to be the masterpiece.

I improvised; I never remembered.

Now it's your turn to be driven;

you're the one who demands to know:

Why do I suffer? Why am I ignorant?

Cells in a great darkness. Some machine made us;

it is your turn to address it, to go back asking

what am I for? What am I for? (8)

Verbal repetition and acts of real or remembered return provide the keys to so many of these poems that we feel G[lick has provided for the forward movement of her art by moving backward in her life.

Two related thematic elements match the importance of ambiguous address in these poems: the generality of myth and the specificity of remembrance. Glück here almost forgoes her previous reliance on myth and parable in favor of more ordinary acts of memory. Child, daughter, sister, schoolgirl, adult, wife, divorcée (but only once in this volume, mother) are her looser and nonsequential versions of Shakespeare's Jaques's "seven ages," the parts each person enacts in the play of life. The world of dream and fable still makes an appearance, however, surrounding (for the most part quite literally) the book's central section, which contains Glück's more realistic personal reminiscences. The volume opens and closes with dreams. The first, the title poem, concerns creation and a descent into life, The book's last and shortest poem, "Fable," deals with life or death (or eternal life), a descent into nirvana, a home whose light provides no peace. The world the speaker enters seems like the heaven found unacceptable to the youth and "pale virgin" in Blake's "Ah, Sunflower," who arrive at the "sweet golden clime" only to find it wanting. 

Glück's book is filled with both premonitions (in dreams) and retrospection. Everything seems to happen at least twice. The tide poem begins "In my first dream the world appeared / the salt, the bitter, the forbidden, the sweet / In my second I descended" (3). And "In my first dream the world appeared" recurs toward the end of the poem, as well. Like Graham, Glück has the habit of giving several poems in one volume the same title. (There are three "Fable" poems here.) In addition, all of the titles are simple nouns or noun phrases; the effect is one of naming discrete items, incidents, chapters, even still lifes. The secular Wordsworthian poems at the book's core are its strongest. In the language of simple fact they relate the wish to return, repeat, proliferate, to renew the self in the face of the knowledge of time's inevitable passing and depredations. And they relate as well the poet's resistance to and acceptance of this knowledge. The book is full of efforts to stop time: "the attempts of the mind / to prevent change" ("Birthday" 20); "when I didn't move I was perfect" ("Summer at the Beach" 34); "I never changed" ("The Empty Glass" 39). Here is the beautiful first part of the ten-section "Ripe Peach":

There was a time

only certainty gave me

any joy. Imagine—

certainty, a dead thing. (52)

The future is always "lethal, unstable" ("The Empty Glass" 40), and the present is often unbearable. Is it any wonder that Glück sounds like Wordsworth here ("There was a time ..." begins the Intimations Ode) and elsewhere ("my heart would leap up exultant and collapse / in desolate anguish" she writes in "Birthday")? Glück revisits scenes of childhood sometimes dispassionately, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes regretfully. Unlike some of her earlier, cryptic narratives, most of these are crystalline. "Study of My Sister" responds to Wordsworth's "Anecdote for Fathers" and "'We Are Seven," those "lyrical ballads" dramatizing the inevitable impasse in conversations between adults and children. Her parents ask her younger sister, who has been playing with blocks: "What did you. build? / and then, because she seems / so blank, so confused, / they repeat tile question" (31). "Blank" and "confused" are strong Wordsworthian words. Here is the beginning of "Quince Tree," with its acknowledgment of change:

We had. in the end, only the weather for a subject.

Luckily, we lived in a world with seasons—

we felt, still, access to variety:

darkness, euphoria, various kinds of waiting.

I suppose, in the true sense, our exchanges

couldn't be called conversation, being

dominated by accord, by repetition. (41)

Variety and repetition go hand in hand. And there is, additionally, the very language of Wordsworthian abstraction, finely chiseled to work against the specificity, weight, and meaning of the quince tree itself. "Grandeur and splendor" (42) (what Wordsworth called "the glory and the freshness of a dream") inform the mundane details of the world of the backyard, the weather, the conversation.

