by Jorie Graham.
Carcanet, 112 pp., £9.95, September 2002, 1 85754 621 0
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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,

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

receive it.


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:

Yet what would she have if he were to arrive?
Sitting enthroned what would either have?
It is his wanting in the threads she has to
keep alive for him,
scissoring and spinning and pulling the long
minutes free, it is

the shapely and mournful delay she keeps
alive for him the breathing

as the long body of the beach grows emptier
awaiting him

gathering the holocaust in close to its heart
growing more beautiful


under the meaning under the soft hands of
its undoing

(‘Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay’)

This self-scrutinising frame-by-frame style was abandoned when continuous narrative memory was required for the autobiographical poems of Region of Unlikeness (1991). Memory oscillates (I quote from the poem ‘Picnic’) between a past moment (‘It was one day near the very end of childhood’) and the same past moment revived as a present-tense moment (‘After lunch we take a walk’). Spliced into these two ways of ‘doing’ memory is the ‘real’ present-tense moment of writing, which compulsively swerves back into the past-which-is-nonetheless-present:

Should I tell you who they are, there
on thetorn

page – should we count them (nine) – and
then the girl who
was me
at the edge of the blanket,
two walking off towards what sounds like a
stream now?
Pay attention. Years pass. They are still

By the time of Materialism (1993), Graham has taken on the challenge of representing the self not only through its dialectics, or its reflexive consciousness, or its memory, but through its simulacra of the world. It was an astonishing leap of confidence. The poet says, implicitly: ‘If I describe how the world looks to me, you will know who I am.’ Sometimes altogether suppressing the ‘I’, the poems (especially the several inscribed under the single title ‘Notes on the Reality of the Self’) try to make the world think itself through the poet, so that she can, with her interpreting mind, supplement the current of a swollen river, ‘Expression pouring forth, all content no meaning’. The multiple aspects of any observed scene compel her into a perspectival poetry: ‘I see it from here and then/I see it from here.’ No perspective can say ‘there’: each one says ‘here’. Doing justice to all aspects of the ‘unified field’ (which can be seen only aspectually, degree by degree) requires longer poems, or sequences, with mini-sequences inside the main ones. The difficulty of adopting the aspectual principle can be seen in a (relatively short) passage that attempts to grasp the inscape of a crow. I quote only the opening of the passage, in which we are shown first a close-focus painterly examination of the crow’s colours, then colours mutating in motion, then a summary view of the bird as a whole form:

Closeup, he’s blue – streaked iris blue,
india-ink blue – and
black – an oily, fiery set of blacks – none of
true – as where hate and order touch –
something that cannot
become known. Stages of black but without
graduation. So there is no direction.
All of this happened, yes. Then disappeared
into the body of the crow, chorus of meanings,
layers of blacks, then just the crow, plain, big,
lifting his claws to walk thrustingly
forward and back – indigo, cyanine, beryl,
grape, steel . . .

(‘The Dream of the Unified Field’)

This description keeps veering away from the eye into mental categories that attempt to dominate the eye, to bring meaningfulness to seeing. ‘What do I mean by true?’ I mean ‘something that can become known’. What do I mean by ‘something that cannot become known’? ‘An irreconcilable contradiction – as where hate and order touch’. ‘I cannot fix a single blue or a single black as a name for this iridescent surface which, even as I define it as a mixture of blues and a mixture of blacks, mutates, as the bird walks, into a kaleidoscopic swirl of indigo, cyanine, beryl, grape, steel . . .’ ‘If I can’t order the colour into something known and true, can I perhaps order it under a scale, a graded spectrum, going from A to Z, in a direction running from darker to lighter, perhaps?’ ‘No: there is no graduation or direction. No truth there.’ And in fact, as the poet then discovers, all these close-up aspects of colour – irreconcilable, undirected – vanish in a longer view: they ‘disappear into the body of the crow’ only to reappear in the glistening of his pacing walk. (The subsequent lines of this section extend to an X-ray anatomical view, a far-focus glimpse of the crow in flight, and the attempt to fix the form in memory, followed by an evaluation of the truth or falsity of representation.)

