Jorie Graham’s work is one of the furthest extensions of the Wallace Stevens branch of late romanticism. She tightens the tension between imagination and reality through book after book, her formal innovations evolving into extreme expressions, warping page layouts with complex revisions of the lyric line.
Graham’s work and career have generated controversy. While some reviewers, like Helen Vendler, have found her work compelling for its assertive poetics, others, like William Logan, have questioned her procedures. Logan argued, for instance, on the publication of Sea Change, that “Graham’s poems in the past two decades have forgotten the cunning deployments of language her earlier poems knew by heart.” He particularly objected to the higher, almost shrill note of insistence that characterizes many of the later poems.
While I also regret Graham’s more polemical moments, their dissonance does not always compromise the complexity of her aesthetic vision. The real source of difficulty is that Graham’s gift eventually reveals itself (from The End of Beauty and Region of Unlikeness onward) to be more narrative and prescriptive than lyrical. Her later manipulations of the line attempt to reassert the imperatives of lyric poetry over those of narration.
By lyric, I mean poetry that is meditative, inward-looking, and privileges the imagination. Narrative poetry is more mimetic, depicting events in the world outside the self. It may seem to privilege reality over the imagination, but that can sometimes be misleading. In Graham’s work, lyric and narrative struggle against each other, sometimes with unfortunate but often with convincing effect.
Graham has always had designs on us. Often she posits little manifestoes, mapping her poetics so the reader won’t get too lost in her undulating, irregular terrain. “Tennessee June,” the first poem in this large selection, warns us that “This is the heat that seeks the flaw in everything / and loves the flaw.” The poetics that search out the disjunctions and cacophonies of discourse, that cleave to the rougher textures of the material world—however dispiriting the obsession with imperfection—are the means of engaging with the world as we perceive it with both the senses and the imagination. “Oh // let it touch you,” she advises.
Tracking the paradoxes engendered by her sensuous flux of syntax is Graham’s lifetime project. She teases out the odd interpolations of culture into nature:
One day: stronger wind that anyone expected. Stronger than
ever before in the recording
of such. Un-
natural says the news.
Only the most obtuse voice could declare the wind “unnatural,” but then the broadcast voice is as mysterious as any other lyric voice and answers only to itself. And if the wind is subject to “recording,” then it is also subject to being domesticated for public consumption as news. Besides, the poem continues, “Also the body says it.” The body itself participates in the parsing of nature, as if distinguishing flesh from spirit, empathizing with the interpretation of wind rather than with the wind itself.
The structures of the human body, the natural and cultural worlds, and the poem itself are Graham’s subjects. But her sense of the tension between inner and outer worlds requires an astringent, harshly delineated form to embody its complexities. She never settles on any particular lyric model or structure but pushes her work further and further into difficult terrain.
“When a poet ceases to write short lines and begins to write long lines, that change is a breaking of style almost more consequential, in its implications, than any other,” Helen Vendler argues in the aptly titled “Jorie Graham: the Moment of Excess.” For Graham, though, it is not only the length of the particular line but the architectural relationship between long and short lines that becomes increasing crucial to her poetics.
The breaking of the line is critical to her poetry as it evolves from more conventional free verse, often in generic-looking stanzas, to the outrage of imposing line and even paragraph breaks in the middle of words, to roughly equalizing the axes of the vertical and horizontal lines (in Sea Change and Place), as if channeling Roman Jakobson. The urgency of formal innovation relents in the last few poems of this selection—new poems that confront the excessive pressure (as Stevens might say) of reality on the imagination.
From the start, Graham toys with line length and arrangement. The poems in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts wield jagged free verse, sharply enjambed, to direct us to the phrase rather than the sentence. This is a relatively conventional procedure, but already Graham is flirting with a promiscuous relationship between long, almost Whitmanesque lines and shorter lines, as in the opening of “New Trees.” This poem echoes Stevens’s late poems in its depiction of natural limitation, but more aggressively pursues the emotional nuances of human perception:
For long it seemed nothing could be made again of these lean branches, seamless, eyeless. Who would ever have known there were so many exits and that vanity could be regained from any one of them?
Neither “reflected” nor “recovered,” but “regained,” assigning value to an unlovable human trait: this is a characteristic Graham touch. The lean branches chime with the long lean lines of this poem, but the shorter lines interrupt in several places with a stutter of enjambment, shifting back and forth between nature and human culture until an invocation of art—“that stark line drawing”—decisively recasts the discussion.
In “Scirocco,” from Erosion, Graham wields brief, indented stanzas of extreme enjambment to trace
the nervous spirit
of this world
that must go over and over
what it already knows,
what is it
so hot and dry
that’s looking through us,
for its answer?
The wind, this nervous spirit of the world, blowing across the Piazza di Spagna, etherealizes both nature and art, the spirit of nature reclaimed so that in some sense it and the poet are one. Yet not quite: it also remains a force to parse from a distance, and maintains its own sentience so that it more than mirrors the speaker’s perception.
