Deeply oxymoronic, this latest selection of Jorie Graham’s lyrics is dedicated to the exploration of nothing less than heroic error. The reconciling of the vibrant contradiction of that phrase—heroic error—is what energizes her many voices in these poems. Her speakers are all patterned after the knight “errant,” the seeker who must wander to get to his destination, the archetypal quester who haunts the western imagination from Homer’s Odysseus to T. S. Eliot’s implied speaker inThe Waste Land (1922).
Any reader new to Graham’s cerebral tone and diction will have difficulty meeting her lyrical demands. She seems to be a poet uninterested in emotional response. She forces her readers to do such intensive thinking that, at first, they are inclined to think that she has forgotten to make them feel: “In which the I’ is seen as merely a specimen,/ incomplete as such, overendowed,/ maneuvering to rid itself of biological/ precipitates—hypotheses, humilities,/ propensities. . . ./ Do you wish to come with me?” The series of abstract words (“specimen,” “incomplete,” “biological,” “hypotheses,” “propensities”) lures the reader into an analytical state, which invites logic and deductive reasoning, but the drift is always in the opposite direction, the dreamer’s path: “And I can feel the tunneling rivery needs of the dream/ dissolving.” The difference between more traditional invitations to lyrical dreaming in poetry and Graham’s strategies is that memory, what we might call the mnemonic imperative, plays no vital role in triggering her dreams. The source of lyrical expression lay in memory for the father of modern English lyricism, William Wordsworth (1770-1850); the source of poetic creation was “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Graham does not pick up on that part of the lyrical contract. She does honor nature, but it is a denuded nature of impressions often so impersonal that they seem to freeze to preserve: “Without memories, without distance. Just sunlight filtering nothing in.”
The coldness of all this is an illusion. Graham is caught up in the heat of thought, which, for her, is incandescent, blindingly experiential, universally demanding, and immolated to perception. We are what wethink we see and desire. It is all one; the roundness of an abstraction is like the membrane of an organ, pulsing blood: “the perception of the world as something that flows/ away from you in all/ the directions—inhering, smoldering—yet spiraling outward with the/ intractable, inalienable/ welding of matter to/ desire.”
Rushing headlong toward its own annihilation, thrilling to the death that confirms the vitality of its life, the thinking mind floods experience with the plenitude of its desire. Nowhere is this more boldly realized in The Errancy than in its central poem, “Flood,” which derives from some forty lines with the same title in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 1-8 c.e.). Unlike most of Graham’s lyrics, this one allows the natural world to take over. The effect is something like a combination of Lord Byron’s “Darkness,” which dramatizes the end of the world in a smoldering blackness of evil and brutalization, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which joins the idealist-poet’s thoughts to the cyclical forces of nature and invokes the rebirth of ideas through...
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