NOVEMBER 9, 2019
THOUGH THE EPIGRAPH is somewhat ubiquitous in contemporary poetry — it can be difficult to find a collection that doesn’t nod to its influences in the opening pages — its very ubiquity seems to have blunted its aesthetic utility. In many books, one feels that the opening epigraph simply says what the poet will, a few pages later, attempt to say for themselves.
However, as with every straw man generalization, exceptions abound: as in Kathleen Graber’s most recent collection, The River Twice, which takes both its title and opening epigraphs from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Any admirer of Graber’s previous work will be familiar already with her penchant for using the words of others to throw doubt and tension into her own poems. With The River Twice, Graber introduces Heraclitus to a list of thinkers she’s wrestled with before: St. Augustine, Walter Benjamin, Marcus Aurelius, the list goes on.
I say wrestled pointedly; for Kathleen Graber, epigraphs exist not to bolster her own positions but rather to make demands of her own intellect — and, by extension, that of her readers. Indeed, she pays her reader a high compliment: she assumes that they will be able to supply the sometimes-opaque links between her own texts and those she’s imported, no matter how contemporary or pre-Socratic her source material.
This brings us back to Heraclitus, whose fragments, when taken on their own, read like readymade epigraphs. Graber’s title — The River Twice — alludes to what is perhaps his best-known fragment (which she quotes in full as one of her epigraphs): “You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.” For most casual readers, this fragment represents Heraclitus’s work in toto. Often contrasted with Parmenides, Heraclitus exists as a mysterious figure whose poetic philosophy rests on the ever-shifting foundations of flux, change, and paradox.
But Graber supplies us with another of his fragments: “Wisdom is one thing — to know the intelligence by which all things are steered through all things; it is unwilling and yet willing to be called by the name of Zeus.” In his commentary on the fragments, the scholar Philip Wheelwright notes: “So closely has Heraclitus’ name been associated […] with the related themes of change and paradox, that there has often been a tendency to overlook the peculiar emphasis which he gives to the unity […] of all things.”
From the beginning, before we encounter even the first line, Graber forecasts a key tension: in these poems we will consider change, disruption, and flux, but we will also acknowledge unity — whether of personal experience, relationships, or, as we’ll find in the series of epistolary poems addressed to America, the paradoxical separate-but-togetherness implicit in the phrase “The United States.”
This unity of experience begins, in The River Twice, at the level of both the personal and the spiritual. That Heraclitus sees wisdom as both “unwilling and yet willing to be called by the name of Zeus” represents well Graber’s own stance toward the divine. In the book’s second poem, she writes:
Just as Heraclitus notes wisdom’s ambivalence toward being “called by the name of Zeus,” so too does Graber find herself unwilling to yield entirely to “the divine.” But neither can she cast off her almost-pesky “belief in the sacred” — her inability to rid herself of the conviction that things must be more than they are. At the poem’s end, she addresses God once more. “Lord,” she writes, “[T]hese days it is as though I am returned again at every moment / from so far away. The worn palm of the world is heavy with time.”
The feeling beneath these vulnerable lines motivates much of the book’s emotional arc. At every turn, memory — the exhausted feeling that “[t]he worn palm of the world is heavy with time” — threatens to overrun the speaker.
In this vein, many of the poems in The River Twice take either as their starting point or their emotional grounding a moment of inexplicable sadness that the speaker attempts, with varying degrees of success, to explicate. However, many of these poems resist the temptation to offer an explanation — at least, an autobiographical one — for pain.
In one instance, the speaker says, “It is too easy to chalk up this evening’s restlessness — / the view of the birdfeeders already gone black — / to the ghost of someone else’s old unhappiness.” Fair enough, we might reply. But, in the following poem, the resistance to personal reflection evaporates. In “America [emptiness]” — which serves as one of many pseudo-elegies for an older brother — she writes:
… For a long time,
I have carried a great coldness that once
belonged to him. When he died, it somehow
Graber sets up a contradiction in these two poems. On one hand, she resists the temptation to make the past culpable for her present “restlessness”; on the other, she offers a speaker who holds within herself an inherited “coldness.” It’s a prime example of the kind of harmony — the kind of comfort — that Graber finds in paradox. In The River Twice, saying two opposite things is not the same as saying nothing at all.
This proclivity toward paradox is part of what Graber finds so attractive about Heraclitus. In the eponymous poem, she tells us that “Heraclitus, whom the crash of time has left / in fragments, saw in the cosmos a harmony of tensions.” In Graber’s poetics, these harmonies do not resolve so much as create a unified — though still discordant — music. As in the poem’s final lines:
And so the poem ends — and does so, importantly, without any editorializing. We are left to consider for ourselves what it might mean for a single couplet — and, by extension, a single religion — to house these seemingly opposite impulses toward judgment and forgiveness. Still, Graber makes a subtle case for the latter of these values. That the hymn of judgment “is followed by” the hymn of forgiveness does not erase the dark fear of damnation — but, importantly, neither does it allow judgment the last word. Rather, the last words are “be forgiven.”
