I come from people who held slaves, and people who were put in ovens. So I have a sense there is very little one human being won’t do to another.
— Jorie Graham in Harvard Magazine, 2001
BY TITLING her new selected poems From the New World, Jorie Graham has done a brave thing. In the title poem, the speaker, who is identified as Jorie (or “not Jorie,” since her aging grandmother is slipping into dementia), makes an audacious comparison: she likens the experience of locking herself in a bathroom to being trapped in a gas chamber during the Holocaust.
Her reflection is held in the mirror in the nursing home bathroom “as by a gas, / the thing which was with me there in its chamber,” which recalls the poem’s opening:
Has to do with the story about the girl who didn’t die
in the gas chamber, who came back out asking
for her mother. Then the moment — the next coil — where the guard,
Ivan, since the 50’s an autoworker in Cleveland,
orders a man on his way in to rape her.
Reading poems like “From the New World,” I can see why Graham’s most serious critics find her political poetry underwhelming, and even unethical. The poem is frustratingly and purposefully unclear about the speaker’s relationship to “the girl” — is this really just a traumatic story that “not Jorie” has remembered while being forgotten by her grandmother? Does the girl turn out to be the grandmother? Would it be acceptable to appropriate a family narrative, but not a historical one? Did Graham really just compare the face in the mirror to a face in a gas chamber?
The bad taste can be breathtaking, even when it’s precisely this bad taste that the poem dramatizes, and at which it points an insistent finger.
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.
I can understand the superficial likenesses of the puns, how the “clasp” (handshake) in the court room becomes the “clasp” (metal fastener) on the grandmother’s purse, how the “click” of the poet’s camera-like eye is the “click” of the grandfather’s telephone line going dead. But the comparison at the center of the poem, between Graham and “the girl,” makes a substantially different leap.
Context helps: The poem, narrated by “not Jorie,” is taken from her 1991 collection Region of Unlikeness; the title is a two-pronged reference to St. Augustine’s Confessions and (the great “confessional”) Robert Lowell’s first book, Land of Unlikeness. In 1991, “Ivan” would also have been more easily recognizable as Ivan the Terrible, the Nazi war criminal who was tried in a sensational double trial — first in a case of mistaken identity, for crimes he didn’t commit, then under his actual identity, for the ones he did.
Thus, Graham’s provocative comparison reverses itself. Even while she asks “the bodies” of historical traumas to “come on” like a TV news broadcast, Graham shows precisely how callous it is to create an aesthetic experience to which traumas are marginal, turn-off-able: We forget. We look away. We empathize too easily, then not at all.
Graham makes us feel how our own daily experiences are predicated on the suppression of traumas like the one that “Has to do with the girl,” even while the aesthetic experiences we seek are so often tragedies: “God knows I want the poem to continue,” she writes, “want the silky swerve into shapeliness / and then the click shut / and then the issue of sincerity.”
The “issue” of sincerity is the topic, the controversy, and the progeny: the girl who returns, “looking for her mother”; the poet who returns from “not Jorie” to “go back in,” looking for her grandmother, and for the poem to continue.
Can poetry post-Auschwitz or poetry for Auschwitz ever continue, as Adorno reminds us? On this issue, Graham has succeeded (“Two Poems by Gustav Klimt,” one of her best) and failed (“From the New World”), but she has never backed down from facing the challenge, or from fully inhabiting the implications of failure — hers, and ours, both. She can make her reader see
right and wrong like pools
and light you can step in
and out of
crossing this yellow beech forest,
one autumn afternoon, late
in the twentieth
century, in hollow light,
in gaseous light. … (“Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt”)
Buchen means book: this is a book world, not Buchenwald, not the beech forest nor the concentration camp, and Graham knows it. Her poetry is self-aware about everything it risks — seeming to exploit these narratives for the sake of the seriousness of her poetry; seeming to obscure some internally coherent morality, simply for provocation. The harder you read Graham’s poems, the more self-aware they seem. But does this acute self-awareness make the poetry ethical, or more insidiously un-ethical? I’m not sure I know.