In spite of all the motifs of mirroring and other repetitions in this volume, Glück seldom resorts to the rhetorical trope of chiasmus, preferring the parallel trope of anaphora. So when she employs chiasmus in "Time" (61), a crucial Romantic poem, we sit up and take notice. Once again the poem begins with a myth of abundance and a fall into nothingness: "There was too much, always, then too little." Memory itself works through chiastic mirroring and repetition: "Things became dreams; dreams became things." The nominal subject here is childhood sickness, and reading in bed, followed by health and growing up: "The perceived became the remembered, / the remembered, the perceived." Such rhetorical crossings are matched by a linear crossing-over: "And time went on, even when there was almost nothing left." Everything in this volume is informed by its author's awareness of having gone beyond life's halfway point. She refers to her ability to think back fifty years. She returns to her childhood home ("Unpainted Door" 55), and finds it both the same and not the same:

The house was the same, but

the door was different.

Not red anymore—unpainted wood.

The trees were the same: the oak, the copper beech.

But the people-all the inhabitants of the past—

were gone: lost, dead, moved away.

The children from across the Street

old men and women.

What she calls the "bewildering accuracy of imagination and dream" works backwards and forwards. Her whole childhood was a "long wish to be elsewhere." Re-arriving at the origin she says simply: "This is the house; this must be / the childhood I had in mind." What a delicious unpacking of a cliché: "had in mind" refers to both the childhood she intended at the time and the childhood she has borne with her after a half century. The mind has remained a constant after childhood has passed. 

Such constancy distinguishes one of the volume's most moving poems, "Mitosis," a psychological myth of the division between two antagonists which we like to think were at one point identical: the mind (always lingering, wanting more, finally wanting to go back, to try for a second chance) and the body, "implacably moving ahead, as it had to, to stay alive." In childhood the mind wants infinity; in middle age it wants a new beginning:

It wished simply to repeat the whole passage,

like the exultant conductor, who feels only that

the violins might have been a little softer, more plangent. (56)

The body has no "dream except the dream of tile future." The poem ends with the kind of sensuous delight that Glück, in other moods, tends to suspect. While hardly rising to exultant heights, and remaining true to her congenital sadness, she reaches a point of what we might label satisfaction as mind and body come to rejoin one ,mother, at least figuratively:

Limitless world! The vistas clear, the clouds risen.

The water azure, the sea plants bending and sighing

among the coral reefs, the sullen mermaids

all suddenly angels, or like angels. And music

rising over the open sea—

Exactly like the dream of the mind.

The same sea, the same shimmering fields.

The plate of fruit, the identical

violin (in the past and the future) but

softer now, finally

sufficiently sad. (.57)

Sameness and identity exist primarily as rhetorical figures rather than as actual phenomena; unity is a poetic construct.

The last three poems (before the final epitaphic "Fable") offer a trio of Glückian songs, an epitome of her miniaturizing art. The largely unpunctuated "Aubade" (65) is an experiment in repetition: "There was one summer / that returned many times over / there was one flower unfurling / taking many forms ...," it begins. One summer, one flower, one love, one garden, all repeated: Glück ends her incantation with one summer "returning over and over / there was one dawn / I grew old watching[.]" The ardors of observation connect her with Stevens, master of repetition (who said that we move from "that ever-early candor to its late plural"), and Wordsworth, who spoke of the single tree, flower, and field in the Intimations Ode, and who found a sufficient challenge in life's single, unidirectional path. Like the overwhelming majority of poems in the book, "Aubade" is in the past tense (the few in the present refer to the past), as is the subsequent "Screened Porch," whose title refers not just to a piece of domestic architecture but to the separation of the nuclear family from a natural world that ignores the "great drama of human life." Nature's beauty once provided a solacing arrangement onto which we could project our need for something eternal:

Immunity to time, to change. Sensation

of perfect safety, the sense of being

protected from what we loved—

And our intense need was absorbed by the night

and returned as sustenance. (66)

In "Screened Porch" Glück achieves the rare perfection that unites details from a single life with generalizations about our shared humanity. There is no "I" in the poem, only a collective "we" that refers to the poet and her family and to the rest of us as well.

