[Y]ou have no idea // what we turned our backs on to come be in this field of earth and tend — yes tend — / these flocks of minutes, whispering till the timelessness in us is wrung dry and we / are heavied with endgame.
— Jorie Graham, “I’m Reading Your Mind”
IF — AS READER-RESPONSE theory would have it — meaning emerges in the interaction between reader and text, the circumstances under which a text is received shape meaning itself. The meaning of an individual text is also influenced by the texts with which it is paired and through which we ultimately encounter it. To wit: When we read the poems in Jorie Graham’s [To] the Last [Be] Human, we read them differently in light of the work with which they’ve been collected. What’s more, we read them within the context of our political and environmental conditions, which have radically shifted since the publication of 2008’s Sea Change, the first of the volumes gathered here, and more so since the first poems were penned in 2002. In 18 “calamitous years,” notes Robert Macfarlane’s incisive introduction, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from “373 parts per million” to, in 2020 (when the most recent poem was written), “414.” We now read these poems under the duress of an ongoing climate emergency.
In that sense, poems that once read as calls to action now read as elegy. This hermeneutic shift is especially pronounced in Sea Change and Place (2012), poems which subtly address a growing climate crisis but do so obliquely or optimistically. Today, these poems can feel naïve, if not entirely inefficacious, though they continue to record this crisis in the process of its unfolding. This is less the case for the latter two collected volumes, Fast (2017) and Runaway (2020), which take a bleaker view of present circumstance. Encountered through the lens of these earlier poems, which we now read so differently, these later collections permit us to imagine how future readers might encounter this body of work. [To] the Last [Be] Human therefore serves as a haunting reminder of what steps could have been taken — and which have been, and continue to be, repeatedly refused.
Readers detect this interpretive deferral even in the volume’s title. The bracketed language suggests we might pick and choose what belongs. The title could read as a dedication: To the Last Human. It might index that final, lingering member of the human species: The Last Human. Or it could serve as an imperative: To the Last, Be Human. In other words, be kind, be ethical. Be humane. Do so until you can no longer act or no being remains to suffer the consequences of your actions. Driven by this imperative, but helpless to respond to it, these poems become decayed portents of an already manifesting futurity. They respond to this ongoing crisis only in the ways they always already have, i.e., they continue failing — not in an aesthetic sense (they are among Graham’s most exciting poems) but in their attempt to alter the future.
This unnerving fusion of certainty and vulnerability resonates in “Sea Change,” the piece that most markedly signals this movement in Graham’s oeuvre. The poem’s alternating, almost wavelike lines prompt a sense of instability. Luxuriantly long verses cut against enjambed, radically truncated ones, themselves often split by caesurae. The poem’s fragmented syntax evokes a hurried, almost frenetic sense of doom:
Graham’s punctuation disregards most rules of grammar, marking less the fixed semantics of a given statement than the very breath with which such language is delivered. That it marshals these poetic techniques toward crises of time and material being merely enhances the semantic deferral — the decay of stable meaning — that characterizes almost every element of the poem.
And yet, when I encountered this poem in 2008, I didn’t read it as an exercise in deconstruction. Perhaps I should have. “The permanent is ebbing,” Graham states. “[L]ife disturb[s] life” and “blur[s] the feeling of / the state of / being.” It was always a poem about things deteriorating. But, at least then, the poem’s closing image gestured toward the possibility of renewed stability. A personified “new wind” speaks: “I am inclining my heart towards the end, / I cannot fail, this Saturday, early pm, hurling myself, / wiry furies riding my many backs.” Though the wind enacts destruction, it acknowledges the acts of kindness and remaking that happen in its midst. It rails “against your foundations and your / best young / tree,” but the addressee arrives — no, has arrived — prepared to restake the sapling. Tense is important here. This person does not arrive in response to this event; they “have come” in advance of it, ready to forestall its most acute damages.
When I read it today, an elegiac valence descends like a pall over the poem. While readers have always known that “One day” stood synecdochically for an epochal development, today’s increasingly frequent weather events raze the potential for optimism. Indeed, as cultural discourse around climate change has shifted to demand systems-level change, the individual response represented in the final image comes to feel impossibly minimal. Even if the sapling survives, it does so to encounter further windstorms, floods, or forest fires. Now, the gesture reads as useless action: an attempt so boldly inefficacious it borders on the nihilistic. If it signifies anything at all, it does so symbolically, not in a way that affects legitimate social, let alone climatological, change.
Such ambiguity similarly permeates “Of Inner Experience” (Place), which records the internal functions of a mind at the edge of consciousness. In contrast to “Sea Change,” which deploys frequent punctuation to create syntactic fragmentation, “Of Inner Experience” does the opposite: the entire poem is a single sentence. The piece thus comprises an unbroken cognitive stream, though one continually ruptured by Graham’s characteristic focal shifts and cuts and breaks in the line. Moreover, “Of Inner Experience” is not (ostensibly) a poem about climate change. In 2012, I’d have read it as an experiment in phenomenology — a poem that explores the capacity of thought to probe its own limits and the suitability of language as a vehicle for such discovery. Of course, it is never not that. But now, certain lines — some of which echo “Sea Change” — signal a fundamental shift in the nature of that reality, which is to say, in nature as such.