“The Dream of the Unified Field,” the title poem from Graham’s previous selection, left off with a rewritten portion of Columbus’s diary that (merely, or bravely) alluded to the entire future of the “new world”: theft, genocide, slavery. The implications of that ending were sickening and hair-raising, but only gestured toward, and thereby more to the tastes of most readers. With the title poem of her second selection, Graham seems to suggest she is writing to us from that history-ridden, warming, revolting New World. She’s gone all the way in.
From the New World is an opportunity to reassess the achievement of a poet who, for the past 40 years, has whipped like a gale-force wind across the landscape of American letters. Graham has published 11 volumes of poetry, taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and been showered in praise and in prizes (which include a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant). She now holds Harvard’s prestigious Boylston poetry chair. Despite all the grumblings about her “privilege” and what Dwight Garner (in The New York Times) recently called her “occasional interest in marginal lives,” Jorie Graham is an institution.
If Graham has a fault, it is that she has sometimes, as in the poem “From the New World,” allowed her conceptual points to run roughshod over her poetry’s quality. This is increasingly the case in the books that coincide by no coincidence with the Bush years — Never, Overlord, Sea Change. Her ecological worrying can devolve into hectoring, and her philosophical questing can rip past a reader’s patience too easily when her concepts and her administrations to sensed experience aren’t subtended by formal rigor.
And yet, reading From the New World, and especially Graham’s earlier work, I am reminded of her unparalleled capabilities. I firmly believe that Graham’s is the best poetry written in English in the last 40 years. The achievement of her verse is not only to make something happen: Graham’s poetry is something happening.
Consider the first sentence of the poem “Noli Me Tangere,” from her career-defining collection The End of Beauty (1987).
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
to fit them on the listening.
The characteristic way her prepositions coordinate abstract noun-phrases might seem worthy of an eye-roll: How could angels sit on “the delay”? What is “the delay” supposed to mean? But that resistance is exactly what the poet wants to activate — it’s the same resistance to abstract thought we still capture with the colloquial question: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Already we must be puzzling out the poem’s ekphrastic relationship to the tradition of Noli me tangere paintings in Christian iconography, even while reveling in the phenomenal pleasure of Graham’s incongruous combinations: “Harrow the fixities,” for example. Harrow, with such deep troughs of sound and connotation, makes the fricative rapidity of “fixities” shine. And then the conceptual fugue of “swiftnesses like music” contrasts so rightly with the grounding of “down,” set back to the left margin, on its own one line.
As usual in a Graham poem, several dense and abstract sentences later, we get a fairly clear encapsulation of a physical, suburban experience that could be said to “ground” the piece: the poet is watching some birds fit themselves through a chain-link fence: “I’ve watched all afternoon how the large / red birds here / cross and recross […] the gaps that constitute our chainlink fence.” There will be birds.
But the birds “fit” themselves “onto” the previous images with an unsettling intelligence: like the Biblical figures who want to touch Christ to believe that he is really risen, who want to put their fingers into his wounds to prove that he’s there, the birds too push themselves in and through the fence, as the poet too wants to push this mundane image “Out of the light which holds steel and its alloys, / into the words for it like some robe or glory.”
Mary Magdalene’s doubt-in-faith and faith-in-doubt is now fully inhabited as an inter-permeable metaphor for the poet’s knowing of the physical world: “She wants to put her hands in, / she wants to touch him.” Christ resists being known even as the world (represented, of course, by birds) resists the poet.
