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Celebrating a World in Danger

Bin Ramke

Never: Poems

Jorie Graham
Ecco/HarperCollins, $22.95 (cloth

Never is a long word. —Anthony Trollope

8 Jorie Graham’s previous book, Swarm, ended with “Eurydice on History,” a poem in the voice of a mythical figure who died twice, once bitten by a snake on her wedding day, and then again while being led out of Hades by Orpheus, who could not help but look back to see if she was following:

With what is said,
in this dusk face me,
with our muscles’ work, extravagant,
as if the very pouring-out-to-sea
or the lingering motherland
that cannot recognize
its own men
or recognize its enemies

In choosing to end Swarm with a figure speaking from the eternal present of Greek mythology—or possibly from one of its many later resurrections, such as Rilke’s version (“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”)—Graham sounded a note to be held until the next book. With Never, that note has been answered and extended. The Eurydice poem was an evocation of an eloquent archetype, a female ear listening out of the underworld. The poem’s voice emanated from the world’s timeless interior rather than the cities and institutions of its surface, hinting at a renewed oracular vision and attention to the natural order.

The first poem of this new book speaks from the surface in a woman’s voice. It is the voice of a self at the edge of the water, a self whose first obligation is to observe:

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-infolding,
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current . . .

The image is of fecundity under a watchful but unjudging eye, of the tiny movements and moments of life, “each a minuscule muscle,” arranging themselves in orderly patterns, being pushed by the resistance of water,

. . . a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change—
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. . . .

In this poem, the first of three to share the title “Prayer,” the word “never” makes its first appearance, and thus Graham begins a relentless investigation of her hope for (and fear of)the force of change, of mutability. In part an updating of Charles Olson’s “what does not change is the will to change,” Never is also a new illumination of Ovid’s fatalistic metamorphoses. The movement of the book is orderly and lucid, enacting an evolutionary progression. It begins with life-patterns observed within the wave (“I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.”) borne by the arrow of time to the intertidal fringe, then moves onto the shore, speeding through evolutionary dimensions into a realm of consciousness and self-consciousness—and then further up, in the later sections, to the hill and its city (how American! even if taking place sometimes in Italy) and its institutions, and finally culminates in the three long meditative poems of section five. Clarity and precise ordering are not always possible but are most closely approached when the poems contemplate borders, semipermeable boundaries between sea and land, present and future, youth and age—hope for clarity and desire for order are changes rung throughout the book. The poem “Solitude” is both startling and oddly representative in its directness, repeating the phrase “the subject of mutability” twice in the opening stanzas, then setting up a dialogue between “Editor” and “Speaking subject” on the subject (more or less) of evolution: “Editor: their possessing the power to continue [to improve?] / by their own inherent activity, / delivering those improvements to posterity—?”

And yet, the path is sinuous—“The branchful of dried leaves blown about at the center / of the road, turning on itself is it a path: / snake: . :. .” The serpentine look of the print on the page suggests the internal movements of the book as a whole, as well as the progression of each poem individually: how the poems are made is what the poems are, and do, and mean. For instance, an idiosyncratic use of spacing and punctuation has been part of Jorie Graham’s equipage for several books, but here she uses these devices more subtly; the use of colons and brackets no longer feels daring, but necessary. Among the effects of this signature typography is the gentle suggestion of what classicists call obelizing, i.e., the marking of a word or passage to identify it as spurious or corrupt, or as restored, as in a fragment from The New Simonides:

[They came as swif]t as dee[r, the sons of Boreas and Oreithyia,]
. . . [They stirred the] sea up from its murky bed . . .”

Compare this to a passage from Never’s “Estuary,” for example:

between water and sky is empurpling [lay me down
at my lord’s right hand][though I am white with
listening (looking) I will not away][lay me
down by my lord’s right hand][we are
bloodthirsty, but after legend][after easily
removable booty] strong with gods’ consent

Graham’s “obelizing” makes for a poetry full of rhythmic complexity and moments of semantic uncertainty which are fundamental to the reader’s experience of the poem. The necessary interposition of the reader into the interstices of Graham’s poems is like the necessary scholarly interventions into the ancient texts—if reading is to occur at all, it must be a constant becoming, an active engagement. It may be that Graham is providing for us some evidence of how her own mind operated during the process of composition, but I suspect the real point is the temporary insertion of the reader into the determination of the text and its meaning: “what exists without having been perfected” may be an instruction the poem provides about access to itself and to the world.