"Summer Night," the book's penultimate poem, however, begins entirely in the first-personal singular, as the poet hears her own heart beating. Its sound reminds her of those pluralities left undone--letters unsent, journeys unmade, "[and] the life, in a sense, never completely lived." At the center of the poem Glück makes an equation between her life and her work:

And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious.

Why not? Why not? Why should my poems nor imitate my life?

Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning

is not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie. (67)

Glück has never repeated herself in her art although—especially here--repetition is one of her thematic constant~. At the end of this poem she moves beautifully beyond the self. Now she hears in her heartbeat not her own past but a common, general one, and she allies herself with precursor poets, Committing herself to life's inexhaustible ordinariness, she simultaneously achieves a consoling music in "Summer Night" like that of Mahler in his Rückert songs, or Strauss in the "Four Last Songs":

Desire, loneliness, wind in the flowering almond—

surely these are the great, the inexhaustible subjects

to which my predecessors apprenticed themselves.

I hear them echo in my own heart, disguised as convention.

Balm of the summer night, balm of the ordinary,

imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,

the dreamed as well as the lived—

what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death? (67)

"Death is the mother of beauty": in his famous repeated line from "Sunday morning" Stevens showed himself, like Keats, sensitive to the facts of mortality. Both poets understood as well the relations among inertia, reverie, and pattern. Like them, Glück has committed herself to the poetry of earth, and has found in Wordsworthian "spots of time," those scenes of power in childhood, evidence of the mind's resistance to both the body's will and nature's beckoning seductions. "Summer Night" is especially appealing when set beside the moments and gestures of bitter irony, self-loathing, and skepticism that have always accompanied Glück's responses to the physical world. This book does not omit such gestures, Witness "Ancient Text," which begins as if it were a homage to Henry Vaughan ("Happy that first white age when we / Lived by the earth's mere charity!" or "Happy those early days, when I / Shined in my angel infancy”), but then continues in a distinctly sardonic, Glückian tone:

How deeply fortunate my life, my every prayer

heard by the angels.

I asked for the earth: I received earth, like so much

mud in the face. (22)

"Summer Night" responds to such assertions with something—can we even use the word?—like happiness, or quiet acceptance. Glück said in "Education of the Poet" that "the fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness," but she now seems to find it less terrifying than before. Although she makes us aware of Pascal's "silence eternel de ces espaces infinies" and of the terrors of the every day, and although she never raises her voice, Glück has now added something to her understanding of life's disappointments and pleasures: we might call it mature wisdom. Helplessness has turned into an accommodation with the self and the world.


The differences between Graham's temper and art and Glück's are many and transparent. Glück's colossal but low-grade sadness makes ecstasy impossible, although in The Seven Ages she seems surprised to have achieved ordinary human happiness. Graham's breathless, energetic onrush always verges on sexual or religious rapture. The hallmarks of Glück's poetry are her moderate, often dispassionate tones and a preference for short lyric utterances with simple syntax and diction. Graham's expansive, swirling, explosive articulations sometimes (as in her recent work) seem not even to be sentences. Glück maintains roots in self and relatives that branch out in chaste poems of observation or reminiscence or in lyrics with incantatory anaphora; she looks primarily inward, or outward as far as the immediate family. Graham, on the other hand, tries to imagine what an idea might be, as it is felt on the pulse; she makes us aware of the very processes of thinking, of the act of consciousness. She moves both deep inside the mind and out into the cosmos. And whereas Glück has always maintained an anecdotal basis for many of her short poems, Graham has begun to move away from intertwined, multifaceted narratives that gave substance to such poems as "What the End Is For, "Fission," "From the New World," “The Phase After History," and "Manifest Destiny." (Two of the new poems, "The Taken-Down God," and "High Tide," retain the older narrative structure.) Because her major subject is our perceptual negotiations with the world, she must create or discover adequate aesthetic form for philosophical problems: how the world appears, how we register its appearance, and how it inhabits and expands our minds.

