T. S. Eliot, the ‘old possum,’ was being ironic and provocative when he called April “the cruellest month,” but that remark, along with Chaucer’s accolades to April in the opening lines of his Canterbury Tales, must have something to do with the designation of April as National Poetry Month.
In the spirit of this time of year (for me a time of return and renewal, of discovery and new beginnings), I’ve composed a review of a fine book of poems: Jorie Graham’s Place; New Poems (New York: HarperCollins / Ecco, 2012). I’ve had my eye out for this book since I first saw it reviewed almost a year ago, and a few days ago I happened upon a copy at Powell’s Books in Portland.
I know from experience that contemporary poetry is of interest to a good number of people here on Bainbridge. In my book group, for example, we set aside dreary nonfiction for a month and devote a long summer day to a ‘retreat’ at the home of Marie and John Marrs on Lake Sutherland. Each member of the group reads one or two poems, sometimes of their own composition.
In addition to our meeting at the lake, this year’s readings, all addressing the theme of ‘Sense of Place,’ will include a small, seminal volume of poems, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. (It’s a prescient, even a prophetic book, more true and beautiful today than when it was first published.)
Jorie Graham has her own Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, awarded in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field. Her excellence has been recognized with many other prizes and awards. As a poet she is not as accessible as Billy Collins, or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. She’s ‘brainy,’ and ambitious; she has a distinctive voice, and it’s unpredictable, always pushing against the limits of language and form. I think she’s brilliant, and not with the common brilliance of a self-absorbed mind or a dazzling vocabulary.
Graham’s poems aren’t short, and they don’t lend themselves to quick appreciation or tweet-length quotation. They are meant to be lived with, visited time and again. The stretched-out sentences, lightly punctuated and spread on the page in sequences of long and short lines, make startling moves like birds or fish: they develop a narrative, then drop back in time, move to another place, or stop with an arresting image.
The first sentence in “The Bird on My Railing” goes like this: “From the still wet iron of my fire escape’s top railing a truth is making this instant on our clock open with a taut unchirping unbreaking note – a perfectly released vowel traveling the high branches across the way, between us and the others, in their apartments, and fog lifting for sun before evaporation begins.”
On the page, that sinuous quicksilver sentence, loaded with images but weightless in its movement out and upward from a bedroom window, is distributed through fourteen lines. Some contain only a few syllables (“From” and “my fire,” for example); others (“lifting for sun before evaporation”) are like several steps in an intricate dance.
The next sentence changes the pace and the focus: “Someone is born somewhere now.” And the poem expands, over several pages, into a delicate meditation on mortality, and the disembodied song of “the breath-bird / free to / rise away into the young day and / not be—“
So what, or where, is the place to which Jorie Graham directs our attention? It varies from poem to poem, and within each poem. Ms. Graham doesn’t write, as Wendell Berry does, out of a sense of ownership or ‘membership’ in a certain locale. She’s a traveler, her eye is restless, her mind captures things as they happen and are gone.
Several poems are set in specific places. The first, “Sundown,” occurs on Omaha beach in Normandy, on a specific date, June 5, 2009, which another reviewer noted is an anniversary of the day before the D-Day landings. The line where waves meet the sand is “a place where no one / again is suddenly / killed”; rather, it’s the scene of a casual, momentary encounter, as a man on a galloping horse comes from behind the poet and passes her with a smile, leaving her with a heightened awareness of herself, “putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth.”
Another poem, “Treadmill,” involves a bleak and generic setting: “The road keeps accepting us. It wants us to learn ‘nowhere,’ its shiny / emptiness, its smile of wide days.” This road, I think, is the nightmare traveled in Cormac McCarthy’s best-known novel, and Graham’s poem is a passionate protest against all the forces in our distressed culture and a degraded environment that herd us together toward a dance with death.
If this review piques your interest, you may want to learn more about Jorie Graham and the convictions that motivate her imaginative writing. Visit her personal website, which contains links to interviews and reviews of her work. I strongly recommend the interview with Sharon Blackie in the online journal EarthLines, published in August 2012 (www.joriegraham.com/earthlines-interview).
In her exchanges with Sharon Blackie, Ms. Graham offers deep insights on the subject of ‘ecopoetry,’ having been asked, “How do you feel about the term? Do you think it really does represent new possibilities in poetry, or is it just another term for what we used to call ‘nature poetry’?”
From the discussion it becomes clear that there’s a movement, among poets and their readers, worthy of the label ‘ecopoetry,’ and Jorie Graham is among its most passionate and intelligent participants. It’s a movement of conscience, committed to awakening and empowering imagination, in cultural and environmental conditions that endanger its survival – our survival.
“We really need to imagine the as-yet-unimaginable racing towards us, in order to have a prayer of survival. And right now, the imagination, on that front, shuts down into denial. It has grown weak, and we have a generation or two of humans who cannot see, or feel trust or desire, beyond the world their screen provides.” Poetry as subtle and ambitious as Graham’s turns us toward the larger world, and the ‘real work’ we have to do in it.
Early in the interview, Graham mentions Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods, and its account of ‘nature-deficit disorder.’ It struck a deep chord with me when she said that it’s no longer common for children to play outdoors until nightfall – something I remember fondly from my childhood here, through seasons of short days and long.
“What neurologists call ‘unstructured outdoor play’ – hide-and-seek, catch – all the play that moves towards dusk, which activates a more ancient part of the brain, a different memory storage and retrieval, a capacity for imagination, intuition and empathy – has almost disappeared from our world.”
So ‘place,’ and an emotion-laden ‘sense of place,’ are not ready-made but hidden, and must be sought out. The obscurities of hinted meaning and the difficult, fractured sentences of Jorie Graham’s poems serve a purpose: they invite us into a “play that moves towards dusk.”
It’s no accident that the first poem in Place is “Sundown.” And the collection ends with two poems, specific in time and place. “Lapse,” set in Iowa City, 1983, in the evening at the summer solstice, is addressed to her daughter (Emily, to whom the book is dedicated), then nine months old. It’s a retrospective stream of consciousness as, for the first time, she puts her baby in the bucket of a swing set, pushing it higher and higher.
The last poem, “Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011,” also moves towards dusk. It carries a double message. As a tourist, the poet’s attention is focused on a Bronze Age stone carving displayed in a corner of the cathedral, thought to represent the legendary Irish king Nuadha, who lost his arm in battle and, no longer ‘whole in body,’ was forced to quit his kingship. Then, fitted with a new arm made of silver, he replaced the bad king who had succeeded him. (Google ‘Tandragee man’ for an arresting image of the king, holding his prosthetic arm in place.)
The poet’s responses to this “piece of / stone, large as an infant, / hundreds of / pounds,” are interrupted by awareness of a wedding rehearsal nearby in the nave of the church, and again by thoughts of many limbs lost, and the borders of nations redrawn, in modern wars: violence and loss, no other future. But the poem ends with an exchange between the poet and the bride-to-be: “May your wishes / come true I say, / guidebook in hand. Tomorrow, she says. I can’t wait until tomorrow.”