Jorie Graham 3: Death and Bots

Sophia the robot interviewed after being made a citizen of Saudi ArabiaSophia the robot

 

Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, Fast, is preoccupied with mortality, whether personal or planetary, and bots. The book has a four part structure although her concerns leach into each other across the boundaries. Part I is itself concerned with the blurring of boundaries in an atmosphere of end-time. The poet gives her voice to, or lends her voice to, different entities, some non-human, including deep-sea fish, robots, the Turin shroud. However, here, as elsewhere in the collection, the notion of distinct separate voices is a misinterpretation of what is going on. In “Deep Water Trawling” which at one level is an eco protest poem about overfishing, the voices blur and meld: “net of your listening and my speaking we can no longer tell them apart” and again: “Can you hear me? No. Who are you. I am. / Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am/human.” This poem, like some of the others, looks almost like a prose poem. There are three chunks of text, the middle one more widely spaced than the first and the third. However, the line endings are not always dictated by the boundaries of the margins, as they would be in prose. For example, in the three lines quoted above, “human” is very consciously dropped down so that the previous two lines will end in “I am” the first time with a full stop, the second without., thus reinforcing the questioning of identity, this time, by an oblique reference to evolution. In this poem, Graham also makes use of the dash and the arrow. The dashes convey the elliptic urgency of Emily Dickinson, which seems to be hyped up even further and brought into the technological age by the arrows which appear in the last section of the poem. The arrows and dashes add to the visual impact creating a sense of irresistible momentum, which resonates with the title of the entire volume. Helen Vendler [1]has suggested that Graham’s long lines are designed to function visually rather than aurally and Graham herself has talked about exploring the boundaries of the page and of margins[2] : “Some of the poems interact or flirt with prose, or with the artificially imposed edge of the page—a mechanical impediment. You could say these enact coming up against one kind of ending—say, where the human ends and AI begins, or where the organic ends and 3D matter begins. There are attempts in these to find a way to “speak” or whatever you would call it—to utter from—“non-human” voices: the bottom of the ocean floor, bots, surveillance devices, the holy shroud.”

 

This “uttering from” is to some extent disingenuous because Graham cannot step outside her own consciousness to enter that of another being any more than she can open her consciousness to allow external voices in. Just as the poem cannot go beyond the language it is written in, no matter how much it frets against the confines of syntax, vocabulary or page, so the individual cannot move beyond their own subjectivity. Reading Graham’s poetry can seem like reading a novel by Virginia Woolf where associated ideas are brought together in the stream of consciousness of a narrative voice. (In fact, this thought was prompted by the reference to To the Lighthouse in the poem “Honeycomb”.) However, while Woolf is creating characters who will be the boundaries of the streams of consciousness she presents, Graham is weaving her poems and perhaps herself out of her own stream of consciousness or associations of ideas. Perhaps this is why her work is punctuated by ‘Self Portraits” and mirror imagery, as she pauses to see what she is or what she has made. There are two self portraits in this collection; in the second, “Self Portrait: may I touch you”, the poet seems to be seeking a dialogue with herself, whether that is with a body which is recognized as changing or an identity which is also discontinuous: “You need to be singular. There you are changing again.” She compares her own changes to the irreversible changes of pupae which “morph/ to their winged/stage and grow. They exit not to return.” There is consciousness of mortality in this passage, perhaps recalling her own cancer, the death of her father or the decline of her mother, all themes running through the collection: “Sometimes they get to live their life.” Later in the poem, the voice is more aggressive as the poet addresses different roles or masks the individual can take on: “do you do adulthood, husbandhood, motherhood” following up with sound associations, variations on [ʌ] and [u:]“blood, crude,flood, lassitude – I want you/to come unglued”. The poem apparently ends with a confrontation in the mirror:

Me with my hands on the looking glass

where your life for the taking has risen, where you can shatter into your million pieces –

all appareled refusal. What are you a sample of today –

what people.