The poems exist along a spectrum from the difficult but comprehensible to the difficult and impenetrable. Each reader, I suppose, will weigh in with different preferences and degrees of understanding. Graham's "repetitions" differ from Glück's, but they offer readers--of this poet who has always been obsessed with entrances and the relation of in and out-II way in. First of all, she favors long, convoluted, deeply subordinated sentences, often lacking distinct, parsible grammatical coordinates. Within any single poem, she repeats phrases, words, and motifs in a quasi-musical way. Second, there is the (annoying) habit of proliferating parentheses and brackets [it's often impossible to understand why she uses one marker instead of the other at any given moment], which suggest uncertainty, simultaneity, hallucination, or the equivalence of a painterly montage instead of a straight sequence. Third, Graham's—not entirely new—favorite parts of speech are gerunds and present participles, so that action seems never to begin or finish but always to be progressing and repeating itself. In The Errancy (1997) a poem titled "The Turning," in which an act of description becomes a kind of narrative, ends with the question: "Whose turn is it now?" And we see here how Graham is playing not only with two senses of tile word "turn" but also With the differences between the gerund and the simple noun. In the new book she poses a simple question: "Where does this going / go?" ("Philosopher's Stone" 9). The gerunds go wild in Never, much of which has seaside settings. In her renderings of tile "roiling" (a much-used word), cresting, and withdrawing waves, and tile lucent speckling of light upon water, Graham has found a style apposite to her subject. In the same way that John Ashbery is our best poet of weather, Graham may be the best poet of water.

The opulent activity mimicked and produced within her poems comes often at the price of clarity. (Adam Kirsch has already written, sympathetically but quizzically, about whether these things are "poems" instead of something else.) Twenty years ago she entertained many of the same thematic preoccupations, but her sentences and her lines were shorter. Later, beginning with The End of Beauty, her third book expansion, proliferation, and fracture took over. In most of the new poems, Graham usually starts with simplicity of articulation and notice, and then lets spin her metaphysical energies as she hurls her mind into the visible and its borders with the invisible. More than half of the twenty-seven poems in Never have straightforward beginnings, whether simple sentences or mere phrases. Like Charles Wright, Graham has borrowed—from Pound? from Gary Snyder?—the habit of moving from phrases to clauses and of sometimes constructing lengthy phrases with no simple predicate. Here are some random openings: "I am beneath the tree. To the right the river is melting the young sun" ("Afterwards" 4); "It's like this. There are quantities" ("Philosopher's Stone" 6); "How old are you?'' ("Evolution" 21); "Those neck-pointing out full bodylength and calling /outwards over the breaking waves" ("Gulls" 26); "Cluster of bird-chatter a knot lit the center of a supreme / unfolding" ("The Time Being" 44); "All day there had been clouds and the expectation / of sun" ("Surf” 181).

The best citation makes a deceptive nod in the direction of Elizabeth Bishop, whose steady eye Graham professes to emulate, but whose modest style she seldom replicates. Like Bishop, Graham includes acts of self-correction in the very patterns of her observation. Graham moves from the seen to the unseen, gazing steadily like Bishop but then whipping off in a melodramatic frenzy of metaphysical speculation. Where Bishop is fastidious, Graham is fastidious and rhapsodic. The two poets ask the same questions in different dialects: How is the natural world scripted? How can we reproduce it in our language? How might such language model itself on natural ebb and flow, waxing and waning? In our secular, post-Romantic age these constitute theological dilemmas and statements not of belief but of approach. Four of her new poems lire entitled "Prayer" (as in previous volumes Graham offers multiple takes on a single subject); others have religious titles ("Via Negativa," "Covenant") or subject matter ("The Taken-Down God"). More than a century after the death of God there is no one to answer her questions, many of which seem like poems directed outward into the void or into the inner depths. Like Bishop (in her early "Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance") Graham confronts the potential for religious experience only to "look and look, [her] infant sight away."

