Manacled to a Whelm
April 19, 2018
Apr 19, 2018
9 Min read time
Jorie Graham’s Fast marks the fraught presence of an environmentally inclined writer whose most immediate environment, the body, confronts a foreclosed future.
Ecco, $25.99 (cloth)
Poems live in a kind of literary ever-present. When we write about them, even poems whose authors are dead, we use the present tense. As Jorie Graham stages it in her thirteenth poetry collection, Fast, that very presentness provides provisional solace in the face of catastrophe. The volume marks the fraught presence of an environmentally inclined writer whose most immediate environment, the body, confronts a foreclosed future. For example, the eco-polemic “Deep Water Trawling” rages against the harmful fishing practice but manages to pull away from its ravages to declare: “Years go / by. Imagine that. And there is still a speaker. There will always be a speaker.”
Writing about writing is not new for Graham, but the Anthropocene loads the notion that anything ‘will always be’ with dramatic irony.
Writing about writing is not new for Graham, but the Anthropocene loads the notion that anything “will always be” with dramatic irony. In “We,” Graham uses her most recent poetic innovation, the arrow-as-punctuation-mark, to imagine that “we keep doing thisàI write you read—a / with-time-nessà.” Whereas Shakespeare believed the poem to be form of immortality through which he could live in the unknown yet desired future, Graham approaches the poem as a form of presence, “as here now/on this page,” because the future—replete with extinctions, devastating lab results, a mother’s dementia, a father’s death, war, and degraded discourse with bots—is already here, known and undesired.
In “Prying,” Graham believes poetry can hold the future at abeyance:
we are not there yet, still have the void here to traverse
across this page which is a wide expanse and will these very words if perfectly
see me through
was the question
While each word of the long lines above offers a material invitation to cross the void of the blank page, the very length of the lines and words like “yet” and “still” and “here” seem bent on prolonging the present, postponing an arrival at a “there.” Exemplifying what has been Graham’s signature formal mode since her 2008 collection Sea Change, these long lines are punctuated by a cascade of short ones, as if a trapdoor opens and the poem has no choice but to fall through. The form literalizes Emily Dickinson’s: “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down –,” and this funereal feeling haunts Fast, whose subjects include ecological crisis, the erosion of privacy in the digital age, and the facts of living in a dying body.
These cascading short lines also serve as a reminder that Graham can craft beautiful lines and breaks but that her poetics do not prioritize easy beauty. And why should they? Graham dedicates “Prying” to a doctor of surgical oncology at Mass General who appears in a “disposable surgical blue hair-cap,” like Virgil for Dante, to guide the speaker through the hell of surgery. By the time the speaker pauses to ask who is listening, invoking John Stuart Mill’s definition of lyric poetry as “utterance overheard,” what erudite pleasures of allusion and literary history the reader may be inclined to seek have already been overmastered by the long-lined urgencies of the pre- and post-operative body. It is fair warning that the first sentence of Fast evokes a bondage to chaos: “Manacled to a whelm.”
Form counters chaos, as poets have long known. But in the opening, most whelming poems in Fast, form is not fixed: one paragraph-like stanza is littered with dashes, the next with arrows; one stanza has standard spacing between lines and characters, the next has such condensed lines that there is almost no white space on the page. (It is not for nothing that Graham thanks the book’s designer for her “forbearance” in the Acknowledgements.) These full-to-the-point-of-bursting pieces build on Graham’s career-long challenge of the logical restrictions of open form and dare the poem to be a poem even as it breaks contracts with punctuation, sentence, and stanza. The most strenuous poems in this collection resist a single form for the same reason that the speaker in Fast resists embodiment, resists appearing in the poem as a situated “I”: because to have a body means to die in one, and “time will go on and you / will not be in time.” As the book proceeds, more regularized poems—including the title poem and meditations on the poet’s parents—offer more opportunities for the reader to pause, parse and, perhaps, breathe.
Graham generates and answers a compelling formal question rooted in her experience as a cancer patient: What does a poetics of metastasis sound like?
