Reviewed by Helen Vendler
New York Review of Books
You have/no rightful way//to live.
This is the apprehension hovering behind Jorie Graham's new volume of poems, Sea Change. The apprehension springs in part from restless guilt concerning the ongoing American war, undertaken in our name by an elected president and an elected Congress. Any writer must wonder what to say when facing so many lives extirpated or damaged by our preemptive strike, so many conscienceless acts reported day by day. Every poet knows the impossibility of writing public rhetoric as such without personal imagination, but how is one to imagine oneself actively into a distant war as both invader and victim? The fear that "you have/no rightful way//to live" arises as well for Graham as for any citizen when contemplating our overconsumption of exhaustible natural resources.
The "sea change" noted with alarm here is a speeding-up, without apparent hindrance, of natural process, so that we feel that we are being pursued, like the dream-Arab of Wordsworth's Prelude, by "the fleet waters of a drowning world." And finally, the conviction that "you have/no rightful way//to live" wells up painfully in late middle age for a poet who remembers the idealism of adolescence, the hope invested in family life, and the uncertain imaginative project of fallible poetry. Precisely because the war and climate change are on everyone's lips, they are particularly recalcitrant to the imagination. And because elegy—including self-elegy—is one of the oldest themes in lyric poetry, how is a poet to make real the decline of the body and a final audit of the self's endeavors? A triple grief—over the moral complicity in war, the entropic disorder of the world, and the coming death of the self—is what chiefly motivates Sea Change. Happier poems are in the minority.
Jorie Graham, to many readers, is one of the most original American poets. She is published in England as well as in the United States, and her poetry has been widely translated in Europe. Her books have been commented on, for the past quarter-century, in many reviews, articles, and chapters in books. Sea Change is Graham's tenth volume of verse: it follows Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Erosion, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, Materialism, The Errancy, Swarm, Never, and Overlord.
To some readers Graham has seemed difficult, diffuse, oblique, unnervingly changeable. It is true that one does not walk easily into her poems, since they are not, in the usual sense, openly confessional, political, or ideological. They have of course revealed aspects of her life (as child, daughter, lover, wife, mother) as well as places where she has lived (Italy, France, the United States), but they take the form of montage rather than sequential narrative. And although Graham has confronted current issues (from perpetually alert B-52s to homelessness to colonialism) that distress a large number of Americans, a poem raising one of these issues, far from being predictable, is likely to include not only introspection but also myth (classical and religious) and historical instances of repellent or thrilling human action (from Inca sacrifice to Greek games at Delphi). Graham is an intellectual poet writing in a society hostile to intellectuality; her range of reference and liberty of expression have sometimes baffled reviewers.
Graham is fundamentally a poet of swiftness and simultaneity -- the swiftness of both thought and time, the simultaneity of the sensous and the mental. Writing that combines the constant fluctuation of the real and the intermingling of body and mind in all perception conveys truths, both external and internal, that are otherwise, in more sequential treatment, unattainable. Thinking of such an intersection of flesh and spirit, John Donne famously sums up its effects: "One might almost say, her body thought."
Against the resistant separateness of words, and the even more resistant teleology of the sentence, Graham has found ways to render both rapidity and simultaneity. Sometimes the devices she invents may not be long sustainable: she seems to have abandoned for the moment earlier attempts to render simultaneity of sense, thought, and event by means of brackets within brackets, or by short sentences so similar in syntax that they overlap as one reads them, like numbered stills in an ongoing film.
In Sea Change, Graham's principal manner of enacting swiftness and simultaneity is simply to proceed headlong, without apparent hierarchy or sorting, through a set of words (for possible actions, for instance), as they flash through the mind, imitating the alternative perspectives of possibility:
...look south, look
north -- yes -- east west compile hope synthesize
exceed look look again hold fast attach
speculate drift drift recognize forget --
These actions of the poem "Later in Life" are the choices open to the mind, instances of "the structure of freedom" available to the poet who tries to remain actively in the present, without nostalgia, without prophecy, combating both Keats's acceptance of decline in "To Autumn" and Stevens's dismay when, after the "credences of summer," "a complex of emotions falls apart." Graham's haste in such a blur of words provokes in the reader a flurry of attempts to keep up: What would it be like to try to box the compass (south, north, east, west), to compile the blessings of the moment, to hope this snatch of time might last, to synthesize its aspects, to extrapolate its potential, to look at it, to look again at it, to hold fast to it, to attach oneself to it, to speculate on its duration, to drift into it, to drift compliantly, to recognize its importance—and, ultimately, to forget?
In her commitment to cataloguing both outer and inner worlds Graham is a descendant of Whitman. But Whitman is not a swift poet; he is, in his curiosity and expansiveness, a leisurely one. Shelley sometimes can come to mind when reading Graham; Shelley, who reaches to catch metaphors from the creating mind, "a fading coal" emitting words that resemble "flashes and sparks." Nothing can substitute for such flashes and sparks as the imagination races through its choices when representing what it feels. Poetry, says Shelley in his "Defence,"
purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel...anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.
