IT TAKES CONFIDENCE TO NAME a collection of poems Place and even more to name a poem "Earth." Such titles might suggest a dull positivism, a lapse of imagination ("Lapse" is another of the titles). Jorie Graham can afford these big-everything titles because she is never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always "the outermost question being asked me by the World today." What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers. The answers can be summed up in the following words from "Untitled": "we have other plans for your life says the world."
Graham makes of the banal topic "place" a great bonfire of the questions. We know her famous "thirsting for ever greater aperture," as she put it in "The Guardian Angel of Point-of-View" in her sixth book Errancy. In Teresa's time, she might have become a saint. How she clamors to know the absolute, even if it no longer presents itself except as infected by time, planetarily. "The real is crossing you," she wrote in her first book, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, and not to "know" what it is, what it knows, causes her anguish. Later, in her eighth book, Never, she elaborated on the matter magnificently: "O sweet conversation: protozoa, air: how long have you been speaking? / The engine [of the most] is passing us now. / At peak: the mesmerization of here, this me here, this me / passing now. . . . We, who can now be neither wholly here nor disappear . . . . how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot / ever / get away with it—the instant—what holds the 'know.'" The "most" is the default quantity of the absolute, but it is so very much more than nothing. The title of this poem, "The Covenant" is almost ironic; but, no, Graham will not allow the irony. There really is plenitude, as if promised: " plenitude, yes / but only as a simultaneous emptying of the before . . . ."
On the other hand, material reality is (and there was a time when we knew this) a traumatizing shock. The two-year-old child in the new poem "Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field)" experiences it unprotectedly; the sharp puzzle of torn grassheads that the poet deposits in her hand announces it: "I watch / terror spray from you in / colonies of tiny glances." As for the poet herself, she says "I am / not screaming because I am / old enough to hang on hang on."
Everything "human" tumbles out of the gash of this trauma. Graham tackles the ontological problem like no other poet, more head-on, more fully, and with more exigent distress. A virtual academy of one, she dramatizes the whole "p" crowd of our troubles: personal, political, psychological, philological, phenomenological, philosophical. The drama of her career has lain in how her various hungers — to know the essence of, to preserve the appearances of, to love — have played out against her dreads: of history, of the passing of the unique, and of words as mere phantoms.
Graham's distinctive hyperattentiveness — appetitive, self-worrying — now flares up and now burns low. In her first two books the curiosity about the "real" was restrained; just typed in, as it were. Then, in the remarkable third, The End of Beauty, t...read more