Indigo, Cyanine, Beryl

Helen Vendler

  • Never by Jorie Graham
    Carcanet, 112 pp, £9.95, September 2002, ISBN 1 85754 621 0

The new volume of poems by my Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, in its US edition, bears on its jacket a detail from Vermeer’s The Astronomer, showing the hand of the astronomer as it touches, almost affectionately, the zodiacal globe it is about to spin. Although the star-gazer cannot make physical contact with his remote field of vision, the caressing way his finger lies on the surface of the globe suggests his intense intimacy with the sky. The window that sheds light on the globe, enabling the astronomer to see it, presents the light of earth meeting the light of mind. We might take the astronomer as a figure for the poet, reaching forever towards a contour of sense-experience deeply known in the body, but unavailable in language except through the mind’s mediation. Even the most intellectual poets begin as children enthralled by the senses through which the world is made known to them. The subsequent obsessive adult drive towards representation, entangling sense and mind in a Gordian knot, poses the problem underlying poetic composition: how to make a third thing, a linguistic one, in which the senses represent mind, and mind re-creates the senses. Every achieved poem is built on the paradox by which an object (the poem) reproduces, on the virtual plane of language, sense and mind moving inextricably together, as they do in every act of consciousness.

How to follow the flickers of consciousness without reducing it to ‘pure mentality’ (that Platonic fiction) is one aim of the poetry of Jorie Graham; another (as Vermeer’s all-comprehending globe suggests) is to accept consciousness as a universal without prior limitation by identity or location; a third is to caress the universe as one examines it. Graham named her marvellous selected poems (1974-94) The Dream of the Unified Field: perhaps Never could be thought of as the dream of a potentially unified (if now disunited) globe. The volume evolves in tandem with human evolution, beginning with the sea from which we came (contemplated by the poet alone at the shoreline) and ending with the altars we have deserted, as she finds herself in a church on Holy Saturday, herself the witness and recorder of ‘the taken-down God’. In Never there are four poems with the word ‘prayer’ in their title (representing that upward gaze so frequent in Graham’s work); there are two called ‘Evolution’ and several mentioning the sea or shore (‘Gulls’, ‘Dusk Shore Prayer’, ‘Ebbtide’, ‘Estuary’, ‘Surf’, and ‘High Tide’). An endnote to the first ‘Evolution’ reveals the state of mind in which Never was written:

During the 1850s, while Darwin was concluding On the Origin of Species, the rate of extinction [for species] is believed to have been one every five years. Today, the rate of extinction is estimated at one every nine minutes. Throughout the writing of this book, I was haunted by the sensation of that nine-minute span . . . My sense of that time frame [and its inevitable increase, even as we ‘speak’] inhabits, as well as structures, the book. It is written up against the sensation of what is now called ‘ecocide’. I was also influenced by, among other texts, the ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (1993).

To feel an extinction (a never) taking place every nine minutes, six species vanishing beyond recall every hour, more than a hundred per day, is to undergo a vertiginous sense of disappearance and irremediability. The world within which we have evolved is not ours for long, not as we have known it. In any case, the result of the fear of species extinction is to make Graham’s lines even more intricate in their observation of the flux and reflux of the natural world. It is only very slowly that she makes her way from the seashore to the divine and human forms with which the book will close – the taken-down God, a homeless woman. The book’s coda portrays evolution as what has impelled us into language, as nature thereby wills the representation of her contours into being. Literature is not a dream, distinct from the real from which it arises; nor is it a fever, a hysterical or diseased condition; rather, it is the painstaking transmutation and elaboration in language of what the expectant mind attentively receives. (My paraphrase does not represent the wave-like pushing of the tides of reality onto the shore of representation fitfully and thrustingly taking place in Graham’s closing lines.)

In order to create on the page the mind in action, pushing and pausing, cresting and deepening, Graham has been driven, over her writing life, to many strategies. Before I return to Never, and its almost desperate moves towards amplitude of poetic response, I want to sum up briefly earlier attempts by Graham to understand the relation of mind and world. In a recent interview (1996), she summed up the tension in her work between ‘encounter’ and ‘resistance’ as it changes over time:

In each of the books, I essentially had an encounter with something I would consider ‘other’, something that resists the will of the speaker. In . . . Erosion, the encounter was primarily with paintings – and what intrigued me about visual representations was their apparently eternal nature, the ways in which the events could not be altered and yet were always taking place . . . In . . . The End of Beauty, the place of paintings in that dynamic was taken by myth . . . In the book after that, Region of Unlikeness, I tried to use the kind of fact we think of as autobiographical as the texture against which I was testing my sense of what knowing, or thinking, or feeling is . . . It was an imaginative vertigo that was very useful for me, at that time. Obviously if I believed that facts were truly real I would just write out the narrative! Rather, because I believe that the thing that can be invented by the presence of the facts – what swirls around them, the cloud-chamber if you will, is real – much more so, perhaps, than the who-did-what-to-whom – I used it in that book.

The book entitled Materialism in fact tries to use physical place as the resistant material.

These remarks concern the thematic or imaginative material for the books under discussion; I want to add a description of their corresponding stylistic ventures. The antiphonal symmetries of Erosion (1983) showed the mind in dialectical motion; in and out, back and forth. We find there a naked early phrasing of the longings that continue to animate Never: a desire that our sense questings should ‘mend’ and ‘change’ us. To this, Graham adds that the world also desires, as we receive its conflicting aspects, that we should ‘mend’ or ‘calm’ its incoherences in our reciprocating consciousness:

Oh how we want
to be taken
and changed,
want to be mended
by what we enter.

Is it thus
with the world?
Does it wish us
to mend it,
light and dark,
green

and flesh? Will it
be free then?
I think the world
is a desperate
element. It would have us calm it,

receive it.

(‘Scirocco’)

The dialectical back-and-forth of Erosion proving too Procrustean a form for the myriad and flexible motions of the mind, Graham next resorted, in The End of Beauty (1987), to a filmic style, freezing the mind’s action, frame by numbered frame. The paradigm for this step-by-step process is Penelope unweaving as she weaves, keeping alive in her mind Ulysses’ desire for her by prolongation of her own desire for him:

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