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...
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