The poem occurs on or near the winter solstice, a physical alteration that registers in the speaker’s embodied experience as “my body / sensing a new dis- / equilibrium.” Just as the body in “Sea Change” records the onset of anthropogenic climate change, in “Of Inner Experience” it registers an acute seasonal turn. The poem also recalls “Summer Solstice” (Sea Change), which delineates abundance by imagining it at the physical level of the earth and at the temporal scale of the millisecond. Time and materiality collide in conjunction with the vast and the small. Abundance is produced by, and occurs simultaneously at, each of these levels. By contrast, “Of Inner Experience” underscores paucity, and it does so by evoking a lessening effect that applies to the speaker and to the world at large. While Graham’s speaker is always aware of “time passing,” here she is subsumed by “fear” of an approaching “a- / temporality”: non-time, death. “[P]lenitude” — the matter of sensory experience — winnows in accordance with the clock. If there is an antidote to the “slipping, slipping” of consciousness, it is that other beings inhabit this world, and that their continued presence represents a collective experience that persists in the speaker’s absence:
Read through the lens of our current climate crisis, this closing sheds its optimism. Even in 2012, the past tense — “was known / was known” — hinted at the mole’s unknowability, but readers might have attributed that lack of knowledge to our dissociation, as a species, from the natural economies that comprise our daily experience. In 2022, it is difficult to read this conclusion as anything other than an acknowledgment of species extinction. If the blind mole persists, it does so minimally, and its numbers inevitably dwindle.
If Sea Change and Place make up the early phase of Graham’s later poems, readers will note yet another development in Fast and Runaway. In the former, Graham’s luxuriant verses spatially consolidate, excising the clipped lines that previously held them apart. Poems such as “Ashes,” “Shroud,” or “We” — from Fast — better resemble prose than the alternating verse form prevalent in “Sea Change.” Graham punctuates many of these poems with typographical arrows, ushering readers frantically from one phrase to the next: “I am the temporary→but there is also the permanent→have you looked to it→for now→” (“Honeycomb”). The final arrow urges readers toward the following piece, “Deep Water Trawling,” which depicts habitat destruction: “The blades like irises turning very fast to see you completely […] pelagic midwater nets like walls closing round us.” These poems more directly address environmental crisis and, in general, are more pessimistic.
Graham’s forms consolidate further in Runaway. For the most part, the volume uses visually conventional stanzas — quatrains, tercets — though Graham’s syntax continues to resist grammatical convention. Spellings sometimes revert to abbreviation or contraction: “yr / hands, yr skin fixed to / fit everywhere tight” (“Runaway”); “yr name just about stripped from / u if u say it out / loud” (“[To] the Last [Be] Human”). Unlike Sea Change and Place, however, which readers approach with distance, these more recent collections resist semantic deferral. At present, they read as they ever have. But our present interpretation of these earlier collections permits us to imagine how readings of these poems might change, particularly if the climate continues to worsen. How will we read these poems in 10 or 20 years? Fifty? A hundred?
Graham anticipates this question in “[To] the Last [Be] Human,” which begins in the present (“Today I am getting my instructions”) only to imagine the annihilation of both speaker and world. The poem accomplishes this, first, through suggestive imagery (“The road itself is moving as if in a / molten fury”) and continues through direct statement: “I was human.” Here, “human” can mean many things: a self, a value, a species, an ethics. I first understand it as the former: the speaker has dissipated, and the poem operates from the perspective of a ruined future. Alternatively, the speaker might suggest that she has strived to be ethical or kind, with the implication that perhaps she’s given up. The poem then pivots toward a more explicit meditation on time and human responsibility. “So it all seems like / the world as it had always been, has always been,” she writes. “Here in the / sliver-end of the interglacial / lull. Human time.” The problem of being human(e) in the Anthropocene, then, is also a problem of time:
“Tree” further complicates the question of temporality. The speaker begins by considering a “perfect,” “actual” fig, the perception of which, at least right now, does not require “VR glasses.” The speaker can see, pick, and even taste the fig because their current climate permits the fruit to grow. In the fourth stanza, however, the “fruit is torn from its dream.” Suddenly, readers are cast into the future. The present of the poem turns out to be one where “the ash / of our fires has covered the sun” and “the fruit is stunted yellow mold.” The poem thus works in the mode of future retrospect, surveying decades of overconsumption and mismanagement with full knowledge of its consequences. What remains is a mere emblem of past pleasure: a “polaroid,” or “souvenir,” wherein “the fruit is opening” but “it is all seed, reddish foam, history.”
In its movement from hopeful naïveté to outright pessimism, [To] the Last [Be] Human tracks not only Graham’s attitude toward the nature of climate change but also the evolution of our cultural discourse. What once seemed a bleak but distant possibility now appears inevitable. But if the poems themselves no longer inspire social action, perhaps the doom conveyed in these later poems might serve another purpose. If readers imagine this book, as Graham does, as an artifact to be “dug up from rubble in the future,” it maintains value for later readers from distant generations or civilizations. In this sense, Graham’s depiction of a world in the midst of its own ruin serves less as an antidote for impending devastation — it’s too late for that — than as a minority report on our humanistic response to it, one that might persist, as Macfarlane says, across “the long light of the will-have-been,” even if we’ve failed to correct the course of our environmental history.
John James is the author of The Milk Hours (Milkweed, 2019), selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize.