Jorie Graham

Start Free Trial

Elizabeth Frost (review date March 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Countering Culture," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 6, March, 1984, pp. 11-12.

[In the following excerpt, Frost reviews Materialism and explores Graham's manipulation of Western philosophy, praising her handling of difficult ideas.]

Jorie Graham, a Euro-American, ponders … dilemmas centered on the theme of cultural inheritance. Uncomfortable with the perceived gap between language and the material world, she wonders, "Is this body the one / I know as me. How private these words?" These two books diverge in tone and intent, but they share a concern central to women's lives: wresting a female identity from the vast store of white male traditions.

In this fifth collection [Materialism], Graham is even more rigorously philosophical than in her previous books—most recently, Region of Unlikeness (1992) and The End of Beauty (1987). At stake here is the whole body of Western thought. The "materialism" of her title refers not to American middle-class values (although Marx does make an appearance in one poem), but to the physical world—to matter and life in their troubling otherness and flux, and to our attitude toward that world, including our own bodies. As in most Western philosophy, there is a marked distance in Graham's work between subjective experience and the objective world. Lines from the poem "Subjectivity," in which she explains her use of the third person to refer to herself, capture this divide: "I say she because my body is so still / in the folds of daylight." Physicality can even become a mere afterthought. An aside in a poem called "Invention of the Other" runs: "(the body! she thought, as if she had forgotten it)."

Apparently we risk losing awareness of what is most basic to our existence—the body itself—and the culprit is rational thought, represented by the philosophical tradition, here given a voice. Graham has included passages from (among others) Plato, Bacon, Dante, Wittgenstein, Whitman, Benjamin and—only slightly out of place in this procession—McGuffey (from his New Fifth Reader of 1857). It is a bold gesture, one typical of Graham's restless poetry, to include landmarks of Western thought and then, in effect, talk back to them—to challenge even as she exploits the familiar mind/ body split.

Although most of the quotations are separate from the poems, Graham does carry on a dialogue with them and the "great works" they stand in for. Excerpting can be a form of rewriting, and her selections often undermine the writer's original intentions. I was surprised to learn that the great nature-lover, Audubon, detailed the killing of "specimens" that served as excellent subjects for his sketches. One anecdote found here involves a buffalo—an ironic reminder to the contemporary reader of our destruction of this country's native inhabitants: "The head was cut off, as well as one fore and one hind foot. The head is so full of symmetry, and so beautiful, that I shall have a drawing of it to-morrow." In Graham's excerpt, Audubon's fine aesthetic sense supplies no regret for the animal's killing and dismemberment. Ethics and aesthetics, she implies, can remain dangerously disjunct.

Graham reflects on the artist's complicity in a similar act of violence in "Subjectivity." The speaker discovers a monarch butterfly whose beauty captivates her: it is "butter yellow, fever yellow, / yellow of acid and flax, / lemon and chrome." Finding the creature inert, she assumes that it's dead, and is preparing to "make it flat" and insert it into a collection when a friend tells her that the butterfly is still alive. The object of her gaze reclaims the poem:

      the yellow thing, the...

(This entire section contains 1286 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

      rising up of a sudden out of its
             envelope of glances—

      a bit of fact in the light and then just light.

The speaker manages to elude her own desire to possess, but the borders between preservation and destruction, artistic "appreciation" and imperialism, prove thin indeed.

This kind of moral dilemma leads Graham into territories she has explored in earlier work—the fields of myth and history. Juxtapositions of different narratives and historical periods within her poems suggest unexpected connections. "Annunciation with a Bullet in It," for example, joins scenes from a Holocaust survivor's diary with an account of her dog's death following a shooting. In "Concerning the Right to Life," descriptions of an abortion clinic during a protest alternate with descriptions of the speaker's concern for her fever-ridden daughter; the poem closes with excerpts from Christopher Columbus' diary, which remind us of colonization—also a trope for women's bodies.

For Graham, these connections are buried all too deeply in our culture. She presents a series of experiments by Sir Francis Bacon, the early scientist and preeminent humanist, that seems, in its very objectivity, to forecast our fatal disconnection from the material world and one another: "We took a glass egg, with a small hole at one end; we drew out the air by violent suction at this hole, and then closed the hole with the finger, immersed the egg in water, and then removed the finger." The pursuit of knowledge is mechanical and never-ending, as an ellipsis at the excerpt's conclusion (which occurs mid-sentence) indicates: "We took a leaden globe …" The "scientific method" involves a detachment of self from other that Graham also senses when she writes; in "In the Hotel," she tries to bridge the gap between herself and the reader, between what she writes and what we feel: "What do you / want, you, listening here with me now? Inside the / monologue, / what would you insert? What word?"

Virtually all the poems in Materialism are painful meditations on why such efforts fail. "Steering Wheel" describes a moment in which the speaker, backing a car out of a driveway, notices a "veil of leaves / suctioned up by a change in current." While the poem seems to meditate on the most external of facts—leaves swirling, a hat caught by wind coursing down a street—the poem is finally about the fear of entrapment in one's own subjective experience. The final lines reflect on the meaning of the most basic rules of motion and gravity, "the law / composed of updraft, downdraft,"

       and angle of vision, dust, gravity, solitude,
       and the part of the law which is the world's waiting
       and the part of the law which is my waiting,
       and then the part which is my impatience—now; now?

       though there are, there really are,
       things in the world, you must believe me.

The closing plea reveals the speaker's uncertainty about objective reality, "things in the world" other than the self. Graham charges her lines with longing for the "real" world. But how can we break through "solitude" to reach "the world's waiting"? Her answer seems to be that the observing eye, the poetic self that is aware of both the material and the spiritual, must remain utterly self-conscious. Acute observation is the closest we come to genuine knowledge—closer than speculative philosophy has taken us.

As in "Steering Wheel," the most moving poems in the book use philosophical language with a double charge. In Graham's hands, the very diction of rational thought suddenly expresses intimacy, passion, longing. "The whole cannot exist without the parts," a speaker in one of the many sections of "The Break of Day" asserts. Then comes the voice of a different self, pleading for union: "Stay, stay." The "parts" are suddenly two people, full of need, and the philosophical dictum is transformed. The shift in tone bears witness to one of Graham's great gifts—turning rhetoric against itself and allowing a simple moment or utterance to unfold in all its nuances. In Materialism, an ambitious collage of the language of "great works" and the language of poetry, Graham responds to rational philosophy with the poet's rigorous and practiced vision.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Jorie Graham 1951–

American poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Graham's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.

A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Graham is considered to be one of the most innovative and intellectual poets alive today. Her efforts to restructure lyrical poetry, intensely personal style, and focus on metaphysical questions about self-knowledge and history have garnered her considerable attention and respect from critics, readers and colleagues.

Biographical Information

Graham was born in New York City on May 9, 1951, to Curtis Bill, a scholar of religion and theology, and Beverly Stoll Pepper, a noted artist. Raised in France and Italy, Graham's constant exposure to European churches and art would later influence her poetry and play a crucial role in her collection Erosion (1983). Graham was educated in French schools, which she credits with predisposing her to abstraction, and attended the Sorbonne. She returned to the United States as an adult and received a B.A. from New York University in 1973 and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1978. In 1983 she married James Galvin with whom she has a daughter, Emily. Since her graduation in 1978, Graham has held positions in English departments and writing workshops at numerous universities. Since 1983 she has been employed at the University of Iowa as a workshop instructor and professor of English. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field (1995), she has been awarded several grants, three Pushcart Prizes (1980, 1981, 1982), the American Academy of Poets Prize from the University of Iowa (1977), the American Poetry Review Prize (1982), the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as numerous other awards. In 1997 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Major Works

Graham has written seven volumes of poetry, all of which reflect her intensely personal voice and her preoccupation with metaphysical questions. Throughout her career, Graham has been interested in the seamlessness of life and the way in which its structure is distorted by efforts to impose a narrative or history upon it. She has constantly striven to understand the meaning of an event while simultaneously feeling the experience of it. In her poetry she has focused on dichotomies: being and knowing, body and mind, beauty and ugliness, eternity and history. But while her poetic voice has remained distinct and recognizable, her writing style has evolved. Her first two collections, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980) and Erosion, reflected the modernist tradition of Mark Strand and Amy Clampitt. Building on the work of Wallace Stevens, Graham deftly weaves images, ideas, and emotions while making intricate associations between such activities as writing, sewing, gardening, and, particularly in Erosion, painting. However, with The End of Beauty (1987), Graham marked a distinct shift in her work. More ambitious and indeterminate than in her earlier books, Graham introduces such devices as blank spaces and algebraic variables in the place of words to question the concept of the poem as a closed unit. Using mythical and historical figures, Graham examines self-knowledge and the nature of life. In her subsequent three volumes of new verse, she has built upon these changes. In Region of Unlikeness (1991) she juxtaposes common daily experiences with historical ones to explore the meaning and importance of events; in Materialism (1993) she responds to quotes from great thinkers in Western Civilization; and in The Errancy (1997) she focuses on angels, among other images. Throughout these works she continues to develop on unusual poetic style and to explore the nature of time, event, and self in modern society.

Critical Reception

From the first publication of her poems in journals, Graham has attracted the attention and praise of critics. Her efforts to self-consciously focus on the nature and purpose of poetry and her work in reshaping lyrical poetry by moving away from narrative have earned her respect from scholars and fellow writers. As Sanford Pinsker writes, "her work has been impressive, influential; indeed, it has so changed the landscape of what contemporary poetry is, and can be…." Critics such as Mark Jarman and James Longenbach note the unusually distinct and personal style of writing Graham has developed, likening her to Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. Longenbach states, "Graham has not simply forged a style; she is exploring the very notion of what it means for a poet to have a style…." However, not all responses to Graham's work have been favorable. Critics such as William Logan found Materialism disappointing and Jonathan Holden thought the work too somber and melodramatic. Many critics agree that Graham sets such difficult challenges for herself, as well as the genre, that she often falls short. Bonnie Costello criticizes Graham for using the same words too often, for replacing words with blanks, and for failing to hold the attention of her readers. However, these same critics agree that when Graham is successful she is unrivaled. As David Baker writes, "I can think of no other current American poet who has employed and exposed the actual mechanics of narrative, of form, of strategic inquiry more fully than she has—at least no other readable poet—and no other poet able to deploy so fruitfully and invitingly the diverse systems of philosophy, science, and history."

Askold Melnyczuk (review date Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Mind of the Matter: CAT Scanning a Scat Singer," in Parnassus, Vols. 12-13, Nos. 2, 1, Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter, 1985, pp. 588-601.

[In the review below, Melnyczuk compares Erosion to Graham's earlier writing and finds the poems in Erosion more urgent and arresting.]

Fishing for subjects in her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Jorie Graham casts a wide net. Her catch includes trees, birds, language, paintings, self-portraits, philosophers, wildflowers, recherché facts about the habits of squid and the like. The list is various enough to suggest a genuinely restive and curious sensibility. Better still, the play of the poet's mind over her objets trouvés is refreshingly idiosyncratic. In "Self-Portrait" the speaker faces a window instead of a mirror and describes the self in terms of what it sees:

      After fresh snow I'll go up to the attic and look out.
      My looking is a set of tracks—the first—
      a description of the view
      that cannot mar it.

The poem becomes a meditation on time, a theme that elsewhere elicits some of her best lines:

           The world we live in
      is going to change, to more than disappear.
      This is the light that blinds you by degrees
      that it may always feel like sight.

                                   ("Harvest for Bergson")

If the passage doesn't exactly bid the rash gazer wipe his eye, it is because Graham is a stern helmsman who makes sure that most of the time the heart stays below deck.

She also shows signs of an ear subtly attuned to the sounds and native characters of the three languages (French, Italian, English) that shaped her childhood:

       I Was Taught Three

       names for the tree facing my window
       almost within reach, elastic

       with squirrels, memory banks, homes.
Castagno took itself to heart, its pods

       like urchins clung to where they landed
       claiming every bit of shadow

       at the hem. Chassagne, on windier days,
       nervous in taffeta gowns,

       whispering, on the verge of being
       anarchic, though well bred.

       And then chestnut, whipped pale and clean
       by all the inner reservoirs

       called up to do their even share of work.

The characterizations—of the rambunctious, emotional Italian, the elegant, neurasthenic French, and the wholesome, energetic Yankee—are a witty variation on the game of cultural stereotyping. The poem recalls Rimbaud's Vowels: both reveal the poet as an initiate with insight into the mercurial soul of words. This early intimacy with the French language also explains why, in her fondness for abstractions, Graham has more in common with many French poets than with her peers.

Too often, however, the work in this first book leaves this reader annoyed and disappointed. Graham seems to be testing out ways of making poems that will support a content yet to surface. Only rarely does the voice speak from an urgency deep enough to justify breaking that cardinal rule of the Pythagoreans: be silent, or say something better than silence. For all the poems' intelligence, evident in the patterns of recrudescent ideas and words, in the complicated images (see, for example, the creation, through cross-hatching, of a shadow tree in "Still Life"), the tone is monochromatic, the voice regular as rain, impartial as the sky. As is often the case, in her weakness lies her strength. The "coolness" of the voice suggests a poet capable of casting a cold eye where less steely spirits would blush and shudder.

Let me focus my objections. In "Pearls" Graham suggests something of her approach toward speech and poetry:

          To be saved
     is to keep finding new solutions to the problem,
     like scat

     singing or improvisation where you're never wrong
     as long as you keep on.

But scat singing is no mere jabberwocky of vowels and consonants strutting about in self-celebration. In mimicking an instrument, the scat singer also resembles a child in the preverbal stage, gleefully spitting out syllables which are anything but meaningless, which convey, sometimes better than could words, the singer's emotions. I remember playing a game with a friend (I believe he said it was used by actors to limber tongue and lips) in which we took passages from well-known poems (Shakespeare's sonnets, say) and replaced the words with nonsense syllables improvised on the spot. We were astonished at how frequently we recognized the originals beneath their disguises. Doubtless intonation and rhythm had something to do with it. But was there more? Was there something in the strength of feeling underlying a great poem, a feeling existing beyond, or below, the surface value of words which could be neither suppressed nor masked—what Aristotle called "the pulse of the blood?" in Hybrids the supporting pylons seem to be more words which have smothered all feeling. Graham certainly has the gestures of a poet: she spins out similes more easily than most poets spell: "Perhaps it is a daughter who practices the piano, practices / slow and overstressed like the train …"; "like the crickets"; "tight at first like crickets and ivories"; "Like taffeta, the song …"; "Like pennies we pushed / into the soil." These from one poem ("Girl at the Piano") thirty-two lines long. Sometimes the images are layered so thickly they overwhelm the poem's occasion. But what do they add up to?

The first poem in the book heralds the poet's resurrection from the grave of youthful solipsism and declares her faith in the pungent accuracy of the world outside her consciousness:

       The way things work
       is that we finally believe
       they are there,
       common and able
       to illustrate themselves.

The pragmatic optimism reminds one of Whitman. She takes pains to reaffirm the credo:

      A miracle
      would seem to be
      what builds itself
      in spite of us—white cells gone mad or syllables be
      coming thought
                    ("Lourdes: Syllables for a Friend")

Such avowals bring with them duties. These include composing with an awareness that words are not fungible.

In this regard Hybrids' weaknesses are partly the product of the prevailing intellectual climate. The generation of writers currently enshrined in the Academy came of age under the shadow of Auden's strange lines about poetry making nothing happen. It was a pithy restatement of the symbolist creed (sonnets are made of words, Dégas, not ideas; later: no ideas but in things, etc.), one which Yeats, whose death Auden elegizes, had long since disowned. Auden himself wrote that "insofar as poetry, or any other of the arts can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate." (Try squaring that with Nietzsche.) Surely telling the truth is not nothing. Recently another monolith has risen in the desert and it bears this inscription:

       What is poetry which does not save
       Nations or people?
       A connivance with official lies,
       A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
       Readings for sophomore girls.


Although the words belong to Milosz, I may as well have chosen lines by Pablo Neruda or Adrienne Rich or any writer who still believes poetry is capable of nourishing more than the lives and careers of specialists. Poetry may not always be called on to save nations; but it may fairly be expected to do as much for individual souls. These doubts arise when Graham writes lines like the following:

     Indeed the tulips
     change tense
     too quickly



     Every morning and every dusk like black leaves
     the starlings cross,
     a regular syntax on wings.



     The bird is an alphabet.

                           ("A Feather for Voltaire")

The lines sound nice enough—it is passably pretty to pretend tulips and birds behave according to the laws of grammar—but they add nothing to our understanding of either birds, tulips, or language. Language may well be the world's double, its soul, but the equation is not reversible. Transformations which take place at the level of words alone, without reference to internal changes in the poet's psyche, or external shifts in the world, do injustice to both the visible and invisible universe. At its worst, figurative language is merely ornamental. Used properly it can delight us by disclosing a similarity between such disparate elements as two lovers and a compass; and/or indirectly underscore a poet's attitude toward his subject, as when Donne declares his lover is "all states to him." When Herbert compares a sweet and virtuous soul to seasoned timber, we come away feeling we've gotten more than fictions and false hair for our money.

Graham in her deepest self must be aware of the dangers of treating language like a lever on a slot machine. In "On Why I Would Betray You," she writes:

     Because this is the way our world goes under:
     white lies, the snow,
     each flake a single instance of
     nostalgia. Before you know it
     everything you've said
     is true.

The premise is that "I" can rewrite the world, revise the past (and, by implication, the present and future) according to my desires. But poetry exists in order to assert the opposite.

Graham's book, to its credit, has helped revive a generation's interest in the poetic uses of abstractions:

     To have experienced joy
     as the mere lifting of hunger
     is not to have known it

                              ("Over and Over Stitch")


     For some of us the only way of knowing we are
     here at all. going
     across and going down,
     exquisitely temporal though at no point believable;
     fragile; tragic.


