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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 the calling up of seasonal change. The very fact that two such opposing worldviews can be balanced in one poem confirms Graham’s identification with oxymoron in its deepest sense. Heroic error, or errancy, drives the river of “Flood”: “Oh let the river horses run wild as ever they would// And orchards are swept away, grain stores and cattle./ And men and houses, bridges, (temples), (shrines with/ holy fires)—// and all whom the water has spared will now/ begin/ to starve.”

As a coda to “Flood,” the poem “Spelled from the Shadow’s Aubade” begins with the following lines: “Trying to whisper life came back, the light came back./ It harshed-up the edges of the window-shade, curling its rims.” Halfway through, the poem announces: “In the end must come merciless ignorance./ In the end must come time wasted utterly.”

The transformational imperative—Ovid’s theme in Metamorphoses—becomes its own justifying angel. This comes close to being Graham’s central doctrine. It has its source in her profound association of change, all forms of transformation, with the natural activity of the human mind. Change does not have its source in action, only in thought. To think is to be caught up in a whirlpool, an ecstasy of movement. Cool and removed in appearance, analytical thought is at the eye of the storm of change. We are what we think, not what we remember, and we are never on solid ground because of our thought.

Graham’s poetry tracks the transformational imperative with its irregular lines, irreverent puns, and eccentric punctuation; with its interrupted rhythms, accentuated by an “errant” typography on the page but disciplined by surprisingly regular metrical strategies; and with its defiant self-consciousness. In poem after poem, meditation seems to lose itself in a dispassionate and objective tracking of the way the mind observes and slips into feelings on the icy slopes of empiricism, deduction, and analysis. At the bottom of these slopes, Graham often places a classical or biblical myth, something to give us a temporary resting place. The following lines close the first stanza of “The Scanning,” an early poem in the collection:

And the bands of our listening scan
the bands of static,
seeking a resting point, asymptotic, listening to the hiss
for the hoarse snagged points where meaning seemingly
accrues: three notes: three silences: intake
of breath: turnstile?: a glint in fog?: what the listener
will wait-into, hoping for a place to
stop . . . Jacob waited and the angel didn’t–

Jacob “wades” into his transformation, his wrestling with the angel, from which he will emerge with the name of Israel.

Graham’s amusement at the fleeting and indeterminate visitations of meaning in life falls back with urbane aplomb on the opportunities poetry provides. It is her very rationalism, her analytical habit of mind, that makes her poems happen. Like the earliest poets of European Romanticism, Graham embraces the poetic imagination precisely because her rational intelligence has enabled her to perceive the limitations of rationalism. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1807) had saddled art, in its highest sense, with the faint praise of being the “sensuous” manifestation of truth. According to Hegel, the modern conception of reality, grounded solidly in scientific rationality, had rendered art’s claim to truth pretentious and futile. Just as the Romantic poets in Germany and England had questioned Hegel’s assigning poetry to the dustbin of outmoded ideas, Graham has reasserted the importance of the poetic imagination as a balm to the rationally defined modern mind. Thank God, Graham seems to say, for the imagination that rescues skepticism from despair and raises us to the sublimity of wit!

What distinguishes Graham’s rebuttal of the Hegelian dismissal of art in the modern world of “prose” and rationality is her refusal to take the Dionysian path. It was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Dionysus” who provided a rallying point for the modern artist-poet’s defense against Hegel’s attack on the poetic imagination. Unlike Nietzsche’s disciples among modern artists and poets—the glorifiers of irrationality, the champions of free and orgiastic verse—Graham walks her steady lines through the storm of alienation and coherence that challenges every mind determined to remain true to its rationality. She remembers the other deity in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872), Apollo, and reminds readers of his importance to the tragic contract. Serenity, control, detachment are as essential to the artist’s enterprise as the unfettered Dionysian spirit is to his creativity. Graham upholds the laurel of Apollo in the midst of the Dionysian storm.

The following lines appear in “Recovered from the Storm,” a poem near the end of The Errancy: “Why are we here in this silly moonlight?/ What is the mind meant to tender among splinters?/ What was it, exactly, was meant to be shored?/ Whose dolled-up sorceries against confusionnow?// I pick up and drag one large limb from the path.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, July, 1997, p. 1792.

Library Journal. CXXII, June 15, 1997, p. 72.

The Nation. CCLXV, July 21, 1997, p. 40.

New Criterion. XVI, November, 1997, p. 59.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, November 23, 1997, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, June 30, 1997, p. 72.

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