As usual, Jorie Graham's book of poems feels large, weighty, expansive, internal, all-over-the-page. Unlike so much contemporary poetry that finds its power in small jokes, playfulness, high wit and hijinks, Graham avoids the funny bone and focuses in, piercingly, on the heart, the soul, on suffering. Overlord, perhaps more than any other book by Graham, includes the sufferings of history, the extensive collateral damage of wars.
A number of Graham's poems are set in France, where she lives part of the year. But the poems move from the present, the now of seasons and climate and meals and friends, into recollections of the past, mainly the past of World War II and the events of Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. The war in Iraq also hovers over the text so the present moment of destruction blends with these evocations of past misery.
Some of the strongest poems in this very strong book are in a sequence of poems called “Spoken from the Hedgerows,” in which Graham recreates and resurrects the voices of soldiers from the Allied invasion of France. These poems about Operation Overlord work well in counterpoint to the series of six poems in the book called “Praying,” in which Graham speaks directly to the Lord (a Lord, the spiritual Overlord), confessing her transgressions, and looking for answers: “Oh Lord what do I do with the great desire to praise./ The frenzied joy of detail I confess I love the/ surface. The surface of all creation.” Perhaps Graham intuits that her love of the surface could lead to a poetry of pleasant surfaces only, of merely external beauty. This collection, however, proves once again that Graham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, works the balancing act beautifully, soulfully: she combines an appreciation for the world's pleasures with a charged denunciation of human miseries, whether at a 7/11 where a drunk begs for warmth and money, or on Omaha Beach where men who were slaughtered are allowed to speak again.
Any brief response to Graham's book cannot do justice to her intelligence, her swiftly moving language, her experimental (and yet intelligible) forms, her strong desire for some kind of human decency.