Not long ago such bald statements would have been attacked as hallmarks of bad writing: the poet was telling instead of showing. But fashions change: as John Crowe Ransom put it. "Because of the foolishness of idealists, are ideas to be taboo for the adult mind?" I mentioned earlier I suspect it's Graham's French side that's behind her fluency with abstractions. Paul Auster points out in an introduction to his superb anthology, The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, that literary French, "the language of essences," has periodically pollinated English verse ever since Chaucer translated Le Roman de la Rose. It is good to see the tradition continuing.

If Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts seems like apprentice work, then few first volumes proceed with such confidence:

     The way things work
     is that eventually
     something catches.

That "eventually" comes with Erosion. In the new book, the poet's net is less finely woven than in the first; as a result, some things slip through. But that is exactly what Graham intends, because here she is after bigger fish.

Erosion is brilliantly wrought: the individual poems work together like the citizens of a harmonious and self-contained little republic. The book yields most when read as one long poem, by turns an argument and a meditation, on appearance and reality, and on the self exploring the volatile boundaries between them. Graham's talent has grown in every way. Her voice has deepened, matured. Her images have progressed from the idiosyncratic to the urgent. She's capable now of arresting music: "So here you are, queen of the chiaroscuro, black girl, / black girl, / backstitching on us …" (The long e's play against the short vowels like light and shadow; the consonants and consonant clusters q, ch, hi, ck echo resonantly in the one word backstitching.) And the questions she takes on would not have embarrassed the masters (Plato, Keats, Berryman, Masaccio) whose work she invokes. In her vision, which contains more than a few gnostic elements, the world is perceived as a wound: "I think the world is a desperate / element. It would have us / calm it / / receive it." It is up to the self to heal that wound: "The self, too / / is an act of / rescue…." Graham would like to declare this world, even with its "architecture of grief," equal to Eden, but the desire is undermined by the many grim verities she forces herself to confront: idealism struggles with realism, and the victory is poetry's.

From the very first poem we find ourselves in the presence of a skilled cicerone—haunted, breathless, intense—with an eye (and ear) for the dramatic:

     In this blue light
     I can take you there,
     snow having made me
     a world of bone
     seen through to.

                                      ("San Sepolcro")

The tone implies she can tell us things nobody else could. The lines about the snow are puzzling in the way that Eliot can often be ("Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree."). As we read on, the idea of "seeing through" gathers resonance: the poet has indeed "broken through" and this book is in a sense her transcript of the experience. Gone are the facile similes that clotted the earlier work with their facsimile insights. There's a new sensuality to her descriptions: "There's milk on the air, / ice on the lemonskins." It's a delectable atmosphere, pristine and innocent. Part of its strangeness is simply a matter of weather: we don't associate snow with Italy. We're still obliged to scramble to keep up with the characteristic Graham fidgetiness, her refusal to look at any one thing for very long. She is far more interested in chronicling the leaps of her own consciousness. But this time the voice is rich and multivalent enough to hold us.

The landscape suggests itself as a metaphor for the mind:

"How clean the mind is, / holy grave." She moves to a painting of the pregnant Virgin:

        It is this girl
     by Piero
     della Francesca, unbuttoning
          her blue dress,
      her mantle of weather,
          to go into

      labor. Come, we can go in.
          It is before
      the birth of god.

At birth we enter the world, and we repeat and renew that entrance with every breath. So also, through contemplation, do we enter a work of art, and a book. Faulkner remarked that life is tragic because we can admire a sunset only in retrospect: while looking at it, we're likely to be worrying about an unpaid phone bill. We understand the meaning, appreciate the power of the landscape we've walked through, only in memory. In its closing lines, as each breath unbuttons us in time, bringing us closer to death and birth, the duet of images builds to a crescendo, when suddenly Graham changes figures and we are again in the company of an improvisatory musician, who this time knows her trade.

"San Sepolcro" opens at dawn; by the end, however, linear time has collapsed. The poem reminds me of paintings by certain contemporaries in which figures of Osiris and Daphne about against lawns mowers and barca loungers, as if to document that the "acceleration of history" has indeed created a time machine: all periods are contemporaneous, and all is always now. When Graham writes: "It is before / the birth of god," possibly we're to infer the poet's vision is pagan. On the other hand, the poem's title, "Holy Grave," evokes the cave in which Christ's body was laid after the crucifixion. Analogy, Octavio Paz observed, is the lifeblood of poetry and survives both paganism and Christianity.

Cézanne and Rothko were the two painters invoked in Hybrids. Here Graham has reached back for tutelary spirits to the early Renaissance masters della Francesca, his student Luca Signorelli, and Masaccio. Yeats exalted Byzantium for its successful fusion of art, religion, and the demands of dailiness—the integration earned the citizens that "unity of being" Yeats so coveted. The Renaissance serves as a similar touchstone for Graham: the self shuts its eyes on the purely interior vision, surrendering the Middle Ages' absorption in the supernatural, and opens them with new wonder on the natural world. But "unity of being" for Graham involves a far greater tolerance for the fluid transactions between the world and the self than Yeats could have accepted: her mask is considerably more porous. And her work reminds one less of Rothko or della Francesca than of Turner, where edges between elements blur. All is in flux: the self is swallowed by mist, fishermen wading into a river are seen as "trying to slip in / and pass / / for the natural world." The lines themselves race and hover like dragonflies. The self, so uncertainly present in the earlier book ("when will the self become a permanent mirage?"), remains an undefined element:

     We live up here
       by blurring the boundaries, calling it love, the present moment, or the beautiful.

     We live a harsh fecundity, it seems to me, the symbol
         tripping much too freely
       over everything
       it signifies.

Here our carelessness with words and the definitions by which we understand ourselves and the world disturbs the poet, while elsewhere Graham delights in the discovery that the self cannot be pinned and anatomized:

      I know it's better, whole, outside, the world—whole
      trees, whole groves—but I
      love it in here where it blurs and nothing starts or ends, but all is
      waving, and colorless,
      and voiceless….

The passage limns the pleasures of the contemplative, who is not in retreat from reality but rather rapt in a different one. At times this inwardness allows her to see the outside world as though no one had ever looked at it before; her images remain even when the lines themselves (the curse of free verse!) do not: the waterstrider devouring the bee, the bird letting ants crawl over its body, a piano thrashing about on the hook of a baton, Luca Signorelli conducting an autopsy on his dead son. These are a long way from the grammar of flowers.

The effects Graham achieves with her free verse, however, can be masterly. In "Updraft" the pneumatic drive of the aspirates "who … hush … heady … hum" enforces the feeling of the wind breathing through New York City, and the fluctuations in the length of the lines evoke something of the city's relentless unpredictability, its impersonality and hallucinatory whirl:

     You who are not different,
     let the hush and click of the heady leaves, the avenues
         announcing rain
     and the hum of the neon
     and the miraculous ropings of spittle and dead
        leaves and urine
                and new rain
                        in the gutters
           stick to You.

Graham also knows how to refuse the more standard gambits of the age. "Patience" promises to be a poem of nostalgia. Graham begins by sketching a morning from childhood which might have been transformed into a Norman Rockwell painting. All the elements seem to agree: a young girl and a woman (Maria) are ironing a shirt for the girl's father. An open door admits "a perfect shaft / of light," there's a smell of wisteria, and the comforting sound of someone raking gravel. The moment appears ordained for canonization by memory into one of those chapels of respite to which we can retreat from the chaos of the present. "Tell me / where that room is now, / that stubborn / fragrant bloom?" Graham asks. But the question, perhaps because it is a cliche, becomes a key unlocking the door of deeper memory. She recalls that Maria, so beat "even the sweetness of / wisteria / hurts," was crying while ironing—she had just lost her son—and the girl, far from helping, was fumbling around "the ugly twistings of / the wicker / hamper…." A pretty fiction has crumbled like a house of sand. But by reclaiming depth, the moment has gained durability.

The republic is not quite a Utopia. Every poet deploys a vocabulary of favorite words and images and metaphysical preferences. Graham, for better or worse, seems to be hooked on sewing imagery. It's everywhere: a boy catches "his lost stitch of breath"; an exhumed saint is said to be "backstitching" on us; for a wolf pacing a cage "minutes stitch shut"; lovers are dispatched as "lost stitches." Finally the reader grows suspicious. Poetry relies on the multiple meanings and secret relations between words, and one wouldn't want to pin Graham down. Of course the world is a wound which needs to be sutured. We know that. But is the poet really looking and thinking and feeling when she sees this community of invisible seamstresses hemming the skirts of the world, or is she merely repeating phrases which have worked for her before?

The Eros poems in Erosion ("Kimono," "I Watched a Snake," "Salmon") are eccentric but only partly satisfying. Their virtues include a kind of Mediterranean sanity toward sensuality that reminds us Graham's home is near the birthplace of the Troubadors. In the best of these the speaker is in her garden brushing her hair. She knows a small boy is watching her from behind an evergreen. Each time she moves, the landscape printed on the kimono alters slightly so that "reeds are suddenly / ravines." Its beautifully sexy conclusion not only resolves the narrative, but also reminds us we've glimpsed an initiation ritual older than and every bit as mysterious as Eleusis. The poem falters twice for me. Once when the first-person speaker modestly refers to herself as "the style of the world"—itself an attractive locution, which ought to be used again, with more discretion. In the second instance, a downpour of particularly dreary adjectives (Graham is abundantly adjectival)—"green scrim," "open door," "small spirit," "new ice," "gentle limbs"—almost drowns the seventh stanza.

"We live," wrote Emerson, "amid surfaces and the true art of life is to skate well on them." But Graham's obsession is with penetrating below them, in reaching after essences and sounding depths. Like Rilke she is an archeoiogist of the buried life. Variations on the theme of "breaking through" recur in poem after poem: "come, we can go in"; "trying to slip in"; "weak enough to enter"; "how far is true enough?". What are we to make of all this? What is the poet's intended destination?

At the heart of Erosion lies an experience which must be called mystical or visionary: it is the center from which all the lines radiate. Whatever else it might mean to the poet, it has made it impossible for her to rest at ease amid appearances:

     Finally I heard
         into music,
     that is, heard past
         the surface tension …

                       ("In What Manner the Body Is United with the Soule")

In good democratic fashion Graham immediately qualifies her claim: "Not that I heard / very deep." She wishes to remain a woman addressing other women and men. Now the mystic's experience often carries certain restrictions. What Pascal calls "the prudence of God" proscribes direct communication of the revelation, and this partly accounts for Graham's lateral approach to her subjects. In a poem unabashedly titled "In What Manner the Body Is United with the Soule" Graham gives us an image meant to satisfy expectations raised by the title. We watch a waterstrider devour a bee which it shares with the insect's reflection in the water ("the back-swimmer"). Although the analogy is deliberately ambiguous (paraphrasing a Graham poem is like trying to whittle a sprawling rhododendron into chopsticks), she seems to suggest that body and soul (the waterstrider and its double) intersect in their reliance on the quotidian, on the outside world that nourishes both: the gold bee. Elsewhere, probing appearances, the poet asks:

     How far is true
     How far into the
     can vision go and
        still be

                             ("The Age of Reason")

How far (into ourselves, into others, into the objects around us) can we gaze before matter and identity dissolve and we find ourselves peering into the empty spaces between molecules? How long before a glimpse of the abyss changes love into terror? It doesn't matter, the poem concludes: our desire would not shrink by an inch or an ounce. To extend for a moment the analogy with physics, Martin Gardner writing in the New York Review of Books described a recently discovered cache of subatomic particles and suggested that space might not be as permeable as we thought. In her meditation over the exhumed (and, we assume, severely decomposed) body of Santa Chiara, Graham speculates on the endless divisibility of matter: "As if this were always / what flesh is a declension of: more flesh".

But the burden of infinite desire bears a darker aspect. Unreasonable in its demands, like Saul Bellow's Henderson "the Rain King" who keeps hearing a voice crying I WANT! I WANT!, it seems not to care how it is placated. At times it seems the echo of curiosity gone mad, its refrain the promise of incrementally acuter insights into reality. When Graham describes Luca Signorelli, in an access of Renaissance zeal, dissecting his own son, we draw a relationship between his action and the voice inquiring where soul and body meet and the voice urging a young man to murder his girlfriend: "our / desire hissing Tell me / your parts / that I may understand your body." Signorelli's operation, however, appears successful:

     It took him days
          that deep
     caress, cutting,

     until his mind
           could climb into
     the open flesh and
           mend itself.

We are left to decide for ourselves whether he has reached that peace which passeth understanding or lapsed into the lassitude that follows mental and physical exhaustion. In the book's last poem Graham offers lines that sound like a synthesis and a conclusion; "Because the body must open / for its world / so that we know there is a wall / beyond which we can't go." By insisting on the need for staking out the boundaries human reason should not expect to cross, Graham has not allied herself with Emerson. Appearances share a world with "true being" but the two have not merged. Her position is rather closer to that of Plato's durable explorer who on returning to the cave must readjust to a society in which the blind man is king while still keeping faith with the vision vouchsafed him. One way of achieving this is by writing poems, as Jorie Graham does, in which images of the world remain "afloat in solution / unsolved."

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (poetry) 1980
Erosion (poetry) 1983
The End of Beauty (poetry) 1987
Region of Unlikeness (poetry) 1991
Materialism (poetry) 1993
The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994 (poetry) 1995
The Errancy (poetry) 1997

Marianne Boruch (review date March-April 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The End of Beauty, in American Poetry Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March-April, 1987, p. 22.

[In the following, excerpt, Boruch praises Graham's poems for their mystical, abstract quality.]

In Recitative's interview with Donald Sheehan, Merrill makes the distinction between Eliot, whose poems put "civilization under glass," and Stevens, who "continues to persuade us of having had a private life." Jorie Graham in her astonishing third collection, The End of Beauty, manages both. Like many of Dunn's poems, these are loose meditations, flung onto the page, staged accidents. Yet they are often enactments—frightening and ceremonial as the myths they shadow: Penelope, Orpheus, Eve, Daphne, all drawn with such fierce private light that abruptly it's clear why these stories have been prized for centuries. "But a secret grows, a secret wants to be given away," Graham writes of Eve's lethal plan. "For a long time it swells and stains its bearer with beauty." Miraculous things weight this book, from a real visit to the shrine of St. Claire up a "birthcry" road in Montefalco, where a woman "presses her beautiful nowhere / against the face-sized grille repeated speech / has oxidized green …" ("You say you've come to see / the saint"), to the more contemporary jolt of photographs for which the poet recasts the Hopi belief that they steal the spirit. "Rather that being-seen will activate that soul / until the flesh / is something that can be risen through." One feels in fact something rising through these poems, something terrible and wonderful, past control, certainly past the conscious truce in Graham's earlier collections between the autobiographical and the philosophical. It is the visionary gift of the child in "Imperialism," the final poem here, who is taken to bathe with thousands in the Ganges so she might "know the world" and finds instead horror, finds in her mother who would comfort only "… a plot, a / shape, one of the finished things, one of the / beauties … a thing / completely narrowed down to love … all / arms no face at all dear god, all arms—"

Helen Vendler (review date 21 November 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Mapping the Air," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 19, November 21, 1991, pp. 50-6.

[In the following excerpt, Vendler argues that Graham expands on her earlier work, pushing forward her style of lyrical poetry.]

Like [Adrienne] Rich, Jorie Graham, a younger poet now teaching at the University of Iowa, uses vignettes and anecdotes, but to raise metaphysical, more than ethical, questions. Graham's grand metaphysical theme is the tension between existence and death. These are its ultimate terms; but the tension is also expressed as that between other polarities, such as continuity and closure, indeterminacy and outline, being and temporality, or experience and art. Graham sees human beings as creatures capable both of "intentionality"—direct-edness of aim—and of suspension in moments of pure being without aim.

These two inherent, inescapable capacities are fatal to each other. Nothing goes nowhere, however much we might want it to. Courtship presses toward commitment, idea toward its enactment, sensation toward exhaustion. For the artist especially, the passion to impose a determinate shape on experience is at war with the passion to live suspended within experience. The Graham muse sings two siren songs: the one says, "Hurry: name it"; the other says, "Delay: be it."

In her earlier work (Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, 1980; Erosion, 1983; and The End of Beauty, 1987) Graham was already sketching the crucial intersection of the passional and the philosophical from which the poems radiate. The metamorphoses of the theme, even in early work, were numerous and inventive—and yet this is the wrong way to put it. Rather, experience kept leading Graham back, by way of formal discoveries, to her central theme of what one could call openness versus shape. At first, each moment of experience tended to have its own single poem, in which the tension between being and interpretation was named rather than shown, as in "Strangers":

           … Dusk,

     when objects lose their way, you
     throw a small
     red ball at me
     and I return it.
     The miracle is this:
     the perfect arc

     of red we intercept
     over and over
     until it is too dark
     to see, reaches beyond us
     to contemplate
     only itself.

     (From Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts)

Later, the moment of suspension—imagined in the poem "Updraft" as an upward motion bearing us temporarily away from gravity—begins to be shown in action rather than described, and Graham's use of the present tense and long unfolding sentences keeps us afloat in the updraft for a long time. The actual moment of suspension itself becomes the center of the poem, as in "San Sepolcro" from her second volume, Erosion, we see the Madonna unbuttoning her dress before labor:

     … It is this giri
       by Piero
     della Francesca, unbuttoning
       her blue dress,
     her mantle of weather,
       to go into

     labor. Come, we can go in.
       It is before
     the birth of god….

       …. This is
     what the living do: go in.
       It's a long way.
     And the dress keeps opening
       from eternity

     to privacy, quickening.
       Inside, at the heart,
     is tragedy, the present moment
       forever stillborn,
     but going in, each breath
       is a button

     coming undone, something terribly
     finding all of the stops.