In Materialism, Graham proposes that since all resemblances are drawn from the natural world, everything we are and everything we think must be implicitly reproducible in phenomenal terms. She quotes in her preface Whitman’s hymn to ‘appearances’ from an early version of ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’:

We realise the soul only by you, you faithful
solids and fluids;
Through you colour, form, location,
sublimity, ideality;
Through you every proof, comparison, and
all the suggestions and determinations of ourselves.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb,
beautiful ministers!
We receive you with free sense at last, and are
insatiate henceforward . . .
We fathom you not – we love you.

Whitman’s faith in the evolutionary congruence of mind and object guaranteed, for him, the sufficiency of sense phenomena, those ‘dumb, beautiful ministers’, as emblems of sublimity and ideality and proof. The modern poet is more likely to see universe and mind as incongruent, the one resisting any fixed interpretation by the other. The End of Beauty, with its mythological and marital dual self-portraits (as Adam and Eve, as Orpheus and Eurydice), had preserved the individuated subjectivity of the speaking voice. Once phenomena speak through the voice, however, the self is as fractured as the aspectual world. Forward direction is lost as the mind, in fission, hovers like diamond-dust over the scattered phenomena, and will not or cannot go forward to a formed conclusion, a shape.

This predicament yields the frantic exhaustion of ‘The Errancy’, the title-poem of Graham’s 1997 collection, which combines unstoppability and disappointment. As the poem evolves, it dissipates the forces it gains, then briefly forces its dissipation to cohere, and then watches its achieved coherence disperse into inefficacy. One of its summary passages remembers a lost utopia:

Utopia: remember the sense of direction

we loved,
how it tunnelled forwardly for us,
and us so feudal in its wake –
speckling of diamond-dust as I think of it
that being carried forward by the notion of human
perfectibility – like a pasture imposed
on the rising vibrancy of endless diamond-
dust . . .
And how we would comply, some day. How
we were built to fit and
comply –
as handwriting fits to the form of its passion,
no, to the form of its passionate bearer’s
fingerprintable i.d.,
or, no, to the handkerchief she brings now to
her haunted face

What style can we find which will leave behind our ‘feudal’ selves that paid homage to providence, progress and perfectibility, and enable us to find authentically modern selves that admit their tears – their contingency and fractionation and dispersal? The long forward drive of ‘The Errancy’ belies its own professed disbelief in forward drives, while the disappointments of arrival (‘aren’t we tired? aren’t we/going to close the elaborate folder’) are contradicted by the last words of the poem, which reiterate the inescapable cycle of fulfilment and disintegration and dream: ‘oh perpetual bloom, dread fatigue, and drowsiness like leavening I/feel –’

In each of her books, Graham has rethought – by means of style – her relation to the world, a world which has included, besides natural phenomena, persons (grandparents, parents, companions, a daughter), sketches of her personal past, and historical events such as the Shoah, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the perpetual alert of B-52s in the American prairie, or the Kyoto Accords. Still, her most shocking alteration of former habits occurred in Swarm (2000), in which her sentences disintegrated utterly. Her chief thematic preoccupation in Swarm is reflected in the many poems (16 of them) bearing the word ‘Underneath’ in their title. Images of burial, of Eurydice in Hades, of falling into an excavated grave, of a flower being forced back down into its stalk, are matched by language that is (as the title of one poem has it) ‘spezzato’, broken into small bits. ‘Tu ti spezzasti,’ ‘You broke yourself into pieces,’ says Ungaretti. A former way of life is being renounced in a string of ‘nevers’ that forecast Never itself:

All the rest I swear given back whole.
Never again empowered.
Never again a thing that can come shaped
out of a mouth – the world
put in (have I already let it go) the world
taken back out . . .
Leave me the thing that cannot be thought – I
will not
think it.


