Sep 3 2023
Poetry review – TO 2040: Roger Caldwell considers the sometimes-enigmatic poetry of Jorie Graham
In the opening poem of her new book Jorie Graham lets its title (‘Are We’) run on into the first line which begins “extinct yet”. To ask whether we are extinct is a sort of non-question – obviously, in order to ask it we must still be living, and to answer it in the negative involves a self-contradiction. It is thus a question that can neither properly be posed nor properly answered, and here comes without a question-mark. In this it is like other (non-)questions in the poem, and indeed in many other of her poems. Of the animals (or of their memories) the narrator asks “Are they // still here. Are we // alone.” Or “What was / land // like. Did it move through us”. These are unanswerable in that they are unfocussed, inchoate: we must also ask to whom the questions are addressed, and who is asking. If the “we” refers to the human race as such, it is significant that the questions partially inhabit the past tense. There is too the shadowy “I”-figure of the asker of questions, the persona of the writer who while she is “taking all this / down” is visited by a raven (who demands to be incorporated into the poem). But the ontological status of the raven is in question:
Is this a real encounter ask. Of the old kind. When there were ravens. No says the light. You are barely there. The raven left a long time ago.
Nevertheless the raven is the most tangible presence in the poem – “Did / it not / enter here // at stanza eight.” And when it leaves the poet is able to affirm that “the raven is golden”, that “it lifted & / went, and it went”.
In ‘Day’ a woodpecker takes over a similar role: the bird “must have come here from somewhere far away, I think”. When it leaves the narrator finds herself “listening for day with all I’ve got. What have I got.” In ‘Dis-‘ when in hospital for medical treatment, she likewise senses a bird-presence: “Please try again / he says from the / booth.” Birds make for (ghostly) presences in a number of these poems; in ‘Translation Rain’ “Evening sets. / I listen to the chatter. / I remember the clatter of sudden rain. The clapping of it onto the / hard soil. / The birds roost.” There is “one singer briefly singing. Then silence.” The poem ends ominously: “We must all wait together. / There is no way to know. / It [that is, the rain] did not come.”
Graham does not so much describe what will happen in the year 2040 as address a future that has ceased to be a future. In the title poem we are told of a message that was “put in yr hand but not opened. You were busy. There was little time.” Later in the poem we find that “It was put to your account & // burnt. What was it, u must remember, what was yr message, what were u meant to pass on?” Here for once the question comes with a question-mark as if it were no longer rhetorical but actually demanded an answer. This probably best comes in Heidegger’s terms – Heidegger is for her an important philosophical presence – to the effect that man’s role on earth was to be a “shepherd of Being”, a task in which he has spectacularly failed.
Jorie Graham, now 73, has been a major presence in American poetry for a good many years. She attracted serious critical attention from early on in her career, not least from Helen Vendler (who is one of the dedicatees of the present volume). Vendler. acknowledging her refusal to compromise, once stated that she is “determined to track ongoing mental action even at the risk of diffuseness”. That is, though at times her poetry magnificently takes off with a rush of images and concepts, it is not always certain where it is going to land: we feel that we are being pulled in too many directions at once. For another in general appreciative critic, Adam Kirsch, her poems are obscure because they seem unfinished (which may be another way of saying the same thing). He finds that they move too much at a level of abstraction to allow for what he calls “phenomenal presence”, that is, a physical sense of lived reality. Yet this is maybe an advantage in the present case where it is a matter of a world disappearing, She quotes from Beckett’s Endgame: “Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.” If Beckett spoke to a world whose greatest fear was that of nuclear devastation, Graham speaks to a world facing ecological catastrophe, and the apocalyptic note is here omnipresent with poem-titles such as ‘The Last Day’. Illness (the ‘Dis’ of ‘disease’) has made her aware of her own mortality – the “claw full of hair” in the shower – and she sees an earth similarly facing doom until “suddenly there is no more of what there / was”. The narrative she offers is a relentlessly gloomy one and one is grateful for the rare touch of humour, even if it is a gallows humour. “How I wish there were an intermission,” she confesses, when “The sweets would arrive on their little wooden trays”. This would at least “let the story cool off / for a while”. But there is no such intermission: we are led inexorably on to “the last moment, // the very last, in which // you can breathe.” Elsewhere we are reminded of “What it is to open & have one’s // last time left.”
It is interesting that the writers of whom she reminds us in this book are not writers of poetry but writers of fiction. In ‘I Catch Sight of the Now’, for example, we catch the manner of Virginia Woolf: “just this day, another day, filled with the only / of this minute, this split in which if I / reach out now I can feel / the years.” Graham urges us to pay attention to the fleeting quality of the passing moments, to make us aware of the evanescence of life. More generally, even insistently so, we feel the presence of Samuel Beckett, not only in the rhythms of his sentences, with all their hesitations and retractions, but also in the taking over of some of his tropes, as in ‘The Quiet’ where she (or her persona) conjectures “Then maybe I’m not born yet. Maybe I am waiting in / the canal”. and goes on to tell us that “I am not born yet & still I am trying / to say yes, yes, here I am.”
Mention of such forbears reminds us that Graham is a poet very much in the modernist tradition and does not always make things easy for her readers. Her typographical demands make for books that come out in unconventional shapes and that have more the appearance of art-books than of collections of poetry. She has the perverse habit of sometimes aligning her lines of verse to the right-hand margin rather than the left, though for no obvious reason, and giving a decidedly odd effect. She is as fond of contractions as contemporary texters are. Graham attempts to justify this shorthand, claiming for example that there is a prosodic distinction between ‘your’ and ‘yr’ and in the use of ‘u’ for ‘you’ the suggestion of a diminution or disintegration of selfhood. That may or may not be the case, but (inconsistently) using ‘r’ for ‘are’ and substituting an ampersand for the word ‘and’, to say nothing of the use of such contractions as ‘cld’ for ‘could’ and ‘movmnt’ for ‘movement’ seem to be mere modernist tics, and are otherwise little to the point. Such cavils aside, as always with Graham there is much powerful and intriguing writing, though it is scarcely a book for climate-change deniers (who are anyway unlikely to form a substantial part of her audience). For the rest of us, though, there is much to admire.