The Dream of the Unified Field Analysis

Jorie Graham

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Dream of the Unified Field” is a relatively long poem in free verse subdivided into seven sections that are further divided into twelve stanzas. It challenges conventional notions of organizational patterns of poetry while confronting the fallacy behind humankind’s desire to unify experience. This fallacy is implied in its title, a reference to Albert Einstein’s unsuccessful attempts to prove the theory of the unified field. The speaker (apparently Graham herself) attempts to yoke walking through a snowstorm to take a black leotard to her young daughter together with her own childhood experiences with ballet master Madame Sakaroff and finally with the initial contact of Christopher Columbus with the New World. As she weaves through the poem, she connects the immediate and personal with the distant and impersonal in ways that work naturally as well as in ways that she must force to work, thus reinforcing the impact of the title.

In the first section of the poem, as the speaker treks through the snow to carry the leotard to her daughter, she becomes caught in the “motion” of the snow—the patterns it creates in falling, the “arabesques” that it, like her daughter, performs. The transience of the snowflakes, “Gone as they hit the earth,” also strikes her as she moves through their motion, finding in their symbols a clue to her own meaning, her own existence.

Upon completion of her task, she is taken by the sight and sound of a “huge flock of starlings” coursing through the snow and finally alighting in ever-shifting patterns on a...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Appropriately for a poem first appearing in a collection entitled Materialism, “The Dream of the Unified Field” contains startlingly vivid images that seek to re-create actual experience. Not technically metaphors, the images nonetheless interconnect and react on each other, reinforcing the impact as they amass. The blackness of the leotard, the blackness of the birds, the blackness of Madame Sakaroff, even the blackness of the Indian girl all contribute to the “dream” of unity that informs the poem. Similarly, the patterning and repatterning of the dance (“I watch the head explode then recollect, explode, recollect”), the birds on the tree (“scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect”), the swirling snow (“the arabesques and runnels, gathering and loosening”), and experience (“they stick, accrue,/ grip up, connect”) unite the patterning and repatterning of history, thought, and meaning both in the individual and the species. This movement reflects the building of imagery in the poem from the personal experience in the opening to the quintessential experience of burgeoning civilization at the end. Connecting these experiences is the long road, the footfall, the “white sleeping geography” often obscured by blinding snow and often directionless. It is briefly lit only by the flash of the silver mirror, the glint of the gold on the girl’s nose.

The ever-changing imagery of the poem provides the perfect vehicle for the cinematic techniques that critic Helen Vendler, in...

(The entire section is 618 words.)