In Jorie Graham’s Poetry, the End of Days and the Pleasures of the Flow

In Jorie Graham’s Poetry, the End of Days and the Pleasures of the Flow

Graham abandoned the tidy compression of her early work — if you’re a fan, you might think of poems like “An Artichoke for Montesquieu” or “San Sepolcro” — a long time ago. Her latter-day poems arrive instead like effusions, Whitmanic gusts of words, as if she’s channeling a sort of emergency scripture. “Runaway” feels as though it has been written for right now, especially as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, but also for a target audience that might emerge 100 years on. You imagine someone in the future flipping through it, finding a record of a great unraveling, and spending hours trying to decipher it. In the poem “I’m Reading Your Mind,” Graham appears to anticipate engaging with such a reader:

Have been for centuries. No, longer. Everything already has
been. It’s not a reasonable place, this continuum between us, and yet
here again I put the olive trees in …

Deciphering it won’t be a cakewalk for that future pupil. The suggestion that Graham can be willfully cryptic is not a new one. (One voice from that aforementioned cacophony, David Orr, referred in The Times to “the fogginess that has been a chronic problem in her work” back in 2005.) Another way of saying it might be that she chooses to err on the side of Team Beauty instead of Team Coherence.

But if you really are new to Jorie Graham’s body of work, you could read her poems, as you might read Nathaniel Mackey’s or John Ashbery’s, less for a quick click of understanding than for the pleasures of the flow. Snippets of her lyrics can stop you in your tracks. Look anywhere: “Stillness in time. Rich concentrate.” “Honeysuckle, / bramble, vine, / vibration / and / web-tremble.” “Take this October. The deep white turn the air is taking. / How many more / Octobers. Is there another October with us in it. / Blood flows in my hand writing this.” “The phone call comes. You pick up the / receiver and hear the / final sounds of the islands. They are murmuring we want to / weep and lie down.” And “on the screen / in the screen / you die. Are / dying. It’s taking / time.”

Over the years, in poems such as “The Surface,” Graham has written skillfully about rivers. Her body of work, too, can be experienced like a river, a current that passes through patches of stillness and turbulence and winds up being all the more mesmerizing because of its constant movement. “Runaway” reminds us that Graham is aware of where that current is heading — for her and for all of us. If the book begins with a wet roar, it ends with a dry whisper, when Graham’s narrator — “accidentally / listening” — picks up a signal from the home that humanity seems determined to leave in ruins. This last poem in the book is simply called “Poem,” and here the churn of Graham’s language settles into a benediction that couldn’t be clearer:

hear it every-
where. The earth
said remember

me. I am the
earth it said. Re-
member me.

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