And because Jorie Graham has always been as much an epistemologist and a phenomenologist as a poet, it is precisely in the world’s resistance to being known or shown that she finds her drama:
I have seen how the smoke here
inhabits a space
in the body of air it must therefore displace,
and the tree-shaped gap the tree inhabits,
and the tree-shaped gap the tree
it is here, only here,
in this gap
that the body of who we are
to have been
she lets him go,
she lets him through the day faster than the day […]
There is an ineffable beauty accessible through thinking about “the body of who we are” (present indicative tense) “to have been” (the past participle but also the conditional perfect, parse-able as who we were meant to be, who we might still become) as it “emerges” — an emergence made possibly only as she “lets go.” If this is not poignant to you, as a person trying to understand experience or empathy, or as a writer trying to understand how writing shapes these possibilities, I don’t know what could be.
Graham’s power is to make the formal closure of poetry feel, line by line, increasingly and freshly unsatisfactory for a world so open, and therefore to make the reader yearn for that formal closure even more desperately:
until you have to leave her be
if all you have to touch her with
(“Noli Me Tangere”)
What about form? If Graham’s greatest effect is the sensation that poetry is happening, that perception and feeling and intellection are all being registered in real time, how does she produce this effect, formally?
Her hallmark is not the long line, though that was for many years the careless assertion. The rapt sensitivity of her verse has always been achieved by shifting drastically between line lengths and switching rapidly between theories of the line break, so that her poetry can register not only rhythm but rate (and can mime the juxtaposition between historical time and human experience, which she’s always working over). Consider a segment from another Graham poem where the intimate eclipses the apocalyptic, “What the End is For” (1987):
you refused. Until I
couldn’t rise out of the patience either any longer
to make us
Until we were what we must have wanted to be:
shapes the shapelessness was taking back.
The breaks in the shortest lines work to articulate different semantic possibilities within the sentence: she either cannot “make us” anymore, or she can’t “make us take possession” anymore. “Take possession” on its own line is an imperative: inside the sentence declaring that the speaker is giving up is a sentence imploring her listener to take hold.
Then the poem does just that: the longer lines reverse to the oracular, the breath-regulated. One version of what “shapes the shapelessness” (the mind) is being “taken back” while another (the breath) takes over. Graham’s brilliance can be dizzying.
Of course, we should note that while the “shapes” are the speaker and her partner in the falling darkness, we have also learned earlier in the poem that “shape” is a military term for a practice bomb. It turns out that the end of a relationship is being compared to the beginning of nuclear war, in the Graham manner.
The poems in her most recent collection, PLACE, should make it obvious, but the poems in her greatest books — Erosion, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness — always worked by strafing the drifts of her long lines with short bursts, by flicking back and forth between pauses for the breath and enjambments for the mind, and by retaining a skeleton of anaphora on which to pin her fluttering, bizarre phrases (“Until… Until…”). And what those poems achieve is an experience: experience in itself.
The only poet I can compare to Graham is G.M. Hopkins. What Graham did to the open field with semantics, Hopkins did to formal verse with sound: her sprung-rhythm is the sprung-rhythm of the mind, but the idiosyncratic “charge” it creates is not unlike his. Both these poets create poems that are not separate from experience, sealed off in formal wonder, but are experience: “charged with grandeur,” as Hopkins wrote, “charged with forgetfulness,” as Graham wrote — and as she would be sure to make us feel, “after” him.
When we are reading too quickly or not carefully enough, it can seem that Graham is forgetful, of her place and her privilege. This is especially ironic, since she has charged her own poetry with the power and responsibility of remembering everything — history, politics, ecology, and every detail of sensed experience. But like Hopkins, Graham’s work will withstand its occasional misunderstandings, and her poems will find the readers they deserve: those willing to work with all their capacities — empathic, imaginative, analytic — to interrogate experience.
We will always need to read Jorie Graham, and to read her closely, if we want to understand the last 40 years of poetry in America (as well as abroad, where her reputation is only growing), and if we want to experience that poetry’s formal innovations, moral questions, and polarizing effects. From the New World, a perhaps too ruthless but discerning selection, is now the place to start.