Swarm is a book more intelligible to those acquainted with Graham’s work than to newcomers, since many of its broken lines gesture back to earlier integrations: Rome, the resurrected Christ, Eurydice. ‘Underneath (3)’, for instance, interrogates the repudiated past and the diction associated with that past. Social phenomena (marriage, daughterhood) have become unreal; disjointed phrases repeat themselves in the brain; material things atomise themselves; birds make not song but noise; concepts, too, make noise unintelligibly filling the mind; as for the body, it weeps. We can see Graham’s repudiation of her former sites of meaning in ‘Underneath (3)’, which holds up to scrutiny the repudiated part and its conventional diction.

explain given to
explain born of

explain preoccupied

asks to be followed
remains to be seen

explain preoccupied

mind all summer long filling with
more atoms more day
noise of the sparrows
of the universals
have you counted the steps

have you counted your steps

is crying now

(is crying now)

(is crying now)

‘Underneath (13)’ declares that ‘the human being and the world cannot be equated.’ The minimalism that is the stylistic consequence of incongruence and solitude and dissolution of past faiths dominates Swarm, in which the decomposition of the sentence is almost complete.

At the most crucial point in Swarm, the speaker sees ‘what appears to be/a pile of wretched flesh in a corner mildly brown’. It turns out that this decaying body represents ‘the first person’, and in ‘the desire now to lose all personal will’ the speaker casts it off:

Look, I can rip it off (the pile in the corner)

(once it beheld wondrous things) . . .

I’m writing this in the cold

keeping the parts from finding the whole again
page after page, unstitched, speaking for sand

Look I push the book off my desk

into the flood

(‘from The Reformation Journal (2)’)

Having destroyed the sentence which (with its forward integration) represented her former first-person self, and having, like Prospero, drowned her book, what is the flayed poet of Swarm to do?

She will bring into being the new volume, Never, its title recognising not only the extinction of the past but also further extinctions present and to come. She resolves to speak as an ‘impersonal’ self whose ‘I’ enunciates natural process, refusing the temptations of subjectivity (‘O stubborn appetite: I, then I,/loping through the poem’). This resolve leads to a series of minutely articulated opening poems, in which the poet, standing at the Whitmanian and Stevensian shore where land and water, sea life and human life meet, contemplates the world in its purely physical motions, the ebb and flow of tides, the formation and dispersal of waves, predatory gulls and their food, the neighbouring woods and their birds. The stylistic aim becomes the registering of sense perceptions not seriatim (as in the earlier phase-by-phase noticing of the colours of the crow) but simultaneously. Graham wants to bring into the lyric a polyvocality like that of those ‘impossible’ opera recordings in which a single soprano sings (by overdubbing) both parts of a soprano duet. Graham makes her single voice multiple by the proliferation of slashes, parentheses standing alone, brackets standing alone, and parentheses within brackets. (A different graphic way of rendering this effect might be an ‘orchestral’ one, in which phrases would appear on an upper and lower stave enclosing a medial vocal line, representing the way in which the thoughts of a single mind counterpoint each other.) Graham’s brackets seem to enclose alternative phrases that the poet does not want to choose between: ‘No peace [of mind][of heart], among the other/frequencies.’ The parentheses sometimes seem to indicate gestures or glances, as when wet sand is said to be ‘glassy (this side), packed smooth (that)’, but more often are used to hold in mutual suspension a number of simultaneous phenomena, each one netted by a parenthesis. ‘Ebbtide’, for instance, shows us a tidepool in which sandgrains advance in ranks to the conjunction of two rocks, where algae signal the entry-point from which the sandgrains will drop down into the pool and become silt. My sentence ‘describes’ this fact, but Graham’s lines want to create it in all its observed particularity and simultaneity. Hence her five sequential parentheses as we arrive at the algae:

signalling the entry point – (swarming but
swaying in
unison, without advancing) (waiting for some arrival)
(the channel of them quickening)(the large
beginning now to touch what had been only
underwater story) –
until the gleaming flow of particles is finally
set down, is

If Wallace Stevens had been writing this, he would have evened up the material inside each parenthesis into a pentameter, and would have written the phrases in apposition:

Algae signalling the entry point . . .
In unison, without advancing,
Waiting for some arrival,
The channel of them quickening,
The large espousal,
Light beginning now to touch what had been
only underwater story.

Such a line-by-line formulation inevitably registers the events as a linear narrative harmoniously advancing. But Graham – with her parentheses for perceptions, her brackets for mental events, her dashes, her virgules, her Ammonsesque colons, and her spiky and suspenseful line-breaks – insists on the drama of simultaneity, as the mind absorbs many perceptions at once (the swarm of algae, their motions, their appearance of waiting for the arrival of the sandgrains, their quickening as the wave pushes in the sand, the meeting of sand and algae, the sandgrains and algae picking up a glister from the light).