In a videotape made in 1999 for the Lannan Foundation, Graham replied to an interviewer's question about her difficulty that she does not find her own poetry opaque: "I think I make it as clear as it can be." Her answer may be any author's response—Ashbery and Frost said the same thing—or it may be slightly disingenuous, since she is well aware of her reputation as an often inscrutable poet. Whatever she says, her poems offer us the best evidence of their maker's methods. (Cf., D. H. Lawrence: Never trust the teller, trust the tale.) The shortest and seemingly simplest poem in the book (first published in the New Yorker) may make us ask: Why can't they all be this clear? In a note, Graham informs us that the last line is based on something by Zbigniew Herbert; that she "take[s her] poem to be in conversation with such notion of the gods—and of how history transforms them"; that the poem wonders what the ‘suitable’ distance between subject and object, gods and humans, humans and nature, might indeed be."

Like much of her work, "Prayer ('From Behind Trees')" is an object lesson in what we might call "betweenness." It is also only deceptively easy:

The branchful of dried leaves blown about at the center

of the road, turning on itself is it a path:

snake: gray-brown updrafting: drama:

whole affair played out between the wind's quiver, wind's

dusty haste, an almost impeccable procedure,

bit of scenery from which all fear

is deleted. So it

is right here, where I am peering, where I am supposed to


how the new gods walk behind the old gods at the suitable distance. (51)

"Prayer" prays for nothing, addresses no one other than the reader, and achieves its ends by relatively (for Graham) simple means. The poem employs no brackets, no parentheses, It gives instead a series of alternatives divided by colons, as the poet lists possible answers to a question (in a run-on sentence) provoked by a natural phenomenon. This is as condensed a poem as Gral1am has ever written, but it does no more than "wonder" (her word) about the "suitable distance." It is a miniaturized, imagist metamorphosis: not a genuine Ovidian tale, with mythic etiology, only the observation of change and a speculation about the possibility of the invisible emanating from the visible.

Probably no living American poet has as much hunger for speculation and for metaphysical questing as Graham. Her work is a welcome alternative to the intellectual, linguistic, and emotional impoverishment of so much contemporary poetry. In her avidity she resembles Stevens; in her looking at the world she resembles Bishop, the late Amy Clampitt, and (one of Clampitt's and Bishop's favorite poets) Hopkins, But whereas patience is the virtue most associated with looking at the world, Graham's rare talent has resulted in impatient observing. Instead of the calm attention of Hopkins, Ruskin, and Darwin, the greatest of the Victorian lookers-at-the-surround, Graham offers swirling junkets of action, a mind and a world in perpetual motion. "I am a frequency, current flies through" announces the first line of "Ebbtide" (36); the speaker characterizes herself—in terms of bod1 electricity and water—as a force of repetition and uniqueness.

Graham's most Stevensian poem, "Hunger," is virtually a homage to "Credences of Summer" from which it takes a line as epigraph. Set at day's apogee, it contains short sections that have time signatures (11:58, 11:59, 12:00, 12:01, and so on) as noon comes and goes. At the end the poet makes a kind of note to herself: "The god: repetition without variant," and then immediately offers a self-correcting alternative: "its spouse: inevitable necessary variant." In other words, the poem also uses Stevens's theme-and-variations format, and his idea of poems as "notes" (for Graham, not "notes towards a supreme fiction" but towards an understanding of process and object). Like Stevens, Graham seeks but never finds a naked truth, what he labels the "rock." She requires and also resists what he calls the evasions of "as," because all language is metaphorical, figurative, approximate. In the last lines of "Hunger" she asks for "A truth not a symbol. Grip it in scrutiny" (43). Again, the very fact that she echoes Stevens means that poetic articulation may he secondary, indeed evasive:

... It was difficult to sing in face

Of the object. The singers had to avert themselves

Or else avert the object. Deep in the woods

They sang of summer in the common fields.