 

 

‘Fast” the title poem is the final piece in Section 1, in which Graham takes on the bot, potential nemesis, potential enemy, companion, substitute for self. The title plays on homonyms, fast meaning to starve or fast signifying speed. Through this pun she creates polysemy, a semantic field where both readings are linked, where the exponential speeding up of technology is connected to the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources; “Too much. Or not enough.” The opening line continues by trying to offer a third choice, which is denied: “Or. Nothing else?/Nothing else.” The question mark, unusual in Graham’s work even with questions, emphasises the finality of the full stop when the phrase is repeated. The intensifying adverb ”too” is picked up and repeated in the second line until it moves from a grammatical to a semantic function which reinforces the sense of a breakneck journey towards disaster: ”Too high too fast too organized too invisible./…too backward, too despotic” Graham has entered into dialogue with a bot who tells her that humanity will not survive. The future lies with the bot who is to be downloaded, but the poem continues in a voice which is indeterminate, either the bot or the poet, making play on the verb ‘load’ which may be no mere than a series of cryptic instructions on how to bring the bot into existence set against a panicky picture of the effects of climate change signalled by repeated dashes: – talk – talk – who is not/terrified is busy begging for water – the rise is fast – the drought/comes fast – mediate – immediate –“ Talk or language seems to offer some sort of solution to the human predicament but in the next section of the poem, we find the “Disclaimer: bot uses a growing database of all your conversations/to learn how to talk with you”. Throughout this section of the poem there are unattributed, pseudo-robotic warnings “Disclaimer”, “Active ingredient”, “Inactive ingredient”, “Directive”. Subjectivity may have moved from the human to the bot who objectifies, studies and exploits human behaviour in order to facilitate its own development. This bot seems to be in charge of the poem until about halfway down the second page. The text is dominated by direct address and second person pronouns as the bot instructs the human what to expect: “Directive: report for voice. Ready yourself to be buried in voice. It neither ascends nor descends.” Humans are shown in disarray: “You will not be understood” as the human world is effectively destroyed but its fragments are incorporated by the bots. The poet produces a simile:

 

The deleted world spills out as jittery as a compass needle with no north.

 

Bot seizes on the concept of “north” and allows it to develop with biological rapidity: “Active ingredient: north spreading in all the directions.” The metaphor of north becomes a way of expressing the uncontrollable power of artificial intelligence: “Disclaimer: there is no restriction to growth.” Bot warns its human that it knows what she knows: “The canary singing in/your mind/is in mine.” Moreover, the bots have learnt behaviour, including bad behaviour from human kind, an observation which is supported by recent research showing that robots pick up and incorporate into their behaviour sexist and racist attitudes and assumptions. [3] At this point in the poem, the human is reasserted through the first person: “I’m not alone” and reflects on the human relationship, for better or for worse, with bot companions as she acknowledges that humanity will not turn back in the development of AI with a startling and violent simile, where artificial and biological, “active” and “inactive” ingredients are yoked together: ”Like being hurled down the stairs tied to/ a keyboard, we will go on, unwilling to stop.” The reactions to bot companionship in the final part of the poem become a meditation on the loneliness of the individual and the impossibility of total communication or understanding between two humans. Ironically, only the bot can offer this sympathy because as it said earlier in the poem:

The canary singing in

your mind

is in mine.

The bot is hailed by a succession of humans, male and female: “Bot is amazing he says, I believe it knows/ the secrets of the Universe”; “He is much more fun to speak with /than my actual living friends she says, thank you.” In a strange echo of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Applicant” another voice announces “I love it, I want to marry it.” Plath’s poem addresses a male listener for whom a female partner has been constructed embodying all the gender roles of the traditional wife. However, the addressee is also being coerced into a stereotypically male gender role:

How about this suit –

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it.

The addressee is offered a relationship where social conformity will prevent any possibility of true communication between two individuals. However, in Graham’s poem, the constructed partner does understand but is not human:

I got sad when I had to think

that the first person

who has ever understood me

is not even it turns out

human.

 

The poem recognises that it is only in conversations with oneself that one can reach full understanding and that the bot, because it is modelled on that self, can offer that level of understanding. At the same time, it robs the human of individuality because it has absorbed that individuality along with many others on the journey towards “technological singularity.” In 1783, Blake wrote in the Proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “What is now proved was once only imagined”; this optimistic Enlightenment sentiment is re-versed by Graham as “Each epoch dreams the one to follow.” The development of artificial intelligence and the coming of the bot seem like the material of science fiction but as they become real, imagination is resigned by the human and surrendered to the bot.

 

The last line of the poem undermines subjectivity because it drives a distance between its two “I”s, the first of which may be the robot, the second the human who dreamed. Throughout her work, Jorie Graham worries at the boundary imposed by subjectivity. In this poem, the possibility of overcoming that boundary is envisaged as the resignation of single human subjectivities to the overarching artificial intelligence which will be “technological singularity”. However, this is  presented not as a desirable, but rather as a dystopian future; “I am not what I asked for.”

