Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jorie Graham, _Place_

SO...THERE WAS no hardback edition of this? What is the world coming to?  Graham is among the nation's most accomplished and most honored poets, this is her eleventh collection of new poems, and... no hardback? No review in the NYTBR, none in the NYRB? What the blue trundling fuck?

At the back of this volume is the usual author bio, plus a piece of prose commencing thus: "In PLACE, Graham explores the ways in which our imagination, intuition, and experience--increasingly devalued by a culture that regards them as 'mere' subjectivity--aid us in navigating a world moving blindly towards its own annihilation and a political reality where the human person and its dignity are increasingly disposable."

This sounds an awful lot like the sort of the thing that goes on the front inner flap of a dust jacket, does it not, and not at all like an "endnote"? It makes me wonder whether Ecco was planning a hardback edition, got this jacket copy written, and then, poof, plans changed and there was nowhere to put it (the back cover is chock-full of admiring reviews of Graham's earlier work).  So why not print it as back matter? I'll tell you why--because it sounds stupid there, as if you are trying to sell me the book I just finished reading.

Splutter, splutter.  We should talk about the poems, no? Graham has been at this long enough that she is fearsomely adept at writing Jorie Graham poems. This facility has its drawbacks--in part III of Place she seems to be on autopilot. But the book has plenty of poems that are both distinctly Graham-ian and powerfully affecting.

Graham's characteristic vein, for me, is as a phenomenologist of the moment, peeling back the sensory layers of a now, sifting it for its finest grains, then letting in a cross-wind of history, or consciousness of what is happening elsewhere in the world, that pulls you up and out of the moment while (somehow) still keeping you rooted in it.  "Fission" is my own favorite example.  Sometimes, as in a good bit of Overlord, it does not entirely come off--but when it does, there's nothing else quite like it.

In Place, "Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field)" is a poem where it does not quite come off--the jump to a torture scene (Guantanamo?) seems to me to be Straining at Meaningfulness. But the poems that acknowledge the recession, "Employment," "Treadmill," take the Grahamian to a new destination; "Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011" arrives at our current wars after a tour of  a cathedral turns into an evocation of pre-Christian Irish mythology, all in a way that will turn your head inside out.

Impossible for me not to love "Lapse"--a poem based on the memory of the first time Graham pushed her now-going-on-thirty daughter in a swing--since I can't pass any local playground without remembering the times I took my own now-mid-twenties daughters there.

Graham is still using the lineation trick that is all over Sea Change--a longish left-justified line, followed by a group of several shorter lines indented two inches or so. Speaking for myself, I like this--I like how the shorter lines are at the same time new lines and continuations of the first line (as in printings of traditional verse, or Whitman).  This device and Graham's expansive, dash-riddled syntax create that suspended-motion effect that I particularly associate with her, time turned to molasses in January, the moment gathering everything into itself--

--which all reminds me of Keats, especially "To Autumn." Graham too can do that motion-in-stasis, stasis-in-motion effect.  And to make it all more perfectly Keatsian, there's a great bird poem--"The Bird on my Railing."

life-lived--this gold its center--and beyond it, still on
                       the rail, this
                       bird, a
                       secret gift to
                       me by the

of which few in a life are
                        given--and how
                        when it opens its
                        yellow beak in the glint-sun to
                        let out song
                        into the cold, it

lets out the note on a plume of
                        lets out the
                        visible heat of its

carrying a note--

This connects--the pushing-out, the giving birth, the self-discovery, the mystery of animation and the inevitability of the cessation of breath--to "Lapse" in all sorts of ways I wish I had time to go into, but let's just let it stand.

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