Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1842
With this new collection, Jorie Graham becomes only the second author to have a second book in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets (Robert Pinsky was the first). Her earlier volume, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, published in 1980, won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer Award as the best first book of poems for that year. The thirty-three poems in Erosion are organized into a single, unbroken sequence in which appreciations of the rough and gentle aspects of time’s abrasive action are counter-pointed by forays into man’s more calamitous behavior. The acknowledgments page shows that Graham has pleased a variety of editors but has overwhelmed others. A third of these poems first appeared in The American Poetry Review; seven others first appeared in Antaeus and New England Review. For the most part, then, Graham has found favor with a somewhat restricted range of editorial taste, a range compatible with that of recent readers for the Princeton series. Graham’s propensities define this taste as one that rewards a sophisticated, Europe-facing sensibility, suggestiveness rather than precision, and a skill with various distancing devices that assures a bland result whatever the subject.
Indeed, it is with almost too much sophistication and world-weariness that Jorie Graham rehearses the moral decline of the West. The examples are well chosen, the ideational level is impressively pitched, but the tone rarely becomes fervent. Erosion is a kind of depressant; it makes one aware without arousing anger. The treatment of calamity seems icy, and, though at times effective understatement is at work, on the whole the bad news is presented as tolerable. The wounds of the world are not Graham’s sole concern. She writes, too, of tenderness and of delicate response to environments and situations of many kinds. Still, the book has a clear direction, a theme that its title insists on and that emerges quite emphatically—much more emphatically than do the attendant emotions.
Graham’s cool, reflective stance is annoying, given her ostensible subjects. She writes of extremes of the human condition in ways that call for other than contemplative reactions, but she holds back, content to have the events she chooses become material for her art—and that is that. In this way, the poetry becomes an end in itself, failing to reach out beyond the poets who can admire Graham’s assortment of skills. This book is important because it so intelligently, so assuredly represents the inward-looking stance that does nothing to increase the audience for poetry, but rather confirms the common notion that poetry has turned away from engaging anyone but a barely self-sustaining community of its practitioners.
Graham finds many ways to distract the reader and undermine communication. These include constant and intrusive self-reference; irrelevant formal decisions that mask the real cadences and rhetoric of the poems instead of revealing them; and unnecessarily difficult diction and syntactical formulations.
The reflexive element is more of a style than a philosophy, though maybe in poetry, style is philosophy. Graham presents repeatedly an issue, an image, an event, as if it existed solely for her contemplation and transformation into poetic material. Many poems have the speaker intruding upon material that is interesting enough in itself and insisting on making it interesting only as it affects her or leads her to contemplation: “from any window/ I learn/ about freedom”; “You win when everything is used and nothing’s/ changed is how it was explained/ to me”; “How late it is, I think,/ bending,/ in this world. ...”; “The fragile stem/ from here// to there is tragedy, I know”; “I would not want, I think, a higher intelligence”; “But this too/ is a garden// I’d say”; “Because I think the human/ souls are in a frenzy/ to be born.”
These examples could be multiplied. Such constant qualification has the end result of destroying intensity. No truths are insisted upon, and what might pass for reticence or modesty turns into something else: endless equivocation and endless projections of self into poems that might have a more vivid and appealing life if left to their own images and observations. All apprentice writers are reminded that it is deadly to repeat “I think,” that the reader knows whose ideas are being presented. Graham’s habit could be an attempt to underscore a rampant relativism, a late Berkeleyan hypothesis of reality: To be is to be perceived. She may be insisting, that is, on the subjective perspective that gives knowability to things—and even to nonthings. Still, this outlook is so much a part of the modern sensibility that it does not require such an unattractive mannerism.
Another way in which Graham makes her work difficult or distant has to do with her decisions about typographical format. A great many of the poems in this collection are printed in series of six-line stanzas. The first, third, and fifth lines of each stanza begin at the left-hand margin while the alternate lines are indented. Usually, but not always, the even-numbered lines are shorter. The unfortunate thing about this format—it could never be a compositional habit—is that it masks the true rhythms and syntax of Graham’s work. It is an imposed visual form, rarely having any communicative value. At worst, Graham’s decision to wring her cadences and ideas through this torture makes her work difficult to follow because sentence parts and relationships are obscured. Certainly this typographical version of her work has no resemblance to how she would read the poems aloud.