Writing of this sort represents an ambitious attempt to make language equal to our perceptive body, with its several senses always in mutual interplay with the phenomenal world. It regularly ensconces perception not only within metaphor (that large espousal of inner and outer) but also within a glancing use of the pathetic fallacy (the algae ‘waiting for some arrival’). Graham asks patience of her readers as she invites them into the cloud-chamber of her attention, where numerous particles collide and part. Matter and antimatter (so to speak) cancel each other out, quanta of energy arise and vanish, electrons are gained and lost, atoms combine into molecules and disintegrate. She really wants us to ‘see’ the motions of the world, if only because they bring us, by analogy, as close as we can come to the motions of consciousness. She is willing to indulge in extreme mannerism in order to reproduce, in what she believes to be an accurate way, the shimmer of body-mind as it attends to nature. And from the motions of nature she wants to build a new and reliable consciousness, one that will be as moving and integral as outworn religious and philosophical systems.

The daring and drama of Never increase as the book flows on from nature to culture. The poems are, in their length and unstoppable language, virtually unquotable in a short review. But to illustrate the drama of the writing, let me cite one passage from ‘Kyoto’, in which Graham asks us to imagine one of those surpassingly beautiful formal allées of Europe, in which a long plot of grass is paralleled on each side by marble statues in contrapposto representing divinities (Diana with her bow and arrow) or mythological beings (Perseus with the head of the Gorgon). Such statues are encyclopedic embodied forms of European culture, with centuries of meaning in the stories behind them, centuries of classical sculpture behind their Renaissance shapes, centuries of conceptual and ethical thought in their allegorical extensions:

the statues you were
looking at [in the
old world] row after row in the beautiful
veined-marble after spring rain (so-called),
weight placed on the one
leg or the other, as if in gravity, although also
in gravity,
arm on a hip, arm holding a
book, a sword, a severed head – a bow, stone
quills – some grapes
proffered, long gazing out, long avenues of
principles, adorned, with self,
representation, naked for the most part,
trees just-in-leaf all down
the lanes,
and everywhere principle, hidden but
manifest, what we have made
link up in the
spine of time [the body of human making]

Having established her allée, and without breaking her long sentence, Graham swings her gaze from the Old World to the New and back again, asking us to engage in a thought-experiment concerning a possible future:

I ask you now [with unexpected ease]
[with rapid extension of mind, leaping] to
come back from
to the statues lining the avenue [mind/gaze
now darting down it with
a strange foraging hope][as if feeding very
quickly and furiously],
ask you to see them blow up: to dust: all ‘at
once’: or ‘one at a time’:
down the wide avenue: lining both sides

The enormous human achievement of art, of shape-embodied thought, a nourishment after which the soul hungers, can (as we know) vanish by swift destruction (or slow attrition). What will we put in place of the integrations we have lost? And who will record those sublime integrations of the past before they disappear altogether?

As the scribe of the past becoming the present, ‘taking it down’ as an amanuensis, Graham records in ‘The Taken-Down God’ (on Holy Saturday) the way in which the carved body of Jesus has been taken down (in another sense) from the cross (to be restored only at the Mass for Easter). After a harrowing description of the steel-thorn-crowned crucified body on the church floor and of the faithful kissing its feet, the poet (brought up in Italy among the dramas of ritual) asks herself: ‘What are you carrying. You must/jettison it now.’ The poem comes to its thematic centre in the baldest of sentences about the devastating loss of culture and the urgent yearning for a new structure of being. No parentheses here, no brackets, no virgules, no colons, only naked need:

We write. We would like to live
somewhere. We wish to
take down
what will continue in all events to rise. We
wish to not be erased from the
picture. We wish to picture the erasure. The
human earth and its appearance.
The human and its disappearance. What do
you think I’ve been about all this
long time,
half-crazed, pen-in-hand, looking up,
looking back down, taking it down,
taking it all down. Look it is a burning really.
See, the smoke
rises from the altar.

