V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Jorie Graham's Ninth Book of Poetry



Graham perceives the landscape with a sense of immediacy 
and urgency, and she promotes an interactive involvement 
with the environment through encounters in which the poet's 
structural technique and sensuous language reveal an individual 
in the act of contemplating the beauty or the disfigurement 
of the world she discovers around her.

In her ninth collection of poems, Never, Jorie Graham offers poetry that appears to again position her among such varied and ambitious voices of the American landscape and philosophy as Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, and John Ashbery, just to mention a handful.  As in Graham's previous books, the works included in Never challenge readers to re-examine their approach to evaluating poetic presentation and invite readers to re-experience some of the more common subject matter found in American poetry. 
     This collection particularly suggests new ways of viewing and understanding today's natural world: Graham perceives the landscape with a sense of immediacy and urgency, and she promotes an interactive involvement with the environment through encounters in which the poet's structural technique and sensuous language reveal an individual in the act of contemplating the beauty or the disfigurement of the world she discovers around her.  In this manner, she also constructs an ongoing commentary, both to describe her emotional reactions and to convey an intellectual understanding.  These deliberately detailed, though sometimes difficult, meditations manage to praise the classic power and magnificence of nature while also warning about the dangers of diminishment or perceived possibilities of desecration sometimes evident in contemporary social or political conditions.
     Like the smoothly layered brush strokes of those nineteenth-century Luminist painters whose meditative portraits of nature evoked emotions in viewers — such as the sense of awe implied by the colorful cast of illumination across a rugged landscape or the serene mood suggested by the slanting light of a sunset over a craggy shoreline — by carefully placing precise details in vast vistas on the canvas, Graham's lines of poetry, often extending from one margin to the other or even wrapping at the end of the lines, cover the page with images that elicit a complex reaction of emotional and intellectual responses from her readers. 
     Graham's magnificent images often seek to unite the earth and sky, to merge elements with one another, or blur the distinctions separating the physical from the abstract, as in "Afterwards": "... the river is melting the young sun. / And translucence itself, bare, bony, feeding and growing on the manifest, / frets in the small puddles of snowmelt sidewalks and frozen lawns hold up full of sky."  In this poem Graham also displays a desire to combine the visual and the lyrical: "... attention can no longer change the outcome of the gaze, / the ear too is finally sated, starlings starting up ladders of chatter."  Indeed, the seamless lyrical surface that continually blends the senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste — demonstrates one of the great strengths of Graham's poetry. 
     In this way, Graham facilitates an entrance into the images, asking readers to reflect and contemplate upon what they observe in order to recognize the depths that lie beneath the surface: "Shouldn't depth come to sight and let it in, in the end, as the form / the farewell takes: representation: dead men: / lean forward and look in: the raggedness of where the openings / are: precision of the limbs upthrusting down to hell...."  Helen Vendler has spoken of similar ever-present characteristics in Graham's previous collections of poetry.  In her book of criticism, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Vendler writes how "Graham's subject is the depth to which the human gaze can penetrate, the opening in reality into which the poet can enter.  Under the clothed, she seeks out the naked; over the soil, the air; inside the integument, a kernel; through the cover of the grass, the snake; from the bowels of the earth, the interred saint."
     In "Prayer," the opening poem of the collection, which begins with a situation reminiscent of Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the speaker stands at a dock railing observing an immense school of minnows: "... the minnows swirl / themselves, each a miniscule muscle, but also, without the / way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-infolding, / entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a / visual current...."  In this poem — as occurs repeatedly in many of Graham's other works where the poet addresses examples of transition, transformation, or even stagnation, as well as conditions after undergoing the effects of change — the speaker declares: "... this is freedom.  This is the force of faith.  Nobody gets / what they want.  Never again are you the same.  The longing / is to be pure.  What you get is to be changed."  In "Afterwards," Graham concludes: "We left the party without a word. /  we did not change, but time changed us."
     Walt Whitman's words from Leaves of Grass are again brought to mind by Graham in "Philosopher's Stone," where she reports: "Footsteps bent the grass a bit / to get us here."  In this poem, the Romantic elements of nature and memory are employed.  Memory's mental images exist like pictures that still time; yet, unlike photographs, they still continue to be influenced and adjusted by time: "there's ongoingness — / no — there's an underneath.  Over it we lay / time — actually more like takes and re-takes by / the mind (eyes closed) then clickings of / its opening-out and the mind fills / with gazes...."
     In a strong poem titled "Gulls" Graham's speaker has the ability to express herself in words literally taken away by an element of nature when she tells how "The wind swallows my words."  Nevertheless, in many ways, Never is a collection that, maybe more than any other by Jorie Graham, solidifies the critical view of her as a contemporary poet devoted to following those principles and philosophies established in the Romantic tradition, especially the tendency to regard nature as a source of inspiration and model for poetic expression.  In a poem titled "In / Silence" Graham's speaker confides: "How for song / I looked long and hard at a singing bird, small as my hand, inches from me, seeming / to puff out and hold something within."  In many instances Graham's poetry almost treats natural elements not only as influences on the speaker, but as literal parts of speech that mirror the formation of words or sentences in her own poetry.  In a lovely poem whose title, "Evolution," directly indicates conditions of change, Graham writes about 