They sang desiring an object that was near,,

In face of which desire no longer moved,

Nor made of itself that which it could not find. . .

Three times the concentred self takes hold, three times

The thrice concentred self, having possessed

The object, grips it in savage scrutiny . . .

("Credences of Summer," VII, my emphasis)

Like Stevens, Graham wishes to "trace the gold sun about the whitened sky / Without evasion by a single metaphor" ("Credences" 11), and like him she realizes and dramatizes the impossibility of her wish. Both poets occasionally sound notes of desperation. In "Relay Station," her volume's concluding poem, she claims-against her better judgment—"a thing and its description Call be one: can be the time it takes to say the thing" (106). No, it cannot. Even at noon, the time of "Hunger," when there are no shadows, reality itself comes only in parts, never in naked essences.

Stevens and Graham both "seek // The poem of pure reality, untouched / By trope or deviation, straight to the word, / Straight to the transfixing object ... We seek / Nothing beyond reality" (Stevens, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" IX). This is a sophisticated person's nostalgic wish for presence and reality, for an unmediated vision. "You do understand, don't you, by looking?" she inquires over again as a refrain in "Le Manteau de Pascal" (The Errancy), whose many other compelling repetitions act as a fugal stretto as well as a psychological gesture. Graham's compulsive looking is allied to her double sense that, on the one hand, she may be saved b~, looking or at least learn something by it, but that, on the other, looking—like language-is mediated by human consciousness and can never be other than partial. In choosing sea, and light and air as objects of her efforts, Graham insures a plenitude of matter; Thomas Wyatt's line "Since in net I seek to hold the wind," the epigraph to The Errancy, might be her calling card. Where Bishop took "The Monument" (of wood) and a cabin on stilts ("The End of March") as objects for her descriptive energies and symbols of material reality, Graham makes her poetic and epistemological task more difficult by looking at what she cannot grasp.

At the same time, the sheer materiality of the world inspires the lush, almost tangible, densely syntactic thickets of Graham's poetry. "The Visible World" (Materialism) begins matter-of-factly, "I dig my hands into the absolute," as she goes literally beneath the surface of things. Action—physical or mental—predominates so that all the poems seem to be present tense (even when they lire not), whereas Glück, like Wordsworth, seems always to be living in the past. The first "Prayer" of Never reproduces an act of watching with an (uncharacteristic) long first sentence, followed by a sequence of shorter, simpler ones. This is the opening:

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl

themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the

way to create current, making of their unison (Turning, re-·


entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a

visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by

minutest fractions the water's downdrafts and upswirls, the

dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where

they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into

itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly

invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing

motion that forces change—

this is freedom. (3)

The description renders action variously: the first simple verb ("watch") is succeeded by one implied infinitive ("swirl") and one actual one ("to create current") and then the onrush of participles and gerunds ("making,” “Turning," "re-infolding," “entering and exiting," "making") embedded in which come the redundancies of sonic repetition ("minuscule muscle," "unison in unison") and the entire line of densely repeated rhyming sounds: "dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where ...[.]" Only Hopkins—certainly not Bishop—can so sumptuously match the voraciousness of the eye fixed on the visible world to the musical thickness of sound itself ("I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom-of-daylight's dauphin"). The poem follows up the density of description With the simplicity of application: "Nobody gets / what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing / is to be pure. What you get is to be changed." "Infinity threads itself” through time, through space, through light and water, through the material world, and we are both free and acted upon by the force of circumstance. The seeing poet catches the visible with her eye, at the same time acknowledging a resemblance between herself and the thousands of swirling minnows below her, caught in a current both of, and not of, their own making.