The American Romantic tradition—sharing with European motives the hope to regenerate the human spirit, but adding the practical, Emersonian ends which intense meditation and perception of the natural world can produce—is powerfully evoked and questioned in Never and at times vitally reenacted. An early poem, “Afterwards,” like “Prayer” begins by establishing the speaker in nature: “I am beneath the tree. To the right the river is melting the young sun. / And translucence itself, bare, bony, feeding and growing on the manifest, / frets in the small puddles of snowmelt. . . .” The task is to look, and to be conscious and a part of, while apart from, this world:

. . . It was supposed to become familiar
(this earth). It was to become “ours.” Lest there be nothing?
Lest we reach down to touch our own reflection here?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
lean forward and look in: the raggedness of where the openings
are: precision of the limbs upthrusting down to hell:
the gleaming in: so blue: and that it has a bottom: even a few clouds
if you keep
attending: and something that’s an edge-of: and mind-cracks: and how the
poem is
about that . . .

In a lecture she gave a decade ago, during a previous war, Graham made a comment which may reveal why her poems have at times been called “difficult”: “It seems to me that perhaps the primary function of the creative use of language—in our age—is to try to constantly restore words to their meanings, to keep the living tissue of responsibility alive.” Keeping the living tissue of responsibility alive means attending to the evanescent and the persistent alike. How to do this is the central problem of Graham’s poetry, and neither the uninitiated “common reader” nor the sophisticate of contemporary trends in poetic discourse has the key to her technique. There is no key. There is in fact something of an ad hoc approach to each poem, even though the poems cohere and reiterate from book to book and throughout each book, especially this book. And yet what we learn from reading one poem does not necessarily prepare us for reading the next, because language is indeed a “living tissue” and meaning, the way meaning works, has changed during the poem, and between poems.

The flexibility required to both maintain what persists and concurrently yield to what has changed produces a poetry of . . . wafting. Of a movement emblematized by those right-hand margins where enough of the lines fold back upon themselves to make a darkened serpentine curtain (what Hogarth called “the line of grace and beauty”) against the page, as if moved by a force of wind or of mind. But while I can speak of the shape, the actual and not “merely” metaphorical shape of these poems on the page, the poems are not primarily concerned with their shapes but with making meaning. The poems are aware of the shape of meaning, and that it wavers, wafts itself onward and changes over time and space.

This may be Graham’s most American book. True, her Italian and French origins are part of the richness of its syntax and vision, as in all her work, but here the poems’ trajectory parallels the current cultural complexity of this country. The concerns of the poems are frighteningly urgent—an alertness to the way place bears upon the subject and determines it (one might call this awareness environmental, if not ecological), a sensitivity to the way the self and its language fracture under pressure (the politics of the moment). Between the past and the future, which is where we always find ourselves, of course, the poem and the idea of poetry inserts itself

. . . Until the clearing (as if overheard in

(in the voices of others that change
without explanation) rises
again, inside, so near, in the mind, neither in foreground nor in back,
light flowing suddenly more freely there where the edges
are, and the clearing
is entered—look: there is no one way to go—
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . in America,
where the dream is of course gone because it has
too much power, one of the few,
hiding from disbelief,
and it’s not a dark place, you know, though so inward,
and it takes up all the room.

Never is about enactment—the taking on and in of the world via perceiving and describing—and being “pushed forward from behind” by that action, and thus becoming a way of saving the world. There is no question the world needs saving; the world is, in its constant need, never saved but always salvageable. Some would start by enlisting in causes, or by listing endangered species. Graham is saying that in addition, the poet must write poems that are responsive to the dangers. Writing enacts itself in “The Taken-Down God,” which begins with the poet having stepped outside a church to write, while inside the church (it is Easter Saturday) the crucifix has been symbolically taken down awaiting tomorrow’s resurrection. “Erasure” is a quiet word, while “extinction” sounds louder, and yet

. . . Thought “if I bring my pen to bear inside something
will rip.” But what? 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 final implication of Never is that if we take account of the present, beginning with the sensuous body, located in its environment, progressing to the mind which body and place inform, we create a self that can begin to truly see and thus to know this world to which it belongs. A world in danger of erasure is what Never celebrates. <

Bin Ramke is author of seven books of poems, including Massacre of the Innocents, Wake, and most recently Airs, Waters, Places. He edits Denver Quarterly and teaches at the University of Denver.

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review

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