Graham knows how to sharpen blunted impressions until they take on freshness and wonder.
The reader is delighted, in Graham's mobile lines of flashes and sparks, by recognizing in them the stratified intensity of poems-in-process, illustrating the "innumerable compositions and decompositions" described by Keats. Rather than summarize such activities, Graham appears to reproduce them as they ceaselessly mutate (while of course she is necessarily selective even when transmitting the appearance of a mind flooded by sensation and possibility). She aims to transmit the "shadowy things" created by the fusion of nature and the emotions as they work their "endless changes" (Wordsworth): but how? Using what means? Graham has devoted herself to imagining, within the restricted scope of lyric, many ways to suggest the instantaneity of perception, consciousness, and conscience.
The basic geometrical shape of simultaneity is the flicker (Keats and Stevens represent it by the word "twitter"). The flicker in one sense "gets nowhere"; in itself it asserts no propositions (although propositions can be scattered within or outside of the fundamental "twitter"). In one of his late poems, Stevens refers to
Birds of more wit, that substitute...
Their intelligible twittering
For unintelligible thought.
Thought is "unintelligible" because it asserts a stability and systematic coherence never present for long in emotional experience; the ever-active imagination, on the other hand, constantly revising itself, adds to its store with theoretical infinity, generating new observations, feelings, and speculations.
In Sea Change, Graham has declared herself for simultaneity to such an extent that she has in effect eliminated punctuation whenever she can, linking her verbal elements of speech by juxtaposition, by a dash, or by an ampersand. Graham is willing to sacrifice punctuation and uniform line-length to her driving subjects in Sea Change: personal death, death of the earth, and death of humane action. Although the end is unimaginable, it is not inadmissible. Graham is acutely conscious of the falsity of bounded and orderly utterance to the conception—impossible to shut out in middle age—of life as a panorama of severely limited horizon.
In the poem "Nearing Dawn," daybreak -- the immemorial image of a new beginning and a new energy -- is impotent against the knowledge of death. The sky whitens; the dark fades; but as the poet's thoughts veer toward extinction, she hardly knows how to speak: she represents herself in scattered ways, first in the second-person singular ("you"), then the first-person plural ("we"), and then the impersonal ("one"). She finds herself stranded in a meaningless universe, "out there/where you are told each second you/are only visiting, & the secret/whitening adds up to no/meaning, no, not for you":
...the balance is
difficult, is coming un-
done, something strays farther from love than we ever imagined, from the
orderly sentence which was a life to us
you have no destiny, no, you have a wild unstoppable
rumor for a soul, you
look all the way to the end of
your gaze, why did you marry, why did you stop to listen,
where are your fingerprints
But before Graham can "look all the way to the end" of her gaze, she has allowed it, as she awaits her own death, to understand the earth as one huge grave of innumerable bodies.
This is not a new sentiment, but the bleak look backward in Graham is vertiginous, ranging from Egyptian entombments to Agamemnon's killing of his daughter to ensure a favorable voyage. (By saying as much, I am "telegraphing" the elements that in the poem appear with no anticipatory landmarks.) The reader rides Graham's imagination as it conjures up history from the fate of dynasties to the inhumanity of war; in "Nearing Dawn" she speaks at first objectively ("the pharaohs") but quietly begins to speak subjectively, mentioning "our bodies" and "our ships":
great sands behind there, the pharaohs, the millennia of carefully prepared
bodies, the ceremony and the weeping for them, all
back there, lamentations, libations, earth full of bodies everywhere, our bodies,
some still full of incense, the sweet burnt
offerings, the still-rising festival out -- cryings -- we will
from it all
nothing -- our ships will still go,
after the ritual killing to make the wind listen,
out to sea as if they were going to a new place,
forgetting they must come home yet again ashamed
no matter where they have been
It is often thrilling to follow, through such mutations, Graham's arrowy delineation of her purpose. And in a passage such as this, the concluding return of our ships, and our shame in the return, suggests, without insistence, our present war and its shocked veterans.