No other contemporary poet weaves so richly synaesthetic a fabric, or vibrates so excitedly between the seen and the heard. In "Where: The Person," seeing and hearing intertwine with touch as they do in Shelley's "Mont Blanc.” Here, Graham witnesses “the hammer in the sun behind the fence" and, almost simultaneously, the way the "[w]ind silks the fronds" (77). In "In/Silence" she identities "[t]he song that falls upon the listener's eye" (13). Like Whitman, Stevens, and Bishop, Graham loves to situate herself on a shoreline and to use the available sensory data as a goad to, and a reflection of, her metaphysical aspirations. These are also vocational ones. Like these poets in the Romantic tradition who see evidence of natural writing in the world, and who listen attentively to the sounds of birds and wind, Graham challenges and measures herself with respect to her witnessing. Thus, in "Dusk Shore Prayer," she pays homage to the Bishop of "The Map" and "The End of March" by examining a shoreline and seeing evidence of writing ill and along it. The poem begins: "The creeping revelation of shoreline. / The under-shadowed paisleys scripting wave-edge down- / slope / on the barest inclination ..." (31). She wants to catch and take hold of what she knows she cannot just as she realizes the impossibility of her analogous wish: "to believe this truly, / not in metaphor." Graham sees the imperial sun go down. With it "the human will comes to the end" (32). The motif of natural writing, whether a Christian liber naturae, the traditional evidence of God's presence, or a reflection of the poet as a surrogate god, requires careful looking and reading, and Graham has always attempted to find, to save, and to render herself through such looking.

But listening is more problematic still, if only because sound is temporal and more difficult to catch than light, harder to grasp than wind. In "The Complex Mechanism of the Break" (another poem whose very title signals the relationship of a natural phenomenon to an artistic one, in this case the breaks of waves and lines), Graham begins with the visible, trying to describe the effect of waves waxing and waning. Both the waves and the "real rows of low-flying pelicans" (33) move and dissolve, two natural elements mirroring one another. In trying to see and to record the waves, Graham involves herself in acts of self-correction. Her stringing together of parenthetical phrases, both simultaneous and sequential in their effect, mimics the motion of the waves and also stands in for her greedy imaginative desire to rearrange linear time in order to make everything visible at once. She says straightforwardly: "The mind doesn't / want it to break—unease where the heart pushes out—the mind / wants only to keep it coming, yes, sun making the not-yet-breaking crest / so gold where the / pelicans turn as they glide—flapping then gliding—as long as possible without too much dropping" (34). As usual her breathless, onrushing excitement sounds a sexual note. It is as though Molly Bloom had become an intellectual.

Graham has always looked hard at the world; now in mid-poem, she turns her attention from the visible to the audible. She listens hard. She asks her reader (or herself?) to "close your eyes" and then corrects herself, acknowledging the inevitable overlapping of the senses: "although it's only when you open them you hear the seven / kinds of / sound." (As with Empson's seven types of ambiguity, what is important is not so much the distinct kinds as tile human effort to distinguish them. One is surprised not that it is done well but that it is done at all.) She has attended to "force" and now she measures it sonically, listening to "hiss-flattenings," "the pebbled wordlike pulling down and rolling up," through the "crash" of one wave hitting another, subsiding into the "lowering and sudden softening of all betweens," and then hearing "the first crash" yet once more. The conclusion of the poem-fifteen lines-begins and ends with parentheses; everything she hears, including a "momentary lull," is bracketed to give a sense of "betweenness." Like the ocean, the music of Graham's poetry ignores normal signatures of key and tempo; her most radical experiments may be those in which she both signals and eschews closure. Grammatically and syntactically she goes beyond the late A. R. Ammons, who also looked closely at his surround and who meticulously accumulated his observations in a series of phrases or clauses separated by his beloved colons. Graham's earlier sensitivity to the visual world-whether painted or natural-is complemented and superseded by her musical sensitivity in poems like this. Her philosophical themes (shared in part with Ammons) are cause and effect, origin and destination, and the way things work temporally. But by looking at waves and water she reproduces her obsession with middles, "betweens." Her hurly-burly, synaesthetic response to the world allows her to combine the philosopher's wonder with the painter's eye. In a poem titled "High Tide," Graham admits that once, after high tide, she "found a beachlong / scripting / of debris" (28). Like Bishop's kite string in "The End of March," what Graham discovers inevitably reminds her, and her readers, of all efforts to penetrate the visible through to its origins and its meanings, to connect effect with cause.

