In this second post on the poetry of Jorie Graham, I shall be focusing my discussion on the poem “End” from her collection P L A C E, which precedes her most recent book, Fast. On Graham’s website we read:
Throughout, Graham seeks out sites of wakeful resistance and achieved presence. From the natural world to human sensation, the poems test the unstable congeries of the self, and the creative tensions that exist within and between our inner and outer landscapes—particularly as these are shaped by language.
This poem, rather like “The Dream of the Unified Field” (see previous post) is set in a rural landscape in weather conditions that create a “carte blanche” for the poet’s reflection or imagination. In the first poem, it was snow; in this, it is fog. The poem opens with the equivalent of a cinematic establishing shot: “End of autumn. Deep fog.” The reduced sentence fragments reinforce this idea of a visual medium, although, ironically, what is being established is the impossibility of seeing clearly, a limit of physical perception which allows the poet to build an inner landscape which may or may not accord with the outer one, “Fog. Play at/freedom now”. The first word of the poem is “End” picking up on the title, which may remind us that the book is “made up of meditations written in a uneasy lull before an unknowable, potentially drastic change.” This change is not, or need not be death, but is the consequence of human impact on the natural world and of technological development, concerns which have become increasingly important in Graham’s work. The ‘end’ in this poem may be the end of autumn, but is also, or “maybe…/winter now – first day of.” Thus it is a beginning, but fogbound and as yet unknowable. In this “lull” the poet is free to construct her own meanings, her own interpretations of the mainly aural sense impressions available to her. However, she can only create these meanings out of the tropes, images and knowledge of her own previous experience, which brings into play the operation of simile, analogy and metaphor: “There are/ swingings of the gate that sound like stringed/instruments from/some other/culture.” This is a declarative sentence offering a clear observational detail and an analogical simile that conveys to the reader the actual sounds the poet has experienced. She also compares the sound of a creaking gate to the sound of a bird, an image I recognize from my own memory of creaking swings in a London park which sounded exactly like ducks flying overhead.
The introduction of a comparison also introduces the possibility, under the limiting conditions of the fog, that there are birds and stringed instruments from another culture. We are being made uncertain which landscape is the “real” one. However, we become increasingly aware that the mental landscape which the writer offers us, albeit tentatively, is drawn from history mediated through her own experience. We become aware that there are two narratives being enacted in the poem: one concerns the farmer putting his cattle out to graze and feeding them, with all the predictable sounds of clanking gates, feeding troughs and thudding hooves, as well as the chewing and breathing of the animals; the second seems to create a human crowd and a drama of human suffering. The crowd may be soldiers, “the sounds of/boots/on soil”; they could even be, as they feed, the five thousand Christ fed on the mountainside. The date which heads the poem may have a private significance; the only public significance I can find for it is that it is the date of the Catholic Feast of Christ the King and it seems to me that there is a lot of Christian reference in the poem. There is hammering, there are nails, there is a silent crowd and “dragging as of a heavy thing”; there is a “man accused and tossed away by his fellow beings” and finally, there is
in eternity its
I am not trying to argue that this is a Christian poem, merely that Graham uses the furniture of Christianity, with which she is very familiar, just as she uses intertextual reference to increase the resonance of what she is saying, one example here being “this/animal/dying slowly/in eternity” which echoes Yeats reference to “a dying animal” in “Sailing to Byzantium”, a very different meditation on time and eternity which nevertheless informs this one.
Academics make their bread and butter out of identifying cryptic references but this can run the risk of overprivileging the writer’s part in the poem. Graham has said, as I noted in my previous post: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.” It is likely that I am bringing my own experience to bear and that in writing which is so undetermined, it is probable that the range of readings will vary widely. However, I believe that the human landscape imposed on the physical reality of the farmer’s field, which has been veiled by the fog, is one of suffering, and that the different particular examples drawn from history, whether Christ’s Passion or even the Holocaust: “a violin I/hear over the chewing out of tune torn string” represent or make up the Idea of suffering in this poem.