This riveting seven-page poem is all drama, in which the reader is urged into active and strenuous co-operation (at the end restoring the Christ to the cross for the churchgoers, but also leaving the church: the last words are ‘you go out this door’).

The pendant to ‘The Taken-Down God’ is the second closing poem, ‘High Tide’, a frightening meditation on the attempt at an ethical response to anonymous human misery. We begin in medias res as the poet sees a deranged homeless woman on the street:

She held a sign that said Emergency [nothing
Handwritten in pencil on the corrugated
strip of boxtop.

Emergency (‘[all caps]’) is, so to speak, the woman’s name: it is the identifying word she has chosen.

She: a woman of sixty: long grey and
matted hair, many greys, also some blue in it:
no light received or
fed back by
her skin: and talking all day to the
forever-descending invisible

As the poet passes, the woman, ‘rags upon rags wrapping her’, notices her. ‘I feel scribbled-in. Something inattentive has barely/written me in.’ Every day the poet sees the woman, and the woman sees the poet: ‘So I come close to her./It takes form and time. Who would have expected it/ would end this way. The journey out.’ When the ‘high tide’ of the poem’s title journeys out, it deposits debris on the shore, and the homeless woman is a piece of that debris. Graham makes the link in a flashback to tangled shore matter, which resembles the woman’s entangled ‘rags upon rags’. (The poem owes something to Whitman’s great self-elegy ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’.)

At dawn one day, the poet (coming back from the emergency room, prescription in hand) sees the woman sleeping on the brick sidewalk, the flap of her sleeping-bag exposing her cheek to the cold. Bending down to fold the flap ‘back over the freezing face, wind rattling wildly in my/paper sack, my face blown flat with cold’ the poet grazes the woman’s cheek – and finds

it’s not
a cheek, it’s paste – or gum and some
admixture –
pull the hair back and it’s not hair, it’s wool
and phloxed-up
random yarns, old woollen caps stuffed in a
face, with gum laid on – or is it latex paint – onto
the cheek, making a chin: it is a puppet: it is a place


holding a place

The mind plunges down into what the empty simulacrum represents: the attempt to hold a sidewalk-place lest another take it, ‘this strict/eight feet of/sidewalk in America’, an America fixed in its fantasy-Utopias, ‘dreaming always of here from an//elsewhere, from a nowhere’. The human debris left behind fuses with the shore debris, and the empty wrappings of the homeless with the empty sepulchre of Christ. The flurrying thoughts that close the poem are those of a baulked mind, weighing questions of indifference and responsibility, the civic ‘created equal’ and the unpayable debt it may impose, now and here:

crashing, the wave deposits its gift:
difference: indifference:

and the long sepulchre: identity: open:
meanwhile in the arms of
elsewhere: someone has pushed the rock aside: I see

the loan: I see its terms (maybe): I see the
payable and
the unpayable: the open-ended credit:
created: equal: look.

It may be that with these closing poems – contemplating the taken-down God and the dearth of civic care – Graham has stretched the lyric to its utmost social extension. After each new book by Graham, I wonder what she will do next. Her courage in remaking her style over the years is exemplary (Yeats: ‘It is myself that I remake’). She has not shrunk from her large self-set tasks: to make language fit the mind’s motions, to accept the burden of uncertain modernity, to describe phenomena passionately and exactly, to claim what she can (in the absence of a common culture) for feeling, for knowing, for thinking. The three languages of her upbringing (Italian, French, English), the countries in which she has lived (Italy, France, the United States), her mixed background (Jewish from her mother and Irish-American from her father) and her mixed fields of academic study (literature and film-making) account in part for her comprehensive, ever-evolving and inclusive view of the physical world and of human identity. She has learned from both classic and modern masters from Dante to Bishop, and her linguistic resource, especially in description, is astonishing. In the long sequences, she risks everything, and perhaps cannot always keep the several parts from flying apart – but the wildness of the risk is itself exhilarating to encounter. One can feel, reading the new work, a nostalgia for the shapeliness of the pure lyrics in Erosion and The End of Beauty. But no good poet can stand still, and to read under Graham’s powerful impetus is to have one’s consciousness, like molten glass, pulled into unforeseen – and sometimes almost unbearable – shapes.

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