At the same time (if I may resort to her distinction between nouns and gerunds) she is trying to distinguish between deeds and doings. The genitive phrase, a "scripting of debris," :refers ambiguously to the debris as written evidence (a script written in debris) and as the direct object of the action of "scripting." No action seems completed in Graham's poetry; cessation or fulfillment would be equivalent to death. (Interestingly, Glück ends her beautiful poem "Celestial Music" in Ararat with the line: "The love of form is a love of endings") In his great autobiographical poem "Nutting" Wordsworth recounts a moment when, at the age of ten, he wandered into a hazel grove and ripped it apart in an act of rapacious, assertive masculinity. But before doing so he lolls about, taking his ease; he hears what he calls "the murmur and the murmuring sound" of nearby waters. I take this as a distinction between an abstraction and a present-tense activity, or between the Platonic idea of a thing and that same thing in a self-performance. That same distinction—between a thing in its "doneness" and in its "doing"—is very much at the heart of Graham's recent poetry. In "Exit Wound" she refers to "the blue between the branches / pulling upwards and away so that branches / become / branching" (52). Much of the book generates questions about completion, about whether a thing is ever done. I take it as significant that in her earlier "The Phase After History" (Region of Unlikeness) Graham embedded quotations from, and allusions to, Macbeth, the play that asks me very Grahamian question about whether a thing is done "when 'tis done.” Such queries are practical as well as philosophical and psychological. In Never Graham questions the efficacy of all action, and the ways in which we resist and also accept changes from within and from without.

In her previous book, The Errancy, Graham included a group of poems spoken by a series of "guardian angels," whom she identified as witnesses, unable to effect change. In Never it is the poet herself who wrestles not only with acts of perception but also with activities of control and the determination of destiny. The first poem ("Prayer") ends with her uncertainties about her power: "I could not choose words. I am free to go. / I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never. / It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never" (3). The biographical background of these short declarations is probably the series of recent changes in Graham's life—a divorce, a physical move from the Middle West to the East Coast—but their function in the poem is to alert us, in a series of assertive renunciations, to affirmations still to come. "[N]ever anything but expectant": the waves and the tide in the book's final poem ("Relay Station" 107) are also a stand-in for the poet's own state of mind. In "Exit Wound" she distances herself from herself, referring (like Stevens) to "she," never to "I." As she examines herself, she wonders about one of her habitual questions: "the problem as always was me problem of how / something could come out of nothing." At the end, recalling a previous condition she "felt as if she could / reconcile / this present to that one, and that the / thinking / wanted that so. And that it strived" (56). I take this realization as the poet's determination to continue her movement, however ragged or rugged it might be, toward some degree of illumination. Never is a very strong book. It asks questions; it assays answers; it affirms and then withdraws its affirmations. The mind of me poet and the activities of her poetic "thinking" resemble the waves she confronts and describes. Like the waves, they are endless.


 Louise Glück, “Education of the Poet,” Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York: Ecco, 1994:4).

 Glück, “Invitation and Exclusion,” 155.

 Glück, “Education,” 3.

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Willard Spiegelman is Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and editor-in-chief of the Southwest Review.