          the whole retreating ocean laying 
          microscopic and also slightly larger fiercely-lit 
          kelp in streaks of action—
          long sentences with branchlike off-widths indicating 
                                              acceleration brought forth 
          and left-off, phrases of gigantic backing-off 
                                              from a previously 
          held shore, 
                    rivulets of sand left visible in raised inscription 
          whitening where moistened.... 

     Elsewhere in the same poem (there is another poem titled "Evolution," just as there are a couple called "Prayer"), Graham examines "where the broad / nouns of large clamshells / flayed open by gulls lie / in punctuating sunlit stillness...."  Finally, at the close of the poem, the speaker asks, "What good is my silence for, what would it hold / inside, keeping it free?"  The response she offers the reader again fuses elements of landscape and language, nature and poetry: 

          Sing says the folding water on stiller water—
          one running through where the other's breaking.  Sing me 
          something (the sound of the low wave-breaking) 
          (the tuning-down where it deposits life-matter on 
          the uphill of shore)(also the multiplicity 
          of deepenings and coverings where whiteness rises as a
          (as the wave breaks over its own breaking) 
          (to rip in unison)(onto its backslide)—
          of something sing, and singing, disagree. 

     Similarly, Graham begins "Dusk Shore Prayer" with the following lines: "The creeping revelation of shoreline. /  The under-shadowed paisleys scripting wave-edge down-slope / on the barest inclination, sun making of each milelong wave-retreat / a golden translucent forward downgrading, / golden sentences writ on clearest moving waters....."  The images of nature — their sounds and textures, as well as visual beauty — are transformed into poetic segments of language.  In turn, Graham's lush and lyrical lines seem patterned like music, the long and looping lines often moving with the rhythm of jazz.  However, the dominant impression is again that of a painter filling the canvas with striking shapes of objects depicted in vivid pigments.  A section titled "(Palm Beach, Todo Santos)" from a poem, "The Time Being," that closes part two of the book, presents an excellent example of Graham's lyrical and visual poetic skills:

          The whole of the unfolding like a skin 
          coming-off.  Sand striated everywhere by tide-action 
          packed hard onto it in tiny color variations and 
          speckling and runs of diamond-pattern where tide 
          has receded.  Monkfish with their porcupine-quilled 
          tapering backs, all head and side-eyes and quickly 
          left by the tides.  At tide-line, with each 
          lapping, shrimp left at the greenish fanning wave 
          Retreat and more retreat.  Tiretracks 
          recriss-crossing the marbled sandskin.  Footprints, 
          birdprints, feathers, broken glass.  The fishermen 
          in the distance on the rocks casting out.