In this determination to build stanzas for the eye, Graham is following, with little imagination, one of the most questionable practices among contemporary poets. For readers who value the true discipline, the hard-won mastery of strophic composition, work like Graham’s can seem outrageous and deceitful. Why pretend to this kind of control—or even a genuine interest in it? Though in some poems, the tension between the formal look and the work’s more sinuous structure becomes mildly interesting (as in “The Daffodil”), usually the result is not creative tension but confusion. Perhaps Graham’s most effective use of this six-line stanza is in “Kimono,” a poem in which the interplay of abstract and concrete seems to be echoed by the interplay of the visual poem and the aural one. The shaping reminds one, appropriately in this case, of the formalism of Japanese manners and art. Moreover, this poem’s suggestions of constant and variable elements in perception, especially in the perception of shapes in motion, are heightened by a stylistic interplay of constant and variable language structures: the constant visual pattern against the shifting rhythmic and syntactic patterns.
Given Graham’s more characteristic disregard of such matters, however, “Kimono” might be merely a happy accident. The relentless enjambment of lines and stanzas leaves Graham’s poems with no sure background prosody against which meaningful variations can be played. The shame is that her writing is so much better, so much more rhythmically evocative than the form in which she so often, mistakenly, has chosen to reveal it.
The poems in Erosion are meditative poems. Graham offers from a reading of history, of art, and of her own experience a kind of wisdom poetry that links her with such contemporaries as Dave Smith and such distant predecessors as George Herbert. In The New York Times Book Review appraisal cited below, Helen Vendler gave high praise to Graham for a book that “brings the presence of poetry into the largest question of life, the relation of body and spirit, a relation more often considered by theologians and philosophers these days than by poets.” Indeed, these are Graham’s concerns. Poems with such titles as “In What Manner the Body is United with the Soule,” “At the Exhumed Body of Santa Chiara, Assisi,” and “At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body” attest this probing, as they do Graham’s Italian upbringing and her immersion in art.
There is a tendency to be respectful toward work that is this ambitious, but complex questions require complex answers, and complex answers require a struggle for utmost clarity. Here Graham falls short. Given repeatedly to aphoristic punch lines, she often leaves the reader feeling as if a philosophical shaggy dog story has just revealed itself. One learns in “I Watched a Snake” that “Passion is work/ that retrieves us,/ lost stitches. It makes a pattern of us,/ it fastens us/ to sturdier stuff/ no doubt.” There is enough vagueness and equivocation here for anyone’s truth to find a home; as a resolution to a poem that presses toward an epiphany, this passage comes as a letdown. In “For John Keats,” the conclusion warns: “We live a harsh fecundity, it seems/ to me, the symbol tripping much/ too freely/ over everything/ it signifies.” Although this passage has a certain power (despite the characteristic “it seems to me”), it is difficult to find it all hanging together as a clear idea clearly expressed. To the extent that the lines themselves worry about undisciplined habits of mind and language, they suggest that Graham is aware of her own limitations as Keats was of his.
Mary Kinzie, writing in the same periodical that first published eleven of these poems, was given room to complain that “the filmy uncertainties of the verb constructions and the reaching for authority from ethical categories without being able to explore or apply them, are evidence of an undisciplined and unripe apprenticeship” (see The American Poetry Review citation below). Kinzie worried, convincingly, about “sleights” of “diction and rhetoric” which remain fuzzy while they posture authority. Harsh words, but they have a greater accuracy than many stretches of language found in Erosion. By creating—or settling for—unnecessarily difficult or imprecise diction and syntactic formulations, Graham has put one more barrier between herself and the reader.
Another barrier is allusiveness. Given Graham’s noble purposes, there is too much hiding behind other artists and works of art. Exactly what she is taking a stand on becomes blurred by her decision to handle many of her treatments of human grotesquerie in a special subgenre: the poem about the painting. The issue now becomes not what are humans capable of but how do artists treat such problems. Using the works of other artists to keep experience at one remove, Graham’s stance remains cool, her tone flat (Helen Vendler calls this “serene depth”), and the moral issues become transformed into aesthetic ones.
Jorie Graham is at her best in poems such as “Salmon,” in which experience is met directly, passion is allowed to vent itself, and her well-trained art connoisseur’s eye plays upon not art, but life. In “Salmon,” no false packaging buries the rhythms of thought and language. Here, Graham’s speculations and their self-referential language find vitality rather than muzzle it, and her diction is often sharp, breaking through the mannered haze of lesser achievements. It is recognizably her work, but it is a poem for all readers. More such poems as “Salmon” would be welcome.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37
The American Poetry Review. XII, November/December, 1983, p. 44.
Commonweal. CXI, March 9, 1984, p. 155.
Library Journal. CVIII, May 1, 1983, p. 909.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, July 17, 1983, p. 10.
Times Literary Supplement. May 20, 1983, p. 506.
Virginia Quarterly Review. LIX, Autumn, 1983, p. 133.
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