These poems often end in a standoff between suspension and finality: "Wanting a Child" (from Erosion) ends with the force of the ocean pushing up into the tidal river meeting the force of the river draining into the ocean.

The ecstasy of the state of suspension itself, however, had finally to be analytically examined as well as sensually rendered; and this became the (partly chilling) achievement of Graham's third book, The End of Beauty (with its intended pun: the aim of beauty and the termination of beauty are one). Graham's technique in The End of Beauty was to anatomize the moment of suspension in being by isolating each of its successive seconds in its own numbered freeze-frame. Here, for instance, is Eve, tired of the stasis of Paradise, deciding to eat of the apple and give it to Adam.

      so that she had to turn and touch
       him to give it away
      to have him pick it from her as the
       answer takes the question
      that he should read in her the rigid
      in a scintillant fold the fabric of
       the daylight bending
      where the form is complete where
       the thing must be torn off
      momentarily angelic, the instant
       writhing into a shape,
      the two wedded, the readyness
       and the instant,
      the extra bit that shifts the scales
       the other way now in his hand,
      the gift that changes the balance,
      the balance that cannot be broken
       owned by the air until he
      the balance like an apple held up
       into the sunlight
      then taken down, the air changing
       by its passage …

     ("Self-Portrait as the Gesture between Them")

Here motion no longer is absorbed in a swirl of impulse, but is broken down and minutely studied, its progress almost halted in the slow-motion inching forward of the film, frame by frame.

But we are still concerned here with a single action, a moment of fateful impulse given a mythological shape. Poems on subjects like this are the defining poems of The End of Beauty, where archetypal moments of relation (Apollo and Daphne, Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone) are isolated, unsparingly (even cruelly) investigated, magnified, slowed down, and understood.

Now, in Region of Unlikeness, Graham has taken what seems, with hind-sight, an inevitable step. She has made the demanding leap to a practice of connecting together moments widely separated in time and space and occurring on disparate mental levels (usually the autobiographical, the historical, and the mythical). Each of these moments is important, each has its own unintelligibility, each demands to be both recorded and comprehended. But even more, the hidden connections among them in the writer's sensibility (and perhaps in the culture at large) have to be exhumed. The mode of comprehension derives from the, at first unintelligible, connection of separate stories in the writer's mind. As she understands why she has intuitively connected them, she can compose a poem juxtaposing and interacting them.

For instance, Graham's maternal grandmother appeared in Erosion (1983) in an unremarkable poem showing her consigned to a nursing home. The image occurring to the poet as corresponding to her grandmother's confinement was the myth of Daphne enclosed in bark. The link between the autobiographical and the mythical is the speaker recalling a tree in her grandmother's "tiny orchard." "She looks," says the poet (fusing grandmother and Daphne), as if she could outrun anything,

     … although of course
      she's stuck

     for good here in this
     and in the myth it calls
      to mind,
     and in this late interpretation
      stolen from
     a half-remembered tree
      which stands
     there still like some god's
      narrow throat

     or mind nothing can slit her
      free of.

     ("At the Long Island Jewish Geriatric Home")

The rather heavy-handed transition here ("in the myth it calls / to mind, / and in this late interpretation") gives the story of the grandmother temporal priority, makes the myth secondary and decorative, and places interpretation in the place of honor, closing the poem.

The grandmother appears in the new book in two far more complex poems, one called "From the New World" (and another called "Chaos"), both containing a visit from the granddaughter to the nursing home. To see one of the later poems against the earlier one is to see a writer returning to troubling material to do it over, do it better, do it—if such a thing is possible—right. No longer are the autobiographical, the mythical, and the intellectual on three different planes.

"From the New World" splices together three stories, two of them historical, one autobiographical (as I have earlier noted). The first is a 1940s story of a young girl "who didn't die / in the gas chamber, who came back out asking / for her mother." The second is the story of the 1987 trial, in Israel, of a man identified as the concentration camp worker who ordered the rape of the young girl before she was sent back into the gas chamber. The third story is the personal one—the last chapter of the life of the author's grandparents:

       We put him in a Home, mother paid.
        There wasn't one that would
          take both of them we
       could afford.
        We were right we put him down
         the road it's all
     there was.
      there was a marriage of fifty
         years, you know this

     already don't you fill in the blanks,
      they never saw each other again …

      we put her in X, she'd fallen out
         we put her back in,
     there in her diaper sitting with her
      purse in her hands all day every
      day, asking can I go now
     meaning him, meaning the
      apartment by them long since let go you know this

The moral of this story is not explicitly drawn, but we are intended to see the parallel between the helpless "Please" of the girl in the camp and the equally helpless "can I go now" of the grandmother. The granddaughter's place in the story is revealed at the crucial moment of the grandmother's shocking amnesia:

      The one time I knew something about us
      though I couldn't say what

      my grandmother then already ill
       took me by the hand asking to be introduced.
      And then no, you are not Jorie—
        but thank you for
      saying you are. No, I'm sure. I
        know her you

The granddaughter flees into the nursing-home bathroom and acknowledges, for the first time, the certain extinction of everyone in the world. Yet she realizes at the same time how nature's infinite desire for life presses more and more beings into existence, although all of them are headed for death. The bathroom becomes a surreal gas chamber:

      they were all in there, I didn't look up,
      they were all in there, the coiling and uncoiling

      the about-to-be-seized,
       the about to be held down,

       the about to be held down, bit clean, shaped,
       and the others, too, the ones
         gone back out, the ending
      wrapped round them,
       hands up to their faces why I don't know,

      and the about-to-be stepping in….

      Without existence and then with existence.
      Then into the clearing as it clamps down
      all round.
       Then into the fable as it clamps down.

Even in this abbreviated quotation, the two cruelties—the intended cruelty of the camp and the "necessary" cruelty of the confinement of the senile, both ending in extinction—can be seen. But the poem cannot stay "in existence" ("the clearing") or in history ("the fable"); it must examine itself as consciously shifting between the close perspective of living and the detached focus of telling. There is a rapid montage of the familial (the grandfather talking to his wife, nursing home to nursing home, on the telephone), the historical (the guard in the dock), and the personal (the horrified granddaughter watching her grandmother nervously and pleadingly clasping her pocketbook with its "forties sunburst silver clasp")—all of this bequeathed by time to the grownup granddaughter, now the poet, who has in her keeping these fragments of history:

     and Ivan (you saw this) offering his hand, click, whoever
    he is, and the old man getting a dial-tone, friend,
     and old whoever clicking and unclicking the clasp the
    silver knobs,
      shall we end on them? a tracking shot? a

    close-up on the clasp a two-headed
       beast it turns out
       made of silvery

The montage and the self-conscious, formal questions are steps toward the overwhelming metaphysical question: Why, if these are the conditions of existence, do we want life? What is Being like? In what words, what symbols, can it be made intelligible?

    Like what, I wonder, to make the
      bodies come on, to make

    like what, I whisper,

    like which is the last new world, like, like, which is the thin

    young body (before it's made to go back in) whispering please.

The story can finally end only if satisfactory words can be found to encompass the facts—the facts of man's inhumanity to man, of senility, and of death, but equally the fact of the subversive, persistent, and random energies of life. I have here flattened out and made logical the tissue of language which, in the poem itself, comes to us in a zigzag of half-articulated suspicions, invocations, silences, hints, glimpses, stumblings, and contradictions—the very picture of the mind making meaning.

Graham now uses the lyric to connect things widely disparate in time and space by means of metaphor and simile. The dramatic, even theatrical sweeping of the searchlight of the artist asking, "What is like this?" or "Why do I feel that these things or stories are alike?" provides the tension of the poem, as it leaps from past to present to past again, from passively absorbed personal history to intellectual self-consciousness, from confusion to mythological or metaphysical clarification. Underneath the parallel layers of autobiography, history, myth, and philosophical interpretation lies the faith that "the storyline" (as Graham has often called it) is not linear but a "coil" (the name she gives it in "From the New World").

This means that resemblances spiral over resemblances with each turn of the coil of time. Deciphering the coiled sequencing of memory on different planes is the artist's task- finding (or inventing) likenesses in a region of unlikeness.

Insofar as the artist's materials lie in the half-forgotten events of her childhood and youth, she has to describe those events, reclaim them from partial amnesia, in order to explain why later impressions (from history, literature, experience) seem urgent, meant, revelatory, demanding. To catch, accurately, the impressions undergone by a child twenty years ago is a strange endeavor, brought most vividly into literary representation by Wordsworth in The Prelude. Like Wordsworth. Graham "sees by glimpses" and must capture a past almost uncapturable. In the title poem, "The Region of Unlikeness," we are shown the flight home of a thirteen-year-old girl, in the dawn, from the bed in a man's apartment where she has had her first sexual experience. The artist makes herself maintain a trance-state between sleep and waking, staying in the longpast memory:

      Don't wake up. Keep this in black and white. It's

      Rome. The man's name…? The speaker
       thirteen, Walls bare. Light like a dirty towel.
     It's Claudio. He will overdose before the age of

     A black dog barks. Was it more than

      one night? Was it all right? Where are
      the parents? Dress and get to the door.

Each sense impression of the girl's flight roots itself into her flesh, "the field where it will grow." Each impression is "a new planting—different from all the others—each planted fast, there, into that soil." Later, the artist will have to find an exact word for each memory-planting, or she will not reach the essential psychic assuagement for her adolescent violation:

Later she will walk along, a word ineach moment, to slap them downonto the plantings,
to keep them still.

For twenty years the artist has been in bondage to the memory, twenty years in which the thirteen-year-old has not stopped running, twenty years in which the right words have not been found to "slap down" on the plantings and lay the ghost. Life lies "entombed in being" ("Immobilism") But the mind's search for the adequate expression of the past is arduous and tormenting—

     It darts, it stretches out along the dry hard ground,
     it cannot find the end, it darts, it stretches out—


When Augustine awoke after a vision of God's "unchangeable light" to say he found himself "far from You in a region of unlikeness." he suggested that the region of likeness would be a place where no metaphors would be needed, where thing, thought, memory, imagination, and language would all coalesce in the oneness of eternity. But in temporality, as we yearn forward and the object of desire or the object of memory perpetually recedes, we are shaped by the absence of the object of our longing. Graham quotes Augustine and Heidegger (What Is Called Thinking) among her epigraphs, but she could as well have quoted Coleridge's "Constancy to an Ideal Object," where "the enamoured rustic" does not realize that it is his own shadow, cast before him on the morning mists, that he worships as a divine presence: "Nor knows he makes himself the shadow he pursues." The concept of desire fulfilled is always deduced from desire unfulfilled, and yet we give it ontological priority in our imaginings of original perfection.

Graham is a poet of strong polarities, playing in the space between male and female, being and ceasing to be, sense and thought, ritual and eschatology, veiling and apocalypse, matter and interpretation, immobilism and shape-making, nesting and flying free. Her music is that of the traditional lyric in its highs and lows, its accelerations and ritardandos, but the new poems are so long in themselves and so stretched-out in their elastic and "illogical" lines that it is difficult to master, measure, or enclose them, especially at first reading. Eventually one can map them, connect the dots, see the "coil"—but by their arabesques of language on different planes they frustrate this desire both at first and in the long run, however much one grasps the underlying map. The reader must, to remain "in" the poem, stay with the poet, going deeper and deeper down, not knowing whether or not the labyrinth has an exit.

The expansion of the poetic line visible in both Rich and Graham (and in other contemporary poets from Ginsberg to Wright and Ashbery) means that many poems are coming to resemble cloud chambers full of colliding protons rather than well-wrought urns. Many particles of experience and history are put into play; they are bombarded by more particles of thought and feeling as both imagination and analysis are exerted on the materials at hand; the excited states resulting from the collisions are registered by the poem as a new field of energy, rather than as a linear "result" or "conclusion." Rich argues that we have to compile an atlas of the whole difficult world"; Graham wants us to find words for the whole "region of unlikeness." Rich said years ago, in the person of a woman astronomer, "I am bombarded yet I stand." This could be the motto of both of these new volumes, which ask lyric poetry to take on epic dimensions. As if to temper their breadth and earnestness, however, both poets end their volumes with a short poem. Graham closes, in "Soul Says," with cosmic laughter enveloping human mortality:

     Now then, I said. I go to meet that which I liken to
     (even though the wave break and drown me in laughter)
     the wave breaking, the wave drowning me in laughter—

And Rich ends, in "Final Notations," with a prophecy about the poem of the future:

      it will not be simple, it will not be long
      it will take little time, it will take all your thought
       it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
      it will be short, it will not be simple

Even the new poetry of the force field, it seems, cannot forget its origins in simple song.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Bedient, Calvin. "Postlyrically Yours." The Threepenny Review XV, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 18-20.

Compares Graham's poetry to that of Jane Miller and Carolyn Forché.

D'Evelyn, Thomas. "Two Contemporary Poets." The Christian Science Monitor (12 August 1987): 17.

Compares the theoretical abstract poetry of Graham's The End of Beauty with the traditional, concrete poetry of Elizabeth Jennings.

Isaacson, Lisa. "Ad Interim: 2000—A Delayed Reading Lightly Attended." Denver Quarterly 28, No. 4 (Spring 1994): 136-41.

Considers Materialism in relation to Graham's earlier collections.

Redmond, John. "Accidents of Priority." London Review of Books 18, No. 16 (22 August 1996): 25-6.

Compares Graham's The Dream of the Unified Field to John Ashbery's writing.

Bonnie Costello (review date 27 January 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Big Hunger," in The New Republic, January 27, 1992, pp. 36-9.

[In the review below, Costello argues that while Graham's style has changed in her first four books, her philosophical quest remains the same.]

"Poetry implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values," Jorie Graham argued in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990. It competes with the comforts of "story," which sprays "forward over the unsaid until it [is] all plot," and it competes with the power of images, our culture's "distrust of speech and of what is perceived as the terminal 'slowness' of speech in relation to the speedier image as a medium of sales." Poetry has responded too timidly, she believes, to the challenges of commercial culture, and retreated into a narrow realm of trivial reflections, decorative forms, and platitudes.

Graham has taken it upon herself in her recent work to confront the power of plot and image head on. She has always been a philosophical poet. First she tested her metaphysics in a quiet, lyric space of nature and art, but lately she has plunged into the rush of history, memory, and contemporary life. Frequently she takes the artist and her own creative acts as the subject of her poems. What is the relation of language to its objects? How might language make a place for the spiritual rather than covering it over? How can poetry engage the world without succumbing to limitation? Increasingly such questions of poetic authority have become, for Graham, a matter of moral accountability, a question even of salvation, with the broadest cultural implications. Restless with the answers she found before, her vision has become more ecstatic, more omnivorous, more abstraction in each of her four books. It has also become looser and more notational, less concerned with shapeliness and eloquence.

Graham has explained herself in rather urgent terms:

I feel like I'm writing as part of a group of poets—historically—who are potentially looking at the end of the medium itself as a vital part of their culture—unless they do something to help it reconnect itself to mystery…. We need to recover a high level of ambition, a rage if you will—the big hunger.

She has identified her ambition with John Ashbery's, James Tate's, and Michael Palmer's—writers who approach their work not as artifacts or statements, but as performances. She has also cited the theatrical work of Robert Wilson as an inspiration, and she is translating Rimbaud. It is not hard to find structural and rhetorical similarities to these artists in Graham's recent work: darting images without explicit connections; a digressive, decentered approach to thought; the fragmentation of linear plots and arguments; indeterminate allegory; parodic language; fragmented allusion and misquotation.

These are all qualities commonly identified with postmodernism. But Graham has a fundamentally different orientation. She is much less interested in randomness and indeterminacy, in the material and the dynamic field of language. Her theatrically—the poem as drama, in which the poet is suffering protagonist before the chaos of the world—engages her in a search for meaning. For Ashbery or Tate, poetry is not a matter of metaphysics, of sustaining the rigor of truth or opening words to ecstatic vision. Poetry, for them, goes on inside language, where our clichés and routines are rearranged in tragic and hilarious new combinations that reveal our ways of knowing and relating. Graham's work is still driven by ideas, however subverted, and by metaphors of the spiritual.

Her first two books sit quite comfortably on the shelf alongside the late progeny of modernism: Mark Strand, Amy Clampitt, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, all of whom use sensual images to pursue the invisible. Like these writers, Graham eschewed the psychological and political emphasis of much poetry of the 1970s, focusing instead on the meditating mind and taking her cues from Keats, Rilke, Stevens. In her early work she limited meditation to individual objects of nature or art around which her thoughts could circle to form twisting, elegant designs:


      hard at work in the dry grass behind the house
      catching flies. It kept on disappearing.
      And though I know this has something to do
      with lust, today it seemed to have to do
     with work

Since then she has been working toward a new music of meditation that involves a deep skepticism and a constant check on the impulse toward story and interpretation. The poems raise questions, for reader and author alike, about the purpose of poetry: "And what is poetry now? What is it going to keep in life that life is ready to shake off?"

Not meaning, anymore, or order, or beauty, certainly not a story line or a controlling metaphor. Rather, poetry "wants to stick to the skin of the beast as it shakes," to register the force of being "until it is not a randomness anymore" but "a wave, making the whole love fit into its body." But sometimes one feels that the pleasures of poetry (its shapeliness, its precision) are neglected by Graham in the name of the higher conceptual risk of encountering the world without design, without the aid of a story or a statement about it. And sometimes one cannot help feeling that Graham's dedication to that risk may be a little disingenuous: that this poet, for all her commitment to the unmediated encounter, has in fact relinquished very little poetic authority.