     At times in her poetry one receives the impression that Jorie Graham's work contains a constant pursuit of the impossible, an attempt to preserve the Romantic idea that memory and imagination provide keys to comprehending the world in which we find ourselves, that same world which now so often seems intent on rejecting such a notion.  Clearly, the Keats epigraph at the beginning of the book establishes a tone that is continued throughout the collection.  Keats responds to his first view of the Lake District scenery with amazement and questions: "How can I believe in that?  Surely it cannot be?"  The initial lines of "Covenant" address the conflict between such a welcoming attitude of emotional wonder or mystery one might find in the Romantic sense of Keats, who proposed the term "negative capability" as a way to describe emotional and intellectual curiosity that does not need to reach after fact and reason to attain fulfillment, and the current desire for practical explanations or rational answers for everything:

          This is an age in which imagination 
          is no longer all-powerful.  Where if you had 
          to write the whole thing down, you could. 
          (Imagine: to see the whole thing written down). 
          Everything but memory abolished.
          All the necessary explanations provided. 
          A very round place: everyone is doing it. 

     Perhaps the contrast between a Romantic philosophy, that relies on memory, imagination, mystery, and ambiguity, and the realistic conditions of an impatient society that prefers to believe an immediately transparent and certain explanation can solve all problems supplies some of the tension and suspense evident in much of Jorie Graham's poetry.  In addition, Graham's concern with the concept of time, especially the unstoppable passage of time, compares favorably with the explorations of time, timelessness, and no-time one finds not only in the poems of British Romantics such as Keats or Wordsworth, but also in some of the best works of that handful of American poets mentioned earlier: Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, Warren, and Ashbery. 
     In "The Time Being" Graham guides the reader with a metaphor for observing a few various characteristics of time: "drifts of / miniscule dune-structures building like sound-waves / then lowering in sun in fast-moving clouds: making / for the time being, the time being:...."  Near the end of the same poem, Graham comments: 

          ... The time presses.
          The sense of one's person 
          numbs as in having been too long in too 
          strong a wind.  The idea won't 
          hold as I push it out.  Then it will.  Then it 
          is held [not by me].  Then it is all gone. 

     Near the closing of "Covenant" Jorie Graham proposes the following (though with a little less excitement and confidence one might find in Emily Dickinson, another American precursor to Graham): "Silence is welcomed without enthusiasm.  / Listening standing now like one who removed his hat out of respect for the passage. / What comes in the aftermath they tell us is richly satisfying." 
     Perhaps partly because a number of the poems in this book were originally written upon commission by various organizations — the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Millennium Survey Project, and the New York Times Magazine — and specifically designed to focus on the themes of time and endangerment to the environment, the works contained in Never present a directed sense of unity in purpose, often as spiritual as they are philosophical in their meditations on nature.  Despite the complicated and sometimes seemingly chaotic appearance of the lines within each poem, especially those that rely heavily on complex syntactical sentence structures or unusual punctuation used to imitate simultaneous actions or observations, a comforting connecting thread exists throughout this volume. 
     Conscious of the historical significance of time at the end of the twentieth century, and arriving at an increasing awareness of personal mortality, Jorie Graham's poetry in Never examines with a sense of urgency one woman's concern for the past century's natural and unnatural causes for erosion of the environment, as well as the present threats to a landscape she believes must be preserved and protected before it is too late, and she peers forward toward the elevated level of danger she perceives the world faces ahead.  (As she remarks at the end of "Prayer": "I cannot of course come back.  Not to this. Never. / It is a ghost posed on my lips.  Here: Never.") 
     In this elegant collection of poems, Jorie Graham expresses one poet's advanced approach to her art form at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  In addition, she exhibits an accomplished, innovative poetic process that began with her first book of poems, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, in 1980 and has evolved gradually, but dramatically into a mature, distinctive style through a number of stages readers have had the pleasure to witness over the course of nine books and nearly twenty-five years.

Graham, Jorie. Never. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. ISBN: 0-06-008472-3  $13.95

© by Edward Byrne


Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page


[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]