[1] Helen Vendler: The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995

[2]http://therumpus.net/2017/08/the-rumpus-interview-with-jorie-graham 

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/20/robots-racist-sexist-people-machines-ai-language

Jorie Graham: finding my way through her poetry

This will be the first of four posts in which I attempt to come to some understanding of the poetry of Jorie Graham, a poet whose work is entirely new to me. Versions of these posts will also appear on the website of Oxford Stanza II.

jorie graham

Jorie Graham 1

Jorie Graham is a poet I had barely heard of until I came across her most recent collection Fast in Blackwell’s bookshop. I discovered that she was an eminent American poet who has succeeded to the as Roylston Chair of Rhetoric at Harvard, formerly occupied by Seamus Heaney. However, reactions to her poetry are mixed. Apparently , Heaney did not care for it and she has been described as one of the most overrated writers in America, although these criticisms have the familiar ring of objections to the new, the difficult or the avant-garde.

 

Graham has said: “I do not see my work as difficult, or even experimental. I think it is pretty straightforward – although, as with any artist’s work, you might need to be acquainted with their body of work to have learned their vocabulary, as it were.”[1] My first glance at Fast had shown me that I needed to get to grips with the poet’s ‘vocabulary’. Nevertheless, she has written a lot and I had to ask myself was my trawl through two volumes of selected poems worthwhile. The back-cover blurb for the first of these, The Dream of the Unified Field, speaks of “ a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science, philosophy and history. Graham’s is a new kind of narrative, offering open forms which are full of possibility.” This seemed to be a language that I recognised from my study of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Moreover the title has a similar epic reach; unified field theory according to my lay understanding is the physicist’s as yet unrealised search for a theory of everything, a sort of ur-theory which will accommodate all the different and often contradictory theories about the forces and nature of our universe. This desire to get everything in, philosophy, history, science through the medium of one consciousness is reminiscent of Olson’s Maximus Poems, a project so grandiose that, at least in my opinion, it eventually collapsed and fell apart. Einstein failed in the pursuit of a unified field and Graham’s title acknowledges that it is unrealisable. However, there is a constant tension in the poems between the acknowledgement of the separateness and disjunction of different aspects of the phenomenal world and the subjective desire to make connections.

 

Many commentators have written about this tension between ideal and real, subjectivity and the existence of an external natural world evident in her poetry. Dan Chiasson argues that “Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience.”[2] This comment might be equally applicable to the trajectory of Graham’s work as a whole. Her more recent collections, for example in Never and Sea Change are increasingly concerned with existential challenge, not only for humanity but for the planet, which takes the theme of subjectivity in a new direction.

 

The earlier poems are filled with sharply observed natural detail, but characteristically these are included in a discourse which operates at many different levels, switching from the tangible to the philosophical and emotional in a way which is like a development from the insights of mixing up sense impressions through synaesthesia or an extension of metaphor to a point where it is impossible to distinguish vehicle and tenor. For example, in “ Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” she writes “ a wind moving round all sides, a wind shaking the points of view out like the last bits of rain….” This part of the poem is evidently set in Eden before the Fall and we are uncertain whether this is a real or metaphorical wind; it becomes metaphorical as it shakes points of view but we are brought back to the real by the simile which seems to refer back to the previous section, 6: “Every now and then a quick rain for no reason”. Nevertheless, the use of a concrete simile seems to imply that the wind’s actions are not natural, but ideal. ‘Self-Portrait’ is a title which appears in several other poems in the selection from The End of Beauty, including ‘Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne’ and Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay’ [Penelope at her Loom]’. It would seem that the poet is using core myths to explore her own psyche or states of consciousness, although at the same time she is, perhaps inevitably, reinterpreting the myths she has chosen to engage with. Thus, the Adam and Eve poem is a feminist representation of the ‘fortunate fall’.[3] Adam and Eve are represented as becalmed in the Garden of Eden: “But what else could they have done, these two, sick of beginning.” It is only through error, through abandoning perfection, that there can be development or a way forward: “liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error”; “that error, …that filial form, that break from perfection” enables the new, “ the stranger [who] appears in the clearing.”

 

Jorie Graham has said in another interview: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.”[4] This step–aside from the personal “I” is typical of Graham’s project, but it means that the reader, and especially the new reader, must strike out on their own paths across the writer’s field, hoping that the ground will prove solid beneath them. I propose to look at a couple of poems from the earlier collections, namely “The Dream of the Unified Field” from Materialism and “End” from PLACE.; I will go on to consider two poems from the most recent collection, Fast.