Writing poetry is a bit like writing in code; it allows the writer to express things s/he could not otherwise say through devices such as imagery, sound, allusion and syntax. Thus the poem conceals as much as it reveals and may only yield meaning to a very determined decoder; however, unlike the coded messages of espionage, there may not be a single or “correct’ reading of the poem. Nevertheless, recondite or private reference in the published work remains a problem. If the poet intends to conceal, then the poem should probably have an autonomy which makes it an appreciable artwork for the public; on the other hand, if the poet seeks to communicate more directly, perhaps they should moderate the demands they make on the reader’s knowledge and intuition. The difficulty of Jorie Graham’s poetry stems partly from her erudition, partly from the complexity of the philosophical issues underpinning her work and partly from the private reference which is caused by her starting point which is always from her own experience. As I said previously, this is part of her poetic stance: the honest admission that we cannot speak of what is outside our own subjectivity, although, at the same time, the act of writing a poem asserts the hope that experience can be shared.
In this poem, however, the main reason for its difficulty is that difficulty and ambiguity, particularly the ambiguity of perception are a key theme, reflected not only in the poet’s vacillating identifications: “sounds of hinges/No that was/birds”, “The sound of/boots/ on soil in groups those/thuds but then it is/cattle I /think”, but through the ambiguity of syntax, reinforced by the placing of the lines and the presence or absence of punctuation. For example, she writes:
…For now I am alive I think into the hammering
thudding clinking swinging of metal hinge – of hinge –
We could read this as meaning that the poet is alive, but only for the moment –“for now” or she could mean that she has come to life and is therefore better able to “think”, to explore the meaning of the sound she hears, and she gives us a list of possible interpretations, some of which are contradictory. For example, if it is a hammering it cannot be the swinging of a hinge. Then the word hinge is presented on its own, between dashes and becomes a metaphor for the transition between autumn and winter, which is itself a metaphor for the moment of change, lull, prelude or aftermath which the poet feels herself to be in.
Another example yielding a dizzying range of interpretations comes slightly later “What is inner/experience I think being/shut out.” Although there are several questions in the poem, there are no question marks; this ends in a full stop, as it seems to have answered itself. It could mean that all experience is “inner” because “inner experience” = I think” which again might = “being”; on the other hand, “I think”’ might rather wistfully = “being shut out” cut off from the other, from being in and part of the phenomenal world. Graham has spoken elsewhere of finding her “way to voices one would generally call ‘non-human’, …or voices that attempted to approach, or approximate, such a state.” This becomes crucially important in Fast, her most recent collection, although as she recognizes, it is an impossible quest which nevertheless enables the poetry.
In this poem she envisages a “ new /way of listening “which might be the attempt to be a blank page “in which/above all, /nothing. I know nothing, now there are moans…” It is unclear whether the listening has been interrupted by the acknowledgement that the poet knows nothing or whether the new way of listening is this emptying out of knowledge, or whether the listener begins to hear “moans/ out there”. The poem repeats the imperative ‘listen’, exhorting the writer or the reader. This is a device Graham frequently employs which is effective because it necessitates using the base part of the verb, without any pronoun, thus blurring the line between the subject and the other. The listener, whether it is the reader or the speaker, hears the moans which were “out there” become “in/there” as the final lines return us to the dilemma of the thinking animal, a temporal creature who has managed to think up “eternity its/trap.” The poem meditates throughout on outerness and innerness but it rejects the circularity of closed form and instead follows a spiral which keeps the poem open and reflects the development of understanding. Graham’s concern with the nature of perception has always been there but as her fears develop for the future of our earth this concern becomes more urgent if no less cerebral. In my next two pieces I will look at two poems from Fast, one a relatively straightforward elegy for her father, the other the title poem.
 Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT, January 2017