Synopses & Reviews
What does it mean to be fully present in a human life? How in the face of the carnage of war, the no longer merely threatened destruction of the natural world, the faceless threat of spiritual oversimplification and reactive fear does one retain one's capacity to be both present and responsive? And to what extent does our capacity to be present, to be fully ourselves, depend on our relationship to an other and our understanding of and engagement with otherness itself? With what forces does the sheer act of apprehending make us complicit? What powers lord over us and what do we, as a species, and as souls, lord over?
These are among the questions Jorie Graham, in her most personal and urgent collection to date, undertakes to explore, often from a vantage point geographically, as well as historically, other. Many of the poems take place along the coastline known as Omaha Beach in Normandy, and move between visions of that beach during the Allied invasion of Europe (whose code name was Operation Overlord) and that landscape of beaches, fields, and hedgerows as it is known to the speaker today. In every sense the work meditates on our new world, ghosted by, and threatened by, competing descriptions of the past, the future, and what it means to be, as individuals, and as a people, "free."
"The title for Graham's best book in at least a decade introduces several obsessions at once: it's the code name for American plans on D-Day, a sign for the absence or perhaps presence of an omnipotent God, and a term for arrogant nations (the U.S. among them) who have forgotten, or never learned, the lessons of the Greatest Generation. Graham, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for The Dream of the Unified Field, pursues familiar metaphysical questions through the long lines and longer sentences of meditations such as 'Upon Emergence': 'Have I that to which to devote my/ self? Have I devotion?'; a series of poems with the title 'Praying' take the question to its ends, often ending up angry, guilty or shocked. One anecdotal poem depicts her trying and failing to feed a homeless man; a more abstract effort imagines 'a horrible labyrinth, this/ history of ours. No/ opening.' Most striking of all are works closely tied to D-Day, to Normandy (where Graham now spends part of each year) and to servicemen's own testimony, which casts contemporary fears into ironic relief: 'Are you at war or at peace,' Graham asks, 'or are war and peace/ playing their little game over your dead body?' The vague, notebook-like qualities of Graham's last few efforts baffled some admirers, who will likely, and rightly, see these clear and powerful poems as a return to form." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This is a difficult, fragmented set of poems from a brilliant, sensitive, searching mind. Graham is struggling with questions of war, suffering, death, and history, writing from the beach in Normandy, wrestling with the history of Operation Overlord, the military's code name for the D-Day invasion. What fascinates me most in these poems is how the voice and tone of the poems shifts as Graham moves from her own struggles with finding a workable sense of self grounded in the present, to the intense clarity of the poems that express the lives of the soldiers of Normandy. Here are some lines from 'Upon Emergence': ' Have I that to which to devote my / self? Have I devotion? The shoes, the / clothes? The drowning of appetites, as the chariots / were drowned?' and then: 'We live in time. It is a / holiday. All around it timelessness which will begin again, / yet still, for now, sticks to one time like remnant rain.' Located so precariously in time, she records various attempts to pray, as in 'Praying (Attempt of May 9, "03)': 'I don't know where to start. I don't think my face / in my hands is right. . . . I know I know nothing. I know I / can't use you like this. It feels better if I'm on my knees . . . Please show me mercy. No please show / a way.' Again and again her voice shifts, her confidence seeming all but non-existent, pleading, searching, suggesting ideas and rejecting them outright. As she writes in 'Praying (Attempt of Feb 6 "04)' 'Whom I stand-in for is not clear.'
Then, in a three poem sequence, each entitled 'Spoken from the Hedgerows,' Graham, working from histories of the D-Day invasion, gives voice to the individual soldiers of the Normandy invasion. Everything slows down, becomes direct, precise, brutally lucid: 'Gliding. Miles of silence. More. / Unknown to us release point / turns out to be directly over enemy strongpoint. / The tow alone takes 600 rounds. / We have neither darkness nor surprise to help us. / Shrapnel lacerates the canvas skins. / Equipment tears into bodies. / If a man jumps to the aid of his fellow / he unbalances the already wobbly craft.' For those who lived through the day (and of course, by extension, for those who did not) there was no greater certainty than the unity of the soldiers: 'At its heart comradeship is an ecstasy. / You will die for an other. You will not consider it a personal / loss. . . . a man literally insists / on going hungry for another. A man insists on dying for / an other. . . . A last piece / of bread. And gladly. You must understand what is meant by / gladly.' Perhaps the key to this collection of poems is the distinction between Graham's restless, relentless search for meaning, and the powerful, devastating certainty of the word 'gladly' in 'Spoken from the Hedgerows.'" Reviewed by Peter Walpole, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
"Forthright, compassionate, and ironic, Graham has crafted poems of lyrical steeliness and cauterizing beauty....Graham writes with breathtaking precision..." Booklist (Starred Review)
"...Graham's cascading ruminations can turn too theatrical and self-conscious..." Library Journal
"[A] gripping, intimate, and expansive exploration of the way the despair of war connects civilizations....Overlord will take its place among the best political writing of our time." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
About the Author
Jorie Graham is the author of nine collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won the Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University.