In Hybrids of Ghosts and of Plants (1980), her first book, Graham didn't worry at all about fending off the lure of plot or the mesmerizing buzz of sound bites. Her hybrids of thought and image thrived in a well-weeded lyric garden. Many of her poems compared thought to nature, appreciating in the former all the fluency of the latter:

      A bird re-entering a bush,
      like an idea regaining
      its intention, seeks
      the missed discoveries
      before attempting
      flight again.

Contemplation offered occasions for epigram, gestures into the unknown that even in their ambiguity often had a certain verbal crispness: "only perfection can be kept, not its perfect instances"; "they say the eye is most ours / when shut, / that objects give no evidence / that they are seen by us." Large questions of perception, meaning, and identity could be stimulated by small things, taken one at a time, with little symbolic reserve: an artichoke, a chestnut tree, her mother's sewing box. If they lacked intellectual discipline, the cerebral notions in these poems were still a part of the experiment of seeing. We trusted this poet's move toward "pure idea" for the move was always made with a knowledge of its antithesis: "we have no mind in a world without objects."

In Erosion (1983), Graham's confidence in the authority of art was at its peak. She understood more clearly the iconic and sacramental nature of her mind, as she showed in coming to terms with the landscape of her childhood. (She was raised in Rome by an artist mother on the objects of ancient and high culture.) In these poems, art and sacred objects replace nature as the reigning muse. So often the detached observer, even the voyeur poking through blinds and noting neighbors' movements, Graham's stance as a beholder of works of art is an honest one, not just a device as with other poets. It leads her to many of her central themes: the dialogue of the body and the soul, the boundary between the eternal and the temporal, the mental and the natural.

The monumental works and the sacred objects are approached with simplicity and intimacy ("come, we can go in. / It is before / the birth of god"). The focus may shift, but we know where we are (sometimes down to the address: the Piazza di Spagna, the Quinta del Sordo, "down here this morning in my white kitchen"), even as the poetry complicates that concreteness. Especially after the casual assertiveness of Hybrids, the reflections that these precise images inspire are often puzzled and paradoxical ("As if flesh were the eternal portion after all, / here it is, your blunt modesty, pure, / even after a ton of dirt"). History, especially the Holocaust, begins to seep into the sacred ground of these poems, but it is absorbed rather than rooted out, or allowed to overwhelm the meditation. Although Graham risks sensationalism with some of her references to atrocity, most often she succeeds in presenting an honest tension between aesthetic patience and moral rage.

In The End of Beauty, which appeared in 1987, Graham largely abandoned the metaphoric and iconic methods, as well as the slow, winding syntax. In their place is a more immediate, urgent contemplation of figures from classical and biblical myth. Steeped in Milton, Keats, and Rilke, big hungerers all, Graham takes myths as allegories of consciousness, in fact as "self-portraits." These self-portraits render the lyric poet's psyche not as an integrated unit, but as a variety of dramatic tensions and repeated gestures (Eve taking the apple and offering it to Adam, Apollo pursuing the elusive Daphne, Orpheus longing for Euridyce, Demeter relinquishing Persephone, Penelope weaving and unweaving to avoid her suitors). Within these paradigms. Graham explores questions of freedom and necessity, of desire and resistance, in fresh ways.

The use of myth also allowed her to deal more directly with an idea that has always preoccupied her: the sense of an abiding wholeness behind a "veil" or "shroud" that is ripped to form a "storyline," to divide experience into "minutes," to frame it in limited "points of view." Myth helps us to understand that fragmentation of the world into discrete "finished things," constrained by shapes and boundaries, and helps us to think beyond it into a sacred, unfinished dimension. The poet of myth is more concerned to represent intense vision than achieved wisdom. And this intensity is typographically expressed: questions, dashes, ellipses, parentheses abound, and lines reach into margins.

The problem with The End of Beauty was that Graham had not found the formal or the linguistic means to sustain her prophetic project. Her mythic meditations aim for the intensity of The Spiritual Exercises, but the imagery is spare and non-pictorial. The poems are too infused with redundant abstractions and attenuated allegories to take physical or conceptual hold of us. Terms such as "gap," "delay," "plot," "rupture," constantly repeated, begin to sound like predictable buzzwords rather than like insights. The poet's language sags and loses direction: it can't sustain the ecstatic level. Too often it sounds like a bad translation of a Greek chorus ("why this sky why this air why these mountains why this sky"). Without a formal design to direct this stream of consciousness, the current dissipates. The aversion to "finished things" at the thematic heart of this book does not justify Graham's constant use of blanks ("that which sets the—in motion"; "mud, ash,—,—"). The poet's job, after all, is to give us the words and the pictures, however tentative, qualified, or figurative, for what we cannot name or see ourselves. Graham's blanks represent a poetic failure—honest, perhaps, but hardly satisfying, and certainly not redemptive.

Still, the major poem in The End of Beauty, called "Breakdancing," proved that Graham has aesthetic power equal to her prophetic ambition. A youth breakdancing on television gives the poet an image she can compare first to our own edgy, fragmented twentieth-century lives, but then also to Christ himself, who showed himself "in pieces" to St. Teresa. The poet manages to shift her rhetoric brilliantly, to chart her emotional flux and roving focus through media time, human time, sacred time. Her language can be jive ("What / is poverty for, Mr. Speed, Dr. Cadet, Dr. Rage, / Timex"), technical ("The robot-like succession of joint isolations / that stimulate a body in reaction to electric shock"), even homiletic ("staying alive is the most costly gift you have to offer Him"). These words rise to a poetic as well as a local rhetorical purpose.

Region of Unlikeness, Graham's new book, takes up many of the concerns of "Breakdancing," particularly its attention to the textures of contemporary life, to the media blitz and the terrorism that threaten our humanity and invade the quiet space of the lyric, demanding its renovation. As in "Breakdancing," the TV hums in many of these poems, the poet's own attention darting from image to image as if to compete with its mediating presence. Indeed, the poems seem at times like a grazing of channels, a desperate effort to forestall the reader's lapse of attention.

Where nature, painting, and myth each inspired previous volumes, the movie camera is the ambivalent muse now, both a threat to our sense of reality and an opportunity for new poetic strategies. Graham studied film at New York University, and her interest in the medium has surfaced in her verse before. But its overwhelming affect on contemporary consciousness—on our sense of history, of time and space, our conception of suffering—becomes a dominant theme in Region. Graham records the constant "click, click" of the mind taking up the world "in pieces." The mind inhabits a region of temporality, history, and representation "unlike" the wholeness and the presence that it longs to unveil.

Graham's poetic strategies are aimed at expressing and overcoming this condition. The poems cut, splice, fast forward, play, reverse, replay, and shift back and forth between independent scenes without making connections explicit. "Can I from down there, please, from Later On, / have a shot of a) the mall, b) flying the kite late August choppy wind, c) the men having fast to beat the rain?" Ideas are like voice-overs, never quite meshing with images. The poet stars in and directs these movies, which are at least partly about their own making.

"Manifest Destiny," for instance, works like cinema montage, a pastiche of images outpacing narrative and argument. It begins, like so many movies, with a drive along a dusty, golden road (this one near Rome) through "shafts of morning light." The poet/director gives a visionary cast to the scene as the dust and the light mingle to throw up allegorical shapes, "all the contortions of the human form." anticipating subsequent images—"dusty money" and "gold bars," which later connect to prison bars, bills being paid in a restaurant, whores calling out of prison windows, meats on sale in a marketplace arcade. These are set against an ancient background of stone:

     —colonnades, promenades, porticoes, shadows of warriors, lovers and the various
     queens of heaven—arms raised holding stone fruit, lips
     parted uttering the stone word—the stone
     child in the stone arms.

A set of implicit prophetic themes emerges: an assault on materialist values in the face of "change," an anguished glimpse of human life reduced to "a handful of cloth, cash, skin," a criticism of the poet's own desire for "meaning" as a form of currency.

Dissatisfied with the narrow corner to which poetry has retreated, Graham seeks to achieve the stillness of the private, metaphysical vision within the harried institutions of our time: cities, nursing homes, extermination camps, prisons, psychiatric wards. The titles alone suggest something of her level of ambition and its increasingly ideological inflection ("Short History of the West," "Manifest Destiny," "From the New World"). Graham identifies history not only in images of the marketplace, but in riots and arrests, suicides and assassinations. Yet her effort to cut these images loose from sensational journalism can seem a little facile. The effect too often is merely to display a politically engaged and righteous sensibility, without attempting much historical scrutiny or political reflection. Though South African children, Holocaust victims, and AK-47s may flash in and out of her field of attention, the poems have less to do with events on the news (or even with history) than with the problems of consciousness that Graham loosely suggests may result in such events, or that go into shaping "the news."

Graham's "big hunger," then, has led her to somewhat contradictory impulses: to a confrontation with history and to a passion for the "imperial invisible," the wholeness behind the veil. Plenty of poets—Yeats, Pound, Eliot—have preceded her in this double vision, but in Graham it has resulted in some unsatisfying shifts of ground. Not wanting to reduce her images from history and experience to a political or psychological narrative (a "plot" or "story"), she swerves away from their implications. "Picnic," a poem that traces the fall from childhood innocence into the web of adult deceptions, abruptly turns at the end to become a poem contemplating being and truth ("the predicate—'is, is, is.'"). "From the New World," which begins with images of the gas chamber and hunted Nazis and which turns to maudlin images of her grandmother in a nursing home, ends up as a meditation on "like." on the problem of resemblance and naming, the wish for words that will not smother being. We are meant to feel that language and representation, unless constantly renewed, are—like the nursing home, like the gas chamber-forms of extermination. But surely distinctions in the order of being and the degree of atrocity ought to be made, if we are not to feel that all of this history really serves only as a trope.

We are prepared for these shifts to metaphysical questions, though, because they have preoccupied her in earlier books. A sequence of epigraphs—from Augustine, Heidegger, the Bible, Melville serves as a "foreword" to Region of Unlikeness. They tell, in philosophic terms, a story of desire to recover lost presence, of thinking as a drawing toward what withdraws. The influence of the late Heidegger is especially strong, giving the poems an all too discursive and derivative character, despite the poet's suspicion of meaning ("The whole time looking for limitation, the place / without promise, where the adventure is finally over / and shape grips down"). This is nothing new in Graham. What is new is her effort to bring her desire for and resistance to meaning, interpretation, and judgment right up to the surface of the poems, to make that struggle their whole matter. Yet as she repeatedly treats the same themes, the digressions seem more to illustrate than to enact this struggle: matter "wants to remain asleep," change tries to arouse matter as she "lifts and drops each veil" of form, and matter continues to refuse her.

Still, some of the best poems in her new book tell a story of refusing the lure of narrative continuity in a way that centers the restless thought and sensation without reducing it to a discursive point. The parallel syntax and the often jerky, pounding, repetitive lines that portray the mind in motion can break out of abstraction when sufficiently imploded with metaphor, as in "What is Called Thinking." The poem opens simply enough: on a walk, the poet, listening to a Walkman, glimpses a deer. This initiates a mediation on the mind's relation to nature, and also an enactment of that relation. The "self-reflective strings of the / eighteenth century" heard from the Walkman become metaphors for our interpretive "voice-over" of observed reality, our wish to "brand" reality with our own identities. Graham then expands her explorations of the mind. The mind is a "transparent unmoving frenzy" that includes raw sensation and the desire to shape. An angel appears, a Promethean spirit of imagination and desire who converts nature into objects of thought, yet who laughs at his own error, is indeed robed in error. As Graham darts back and forth among images of the deer and her natural setting, the poet's "strings" of interpretation (the tape going on in her mind), and the daemonic angel that is larger than either, an exhilarating drama unfolds.

One feels the need to hear these poems read. Their force is performative, and they are very difficult to quote. Yet they are so burdened with doubts about eloquence in this age of distraction that moments of visual and linguistic pleasure are rare. When even seeing is upstaged by self-consciousness, when every act of perception or meaning becomes a noun ("my looking up"), a thing that blocks the view, it is difficult for the reader to enter the poem's world, despite the brusque imperatives ("Sit," "Blink," "Feeling OK?"). The abstractions begin to take on a life of their own ("the now," "the about," "the thing-in-us-which-trials-behind"), yet the allegories (with the exception of the Kafkaesque "At the Cabaret Now") lack either pictorial or intellectual vitality ("mother Matter—the opposite of In-/terpretation: his consort"). The poems seem to be about so much that they are about nothing at all.

What is the purpose of poetry? To stop and hold the hurry without extinguishing it, to put the world in parentheses and then let it out again, is Graham's current answer. It is not always a satisfying answer, nor is it an entirely honest one. History is not really embraced in its randomness in these poems. It seems, rather, to be selectively imported from the media for its emotional punch. And nature is rarely more than mere shorthand—mother bird and eggs, garden and secret lovers—a designation rather than a true evocation of raw being.

Graham's volume ends with Prospero laying down his magical garment. But how much poetic authority has Graham really relinquished in her project to encounter the world without the aid of a preconceived story or statement about it? Has she bravely stepped aside to let in the big vision, or are her tactics an abdication of a truly ambitious poetic project? She repeatedly interrupts her movies with protestations that she is only a camera: "Where would you go now?"; "shall we end on them?"; "a tracking shot?" But such interactive features of her poems are too often rhetorical, glib illustrations of the familiar point that we must oppose the "silky swerve into shapeliness" in the name of larger vision.

The poetics of failure that Graham constantly invokes has grown stale by now. Poetry must indeed sustain a reach beyond its grasp if it is to matter, and Graham's "big hunger" represents an inevitable, laudable shift away from the timid appetite of the much-spumed "workshop poem." Still, the reader's own big hunger should not be satisfied when it is served up imitations of Heidegger and allusions to the Holocaust in place of the poet's independent struggle to wrest beauty and meaning—howevertentative and qualified—from the abyss of language and the randomness of experience.

Bonnie Costello (essay date Summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Jorie Graham: Art and Erosion," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 373-95.

[In the following essay, Costello considers the visual images at the center of the poetry in Erosion.]

Jorie Graham emerged in the 1980s as a major poet, distinguished for her philosophical depth, her sensuous vision, the grandeur of her style and themes. In a decade of poetry stigmatized for its shrunken ambition, or sidetracked by politics and ideology, she celebrated the spiritual and metaphysical reach of art. In her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), Graham limited her meditation primarily to tentative reflections based on natural objects. Erosion (1983) marked a striking maturity for this poet in finding a focus to the roving eye of Hybrids, and in understanding the iconic and even sacramental nature of her mind. Her language in this volume is marked by eloquence and sententious boldness, and she identifies her project more directly with that of monumental artists from the past. While ordered around a passion for mystery, the poems themselves aspire to the unity and completeness of an artifact rather than the residue of a process. Whatever twists of thought may arise in the poems end in a tied, integrated imagery, a tense unity.

Graham's emphasis on iconic representation and visual design in Erosion expresses at once her strong sense of the body and her resistance to the force of erosion. Painting rather than nature becomes her primary model for how we can pursue the invisible in the visible, how we can shape our limitations into a form that can surpass them. In relation to the word, the visual icon seems inexhaustible, infinitely deep, yet centered. Art is the implicit answer to Graham's query, "in what manner the body is united with the soule." It forms an alternative space to the world of erosion, a form of "rescue" from the flux, a means of centering vision and restoring unity beyond the grasp of reason and the word. In this celebration of beauty over knowledge, and art over history, Erosion is essentially a modernist text, whereas Graham's later work may be characterized as post-modern.

Erosion, loss, grief, the past, history, evolution, dispersion—these central facts of our world pervade the poetry. But they are almost always set against their opposite—the aesthetic transformation of the world as iconic design. The title poem, "Erosion," asserts:

     I would not want, I think, a higher intelligence, one
     simultaneous, cut clean
     of sequence. No,
     it is our slowness I love, growing slower,
     tapping the paintbrush against the visible,
     tapping the mind.

The mind of the painter "tapping the paintbrush against the visible" and of the beholder may be sequenced, but the work of visual art is not. Indeed, its major distinction from literary art is its simultaneity, its spatial rather than sequential presentation. Graham sets her intelligence toward images detached from their surroundings, held in a private, contemplative space and made timeless through aesthetic transformation, even as she remains in a dimension of history. It is not surprising, then, that eight of the poems in Erosion describe established masterpieces of visual art. Ecphrasis is her chief rhetorical strategy. The word is approach and commentary; the icon holds out a promise of presence. Even as Graham questions the value of design or acknowledges the "tragic" aspect of the pursuit of the eternal, hers is an essentially optimistic view of art. "The beautiful," the centering of images into an order where mystery is held and glimpsed, is Erosion's highest value.

In more recent work Graham has begun to decenter the image, thrusting it out of controlling aesthetic form and into personal and public history, unpacking and deconstructing its narrative and discursive implications. Film rather than painting has become her sister art. Erosion was a significant book for the eighties, however, because it boldly reasserted modernist values and ambitions which she has never entirely surrendered—the pursuit of the timeless, the impersonal, the beautiful over the brutality and flux of history, the desire of the mind for the eternal and the drive of art to pursue it. Now, however, vision occurs in moments wrested from chaos rather than preserved in sequestered icons.

Graham's strong pull toward an iconic center apart from the flux finds expression in both "Mist" and "Reading Plato." In each she conceives of a figure by which the transient world is arrested even as it is evoked. In "In What Manner the Body is United with the Soule," Graham pursues a single figure beneath the surface of the stream, which can be drawn out and elevated as art. The symbolist imagery of the poem presents the mutuality of body and spirit central to Erosion's idea of art. Graham's iconic imagination often forms a permeable inside/outside opposition as well. In "Still Life with Window and Fish" the interrupted and reassembled images of the external world define an inner space, a new dynamic unity in still form. In other poems ("To a Friend Going Blind," "Kimono," "The Lady and the Unicorn and Other Tapestries," "At the Exhumed Body of Santa Chiara, Assisi") Graham imagines design in terms of fabric—the world securely woven into a tapestry or sewn into a garment. The complex metaphor of stitching suggests that art is a means of mending a world we experience as broken, uniting the horizontal and the vertical, the temporal and the eternal, in its movement. This tapestried nature also clothes a mystery, giving a sense of depth to the physical world, a vanishing point in the design. The numinous is not dispersed, then, but hidden and disclosed in art.