Graham has adopted a new sort of lineation for Sea Change, visible in the quotation above. The first burst of each new utterance starts at the left margin, and its line usually extends quite far across the page. A few subsequent lines begin in the middle of the page and drop down until a new long-line burst begins. Graham's units thus look like this:
Intensity of thought and considerations of rhythm determine the length of the originating line and govern the subordinate dropped ones, which allow for various modulations -- a drop in the voice, a qualification, an addition—all suited to Graham's conversational (for the most part) intonation. The line breaks are sometimes "normal" (occurring at the end of a phrase), sometimes "run-on" for the purposes of speed, and occasionally unnerving, as Graham, following Milton and Hopkins, breaks a word between syllables. Such an unprecedented sort of lineation, orderly but not predictable, is perplexing in itself to the reader accustomed to either formal verse or free verse, and it perplexes, too, when Graham requires of the reader's attentiveness long conceptual leaps from Egyptian sarcophagi to archaic Greek ships. Yet the poet's inventiveness and unpredictability is exciting to anyone bored by unimaginative exposition or derivative confessions, modes dominating so much of contemporary verse. And Graham, unlike such Language Poets as Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe (whose moment seems to have expired), always rewardingly makes sense, whatever her acrobatics.
Current American events have drawn Graham into topical subjects difficult to handle without cliche. In "Guantanamo," Graham first approaches the camp by imagining herself one of those about to be taken prisoner, uttering "the key words, of prayer, before capture." But she then swiftly becomes one of the persons responsible (morally if not literally) for the detention center, realizing with horror that there are
committed in your name, & your captives arriving
at your detention center, there, in your
eyes, the lockup
She corrects herself: the lockup is not in her eyes. Imagination, if we are to speak the truth, can neither impose nor suffer actual imprisonment. It is "protected"; its acts, like sanctioned governmental destructions of persons, places, and animals, will be declared "exempt":
words it seemed were everything and then
the legal team will declare them exempt,
exemptions for the lakewater drying, for the murder of the seas, for the slaves
waters, not of our species, exemption named
go forth, mix blood
The depersonalization of prisoners by the substitution of numbers for names is sinisterly and coaxingly voiced:
...say these are only
counter-resistant coercive interrogation techniques, as in give me your
name, give it, I will take it, I will re-
classify it, I will withhold you from you, just like that, for a little while, it
much, think of a garden, take your mind off
things, think sea, wind, thunder, root
Any attempt at the detachment of the mind from torture will work only momentarily, if at all. Now Graham once again imagines herself as a captive fearing the worst, trying to render herself invisible by keeping still:
...It is a trick of course but sometimes it works. If it
doesn't we will be found, we will be made to
scream and crawl. We will long to be forgiven. It doesn't matter for what,
there are no
Graham's self-inculpation, as she transposes military procedures into interpersonal relations, sharpens her focus on the inhumanity intrinsic to war, whatever the cause, whatever the prison.
It perhaps goes against Graham's natural grain to be topical to such an extent. One can't doubt the existence and force of the sentiments within such a poem, nor the long historical testimony of war and torture supporting them. However, the poems directly referring to contemporary political acts are rare in Sea Change. Graham here contemplates, steadily, her shortening lifespan and certain death "in the right-now forever un-/interruptible slowing of the/gulf/stream." Although she continues to protest the wind of fate (which has made earlier appearances in her poetry), she must now reverse herself and acquiesce in its intent for her, taking on, in her poetry, its very voice. As the hurricane prepares to raze Graham's stone house, it speaks, addressing her mortal self:
I cannot fail, this Saturday, early pm, hurling myself,
wiry furies riding my many backs, against your foundations and your
tree, which you have come outside to stake again, & the loose stones in the sill.
This is Graham at her most metaphorical: the domineering wind ("I cannot fail") that talks like a person ("early pm") is conceived as a multibodied god attended by the Greek furies, attacking the inorganic house ("foundations") and scourging the organic as well ("your/best young/tree"). Graham assures the success of the terrible wind by its malevolent knowledge of her weakest point—"the loose stones in the sill."
It is only as they gradually unfold and painfully elaborate their perceptions that the lengthy poems in Sea Change can exert their full effect on the reader. But something can be said about Graham's typical procedures in this volume. These poems usually orient the reader, at or near their opening, to what has prompted them. Here are a few such prompts, in which Graham notes the new perception or realization that has occasioned the poem:
A sudden disturbing change ("Sea Change"): "One day: stronger wind than anyone expected."
The blooming at the wrong season of the poet's plum tree ("Embodies"): "Deep autumn & the mistake occurs."
The self seen as skeleton ("Day Off"): "[A day off] from the cadaver beginning to show through the skin of the day."
The death of the gods ("Belief System"): "As a species/we dreamed. We used to dream."
Nurturing new life in the face of disaster ("Undated Lullaby"): "I go out and there she [the mother bird] is still of course sitting on the nest."
After the prompt, a Graham poem often digresses, by way of illustration, to different planes altogether (as in the case of the pharaohs and Agamemnon). By the end, the poem has either returned to its origins or, in a devastating way, has speeded to ruin. "Belief System," for example, embodies the proposition -- in itself a cliche -- that creeds of all sorts have a savage potential. As this idea takes on life, Graham first creates a meditation on natural death; she then passes to a narrative of religious atrocity, summoning up not only the crucifixion of Jesus himself as an archetypal lower-case body ("jesus"), but also the adulterous woman saved by Jesus from being stoned, and a woman being stoned to death today by family members convinced of their own righteousness:
comes now the jesus, the body full of its organs,
the parts of the stoning, each part—bone, sinew—
each stone—till she's
gone, she's clothes on the
ground with brothers and uncles around—& the space where the blood flows
there—& the circle of god, the circle of justice—the red eye at the center, the
& the halo of arms still hovering
let fly its stone.
