Jorie Graham’s first volume of poetry, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, published in Princeton’s Contemporary Poets series, is in many respects unlike her later work. The poems are self-contained lyrics, densely figured and elaborately wrought. They have little of the impetuosity of style and subject and the rapidity and evasion of closure that characterize Graham’s later work.
The poems, though more slight, are often lovely in themselves and occasionally press on the enigmas that evolve into the great intellectual labyrinths that Graham explores in her major works. “The Geese,” for example, anticipates the theme of what Graham would eventually call, in her own distinctive metaphysical code, “hurry” and “delay”—which can be translated, but roughly, into the paradoxes of temporality and timelessness. Alternatively one might translate these terms as “flux” and “form,” the changing temporal body and the permanent body of beauty, or as designations of the longing human beings have for change against their longing for fixity and stability.
In “The Geese,” Graham incarnates the paradoxical terms with which people think their reality into simple, earthly activities and forms. While she is hanging out clothes, she sees geese flying overhead. Their flight becomes an “urgent” and “elegant” code for “hurry,” for the flowing onwardness of time. Spiders that spin filaments between the clotheslines become an emblem for those forces in the world that hold things together— that bind, as the poem says, “pins to the lines, the lines to the eaves.” More largely, the spiders on their clothesline loom signify the desire to keep human meanings intact and to mend the rifts and wounds of time. Between these two contending forces is an “astonishing delay”: “And somewhere in between/ these geese forever entering and/ these spiders turning back,// this astonishing delay, the everyday, takes place.”
Graham has been called a gnostic poet, and it is true that she presses thought against the secret places and conundrum points of the universe. She asks not only, “Why this strange process called time?” but also, “How do consciousness and flesh coincide?” The title of her first volume signals Graham’s interest in these ontological questions. Friedrich Nietzsche’s contention that even the wisest man “is only a discord and hybrid of plant and of ghost” provides a conjunction of incommensurables that stirs Graham’s imagination.
In later volumes, The End of Beauty and Region of Unlikeness, Graham would extend these ontological concerns by undertaking to explore woman or the anima and its relationship to the animus through rewritings of the stories of Eve and Adam, Penelope and Ulysses, Eurydice and Orpheus, Daphne and Apollo. In recasting these cultural mythologies, Graham portrays woman as the will toward change and transformation that chooses against the stasis of paradise and perfection, and the overlords who would paralyze woman within the form of the beautiful. Eve’s coming out of Adam’s body is, for Graham, the tragedy that makes time and history, an ongoing tragedy that she embraces and loves, though with suffering. Similarly, Eurydice and Daphne are used to signify the will to change. Eurydice goes back to Hell because Orpheus tries to fix her form with his backward gaze. Daphne transforms herself when Apollo tries to snare her within the trammels of beauty. In Graham’s rewritings of all these stories, woman becomes that principle of escape from fixities that makes time and history. “Gnosis,” for Graham, will entail an exploration not only of the unthinkable interface of body and soul but also of an archetypal Eve-life within and outside the body of Adam.
Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts
The quest for knowledge of self and selfhood begins in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. The self-portraits of this volume initiate an analysis that will become an analysis of “Selfhood,” of the mystery of being. Three poems are notable in this respect: “Self Portrait,” “My Face in the Mirror Tells a Story of Delicate Ambitions,” and “On Why I Would Betray You.” Graham’s self-renderings in all these are wonderfully ethereal. Their ghostliness comes from the fact that she depicts a generic, nongendered selfhood. Rather than painting herself as individual presence, Graham paints “the self” that people share. Her self-portraits in this first volume and in later volumes are ontological rather than projections of a particularized identity.
In “Self Portrait,” she draws herself as a field of snow that she “makes tracks on” by merely looking out her window. At the end of the poem, she describes herself as a record whose delineations are made by the needle moving around and across the record surface. This record is, however, like the records Graham imagined as a child, an unmarked darkness that the needle must cut anew each time it is played. Such is her lovely, precise, haunting image of the self, with its simultaneous presentness and lack of presence.
Despite their alluring concretions, however, the ontological questings of these poems have caused some critics to describe Graham as an “intellectual poet,” as if this were a fault. Were she to moderate her intellect, one wonders whether she would be adjudged a “merely personal poetess.” Fortunately, the philosophical dimensions of Graham’s poetry show no signs of shrinking to ladylike size and have actually grown with each new volume. In The End of Beauty and Region of Unlikeness, Graham begins to paint herself at once in more intensely personal terms and more abstractly and philosophically: as “hurry” and “delay” in “Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay” or the gesture between Adam and Eve. Growing more expansive, Graham’s self-portraits begin to render not only the bare ontological bones of being but also the self as an individual and an archetypal gesture toward more being.
Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts also prefigures what would become for Graham a major theater for thought: the world of painters and painting. In this first volume, Graham writes poems for Paul Cézanne and Mark Rothko that pay tribute to these painters by distantly emulating their paintings in her images. In her next book, Erosion, painting figures much more largely. Although one poem describes a Goya painting and another two paintings by Gustav Klimt, most address paintings from the Italian Renaissance. Graham often seems to want to argue with the paintings, to change them. Indeed, in an interview, she remarked that by being so fixed and immovable, paintings stimulate her rage to change. The repose of these aesthetic forms has the paradoxical effect of making her want to transform the image and its meanings.
In “San Sepolcro,” the first poem of the volume, Graham invites the reader to look at Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca. Graham’s description of the painting is like a film fast-forward. “And the dress keeps opening/ from eternity// to privacy, quickening. . . . each breath/ is a button// coming undone, something terribly/ nimble-fingered/ finding all of the stops.” In the painting itself, Mary is notably tranquil, her hand reposing rather than unbuttoning. Clearly Graham has added to the painting the metaphysical force of “hurry.” As if finding the “on switch” to this fixed aesthetic form, Graham injects temporality into the painting, making it come alive in her own era.
Similarly, Graham urges the figures of Adam and Eve in...
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