Several poems in Erosion deal directly with a masterpiece of visual art—by Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, Masaccio, Gustav Klimt. In these poems Graham poses as beholder, in the world of erosion, reflecting on the work, its relation to her world, and the creative process of the artist. Graham's preoccupation with Christian subjects (the Resurrection, the expulsion from the garden of Eden, the birth of Christ), which will continue in later volumes, suggests the importance of her analogy between Christian paradoxes and the mysteries of art. In her treatment of modern works Graham continues to conceive of art as a process of drawing off and transforming the given to a fabric that will enclose something infinite as its secret center. But she no longer takes for granted the nature of the mystery and the purpose of its aesthetic covering.

In "Mist" Graham describes the condition of consciousness ("this quick intelligence") we live in and act on. In our hungry rationality we are "blind" but "forever trying to finger the distinctions" between being and becoming, essence and existence. The mist represents the mind "making everything / part of itself," seeking "the whole idea" which eludes it. Our "geography" is better than our "history" as we try to map out a world in flux. But the mist also suggests, more traditionally, the condition of erosion in which we live and think.

The rational mind pursuing absolutes in a world of erosion ("the rose inside the rose that keeps on opening") fails, but the creative will provides an alternative:

                    and then
      this other still
      wherein it is a perfect rose
because I snap it
      from the sky,

      because I want it,

      another, thicker, kind of sight.

In a world opening, being consumed, swimming, and waving good-bye, that is, the poet chooses an icon, not out of reason but out of desire. To counteract erosion she "snaps" a different mode of seeing, one thicker and thus more stable than the swimming, blind/deaf world of thought she has characterized throughout most of the poem. The rose is "perfect" not because it realizes a Platonic truth, but "because" her imagination draws it out from "the sky."

Similarly, in "Reading Plato" Graham describes her friend making lures. This action is a "beautiful lie" because it is based on the representation of a "good idea" of forms "past death, past sight," suspended from the world of erosion. Graham is anti-Platonic, believing not in ideal, rational forms but in "the body // they were all once / a part of." But she admires these lures, initiating here a distinction she will make frequently, between the beautiful (the forms of art. which may surpass reason in their importance to us) and the true (which eludes the forms of reason). While constructed of fragments of nature we experience as broken, the lures have a unifying force. "A hook / under each pair / of wings," they reunite body and spirit as they are cast into the stream. Graham contrasts our dispersed, sensuous "knowledge of / the graceful // deer" to the fly made out of deer hair because it is "hollow / and floats" (the form of our dissecting, abstract knowing). But the iconic lure, cast into the stream, has led her to imagine back to the whole. We will see in other poems that the dismemberment of reality is redeemed by the construction of forms that permit a glimpse of numinous wholeness.

The relation of the icon to the stream is again the focus of the three-part poem "In What Manner the Body is United with the Soule." This time what floats above the stream is not an artifact but an agency, a self, in the figure of a "miraculous / water-strider" which can "measure ripples / for meaning." Graham's connection of this invisible "meaning" with art is explicit from the beginning. The first section of the poem considers, through the metaphor of the stream, the effect of music. The sounds, their "surface tension / which is pleasure" lead to the sounding of "meaning /—small, jeweled, deep-water—/ flash." At the outset of the poem, then, the soul is understood in terms of the aspirations and effects of art. But music, the most abstract and temporal of the arts, must give way to iconic symbols for Graham. Indeed, in the next section that "flash" turns out to be "manuscripts / illuminated by monks" which are unearthed from "the mud / of the Arno." These verbal icons release their "gold" into the "lush browns" in which "all the difficulties / of the passage/ of time" are caught and held. Thus they "illuminate" the mud as the mud preserves them through time. "The self" is the center of this reciprocity:

       an act of
      where the flesh has risen,
        the spirit

In the final section of the poem Graham writes only of the natural world, but her symbolist images mirror and unite earlier images of art. The stream which has run through each section is here "smaller, / almost still," as if made ready for creation, a "delay" in the "hurry" of life and erosion that allows for artistic vision. The "jewels" of meaning in section I are now held as "tiny insect / life" which the waterstrider-self consumes. The "gold bee," an image perhaps of the inspiration or food of art, parallels the gleam on the ice over the mud that holds the manuscripts. The golden eggs of the waterstrider-self are the creative expression of this insight:

      Of silence, mating striders make gold eggs
      which they will only lay on feathers

      dropped by passing birds or on the underside
      of a bird's tail before it wakens and
     flies off, blue and white and host to a freedom

     it knows nothing of.

The final movement here is clearly out of the stream, into the freedom of the disembodied spiritual, but the body is made, by the self, the vehicle of transcendence even as its direction may be elsewhere.

Each of the poems I have discussed deals with a condition of flux or erosion (figured as mist or stream), from which something iconic is constructed or fathomed, a "perfect rose," a "lure," an "elaborate gold frame," isolated parts that can evoke a whole. Along with this relation of icon and flux Graham frequently poses a relation of outside world and inside mind or art. Our minds want to draw the "outside" world into the "inside" structures of thought and representation. Graham presents this as a natural and positive impulse when driven by a regard for mystery, for the beautiful, rather than for rational meaning. The aesthetic, iconic "inside," while it is walled off from the world, evokes and transforms that world. This iconic space has its own indeterminate movement even as it resists temporality.

"Still Life with Window and Fish" is a celebration of aesthetic space and a study of its attractions. Fragments of the world "outside" the window (of her room, of her mind) are brought "inside," "dismembered" but also "remembered." They enter as shadows made when objects interrupt the passage of light—as what is seen in the window, held in the mind, or represented in ornamental designs. The "inside" forms a space where things are simplified and reassembled.

     The whole world outside
     wants to come into here,
     to angle into
     the simpler shapes of rooms, to be broken and
     against the sure co-ordinates
     of walls.

The "sure co-ordinates of walls," like the frames of art, designate a boundary in which images are sequestered from reality. But within the walls relations "blur" and "nothing starts or / ends," unlike the eroding world outside. Graham emphasizes that the space "inside" is partial and "broken," yet its delights are clear. The shadows, designs, and other images of the world outside are loosed from their physical boundaries:

    Here is a fish-spine on the sea of my bone china
    plate. Here is a fish-spine on the sea of my hand,
    flickering, all its freight
    fallen away.

The fish image returns here to suggest the transfiguration of the flux into an "indelible/surf," the surf-ace of art or imaginative transformation of reality. The self is drawn into this surf where the restless imagination can sustain itself against the tide of erosion:

             If I should die
      before you do,
      you can find me anywhere
      in this floral, featureless,
      surf, We are too restless
      to inherit
      this earth.

This interior, formal space of "still life" provides a kind of rescue, then, from the world of erosion. Its very limitations and interruptions transfigure and save.

The same sense of an "inside" space which may "block the view" of the outside world but which, at the same time, may rescue us from erosion arises in "To a Friend Going Blind." The complete integration of many associative links in thispoem is testimony to art's power to unify. The poem begins with a description of walking:

     I had to walk this town's entire inner
     perimeter to find
     where the medieval walls break open
     in an eighteenth century

Graham here recognizes both limitation and the artistic transformation of limitation which designs an inner space to be permeable to the outside, even to reveal it. The poet shifts abruptly to an apparently unrelated issue. "Bruna," a local seamstress, "is teaching me / to cut a pattern." Bruna is linked to the medieval town when her measuring tapes are described as "corn-blond and endless, / from her neck"—like Rapunzel's hair. Bruna is an artist, who, judging her "material" "for texture, grain, the built-in / limits," turns those limits into something useful and, incidentally, beautiful. As a kind of Rapunzel she can teach the poet, who can teach her imminently blind friend, to get imaginatively beyond the walls. We may remember that Rapunzel's lover was blinded by the witch until Rapunzel's tears fell upon his eyes and cured them. Bruna teaches how the outside world might come inside, transfigured, how limitation might provide access since the whole world itself seeks "interruption." Thus the poet's journey through the walled town is an imitation of the lesson from Bruna: "I wandered all along the street that hugs the walls, / a needle floating / on its cloth." Bruna teaches the usefulness of art: enclosed as we are within our tower, art can help us escape as Rapunzel's prince could not;

     When Bruna finishes her dress
     it is the shape of what has come
     to rescue her. She puts it on.

The controlling metaphor of "To a Friend," stitching, binds its two images (Bruna's sewing, walking the town's wall) into a kind of New Critical verbal icon. The metaphor informs nearly half the poems in Erosion. Stitching involves several varied but related desires for Graham: we desire to make of the world's raw material (and our own built-in limits) something that can "rescue" us from flux and that can give form to the numinous. We would bind together what is broken (the temporal and the eternal, life and death, the individual and the whole) and penetrate the gaps and cracks in our norms in order to create new wholes. Finally, we respond to the "beautiful," for the pleasure it gives and the mystery it shrouds. Stitching is an act of love, something that seeks to draw the objects of this world into a more permanent, shaped, beautiful "fabric" of art.

Graham expresses her measured faith in "stitching" in "The Lady and the Unicorn and Other Tapestries." The ephemeral world is woven into the permanent fabric of the tapestry:

     If I have a faith it is something like this: this ordering
        of images
     within an atmosphere that will receive them, hold them
         in solution, unsolved.

That "unsolved" is importantly double—undissolved by erosion, yet perpetually mysterious (the tapestry is a "still moment"), unapproachable by the interpretive invasion of the word.

The title is curious since the poem never mentions the central subjects of the famous tapestry series. The Cluny tapestries depict the Lady and the Unicorn in various postures that symbolize the five senses. In certain of these and other unicorn tapestries quail are shown settled on or rising from a tree, but they are more decorative than functional in the pictures. Even in the famous hunt tapestry (at the Cloisters in New York), it is the unicorn, not the quail, which is pursued. But it is precisely the decorative impulse, the impulse to design rather than to symbolism, that interests the poet. Graham's strategy of peripheral vision in response to classic works of art allows her the freedom to invent new meanings for these overdetermined works and to explore the nature of art itself as an aesthetic rather than a symbolic activity. The opening lines of the poem (quoted above) might well apply, implicitly, to the effect of the tapestries as a whole, however, since the tapestries depict a mysterious "ordering of images" in which lady and unicorn stand as paradoxical companions (chastity and virility).

The quail provide the link between the artwork and the familiar natural world and allow the poet to imagine that world itself in terms of design: "the quail / over the snow // on our back field run free and clocklike, briefly safe." Art makes that moment of "safety" more enduring. Yet in the next breath she qualifies "the beautiful" as "our whitest lie." white because of its benevolence, a lie because its orders do not represent the realities of erosion. Art gives us a way of looking at the world, allows us to see the hunt itself as design—the quail's role that of "prey." The "ancient tree their eyes map out" is the tree of Eden (symbol of our erosion from the ideal) as well as the tree on which the quail are perched in the tapestries. In response to the Fall we slaughter the quail but also preserve them as decorative feast, as art:

         the quail are woven
      into tapestries, and, stuffed
      with cardamon and pine-nuts

      and a sprig of thyme.

The sprig of thyme is our memento of our fall, our temporality, marked within atemporal form. The tapestry artist holds these paradoxes "in solution, unsolved," unlike the hunter who would possess and destroy.

More often Graham's stitching metaphor connects with her imagery of clothing, with the idea of a numinous center within or behind the aesthetic pattern. Art is not only an ordering of images but a shroud of the infinite; its surface is arranged around a vanishing point. Graham returns repeatedly to the metaphor of the garment which wraps the eternal invisible. Whether "the invisible" is itself an effect of art rather than a separate reality is not a question Graham raises in Erosion, though many poems in the volume invite it.

"Kimono" combines the ideas of art as design and as garment. The fluency and pictorial richness of fabric allow Graham to imagine the world of erosion in an aesthetic space. Stitched in visual delight with "valleys, clear skies, / thawing banks / narcissus and hollow reeds," the kimono's fabric represents our knowledge of the world. A boy depicted in this garden becomes our innocence, in which we mistake our knowledge for reality: "It means the world to him, this flat / archaic fabric / no weather worries." But formed into a garment, this limited knowledge becomes art and suggests something real and whole within it. The poet, wearing the kimono, identifies herself with a permanent spirit of the world that moves it:

         What he sees,
     in my garden, is the style
         of the world
     as she brushes her hair
         eternally beyond

     the causal crumbling forms
         of boughs.

If the world is a kimono, erosion is the "style / of the world" where "reeds are suddenly / ravines" but not its essence. Something whole stands "eternally beyond" it as well, which we may glimpse through the "open door" of the shifting "green scrim." It is "late" in the evolution of our knowledge, the poet tells us often, for any transparency of truth. Yet even in this lateness, the human spirit, "a sacred store / of dares," glimpses the disrobing of nature, the disclosure of a unifying presence.

What makes this vision "late" and modernist rather than romantic is the self-conscious mediation of art. It is art, not nature, that allows us this glimpse into the whole. As a work of art, this fabric, this "beautiful lie," can wrap a "reality" which is an otherwise unknown "something"—its mystery. It is not our knowledge of the world but our knowledge transfigured as garment, our world transfigured as art, with its "abstract" branches, that allows, even intends, the glimpse suggested at the end of the poem into "something most whole," beyond erosion. Indeed, that "something" may only have identity through art.

The poet, through the metaphor of the kimono, gives herself a privileged position. She is caught in the "archaic fabric" like the boy but also takes the position of the object beheld, the spirit-woman inside the aesthetic surface. The switching pronouns, in which "I'm / wearing valleys" and "she brushes her hair" coincide in the subject, suggest a double stance of penetration and disclosure. Again the artist affirms the reality beyond art's "archaic fabric" only by positing that reality within art, as a place of unveiling.

In "Kimono" Graham apparently follows a traditional romantic paradigm of male consciousness as desire toward veiled female nature. She modernizes this paradigm by showing how art fosters it. And without subverting this paradigm she does complicate it by shifting her identity from object to beholder. In Graham the icon as clothed female figure represents a reciprocal aspect of art in which the beholder "going in" experiences a sense of mystery yielding itself, without a complete consummation. In "San Sepolcro," about Piero della Francesca's image of the laboring virgin, the aesthetic mediation is explicit and the paradigm of vision as male desire is more clearly transfigured. But this basic reciprocity in the figure remains. This poem about a monumental work of art (conveyed in humble language) opens the volume Erosion, suggesting that the mediation of iconic representation controls many of the poems in their understanding of the relationship between the body and the spirit.

"San Sepolcro" again works with a contrast between the world outside and the more private, contemplative space of iconic representation. And again the representational space is associated with penetration and disrobing. But here art is not merely a matter of male desire extended by an inexhaustible, yielding female image. The sexuality implicit in "Kimono" (where the peeping Tom climbs the "gentle limbs" of a tree and observes nature as she "loosens her stays") is displaced by a metaphor of birthing. Graham is "one of the living," Mary a symbol of the mind's power to conceive eternity beneath the temporal, the "blue … mantle of weather"—thus partaking of both male and female mythology. Male and female stereotypes (penetrating mind and desired object) are transcended. The beholder-self of the poet is a transparent vessel ("snow having made me / a world of bone / seen through to"), but also active ("I can take you there"), enabled by this receptivity. This structure is repeated in the presentation of Mary, whose figure paradoxically unites immaculate male mind ("How clean / the mind is, // holy grave. It is this girl") and female body waiting "to go into // labor." Mary's dress represents the threshold nature of the icon itself.

"San Sepolcro" begins with an invitation to move from the outside temporal world into, first, the interior world of the walled house, then to a picture whose colors evoke an idea of eternity. Thus again an apparent narrowing into limits allows for a sense of expansion. Graham opens like a tour guide but, in the manner of Elizabeth Bishop, goes on from the literal to the symbolic, and hence to the beautiful and the mysterious, from the profane ("Etruscan") place of San Sepolcro (with its assembly lines and open-air markets) to the elusive, undefined, "sacred" space of art, from the public to the private. The pivotal figure is the rooster, Christian symbol of betrayal and sacrifice, who stands between the world of "mist outside the walls," the unclear world of erosion, and the disclosure of the icon, "before the birth of god." Just here Graham defines the limits, the "tragedy" of art, which awakens in the beholder a desire for presence. The icon is not an incarnation; the "still moment" is "forever stillborn." "The living," approaching the icon, "go in" but never "arrive." Yet art's power to awaken our thoughts of the infinite insures its hold on us:

      but going in, each breath
          is a button

      coming undone, something terribly
      finding all of the stops.

The model of veiled female as icon arises once more in "At the Exhumed Body of Santa Chiara, Assisi." She is "pure even after a ton of dirt," in the world of erosion but not of it. Again the model of contemplation is one of desire forestalled. The poet's own worldly desire ("whether I leave him / or not") is delayed, as was the worldly desire of the earthly Chiara ("So and so you loved, / so and so you left"). These are left to the world of disappearances, replaced by a spiritual desire, a "deep[er] delay" in the contemplation of "nowhere" marked by the clothed, iconic figure.

Graham views the exhumed body of Santa Chiara, "queen of the chiaroscuro," almost as a work of art, a figure dark against a background of contemporary "blue." "Blue over your body in its afterlife / on its back in its black dress with gold trim." The phenomenon of Chiara's exhumed body is itself parallel to the phenomenon of art "as if the flesh were the eternal portion after all." This is not a Christian but a modern notion of the icon, recalling Wallace Stevens's secular reversal: "Beauty is momentary in the mind—The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal." Graham, too, approaches art as a means to approach the infinite rather than escape the body. The reciprocity of the icon rests in the paradox of the veil placed "in order / to be seen."