Each reader must decide whether the appalling consequences of the Mosaic and the Muslim law have been brought to imaginative life in Graham's lines. Such enactment risks a great deal in its black-and-white morality (always difficult to embody without making oneself into the vir bonus, the "good person"). Yet if she does not risk referring to the ancient texts as they bear on modern life, the poet must fall silent.
It is perhaps inevitable, "later in life" (the title of one of the poems here), that the poet's mind and gaze should turn more and more to the external world, in order to pronounce some judgment on existence as she has known it. Graham -- whose driving poetic principle has been to prolong sensation in the ecstatic spirit of Goethe's words addressed to the moment, "Verweile doch! du bist so schön!" ("Linger, you are so beautiful") -- now directly encounters the inescapable temporal limits on feeling. Sea Change stages a long duel between the principle of life and the principle of entropy, an engagement carried on, in Coleridge's words, in the time "When Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death."
The power of Sea Change lies not in the duel itself, nor in the presence of death (so evident in Graham's recent Overlord, with its revivifying of the invasion of Normandy in World War II), but rather in Graham's prescient amassing of the multiple sensations and expressions evoked by one's own sense of impending death. We are far from Whitman's elegiac invocation "Come, lovely and soothing Death," and equally far from Dickinson's resurrective moment when "the designated light/repudiate[s] the forge." Modern poets (of all languages) have been forced to invent a new language for extinction, one depending neither on the organic naturalness of death, as in Whitman, nor on the remnants of Christian theology, as in Dickinson. Graham, in this volume, joins Plath, Lowell, Berryman, Bishop, and Merrill in the tenacious certainty of personal extinction, and in the difficulty of finding symbolic equivalence for such a fate.
In this exacerbated moment for Americans, in which torture remains an option for our government, it has become all the harder to imagine death as an organic event, as a spiritual victory, as a completion of selfhood, or as a reward for a life lived well. In the therapeutic culture of the Fifties, Plath cast her German-speaking father as a Nazi and herself as his "Jewish" victim, invoking an analytic model of parental influence that attracted many poets, including Lowell and Berryman. The position of domestic victim is less open now to the poets of America; or at least they must add to it, as Graham has done, the position of active oppressor, even of torturer, the human being to whom personal individuality is meaningless:
...and as for the great mantle of
individuality (gleaming) &
innocence & fortune—look up: the torturer yawns waiting for his day to be
done—he leans against
the trees for a rest, the implement shines, he looks up.
Although I remember with warmth the many Grahams of past volumes -- the young girl of Erosion ravished by Italian painting, the young wife of The End of Beauty troubled by sexual and familial life, the autobiographical young woman of Region of Unlikeness, the adult poet of Materialism immersed in a Whitmanian sensuous world, the philosophical meditative spirit of The Errancy, and the fractured self of Never and Swarm, I cannot regret that Graham, now approaching sixty, has taken on the daunting work of investigating the huge sea change occasioned by the downward drift of the self. Because personal decline can parallel in many ways the precarious state of our planet, as well as our country's descent into war, it is profitably uncertain at times in Sea Change which of these three predicaments most governs a given poem.
Graham's poetry has of course a general consistency, stemming from her gift for striking natural observation and her inclination to large questions. These two qualities have been present in her work from the beginning. But in spite of these continuities, she has steadfastly refused to repeat herself technically, and has explored in successive volumes an extraordinary number of figurative and stylistic means -- in typography, in syntax, in figuration, in voice. Readers have seen the short antiphonal lines of Erosion; the montage of film stills and the dual self-portraits in The End of Beauty; the prose excerpts accompanying the poems in Materialism; the attempts by multiple brackets in Never to show the strata of the mind moving simultaneously, the occasional insertion of a blank dash to express the inexpressible; the alternating lyric and historical poems of Overlord; and now, in Sea Change, the principled refusal of pause as a symbol of swiftness and simultaneity combined.
Graham's searching poems are readable and rereadable for those who find in them the unavoidable complexity of aesthetic and ethical desire, expressed in stirring and beautiful collocations of words uttered in a recognizably contemporary idiom. There are several hundred of those poems now—a powerful streaming torrent. Time will of course winnow Graham's work, but her poems have our zeitgeist embedded within them, to be discovered by future generations.
Helen Vendler is the author, most recently, of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She is preparing for publication her recent Mellon Lectures, entitled Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill.
Books mentioned in this post