Perhaps this reading — which prioritizes sequence and threatens to turn chronology into teleology — is too easy. But the question of how to interpret the constant flux of time crops up over and again in The River Twice. In the ekphrastic poem “Self-Portrait with The Sleeping Man,” the speaker considers a photograph of a “Slovakian peasant sleeping by the side of the road.” Later, Graber observes, “He seems to slumber so soundly there […] the way my father used to sleep.” She continues:
A wistfulness pervades these lines that echoes Graber’s own “belief / in the sacred.” Though her “disbelief in the divine” forbids her from turning this other “realm” into any kind of afterlife, she cannot help but sense a deep peace that comes from being “beyond time.” This recognition gives the final sentence its melancholic tone. While Graber takes comfort in thinking of “all the ordinary days” that went unphotographed, she laments the fact that the sight of those other slumbering “pilgrims” has been lost forever to the past.
Though memories can dredge up the “great coldness” of past pain, they are also mental objects of great value, things to “be smuggled, / like round blue boxes of salt.” In the Heraclitean onslaught of time — in which the seconds pass as immutably as the droplets of water in the same-but-shifting river — Graber offers memory as one way to endure.
She makes this clear in “America [emptiness]” — which begins, as we’ve seen, in elegy, and then moves, via Graber’s familiar paratactic logic, to a scientific discovery:
… On an island in the Indian Ocean,
there is a frog so tiny, it has no room
in its skull for a tympanic middle ear.
Scientists, assuming it was deaf,
were stunned to discover that
when played recordings of other frogs
croaking, the Gardiner frog croaked back.
And so it has only just now become
known to us: this creature who listens
to the world through its opened mouth.
America, I am telling you this because
I would like to feel warm. Enough is
enough. Perhaps the cure is not to say
everything but rather to say each day
one small thing we have only just now
discovered we had forgotten we knew.
These final four lines show Graber at her strongest, trusting that her syntax will lead her to the nuanced claim she’s after. There’s a refreshing humility of scale in these lines, too, in which she admits the fruitlessness of trying “to say / everything” and instead says “one small thing.” While she does extrapolate from the local subject of the “tiny” frog, she does so only after zooming in so close that we can see its absent “tympanic middle ear.” Thus, by the time we reach the final lines — which read, to me, as a clear ars poetica — Graber has articulated both the possibilities and limits of poetry.
I mention the “limits” of poetry because this poem — “America [emptiness]” — is one of several in which the speaker addresses (and admonishes) America directly. These epistolary poems work within a tradition that brings to mind, most immediately, Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” with its famous opening line: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.”
In the opening line of the first of these poems, “America [Peaches],” the speaker follows Ginsberg in defining herself vis-à-vis her moral responsibility to the country: “America, I know I could do better by you, / though I stoop conscientiously three times a day / to pick up my dog’s waste from the grass / with black biodegradable bags.” Here, the speaker assures us — with tongue squarely in cheek — that her own life should hardly be used as a moral blueprint. Later, she continues:
I am writing tonight because there is something wrong
with your peaches. The ones from the supermarket
are so soft & cheap — half the cost of the ones
sold at the local farm — but the flesh near the pit
is so bitter & green. It is a fruit like the mind
we are making together: both overripe & immature.
Though this passage carries many of the hallmarks of Graber’s best work — the images are specific and evocative, the movement of the lines intuitive and musical — it’s plagued by a certainty of message that hinders the “America” series as a whole (as well as the final, multi-part poem, “A Rhetoric”).
While I doubt that any reader of The River Twice would disagree with Graber’s analysis of the “overripe & immature” nature of American political discourse, these lines lack the paradox and ambiguity that make the other poems in the book so vibrant. Take, for instance, these already-quoted lines from “‘The Weight’”: “Lord, may there be a metaphor / here for all of the mysteries.” Here, the very absence of an appropriate metaphor becomes the metaphor itself. It’s a slippery, meta-moment that shows how comfortable Graber can be in the gray area between clearly demarcated tenors and vehicles. In contrast, these peaches appear less as metaphor and more as illustration — an admirable one, to be sure, but illustration nonetheless.
And though many of the “America” poems contain real moments of artistry — as in “America [April],” when the speaker says, “America, it must frighten you to study your great / shape in the black glass of the Atlantic” — the series seems to groan under its own weighty ambitions, its own desire to not, in fact, say “one small thing,” but rather “to say / everything.”
Still, Graber should be applauded for attempting such a project — and for doing so, too, with a level of self-awareness that shields her, I think, from the dangerous waters of self-aggrandizement. But she’s at her best when she allows mystery’s presence into her poems. In the book’s antepenultimate poem, “Greetings from Richmond (or Thinking of Elizabeth Bishop & Everything Else in the World),” she writes:
Despite all of her reasons for despair — personal loss, political chaos, inexplicable daily sorrow — Graber chooses joy. And though this brief joy doesn’t render her sorrows obsolete, it does, for a moment, transmute her grief into something fuller, more bearable.
“Greetings from Richmond” ends where the collection begins: with wisdom — that unity “by which all things are steered through all things.” As Graber laments the inevitable fate of the neighboring cypress trees, the ones “the arborist has said / are dying,” she writes:
These lines carry with them — or, rather, within them — the “hybrid” joy the speaker found earlier. Yes, grief remains present: the cypresses are dying and, like the trees, the speaker will die, as well. But also present here is an “appreciation, even awe” at what time’s passage can yield. Despite her constant wrestling with the past, Graber negotiates at the end of this poem a momentary truce with time’s Heraclitean rush. And in doing so she offers us a final paradox: certainly, time brings with it loss and suffering past imagining — but it can bring healing, too, and, if the sky’s clear and the moon’s full, it might even bring a brief, chimeric joy.