In Erosion, I have argued, Graham treats the icon as a form of rescue from the flux and as a veil which shrouds but also discloses the infinite. Her constant return to Christian images and subjects reveals an important analogy. But her secular treatment of these subjects also reveals a distinctly modernist cast to the analogy, one which erases ideas of transcendence to a spiritual other realm. Art itself becomes the redeemer, though the terms of redemption are not in arrival but in the "going in." Eternity is redefined so that it is bound to the earthly ("beneath motion, more flesh") even as it is released from flux.

Two of Graham's ecphrastic poems, "At Luea Signorelli's Resurrection of the Body" and "Masaccio's Expulsion," make this shift from Christian to modernist iconicity especially clear. Graham's return to the rhetorical strategy of ecphrasis emphasizes the aesthetic nature of the "nowhere" which absorbs her meditation.

The figures resurrected in Signorelli's painting are not raised by God but by art, drawn up "into the weightedness, the color, / into the eye / of the painter," and hurry toward "distance" and "perspective," the limitations of human time-space defined in terms of painting. The notion that these figures never wholly arrive, that "there is no entrance, only entering," itself derives from the experience of painting rather than from the painting's illusion and its Christian promise of resurrection. The still moment of figures caught in action and held into that action is never complete. There remains an inherent "gap," to use Graham's favorite word, between the painting and presence, between representation and desire.

Signorelli's frescoes, of which "The Resurrection" (the emphasis on "the body" is Graham's addition) is one of several at the cathedral in Orvieto, represent the pinnacle of his career. Graham has captured in this poem the central power of motion and bodily impact which is often celebrated in his work. She begins her poem by focusing the reader's attention immediately on the dramatic subject of the bottom half of Signorelli's fresco—bodies rising from openings in the earth, transformed from skeletons to fleshed figures:

      See how they hurry
          to enter
      their bodies,
          these spirits.


          From above
#x00A0;     the green-winged angels
          blare down
#x00A0;     trumpets and light. But
          they don't care,
      they hurry to congregate,
          they hurry
      into speech, until
          it's a marketplace,
#x00A0;     it is humanity.

It is not quite true that the figures in Signorelli's fresco ignore the angels above them (who make up the top half of the fresco and are considerably larger and more prominent than the human figures). Many gaze in awe and ecstasy at these figures. But it is their resumption of human activity—dancing, bartering, debating—that interests the poet. "Hurry" is a key word for Graham, used six times in this poem and denoting our temporal nature (its paired term is "delay," involving the gap between our temporal natures and the eternal dimension we desire, the dimension opened by art). Art holds that hurry in its still moment.

By shifting from subjects to beholders Graham makes an important qualification to her idealization of art's beautiful lie, the same qualification she makes in "San Sepolcro," where the desire for arrival, for presence of the infinite (the birth of God), meets "tragedy." (The "at" in the title "At Luca Signorelli's Resurrection of the Body" emphasizes, as it does in "At the Exhumed Body of Santa Chiara," the threshold between history and art.) Unlike the Christian believer, Graham, as beholder of the icon, recognizes no "arrival," no complete presence. The ecphrastic poet fails by definition, as she yearns to approach the condition of presence evoked by the visual icon. For Graham this verbal/visual difference simply reveals the inherent limits of art to provide the arrival we yearn for. Thus "there is no entrance, / only entering," addressed to the figures in Signorelli's paintings as they "hurry" into representation, applies reciprocally (as it did in "San Sepolcro") to the condition of the beholder before the visual image.

Graham's next major shift in the poem is to the artist himself and his creative process. Whereas the figures in "The Resurrection" depicted the "hurry" of our temporal natures, the emphasis here is on patience and slowness. That patient penetration of the "wall / of the flesh" (like the opening garment in "San Sepolcro") is demonstrated in Signorelli's practice of studying anatomy through autopsy. This literal breaking into the body in search of "arrival," in search of its essential aspect, yields to a transformation from the fleshly to the iconic where it becomes inexhaustible, where "the flesh / opens endlessly, / its vanishing point so deep / and receding // we have yet to find it." This absorption in the flesh as icon has a counterpart in a movement "from the symbolic" (where the flesh might simply serve to convey an unearthly message) "to the beautiful" (where the flesh is itself cast in an eternal dimension).

This idea of the "beautiful" defines the redemptive character of art, counterpoint to the "tragedy" of elusive presence. Graham may have drawn from Vasari the apocryphal anecdote of Signorelli painting the body of his dead son. Vasari suggested that the son was the model for the pietà in "The Deposition"; actually Antonio probably died of the plague, and it is unlikely that Signorelli used his body as a model. But the legend suits Graham's vision of the redemptive power of art. Signorelli's act of drawing his dead son is implicitly parallel to the resurrection depicted in his famous fresco and described in the first part of the poem. But it is not the resurrection of the dead son so much as of the bereaved artist that we are left with, for Signorelli's mind enters the "open flesh" just as the spirits hurried into their bodies in his picture:

     It took him days
         that deep
     caress, cutting,

     until his mind
         could climb into
     the open flesh and
         mend itself.

Like Bruna cutting and sewing in "To a Friend Going Blind," Signorelli forms, from the broken flesh, an icon, the shape which will rescue him if he puts it on. Visual art, more than poetry, involves this pursuit of the timeless through an immersion in the body.

"At Luca Signorelli's Resurrection of the Body" concerns a reciprocal need: the body's need for art to lift it out of the world of erosion, the mind's need for the body, for embodiment of its idea of the infinite. We see a similar compensatory and reciprocal principle at work in Graham's poem "Masaccio's Expulsion." The poem describes one in a continuous series of frescoes Masaccio painted in Florence, arranged so that the Expulsion clearly leads into the other images of biblical history, to which the poem alludes collectively. As in "Resurrection," Graham emphasizes the pictorial nature of the space as well as the illusion of reality. The poem begins with the grief of the figures and the common notion that the condition of representation is a fall, a loss of presence:

      Is this really the failure
          of silence,
      or eternity, where these two
          suffer entrance
      into the picture

The poem goes on to revise this negative judgment. Like Keats's "still unravished bride of quietness," art is not the failure of silence but the triumph of the visual. Graham goes on to find in the world of the paint, not just of the illusion, certain compensatory features. Having lost presence and immortality, these figures emanate their loss, and this "price" can "live forever" as art.

Graham begins with the figures of Adam and Eve refusing sight: "a man and woman / so hollowed / by grief they cover / their eyes / in order not to see." But the poet's position depends on looking, and her poem is, as it goes on, an appeal to redemptive features of sight. Art makes a "garden" of this fallen world, this "inexhaustible grammar" of history, "its dark and light" objects and shadows. This space of the "picture / plane" represents a narrowness in which the fullness of live being is reduced to "symbols, // balancing shapes in / a composition," yet art provides a compensation for the loss of freedom it represents, a commemorative and aestheticizing power that rises up out of these limits. The pivot of this compensatory view is not in the central, symbolic subject matter of the frescoes but, as in "The Lady and the Unicorn," in a decorative detail:

            And perhaps
       it is a flaw

     on the wall of this church, or age,
       or merely the restlessness
     of the brilliant
       young painter,
     the large blue bird
       seen flying too low
     just where the trees

This bird, "the gift of / the paint," appears on the fresco as a wing-like blotch at the edge near Eve's thigh, incomplete as a bird shape but close enough for Graham to figure it as such. It becomes her image of the imagination, driven to seek form, to enter "a space too small / to fit in" but also hovering above that space.

That narrowing into embodiment has a reciprocal effect of expansion on the beholder. Graham's eye moves down from Adam and Eve to various figures "in the foreground" (more central in the alcove) who represent biblical history. But their pictorial power in "the gold air" of art raises them from their passage into the narrowness of history:

     There isn't a price
        (that floats up
     through their miraculous
     and lingers above them
        in the gold air)
     that won't live forever.

Art assures this immortality and causes the figures to "float up" from history and form. It provides the countermotion to the down-ward glance of Adam and Eve and the general lines of the fresco they occupy.

In the poems described above Graham affirms the triumph of the beautiful, the power of the aesthetic to raise the spirit above not only the flux of history but also the weight of symbolism, the mere interpretation of history. But as Graham turns her attention to art of the modern age and to the pressures of modern history, she begins to approach aesthetic value with more uncertainty. The weight of modern history carries a moral imperative that is hard to reconcile with aesthetic pleasure or notions of art's "beautiful lie" against time. While such issues revise Graham's thoughts about the role of the icon, however, they do not finally change her faith in its value or understanding of its structure.

The beholder in "Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt" brings to the fin de siècle works a knowledge of subsequent history which she cannot help but impose on what she views (history is not, here, "hopelessly even"). She uses the juxtaposition of two paintings as if to corroborate her own archaic vision. Behind the idealized icon, a space of eternal beauty, lies a scream, the juxtaposition seems to say. Yet such an unveiling is by itself too simple; it is the relation between the veil and what lies behind it, the relation of desire, that interests Graham and determines the value of the aesthetic for her.

The first painting is a landscape, a "buchen-wald," or beech forest. Klimt painted a number of such landscapes, which expressed his spiritually and sexually symbolic vision in a network of prominent verticals and high horizontals. Gustav Klimt by Alessandra Comini is the probable source of many details in "Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt." Comini describes "Beech Forest I" as a "rhythmic grouping of elemental verticals and horizontals." The beholder's vision of the landscape stands between Klimt and twentieth-century history, so that his meaning-saturated environment takes on the meanings that postdate it, in which the term "buchen-wald" is forever blighted. Graham introduces the issues that have concerned her throughout the book—the aesthetic transformation of "flaws" into "the beautiful":

     Although what glitters
        on the trees
     row after perfect row,
        is merely
     the injustice
        of the world,

     the chips on the bark of each
        beech tree
     catching the light, the sum
        of these delays
     is the beautiful, the human
     body of flaws.

The "injustice / of the world" is very broadly defined here as erosion itself because the word "buchen-wald" has not been introduced. Despite the opening disclaimer, the poem clearly presents the world depicted, the world of erosion—"leafrot," "mottled shadows." "broken skins"—caught in art, as evoking an elusive ideal of "something to lean on / that won't / give way." "The dead / in their sheer / open parenthesis" at this point simply stand as a contrast of the mortal world to the abidance of landscape and art. But these "dead" are the victims not only of our mortal but of our moral nature—the anonymous dead of the Holocaust, for whom the trees soon stand as symbols, not opposites. The continuities of landscape and art, and the aesthetic balance achieved in art, come into tension in the poem with the poet's knowledge of human brutality, the weight of the word "buchen-wald." For the post-Holocaust observer "late / in the twentieth / century," the yellow light is a "gaseous light." But against this view the poet holds out another, amoral view, inaccessible to her but embodied in the beautiful landscape, where

     To receive the light
       and return it

     and stand in rows, anonymous,
       is a sweet secret.

The air, like the male gaze, would penetrate this mysterious image of the trees, with "little hooks" that "poke," anticipating the pornographic image in the second painting. The "sweet secret" of the trees is, of course, their inhumanity, their innocence of history, the idea of the infinite they embody.

Graham's poem may in one sense describe a transformation in seeing from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, in which the idealization of the landscape is no longer possible and an unveiling of the moral horror beneath the masks of aestheticism is inevitable. But I think Graham's vision, and her view of art in particular, is too complex for this simple contrast. The beautiful holds its place, drawing us into mystery.

The tension between the moral and the aesthetic and the aestheticizing of the moral comes to a focus in the second half of the poem, in which Graham considers a very different painting by Klimt, an incomplete, pornographic rendering of the female body, clothed only in a transparent garment. The woman's genitalia form a "mouth" "something like / a scream." Her facial expression remains "bored, feigning a need / for sleep." For Klimt she is a figure of Freudian desire and repression, for Graham a figure perhaps of public indifference to the known horror of fascism.

Certainly the "scream" Graham identifies with this mouth establishes the parallelism between the two paintings through the idea of a violence beneath tranquil surfaces. The major interest of the poem, however, is not in the genital "mouth" (or the issues it raises about the male gaze in Western art), or in the bored face of the woman (with its political implications). Graham's central interest is, as always, in the garment, which is not merely condemned as the cover up for brutal obscenity. "The fabric // defines the surface,/the story, / so we are drawn to it."

Graham directly compares the "feathery garment" that Klimt had begun to paint over the figure to his rendering of landscape in the other painting, describing "its blues / and yellows glittering / like a stand // of beech trees." She remains ambiguous about how we are to evaluate this analogy or the placement of the garment itself. But the resemblance of this garment to other images of clothing in Graham suggests that she approves of it. Through the garment of art we glimpse what is otherwise unrepresentable.

But rather than pursue this metaphor (garment/story), Graham abruptly returns to the first painting by Klimt: "In // the finished painting / the argument / has something to do / with pleasure." In one sense the juxtaposition of the two paintings, weighted in favor of the unfinished one and the Holocaust allusion, turns pleasure into decadence or even cruel obscenity. Yet that "surface tension / which is pleasure" (in "In What Manner") "holds / the self // afloat" and draws us toward the unknown and unspeakable. Thus "pleasure" may become a vehicle of insight, beauty a route to unfathomable truth (whatever its moral register). "Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt" is finally not an exposé but an assertion of the value of the veil. Still, "pleasure" stands as a highly vulnerable term by the end of the poem, as the "argument" of the second painting is inevitably grafted onto the first.

"Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt" repeats the erotic structure of the icon implicit in other poems I have discussed. Graham does not condemn, in fact she seems in sympathy with, this structure. The addition of the Holocaust imagery does not undermine this fundamental vision of art; it simply changes the character of the "secret" dimension of the icon and turns the promised wholeness behind the surface into an abyss. But this shift, and Graham's vagueness—which is not clearly ambivalence—about "pleasure" and elsewhere in Erosion about "the beautiful," may account for the dramatic change in her style and approach to the image in her next volume, The End of Beauty (1987).

For this ambitious poet each book is a critique of the one before. The very titles she has chosen map this out. Where Erosion imagines the construction of an integrated, centered eternal space set apart from the flux, even rescuing us from its absolute effects, The End of Beauty concerns itself with edges, boundaries, origins and ends, images unraveling into "minutes" and splitting into dialogue, the still moment dissolving into narrative. Graham has pursued this shift in recent work. Her focus is increasingly on the hurry of this world (this "region of unlikeness" no icon can transfigure) and the struggle to sustain a visionary stance within it rather than with drawing into a contemplative one. The darting, temporally unstable images of cinema and television rather than the static images of painting have become her gauge. Digression rather than integration is the dominant aesthetic effect.

These and other qualities represent Graham's move from a spatial, modernist to a temporal, postmodern aesthetic, one that subscribes less to art as artifact than to art as process. One needn't make a value judgment to comprehend the necessity of this shift for the poet (one needn't, that is, see a plot in her development). But whatever place Erosion may take in the evolution of Graham's work, its value to us as achieved vision will remain.

Helen Vendler (review date 11 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Ascent into Limbo," in The New Republic, July 11, 1994, pp. 27-30.

[In the following review of Materialism, Vendler discusses Graham's rhythm structure and the connection between structure and subject in these poems.]

Jorie Graham, brought up in Italy by American parents and educated in French schools, has published five books of verse, beginning with Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts(1980) and continuing with Erosion (1983), The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness (1991) and her newest book, Materialism. The poetry has always been strikingly ambitious in subject matter, genre-exploration and metrical invention. Like all new poets, Graham has mostly been discussed in terms of themes, which range, in her work, from notes on the reality of the self to the inflictions of history, from mutual corrections of identity in marriage to the nature of modern war.

For me, it is fundamentally Graham's rhythms that are irresistible. Here she is, riding with other passengers on the New York subway:

       1982 on the downtown Express just out
       of 72nd Street,
     having found a seat in what is like a dream,
      the sideways-rocking
       mixed-in with the forward
     lunge making me slightly
       sleepy, watching the string of white
      faces lined up across from
     the interlocking vertebrae
       of the endless twisting creature's

       watching it lob to absorb the shocks—
     watching it twist all one way to wreathe
       the rudderless turns—
     watching the eyes in it narrow, widen, as
      the tunnelling forwardness
       cleaved to its waiting like flesh—
     widen and narrow—blinking—the whole
      length of the train (I thought)
       this dynamism of complex acceptance,
     sleepy, staring out….

There is a startling ratio of unaccented syllables to accented ones in such lines; and though the lines are full of trisyllabic feet, Graham's metrical feet do not evoke the galloping effect of classical anapests and dactyls, mostly because she regularly interrupts trisyllabic feet with shorter ones. Sooner or later, too, she checks her rapid hurrying long lines with a brief one, like the one that closes the passage above.

This is one of Graham's characteristic rhythms—the cascading or tumbling one of urgent presentness followed by a lapse into pause or exhaustion. Another is an abrupt, strongly marked spondaic rhythm of disorientation, where in rapid succession the reader may see italics, an ellipsis, a dash, a question or a command:

First this. Then this … Oh, glance—
      gnawing the
     criss-crossing the open for broken spots,
     what is there? what is
     the object? Look: see the face without eyes.
      Don't be
     afraid—twitch, lisp, slur—….

Of course, this rhythmic urgency on the page would be fruitless unless there were a corresponding urgency of subject.

Urgency of subject, while it can compel an inexperienced reader into a piece of verse, has no power over someone thirsty for a real poem—and the thirst for a poem is a parching one, as real as acute physical thirst or the longing for sleep. A compelling rhythm is the first sign of a tide of utterance rising to expression. The thirst will be slaked by anything—a dance rhythm, a sly rhythm, a peremptory rhythm, a hesitant rhythm—but only a rhythm will do. And in Graham it finds many such tidal motions.

Then the reader's thirst wants to know what the rhythm itself is athirst for, what it is bent on finding, where the drive of the poem is sending it. If the quest of the poem turns out to be trivial or shopworn or unintelligent, everything collapses and the rhythmic trance is broken. A rhythm makes the experienced reader's ears come alive: an orchestra is turning up, where will it lead? Does Graham earn her cascades of words, her Dickinsonian dashes, her questions, her italics, her present participles vibrating in the ether of the poem? And if so, how?

She stops, literally, at nothing. Her voice can even move, at a climactic moment, into the tone of biblical prophecy:

         Thou didst divide the sea by thy
         strength: thou breakest
     the heads of the dragons
        in the waters:
     thou driest up the mighty river:
        the day is thine….

By what authority does she assume this tone, invading literature in its most sacred quarters, raiding it, appropriating it for her poem? Such a posture must be earned, or it will become absurd.

The recent modest circumscription of lyric poetry to the personal voice has made most of our poets forget that the lyric can also be magisterially impersonal. (Within the "personal" I include the "class-personal," the voice that says "I, a woman" or "I, a black."). The personal lyric represents the socially marked self: but the impersonal lyric represents what used to be called the soul, but might better, in Graham, be called consciousness. Personal circumstance is acknowledged to underlie the awakening of consciousness, and Graham's poems often begin in individual autobiographical circumstance—but their restless search drives them to ranges of feeling and speech where it really does not matter whether one is male or female, young or old, black or white.

A Graham poem may recall, for instance, a point where a boy starts firing a gun in your car of the subway, where until this moment you have been noting only the serpentine rocking of the train:

        light and blood swirling—us down
     on our knees in
        secret, living, living,
my portion of time,
my portion, full,
     (can you stand it?)
        (get down and hide)….

        all things can happen,
     wave after wave….

This moment—in which everyone is huddled on the floor, afraid to die—is one illustration of Graham's metaphysical moment, an instant when human beings, no matter what their social identities may be, breathe with one breath, feel one collective horror, think one apocalyptic thought. Another such moment is the time of unendurable physical pain—as it is preserved, for example, in the bite-marks on a Civil War bullet seen in a Memphis museum. Yet another is the moment of transition from one kind of perception to another, as when someone who has been lost in listening to music suddenly, with the ending of the music, becomes aware of the light:

          When the music ended she noticed
          the light.
The music has ended it said all over the things.

This is a transition that on one can have failed to experience—a sudden crossing from the attentiveness of one sense, to the attentiveness of another sense. After the construction of human possibility implicit in identity politics, it is like coming into light and air to move in Graham's enormous world of multifarious change, where import lies in any circumstance, and the import is general to all.

There are five poems in Materialism entitled "Notes on the Reality of the Self"—five separate poems scattered throughout the book, each bearing this title. Whitman speaks, in "There Was a Child Went Forth," of "the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal"; and with the vanishing of a theological sanction for reality (in the notion of the participation of the material world in "the image and likeness of God"), the necessity to redefine "reality" has become a continuing and pervasive effort of modernity, around which Graham has structured her book.

The twentieth-century self inquired into by means of Graham's poems is not primarily defined by personal or social detail. Graham's task is to make the voice of metaphysical and moral consciousness as strong a source of language as the voice of the socially inflected self, which is rooted in nationality, ethnicity, social class, age and gender. The soul—the old lodging for the metaphysical and moral consciousness—was defined by its opposition to body, matter, dust. Graham proposes that the soul, on the contrary, must be materially definable, and she situates her poetry in the wake of the great philosophical crisis about the nature of reality provoked by the scientific advances of the Renaissance.

Since the poet, as Wordsworth said, must create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed, Graham creates the context in which her poems are to be understood by interspersing among them, in Materialism, various central texts from the history of the material understanding of nature, from Leonardo da Vinci on "Movement and Weight" ("Weight, force, a blow and impetus are the children of movement because they are born from it") to Sir Francis Bacon on scientific method ("We must bring men to particulars and their regular series and order, and they must for a while renounce their notions and begin to form an acquaintance with things") down to Wittgenstein ("Objects, the unalterable, and the subsistent are one and the same") and Benjamin ("The angel of history … sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet"). These are merely illustrative snippets from the pages—about thirty of them to 110 pages of poetry—that confront us with the intellectual axes of Graham's present imaginative world.

Prefacing all of this—as frontispiece and jacket—is a preliminary drawing for Mantegna's Descent into Limbo, showing Christ, seen strikingly from the back, his garments swirled about him by the infernal wind, as he descends to fetch from the depths of the earth all those who, since Adam's fall, have been waiting for salvation. By choosing as her emblem a Christ who is intent on his descent into the earth, his face turned toward death and the depths as he passes into matter, Graham declares that the spiritual can arrive at its realization only through the gate of materiality.

How is this to be accomplished in poetry? Graham suggests, quoting from "Sun-Down Poem" (later called "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"), that Whitman is her predecessor in this venture:

     We realize the soul only by you, you faithful
      solids and fluids;
     Through you color, form, location,
      sublimity, ideality;
     Through you every proof, comparison, and
      all the suggestions and determinations of

     You have waited, you always wait, you
      dumb, beautiful ministers!…
     We fathom you not—we love you.

Whitman's rapturous immersion in "faithful solids and fluids" is an aspect of American romanticism that cannot be repeated. Graham's landscapes of material perfection are almost always broken in on by historical catastrophe. Yet catastrophe itself is only the social version of the biological catastrophe that is organic dynamism, always pressing toward its end. The material soul is mortal; and when Graham wholly inhabits a material phenomenon—say, the blooming of an amaryllis—it is the ineluctable curve toward death that the poem follows, even though it is called "Opulence":

     The self-brewing of the amaryllis rising
      before me …
       stepping out of the casing
     something from underneath coaxing the
      packed buds up …
     till the four knots grow loose in their
     and the two dimensions of their perfect-fit
      fill out and a third,
                  shadow, seeps in …
     the four of them craning this way then that
      according to
                  the time
     of day, the drying wrinkled skins of the
     now folded-down beneath, formulaic,
     the light wide-awake around it—or is it the
     yes yes yes yes says the mechanism of the
      underneath tick tock—
     and no footprints to or from the place—
     no footprints to or from—

Since nothingness both precedes and follows being, and there is no risen Jesus to leave footprints behind as he walks away from the sepulcher, the soul, defining itself from what it sees of the various beings "outside" it, learns the lesson, from the amaryllis, of its own essence, its perishable nature, as the very "tick tock" of "the mechanism of the underneath"—"evolutionary progress itself"—impersonally extinguishes what it has evolved.

Graham's "Notes on the Reality of the Self" confront not only the transience of the materially constituted metaphysical self, but also its radical incompleteness. Just as the bushes in her backward bending under the force of the wind—utterly responsive to its force—are wholly unresponsive to a nearby force—the sound (strong, urgent, metallic) of a brass band practicing nearby—so human consciousness can respond to, and draw its own sense of itself from, only a limited range of phenomenological stimuli available to it. Here are Graham's backyard bushes, deaf to the band-sound that deluges them:

         For there is not a sound the bushes
         will take
      from the multitude beyond them, in the
       field, uniformed—
      (all left now on one heel) (right) (all fifty
       trumpets up
      to the sun)—not a molecule of sound
      from the tactics of this glistening beast,
      forelimbs of silver (trombones, french
      (anointed by the day itself) expanding,
      bits of red from the surrounding foliage
           in all the fulgid
      instruments—orient—ablaze where the
       sound is released—
      trumpeting, unfolding—
          screeching, rolling, patterning,
      scintillant beast the bushes do not know
      as the wind beats them, beats in them, beats
       round them,
      them in a wind that does not really even
      in which these knobby reddish limbs that
       do not sway
           by so much as an inch
      its arctic course
           themselves now sway—

In this, the most brilliant of the "Notes," with its untrammeled natural energies of light and wind, and its equally untrammeled human energies of band music, all focused on the bending bushes unconscious of the band. Graham adopts a voice of such piercing responsiveness that one wants to call it "subjectivity" and a voice of such pellucid reportage that one wants to call it "objectivity." It is this interpenetration of spirit and matter, so that each is known only by the contour it gives the other, that Graham means by both "materialism" and "subjectivity." And Graham's emblematic wind of fate and anthropomorphized swaying bushes are such highly conventional emblems that they do not compromise the impersonal identity of the narrator.

Perceptual spirit, even fated spirit, Graham tacitly argues, can find itself indistinguishable from matter, must construct itself out of the forces and fortunes of matter, can find its predicate only in the predicaments of matter. Not that this is an easy thing to bring about convincingly in poetry—but Graham makes it happen, with her passionate conviction that it must be done.

Perceptual spirit, fated spirit: that, indeed, can be shown finding itself in matter. Ethical spirit, however, is another story. If we realized ourselves, as Whitman thought, in those "dumb, beautiful ministers," silent phenomena, can they be the means through which we "realize" ourselves as moral agents? In moral cognition about the self, yes, insofar as it is a fundamental moral act to admit circumstance rather than to deny it—and this is the grounding moral act of art, to see, as Stevens said, "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Several of Graham's poems concern this fundamental accuracy of moral observation, in which evaluation keeps shifting because life does. In the first of the self's "Notes," a thawing spring river, at first swollen, turbid, choked with leaves ("all content no meaning"), brings the question,

         Is there a new way of looking—
     valences and little hooks—inevitabilities, probabilities? It flaps and slaps. Is this body the one
     I know as me?

The giant body of the river gradually becomes invested as an adequate locus for the self as it rearranges the meaningless leafy flotsam of the past year into new, released motion:

          thawing then growing soggy then
      the filaments where leaf-matter accrued round a
     pattern, a law, slipping off, precariously, bit by bit,
     and flicks, and swiftnesses suddenly more water than not.

Graham looks so scrupulously at the earth that the scrim between her will and the river's will vanishes and she sees the dissolution of her own old patterns enact itself in the river's freed throat. That is a practice of inner cognitive morality.

Social morality, on the other hand, is carried in Graham's poetry by narrative, with extended reference in Materialism to incidents from the Holocaust, colonial exploration, the Russian Revolution, novelistic practice (Madame Bovary), Tiananmen Square and local American life (the gun-wielding boy in the subway car). The poet is sometimes an attender to social history, sometimes a participant in it. Though the encapsulated short narrative has often served Graham well, I found some of the historical incidents here, notably the Holocaust narrative forming nine of the seventeen sections of "Annunciation with a Bullet in It," too long for the proportions of the lyric. And some of Graham's attempts at collage ("The Break of Day," for instance) seem strained. There is a limit, after all, to how many disparate things can be made to hang together: and a poem bringing into mutual relation Plato and The Golden Bough and Heidegger and Marx and Madame Bovary seems to me in danger of incoherence. Yet such a poem can contain pieces of dazzling writing. Here is the poet speaking as Adam, out of whose rib God will tear Eve (created matter):

     I feel the skin tighten like Saran Wrap now,
      the god finishing up

     the form—privacies are added—the starry
        rammed into the eyepits—deep in—

     the symmetry like a forked shriek
      effected—two and then
               two—His thumbs
     smoothing it out—
     and Balance struck through the top of
      me—down through—
     steel rod—slicing the parts of the visible
      forever from—

     severing the front from that parched earth
     behind me now—
     cramping me in,
     the sill of nothing to nothing,
     this propane forwardness now swelling
     up, starched—a cancellation but
                    of what I

     can't say—and mended (whoosh)

Keats wrote that "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream—he awoke and found it truth." In the gap between Keats's idealized dream and waking, on the one hand, and Graham's tortured and violent separation of self from being, on the other, we can see the gap between a naturalized supernaturalism and a late, disbelieving materialism.

"We are in a drama," says Graham, and her rendition of the dramatic force of aesthetic attention and choice ("What am I / supposed // to take, what?") restores to poetry, if in a different vein, the impassioned idealism of Shelley. The combat against nostalgia in Graham is especially fierce in this new volume. As she encounters, on her way through life, the various clichés of our moment—abortion-clinic protests, drug addicts, television, the commemoration of 1492—she makes of them something that claws out toward a larger order, a more comprehensive view, while maintaining the coursing emotions proper to poetry and missing from conventional metaphysics.

Perhaps the most congenial single philosopher for her verse is Wittgenstein, in the passage she quotes from the Tractatus:

2.026 There must be objects, if the world is to have an unalterable form.

2.027 Objects, the unalterable, and the subsistent are one and the same.

2.0271 Objects are what is unalterable and subsistent; their configuration is what is changing and unstable.

2.0272 The configuration of objects producers states of affairs.

2.03 In a state of affairs objects it into one another like the links of a chain …

2.04 The totality of existing states of affairs is the world.

What would a poetry be that took as its theory these passages? It is the poetry that Graham has invented in Materialism—philosophically stern in spite of its verbal opulence, morally severe in spire of its allusive spangles. It is not what has generally been thought of as "women's poetry." Graham's fierce sense of the philosophic universal may help remind American poets that there is a dimension of the lyric that goes beyond the merely personal, the merely social. It is a dimension we find in Emily Brontë and in Emily Dickinson—austere, renunciatory, far-seeing, but also detailed, intimate, saturated with phenomena.

Graham relies on a prolonged moment of phenomenological observation to spin out her poems; and she has become perhaps a prisoner of the present participle, hovering over the ground of perception. Through the present participle she hopes to hold at bay both the temptations of the historical past, threatening lyric with narrative, and the abyss of the unknown future, threatening lyric with closure. In keeping with this desire to prolong the lyric moment, Graham was originally attracted to paintings as vehicles of suspended attention. Now, she has substituted the senses as more primary vehicles, bending over nature as the mind once bent over art. In each case her aim has been to suspend closure while appearing to hurry toward it. What will happen to her poetry when death is taken, not as an inevitable end to be held off as long as possible, but as the condition of all existence?

Peter Sacks (review date 5 May 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "What's Happening?," in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1996, p. 16.

[In the following review of The Dream of the Unified Field, Sacks praises Graham as a writer who is pushing poetry in new directions.]

"Man has already begun to overwhelm the entire earth and its atmosphere, to arrogate to himself in forms of energy the concealed powers of nature, and to submit future history to the planning and ordering of a world government. This same defiant man is utterly at a loss simply to say what is; to say what this is—that a thing is." By the time Heidegger wrote those words, soon after the first use of nuclear weapons, he had turned his attention increasingly to poets, for it was they, he felt, who might not only reveal what is but do so with the sentient charge and the clarifying beauty needed to turn mankind from ignorant predators to thoughtful custodians of one shared life.

Half a century later, Jorie Graham is one of the contemporary writers most open to this call for revelatory poetic thinking. Her poems are philosophically and historically alert, and their acts of thought arise with almost instinctual urgency from an astonished responsiveness that in itself becomes part of what she names "the vivid performance of the present." Chosen from five volumes, The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994—which won a Pulitzer Prize this year—allows followers of her rapid and ever-startling development to review her achievement to date.

Take the first poem as a way in. It opened her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, and its title, "The Way Things Work," signals the young writer's intent not simply to address "things" themselves—one of her great gifts—but to give an account of reality-as-process, perceived with some degree of generality. Like many of her early poems, this one tracks down the page in brief lines, resembling a pathway. Its first words lead on directly from the title:

     is by admitting
     or opening away.
     This is the simplest form
     of current: Blue
     moving through blue;
     blue through purple;
     the objects of desire
     opening upon themselves
     without us;
     the objects of faith.

Fluid yet tautly reined, measuring and releasing their own initiatory energy, these phrases navigate by minute distinctions of wavelength and line length. They also pulse far ahead, the focus on current revealing an interest not in fixities but in the forces that will make up Ms. Graham's "dream of the unified field" (her version, perhaps, of the project of theoretical physics to seek a single theory to account for all the forces of universal nature). And the inclusive flow of mind swiftly reaches other enduring themes—the limits of subjectivity in relation to "objects of desire," and the question of faith:

      The way things work
      is that we finally believe
      they are there,
      common and able
      to illustrate themselves.

To judge from the late poem "Steering Wheel" ("though there are, there really are, / things in the world, you must believe me"), the poet's commission does not become easier. And if we check the end of "The Way Things Work," we may begin to see why: "I believe / forever in the hooks. / The way things work / is that eventually / something catches." What are the hooks? How do they catch? Ms. Graham's career is in part a self-renewing attempt to answer such questions while giving eloquent voice to her ethical ambivalence about what the various modes of capture might involve.

Can words "catch" anything at all? If so, can they avoid coming between us and the world's work of self-illustration? Another early poem, "The Age of Reason," asks, "Isn't the / honesty / of things where they / resist?" Sharing that resistant honesty, stressing the artificial relation between word and thing, Ms. Graham reaches with quickened sensitivity for poetry's supply of the associative, sonic and formal properties rustling beyond mere denotation. Never losing sight of the screens of representation, she also develops a genius for apprehending and scrutinizing human perceptions, reflections and desires, whose links to language are somewhat less arbitrary, since they are themselves partly shaped and made available to us by words ("we need to seize again / the whole language / in search of / better desires"). And she constantly reminds us of the resurgent "blizzard of instances" that enliven us all even as they exceed our mental grasp.

"There is a feeling the body gives the mind / of having missed something," Ms. Graham writes, and few poets match the precision with which she finds words for the sensory subsoil that is too often neglected by the intellect. Massed B-52 bombers

     sound like a sickness of the inner ear,
     where the heard foams up into the noise of listening,
     where the listening arrives without being extinguished.
     The huge hum soaks up into the dusk.

Minutely observing the visible soil, she writes:

     If I look carefully, there in my hand, if I
     break it apart without
     crumbling: husks, mossy beginnings and endings, ruffled
     airy loambits,
     and the greasy silks of clay crushing the pinerot in….

Straining to register "how the invisible roils," she asks:

     Is there a new way of looking—
     valences and little hooks—inevitabilities, probabilities? It flaps and slaps.

Scenting, tasting, feeling the touch even of time ("the spike-headed minutes pushing up round her, / up under the thighs, there at the elbows the hips"), Ms. Graham's poetry is among the most sensuously embodied and imaginative writing we have, its added power stemming from the fact that sensation in her work not only registers what is immediately present but also remains tensely and restlessly attuned to whatever may still emerge

A further distinctive and evolving feature of Ms. Graham's work is its stress on delay and between-ness. Poetic form itself, of course, shifts between acceleration and sudden braking, or breaking, between enlargement and arrest. "The Geese" suspends its wavering between the traveling lines of migratory birds and the retentive meshes of spider webs by discovering: "And somewhere in between / these geese forever entering and / these spiders turning back, / this astonishing delay, the everyday, takes place." Two books later, "Noli Me Tangere" begins:

     You see the angels have come to sit on the delay for a while,
     they have come to harrow the fixities, the sharp edges of this open
     they have brought their swiftnesses like musics down
     to fit them on the listening.

And a still later poem ends: "Is hisses the last light on the reddish berries, is is the much / blacker shadows of spring now that the leaves are / opening, now that they're taking up / place."

With the more aerated reach of these lines, whose roving, irregular lengths mark Ms. Graham's later work, poetry remains the space in which she can best attend to what might otherwise never be made manifest. A source of excitement, even suspense, as one reads through this book is the developing brilliance and volatility, wedded to further innovations (particularly her braidings of myth, anecdote, meta-narrative and commentary), with which she presents a more complex and frequently troubled sense of just what it is that takes place.

What happens, for example, when her wariness about the possible mismatch between word and world, or between selective acts of mind and "the fizzing around the diagram," grows to include a sense of humanity's violent colonizing of the earth? Or when authentic human curiosity (including that of the poet) is seen to slide over into the urge to dominate and possess? What happens when an intense openness to sensory experience, allied to a fierce regard for the liberty of individuals, confronts the fixed gaze of another's point of view ("Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne") or suffers the affliction of another's sexual or political designs ("From the New World")?

To watch Ms. Graham rise to the lure and challenge of such questions is to see her break through to her extraordinarily inventive later work. Poems from her third volume, The End of Beauty, introduce a cinematic freeze-frame technique to reimagine and reorient the paradigmatic stories of couples ranging from Eve and Adam to Penelope and Ulysses, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, mother and daughter. Magically, the events appear to unfold for the first time:


The gesture like a fruit torn from a limb, torn swiftly.


The whole bough bending then springing back as if from sudden sight.


The rip in the fabric where the action begins, the opening of the narrow passage.

These stories are chopped and stylized partly to create magnifying lenses of attention, partly to subvert all narrative simplifications and to rebel against the enforcements of plot and closure. Eve resists God's ordinance so that something unpredictable can occur; Eurydice eludes the familiar reifying gaze of Orpheus. There is both exhilaration and pathos in all these poems (several of which are oblique, triadic self-portraits). With a strange, almost telepathically compassionate candor, the poet reveals people who wish to be seen and loved—but without delimitation, almost without features, as if each merited the unrepresentable ineffability otherwise reserved for God.

A brief review cannot trace the ramifications of event, memory, speculation, history, myth and allusion that make up the later poems. "The Phase After History," a poem from Ms. Graham's fourth and darkest book, Region of Unlikeness, interweaves a description of birds trapped in the house of the writer (she would like to "get the house out of their way") with fragments from Macbeth, as well as with an account of a student who tries to cut off his face and who eventually kills himself. The effect on the reader is a terrifying experience of crisis and of the tragically engaged compulsions for release, for renewal or for the capacity to face and survive one's own implication in stories of entrapment and unredeemable pain. In "Picnic," what is flickers through a child's memory of adult sexual deceit, a memory bound to that of a frightening makeup session in which the mother refigures the child's face in the mirror—leaving the speaker in a temporally as well as spatially fractured state of between-ness. Can any surface be trusted? What is a face? Is the very fixing of features the object of a lie? Would a fuller regard for the self and the other resist delineation altogether? No wonder the speaker hovers on the very threshold of predication: "'is is is is' I thought."

However vertiginous, that last phrase may be Ms. Graham's ontological counterpoint to Sylvia Plath's psychological "ich, ich, ich, ich / I could hardly speak." It marks her distance from Plath's "barb wire snare" of confessionalism (or from the fashionable compounds of identity-based ideologies). And it points to the liberating embrace of her fifth book, Materialism. After the tragic cast of Region of Unlikeness, we could call this embrace comedic. Or taking a cue from the afterwords to her preceding collection, which she borrows from Prospero ("the wave drowning me in laughter"), we could say that Materialism has the character of late romance. Radiant and manifold, reveling both in language and in the bristling world within and around them, these poems celebrate the thawing romance between "the river of my attention" and that current of reality that has flowed through Ms. Graham's work from the beginning: "I say iridescent and I look down. / The leaves very still as they are carried."

Jonathan Holden (review date Winter 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of Materialism, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 71, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 170-72.

[In the excerpt below, Holden praises Graham's use of intellectualism and tone in Materialism.]

Jorie Graham, in Materialism, runs the same risks as [Patricia] Goedicke—higher risks because her poetry is pronounced from an Olympian height. Graham is the Henry James of our poets, dramatizing time and again how language and ultra-sophisticated European civilization both tantalize and obscure what Stevens refers to in the final line of "The Man On the Dump" as "the truth: The the." Paradigmatic of a Graham poem would be, from the earlier book Erosion, "Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt," a poem in which "Buchenwald" (birchwood) becomes a name for how the most civilized people could have turned out to be, in the Holocaust, the least. In books that follow, Land of Unlikeness and The End of Beauty, Graham becomes increasingly philosophical, worrying the various epistemological issues that have been the concern of literary theorists: what is a text, what is an author, and (picking up on Heidegger) on what ground do they exist? In both learning and intellect, Graham is probably the equal of T.S. Eliot. Indeed, the very name of Graham's collection Materialism echoes The Waste Land. Materialism is Graham's homage to The Waste Land and, like that poem, explicitly prophetic. Like the Eliot poem, Graham's book teems not just with quotes but with long "adaptations" from such famous writers as Sir Francis Bacon (Novum Organum), Wittgenstein (the Tractatus), Dante (Canto XI of the Inferno) Walter Benjamin, Plato (Phaedo), Brecht ("A Short Organum of the Theatre"), Benjamin Whorf (Language, Thought, and Reality), Audubon (Missouri River Journals), and others. (The Audubon quote runs to five pages.) Graham's strategy recalls Eliot's famous dictum, "Bad poets borrow, good poets steal," and the way in which Eliot stuffed The Waste Land with quotations. The quotations are all from the most crucial parts of the texts quoted. They demonstrate for me that of all our poets, Graham has not only the most eclectic but the best intellectual taste. There is a danger, though. Some of the quotations may be too interesting. They compete with Graham's poetry, not always to her advantage.

Materialism evinces structure. It begins, in "Notes On the Reality of the Self," with a river (probably Heraclitian) and returns to that river at the end. "Notes" is ominous and beautiful: when Graham allows herself to be imagistic and descriptive (which is seldom), nobody can exceed her:

      Watching the river, each handful of it closing over the next,
      brown and swollen. Oaklimbs,
      gnawed at by waterfilm, lifted, relifted, lapped-at all day in
      this dance of non-discovery, All things are
      possible. Last year's leaves, coming unstuck from shore,
      rippling suddenly again with the illusion,
      and carried, twirling, shiny again and fat,
      towards the quick throes of another tentative
      conclusion,… Is this body the one
      I know as me?…

The issues Graham is dealing with are the same as Goedicke's, but Graham's tone is uniformly grave and, at certain points, melodramatic. "Melodrama," etymologically, is "drama" with the rhetoric of music (melos) added to augment the effect of the drama. The connotations of the word "melodramatic" are slightly invidious, suggesting that which is adventitious: emotional excess. In Materialism, melodrama, when it is present, happens at two levels. The first—the corny kind—when it occurs happens in Graham's diction. The second—the inventive kind—happens at the level of structure. Graham's poem "The Dream of the Unified Field" is sometimes melodramatic in diction. The event that starts the poem, "bringing you the leotard / you forgot to include in your overnight bag," leads to excess:

      Starting home I heard—bothering, lifting, then bothering again—
      the huge flock of starlings massed over our neighborhood
      these days; heard them lift and
      swim overhead through the falling snow
      as though the austerity of a true, cold thing, a verity,
      the black bits of their thousands of bodies swarming
                              then settling

The poem is filled with such moments, in which everything in a scene is dwelt upon as if in slow motion, with a violin accompaniment: the kind of quotidian observation that Emily Dickinson would have dispatched with a firecracker has been bloated into something akin to "The 1812 Overture."

At the structural level, however, Graham's "melodrama" is thrilling. The "music" added to the "drama" consists of the long quotations, and of the juxtapositions between verse and prose quotation, such as the decision to follow the poem "Concerning the Right to Life" with Graham's adaptation "from Sir Francis Bacon's NOVUM ORGANUM" or her placement of a passage "from Jonathan Edwards DOCTRINE OF ORIGINAL SIN" between "from Walt Whitman's CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY" and "The Break of Day," are telling.

In the penultimate poem, "Existence and Presence," we are reminded of the underlying epistemological problematic of the book—wherein is the ground of being and of the self?

     And how shall this soliloquy reverberate
     over the hillside? Who shall be
     the singleness over the yawning speckled lambency?
     I think I feel my thinking-self and how it
     stands—its condensation, its voice-track …
     An alphabet flew over, made liquid syntax for a while,
     diving and rising, forking, a caprice of clear meanings,
      right pauses …

The "condensation" of "my thinking-self is the poem we are reading. "I think I feel" is Cartesian. All Graham can be sure of is Mind. But the world, on whatever ground it stands, she finds to be fascinating, even lovely at times. At the conclusion of Materialism, we are returned to the river:

     It has a hole in it. Not only where I
     The river still ribboning, twisting up,
                    into its re-
     arrangements, chill enlightenments, tight-knotted
     and loosenings—whispered messages dissolving
     and the river of my attention laying itself down—

Perhaps the Mind, through language, through poetry, can penetrate the world. Materialism is a daring and splendid book.

James Longenbach (review date 21 July 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Identity, Vision, Style," in The Nation, Vol. 265, No. 3, June 21, 1997, pp. 40-2.

[In the review below, Longenbach praises Graham's writing in The Errancy as mature and argues that it is her best work to date.]

Jorie Graham stands among a small group of poets (Dickinson, Hopkins, Moore) whose styles are so personal that the poems seem to have no author at all: They exist as self-made things. Each of her books has interrogated the one preceding it, and The Errancy feels like a culmination. It is her most challenging, most rewarding book. Graham has not simply forged a style; she is exploring the very notion of what it means for a poet to have a style—an exterior mark of an inner vision.

"It has a fine inner lining but it is / as an exterior that you see it—a grace." Graham makes this remark about the coat in which Pascal was buried: A note containing his unrevealed proof of the existence of God was sewn into its sleeve. The remark also describes Graham's notion of the self: Whatever we know about it we know as purely external sensation. In "Easter Morning Aubade" a woman attempts to "clench the first dawnlight inside her skull," but the world refuses to stand still. The woman looks past sleeping soldiers to a boy dropping a pebble into a river; the stone enters the water just as the scene enters the woman's mind, but the stone is immediately lost. No fathomable depth exists beneath the surface.

      … as he stares I can see
      that the place of disappearance has
      it cannot be recovered, his eyes darting
       over the moving waters,
      and how a life cannot be lived therefore,
       as there is no place,
in which the possibility of shapelinessbegins to rave,
      and the soldiers awakening, of course, to
       the blazing not-there,
      and the 30,000 mph of the sun's going,
      rubbing its disappearance now all over
      and the hand going back into the dirt at
       one's feet, fingers feeling around
      for another perfect stone, wanting to see
       it once again, that opening.

These lines are in part a response to Piero della Francesca's Resurrection: The soldiers awake to find that Jesus's body has disappeared just as the stone disappears beneath water, just as the place of disappearance disappears before it can be preserved in the mind. Graham suggests that revelation cannot happen only once; we need the continuing experience of an exterior world if we are to imagine an interior. Yet the precise nature of that space—the space within the skull, beneath the river, beyond the body—remains obscure to us. The result is a poetry of what Graham calls "intractable thereness," a poetry both vividly sensuous and enticingly elusive. "No back-of-the-mind allowed," she says in "Little Requiem," insisting that the surface of things is all we know. In "The Guardian Angel of Self-Knowledge," an angel looks down at people scraping away their surface characteristics in order to reveal their inner truth. This supposed act of self-revelation is in fact an act of self-annihilation: "who will they be when they get to the bottom of it?… Who will they resemble when they're done with resemblance?"

Graham's own integrity is on the surface: The difficulty of The Errancy consequently feels earned, essential to the texture of its language. The poems rush irresistibly forward, and like sparrows unspooling above the parking lot in "Untitled Two," they "quote each other endlessly." Metaphors used to describe Pascal's coat ("its raveling hem") reappear in other poems to characterize a river or a shadow; metaphors of "folding" or "pleating," inspired by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, appear in various contexts to describe the coat, the body or the relationship of surface and depth. In addition, two sequences of linked poems are spread throughout the book: One consists of aubades, or poems addressing dawn, the other of poems spoken by angels. While these repetitions do not give The Errancy anything like a systematic wholeness, they allow us to participate in the difficult process of making and remaking sense.

As the title of her Pulitzer Prize winning The Dream of the Unified Field suggests, Graham has always been interested in this process. But throughout much of her earlier work, she was suspicious of ordering devices—story, closure and plot; in the opening poem in The End of Beauty, for instance, Eve disrupts the divine "plot" and finds that she likes "that error, a feeling of being capable because an error." Throughout The Errancy, in contrast, Graham depends upon a more complex and more precarious sense of error. "The point is not that there would be no error if there were no truth." remarks Jacques Lacan, meditating on the notion that all human knowledge begins with errancy—with the infant's misrecognition of its reflection as another person: "Error is the usual manifestation of truth itself." Similarly, Graham's poems now suggest that there is no human experience outside of discursive structures like plot and closure; we are capable of knowing ourselves only because we resemble other selves. Errancy is no longer the discovery of world elsewhere, but rather our very state of being.

Graham emphasizes this point in several ways. In "The Guardian Angel of Point-of-View," she says that "truth" simply is "the path without the crumbs"—a wandering with no hope of return. In many poems, words like "storyline" or "programming" are used to describe natural processes, suggesting that it is not possible to break through the structures of human understanding. These poems are not less formally disruptive than Graham's earlier work; but now that freedom may be found within (rather than beyond) discursive structures, the disruptiveness feels like something we want to live with rather than move past. In "Le Manteau de Pascal"—one of several long poems—Graham presents Réne Magritte's painting of the coat as an image of formal transgression. Because the coat is "ripped," "distracted," open to "abandonment," willing to be "disturbed," one might think that it merely disrupts or occludes truth; in fact, it is precisely because the coat is ripped that we are able to see the "starpocked" sky behind it.

     The sky shivers through the coat because
      of the rips in it.

     The rips in the sky ripen through the rips
      in the coat.

     There is no quarrel.

The Errancy is marked by Graham's interest in philosophy and literary theory, but the poems have none of the arid consistency one might associate with these modes of writing. Graham's older notion of error as a deviation from truth occasionally resurfaces, and such inconsistencies are crucial to her dramatization of the errant processes of thought itself. While she insists that there can be "no back-of-the-mind," she nonetheless honors our insatiable need to imagine a world beneath the surface. In "Emergency," the most harrowing and beautiful poem in the book, Graham walks beside a river at night, imagining a world beneath the black surface, imagining that she could join that world. The river talks back:

      why are you still here the house of cards
will fall it slushes
     struggle, get up and be, climb back onto
the walkway the city has provided,
     the little path, good-bye, catch-up with
the story, where you left off,
that is the only subject of your poem,
you have no other form but story,
      and various assortments of cause and
effect—publicity, existence,
how to travel faster at night—
go—repeat where was I? where was I?—
      drifting thoughtfully towards common
      the war is over, the stars are in me …

If part of Graham longs for transcendence—for a world of lush interiority, a world beyond discursive structures—the river resists her desires, sending her back to the city's world of story and plot.

Unlike her last entirely new book of poems, Materialism, which begins and ends with poems set beside the river, The Errancy begins and ends with poems set within the city: It is only here, Graham insists, that we might find "liberty spooring in the evening air." Still, by imagining an inner consciousness for the river in "Emergency," Graham has already violated the river's wisdom. And as "Emergency" unfolds, the city becomes a place where the "war" is far from over: A woman strikes her baby and waits for it to breathe, her own identity dissipated by the horror of what she's done. "Let us pray," intones Graham. "Let us pray to be a torpid river, Lord." Having forced herself not to indulge in fantasies of interiority or escape, Graham nonetheless reaches for those fantasies—the proof of God's existence hidden in the fold of Pascal's coat.

Recently, Graham remarked that poets seem to be "yearning for permission to break past their own remarkably sophisticated understanding of the ideological premises of their enterprise." Graham does exactly that: These poems offer sophisticated meditations on identity, language and culture, but the poems are deeply moving because they turn against their own best discoveries, refusing to settle for the consolation of what is merely right. The Errancy provides all the satisfactions we expect from poetry—aural beauty, emotional weight—along with an intellectual rigor we don't expect. No one but Jorie Graham could have written it.




Graham, Jorie (Poetry Criticism)