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Thomas, M. Wynn


The Guardian (2008)


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Saturday May 3, 2008

Sea Change 

by Jorie Graham 

56pp, Carcanet, £9.95 

M Wynn Thomas is impressed by prophetic visions of humankind's impulse to hope in Jorie Graham's Sea Change

For WH Auden, "the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead." Jorie Graham's poetry is all about the vertiginous (and sometimes heady) experience of falling through the cracks - in reason, in consciousness, in time. Ever since she was inspired as a poet by editing tape at film school, she has been fascinated by the disconcerting alterations in perception that can be produced by little hiccups in the confident flow of mundane experience. Consequently, her writing, she once pungently suggested, is never more than a "cadenza of gaps". 

Graham's new collection confirms her to be a cerebral shaman for our age, a time-traveller in a shape-shifting mental universe. The human mind, she writes, is "open and oozing with / inwardness", a process her poetry registers. Her intensely focused, sensuously inflected meditations are both entranced and entrancing. A poet for whom thoughts are sensations and sensations thoughts, she is perfectly equipped to capture, as she does in "Loan", the rapt instant when heavy rain suddenly stops 

... & the stillness
of brimming & the
wet rainbowing where oil from
exhaust picks up light, sheds glow,
echoes in the drains where
deep inside the
drops fall individually, plink,
& the places where birds
interject, & the coming-on of heat, & the girl looking sideways carrying the large
bouquet of blue hydrangeas, shaking the water off 

Her recollection of how "the faucet flared [with water] like a glare of / open speech" is a further example of her capacity to step casually into another dimension. 

Given Graham's preoccupation with the phenomenological and the metaphysical, it might seem tempting to accuse her (like Wallace Stevens) of ignoring the social and political catastrophes of the day. But such an accusation would be groundless. In her new work, as ever in her poetry, "the cadaver" is always threatening "to show through the skin of the day". Her imagination is fearfully sensitised by the threats of climate change and global pollution, while memory never lets her forget mankind's reliable talent for war. In addition, she is aware that the collapse of belief systems has left us vulnerable to the seduction of nihilism as we contemplate eventual annihilation. In the face of all this, the affirmations of poetry can seem no more than a primitive ritual to quell existential fear, the textual equivalent of burning incense - "always smoke rising to propitiate the stars that might turn black". Significantly, this volume's title points us not to the redemptive vision of The Tempest but to Shakespeare's play as ominously refracted through Eliot's The Waste Land. 

Nevertheless, humankind's unfathomable will to hope is explored in one of the most arresting poems in the collection, "The Violinist at the Window, 1918 (after Matisse)". Graham imagines the painter's gaunt instrumentalist to be willing, even in the immediate aftermath of the great war, "to take up whatever it is / the spirit / must take up". He becomes for her an emblem of "obligatory hope", a figure from whom she can "plagiarize humanity" even as "history starts up again". The music she imagines him preparing to play "is what hope forced upon oneself by one's self sounds / like - this high note trembling". Occurring as it does at the centre of Sea Change, the poem highlights the fact that this is a collection pivoting tremulously on the impulse to hope, repeatedly probing its occasions and credentials while weighing the "good" against "the ugly". 

Graham is most certainly not a poet to everyone's taste. Many find her difficult, elusive, cerebral, bloodless, and they are unlikely to be won over by this new volume. She remains much more Rothko than Rembrandt. But for her admirers, Graham's voyages through strange seas of thought will seem as singular, unpredictable and seductive as ever. These poems again demonstrate her gift for enabling us to see change, a gift that places her unexpectedly in the company of writers such as Virginia Woolf. And once more she is preternaturally alive to every sign in her present of the sheen of the numinous. She finds it, memorably, in "Positive Feedback Loop": 

shall walk
out into the porch and the evening shall come on around us, unconcealed,
blinking, abundant, as if catching sight of us,
everything in and out under the eaves, even the grass seeming to push up into this our
world as if out of
homesickness for it,

But hers is a very modern sense of the sources of the numinous, embedded in an awareness of a universe only briefly troubled by human presence. Her imagination constantly registers the end of human time: "And always the absent thing, there, up ahead, like a highway ripped open and left hanging in the / void". We live not in a "city on the / hill" but in a "city of dis- / appearance". The mid-word line-break, and the gulf that follows, instances Graham's practice of using spatial form to emblematise psycho-spiritual experience. Her masters in this technique were no doubt Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne, the great Metaphysical writers from whom she confesses herself to be distantly descended. 

Graham's poems act as the sonar devices of contemporary western consciousness, probing the depths of human existential experience. But they are also radio telescopes, restlessly scanning, as the last line of this collection tells us, to pick up "the sounds the planet will always make, even if there is no one to hear them". The ability to translate that combination of concerns into singular poetry makes her a remarkable poet of our time. 

M Wynn Thomas is the author of Transatlantic Connections: Whitman US, Whitman UK (University of Iowa Press).