The first-person plural includes the speaker and another person, but also the speaker and the force itself, looking through itself as well as them. The response to knowledge already possessed is, of course, self-awareness, and perhaps the positioning of the self among others. The nervous skitter of indented brief lines not only forces the eye to linger where otherwise it might not; it embodies the scratching at the surface of the world that this poem presents as the action of the wind as it blows against the windows of the house in which Keats died.
The End of Beauty marks a distinct turn in Graham’s work. Vendler observes in Soul Says that “Graham has found a different way—the way of thought—to pass from the beautiful to the tragic, and The End of Beauty offers, in consequence, a new sort of poetry.” This, argues Vendler, results in “poems—the best in recent memory—on human self-division.” But even in previous collections Graham’s poems frequently confront division—whether within the self or between self and others, self and world—and work to resolve or understand it.
The divided subject varies from book to book, but “unlikeness,” as a subsequent title claims, is a central motif in her world. Further, the move from lyric to narrative becomes the dominant aesthetic gesture in The End of Beauty, and the attempt to control narrative, to prevent it from subsuming unlikeness and division in a prosaic flux, engenders some of this book’s most arresting ruptures and disjunctions. Her poems through The Errancy challenge narration by imposing a lyric insistence on the primacy of the line. But after this impressive collection, Graham’s poetics jolt from one extreme to another, first crushing the narrative impulse, then indulging it, then warping it with formal acerbity.
In Swarm, narrative syntax collapses into a scattering of phrases, as in “The Veil”:
So steep the representation.
A fourth wall A sixth act.
Breaking the line and sentence to introduce a poem that links public urgencies to private ones imposes a sense of contingency that haunts it through the surprisingly personal closure, which the reader has to regard with suspicion: “Are we alone? I can never think of you / without smiling.” Is that smile innocent, sincere, or sinister?
By refusing the comforts of narration, the poems of Swarm, like Graham’s earlier work and like much of The Errancy, force us back on the interaction of individual words and phrases. This refusal to cohere is both destructive and constructive. As she notes in “Underneath (Sibylline),” “look you have to lift the match to it again /// because this syllable is still intact.” That is, we have to crush even the smallest semantic element to complete this poem about division, category, characterization, desire, and other uses or abuses of language.
When Graham next eases back into a more conventional use of line, as in “Soldatenfriedhof” and some of the other poems in Overlord, she reads more like Joan Didion than Wallace Stevens. The division in these poems is not internal so much as historical, asking rather conventional questions about how atrocities happen and who commits them.
The answer implied in “Praying” (a poem that would later be recast as “Prying”) seems to lie in the self and its ignorance; only humility can purge the self of the arrogance that attempts domination over others. Probably true enough, but Graham has not kneaded this polemic deeply enough into the poems of this volume. The dramatic voices of these poems are often remarkably compelling in the manner of the dramatic monologue, but the muscular narrative excludes the meditative intricacy of her previous work.
In Sea Change (about global warming, sea level rise, and extinction) and Place, perhaps in reaction to having wandered too far into narration, Graham jolts the line even more aggressively, plotting poems that emphasize a trunk-like verticality with horizontal branches. The effect is almost a parody of the idea of poetic form. But it disrupts narration, and imposes on the reader a sense that even the small words require some pondering, that this poetry, with its urgent subject matter, is not a story to flick through while keeping one eye on the TV:
Here it is now, emergent, as if an eagerness, a desire to say there this is
done, this is
concluded I have given all I have the store
is full the
in the counsel has decided the head and shoulders of the invisible have been re-
configured sewn back together melded—the extra
seconds of light like
hearing steps come running toward me, then here you
are, you came all this
distance   (“Summer Solstice”)
Such formal extremity has its limits, and more recently Graham has reverted to familiar configurations in poems on compelling personal topics. The paradox of the human body—that it is both natural and unnatural, a product of nature and of culture—reaches its apotheosis in the new poems at the end of this book.
“Prying,” which revisits “Praying,” apparently describes a complex and ominous biopsy. In it the inward gaze of the post-romantic lyric and the outward orientation of narrative make peace, and the insertion of fragmented phrases push against the rush of narrative. Densely textured and detailed, “Prying” turns its speaker on herself, rhyming with late Sylvia Plath but sounding more like Jorie Graham than ever:
there will be no one come to fetch you back from here—
you must now take this voyage out yourself alone
to reach the peerless place hard to think-in, squint-in,
you will not be embarrassed there is nothing to reveal,
you are a shoo-in as the heroine, new citizen, back since the pleistocene,
being touched up like a virgin engine in the squeaky clean saline
punchline, your soul at plumb-line, magic marker written in print….
This is a powerful personal and deeply inward moment that consoles us all, as best it can, for being human. Graham’s efforts to stretch genres and push inwardness out into the worlds of environmental, historical, and medical trauma invoke a larger task than the contemporary world is prepared to allow poetry to perform. But Graham has demonstrated how vivid and exhilarating the attempt can be, and her many strong poems challenge us to reimagine what poetry can do.