As the reader pauses, Graham generates and answers a compelling formal question rooted in her experience as a cancer patient: What does a poetics of metastasis sound like? For so long Graham in her philosophical poetry has tracked the peregrinations of the mind, sounding, as many readers have observed, like Wallace Stevens. Now that her attention has occasion to drop down into the body, Graham finds in associative, accumulative rhyme the iterative sound of alarm. As in: “silvergrey tulle, vestigial, lacteal, millennial—[colonial]—.” Or: “your attitude, / multitude, your eternally misunderstood solitude—do you do adulthood, husbandhood, / motherhood—listen: sap in the dogwood—not like blood, crude, flood lassitude—I want you/to come unglued.” Following a sensual logic rather than an intellectual one, these passages offer disarming pockets of zany delight to lovers of language, even those who may be taken aback by Graham’s new snowballing sound. “I’d say poetry wants to be contagious, to be a contagion,” Graham told the Paris Review in a 2003 interview. “Its syntax wants to pass something on to an other in the way that you can, for example, pass laughter on. [Poems] want to go from body to body.” Almost fifteen years later, Graham writes in Fast: “in my flesh these / rapid over-rhyming cells,” suggesting that the poetry of metastasis goes from the body of the poet to the body of work.
Sensual as they are, Graham’s poems are not often read as feminist. One reason for this may be Graham’s resistance toward foregrounding an embodied, gendered speaker, a strategy that has frustrated readers who want vicarious, physical access to the philosophical movements of her poems. Another reason for this may be the fact that The Guardian, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have, over the past decade, only enlisted men to review Graham’s books. I want to make a feminist claim for Fast, and invite others to do so, beginning, perhaps, with the poem “Incarnation,” which features a remarkable scene of birth that is saturated with a love so profound that it can only be expressed by regret: “Gauzy light surrounded you and / you were gone, you were in, you were unwrapped from non- / being, it was the last I saw of you.” After recasting childbirth as the moment a daughter is “gone,” Graham describes the baby’s respiration as an “addiction to breath,” adding: “I watched it start / you up, too late too late.” Rather than celebrating a daughter’s life, the speaker confesses to the newborn: “I wanted you to stay inside, my life, you, coming out of un- // shape, you permanent now, dying and permanent” (52). Simultaneously defying and outdoing the emotions a new mother is supposed to have, the poem expresses a ferocious love whose logic, followed far enough, would exempt a child from having to negotiate the living that always kills us.
I have a friend who recognized, not without sadness, that by giving birth she had brought into the world the person who, if she’s lucky, will bury her. But that person, your child, will still have to die, is what Graham’s poem is saying, a realization made more immediate by two kinds of knowledge: one, that the earth the child is born into is jeopardized by ecological crisis, and two, that the same body that offers an environment for the healthy fetus to grow also offers an environment for cancer cells to grow. The eco-feminist reading for Fast finds purchase here, with the understanding that the female body in childbirth constitutes a confrontation with the ecology of the body and the vulnerability of that body, and others, to crisis.
To the nineteenth century tradition of Walt Whitman, Graham brings the twenty-first century knowledge that we now stand to lose the earth we sometimes call home.
The bodies in crisis in Fast include those of the speaker, her mother, and her father, and they appear in, or in relation to, the distinctive ecology of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In poetry as in life, Cambridge often signifies academic prestige, summons the lives of esteemed poets who lived or are buried there. Indirectly, Graham’s book reminds us that this intellectual picturesque landscape is also the site of sickness and treatment. Between Longfellow’s house and the monumental trees in Mount Auburn Cemetery? Mount Auburn Hospital. The T stop after MIT on the Red Line? Mass General. The woman standing in line behind you at the sandwich shop in Porter Square? Wearing a stethoscope around her neck. In other words, this book accounts for a Cambridge ecosystem that includes the staff and patients of the world-class hospitals there, an ecosystem where the splendid scarlet oak in Mount Auburn Cemetery gains nourishment from decaying corpses. The book communicates the experience of living in, and in proximity to, bodies in crisis, bodies seeking treatment, and bodies beyond repair.
The poem “The Medium,” for instance, presents a gorgeous view of the Charles River charged with the inevitability of loss:
And down there below me again the riversurface
stares. It is all even now. It glints and gleams in tidy rows and rolls and dents of
wind. The day is
long. It flirts with nothingness. It always does.
In “Shroud,” it is autumn and everything is dying or already dead, the decomposition of organic matter providing compost for fungal growth. Graham observes: “on the way home I saw mushrooms pushing up through rootsàI wish to belong to the / earth as they doàsaw an abandoned tugboat on the hillside and some trees still carrying their / colorsàwild yellows and redsàas if they were trying to indicate this could still be called / home.” To the nineteenth century tradition of Walt Whitman, who believed that decomposition offered a version of earthly belonging (“O grass of graves”), Graham brings the twenty-first century knowledge that, in addition to losing the bodies we live in, we, and the children that lived in our bodies, now stand to lose the earth we sometimes call mother and sometimes call home. No living thing in Fast is invulnerable to the future.
Look, the leaves are about to lose their trees.
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April 19, 2018
9 Min read time