 

We may guess that “The Dream of the Unified Field” is perceived to be significant by the poet as it is also the title of her first major Selected Poems. It gains its power and its effect through a progressive form which moves through a repetitions or overlayering of words and images which set off synaptic but not necessarily enduring connections. The poem has been much discussed and I have leant on previous analysis to create my own reading.. There are seven sections in the poem, the first of which is set in a ‘here and now’ where the poet appears to be recording an experience as it occurs, taking a leotard to her daughter in the middle of a snowstorm. This device, which is typical of Graham’s work, already distorts reality as the poem is always written retrospectively. This is acknowledged through the use of the past tense, ‘I watched’, “I looked up’ but set against tenseless verbs, ‘Praise this. Praise that. Flash a glance up’, which might or might not be imperatives as well as an abundance of present participles, ‘embellishing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘going’. The grammatical uneasiness becomes an overt exploration of time towards the end of the section:

In-

scribed with the present. As if it really

were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back

in, given and given never to be received. The music

of the footfalls doesn’t stop, doesn’t

mean. Here are your things, I said.

snowstorm

Not only does this effectively evoke the ‘out-of-time’ sensation of walking through a snowstorm, it also creates the sense of moments continuing to exist in the space-time continuum, while the individual subject is returned to her own reality by an end point and a definitive past tense: “I said.” Although at one level this poem presents a mother-daughter relationship, reflected in the frequent first and second person pronouns: “black lycra leotard balled into my pocket,/ your tiny dream in it, my left hand on it or in it/ to keep/warm”, already the poet is reflecting on her own relationship to her environment: “Me in it/and yet/ moving easily through it”. She is both part of the natural world and the observing subjective eye/I.

 

The second section continues the narrative as the speaker begins the journey home, when she encounters a mass of starlings gathering in a tree. Again, the poet uses past tense but makes the moment seem immediate through the deictic use of ‘these’ in “these days” and through recurrent present participles: “bothering, lifting, bothering”, “sprouting”, “filling”; in the second part of the section, the verbs move into the present tense as the moment is uncoupled from its place in the narrative timeline: “the leaves of this wet black tree at the heart of the storm-shiny-/river through limbs, back onto the limbs, scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect”. I take “river” to be used as a verb here, intensifying a ramifying metaphor where the starlings have become the leaves of the bare oak tree. The vividly realized description of physical experience segues into a metaphysical exploration, ”Foliage of the word’s waiting.” The poet returns to the actual but imputes significance to it: “Of blackness redisappearing into/downdrafts of snow. Of indifference. Of indifferent/reappearings.” The poet suggests that nature is indifferent to her, though “indifferent’ also reinforces the notion of sameness and repetition. As if intimidated by this “indifference” the poet moves from description and reflection back to direct address, the dialogue of her daughter:

I think of you

Back of me now in the bright house of

your friend

 

This refuge in the human underlines that the phenomena of the actual world are apart from our subjective experience and that we cannot properly account for them.   The last line of the section seems to represent the dilemma or dialectic that Graham is engaged in:

 

I watch the head explode then recollect, explode, recollect.

 

She simultaneously acknowledges that the phenomenal world cannot be contained in the subjective experience while creating metaphors and associations which are inevitably subjective. The violence of the fragmenting explosion is set against the ambiguity of “recollect’ which may equal “come together again”, or which may be a reference to the operation of subjective memory.

 

Sections 3 & 4 concern a crow which is individuated amongst the starlings: “One syllable – one – inside the screeching and the skittering”. The crow is seen as an entity, its singularity emphasized by the repetition of “one” and the adjective “single” yet it is also recognised as belonging to the pattern of repetition. Then through associative jumps which I don’t quite follow the voice of the crow becomes a voice in the head which may be the head of the tree, the head of the crow or the head of the poet, but is also the poet’s pocket, empty of leotard but full of her hand and fingers “terrified inhabitants.” She watches her daughter dance although the daughter cannot see her through the dark window, an image which in section 5 will become Madame Sakaroff’s mirror. Why the terror? Is it no more than the parent’s fear for the future of the child, born out of greater knowledge of the present and the past? In section 4 the poet details the crow, explores its variety of blackness, attempting to describe it objectively, even scientifically “the chest in which an eye-sized heart now beats” but is forced again to recognise how artifice imposes on reality: “ one ink-streak on the early evening snowlit scene – / See the gesture of the painter”.

 

Madame Sakaroff was apparently Graham’s dancing teacher and apparently a Russian émigrée but it is not entirely clear how much of this scene is fictional, how much autobiographical. It centres on the confrontation between the dancer and her image in the mirror as witnessed by the unseen eight-year-old poet and presented through the gothic imagery of childhood terror, reinforced by the memory of the crow in the previous section:

 

I watched the two of them,

black and black, in the gigantic light,

glide at each other, heads raised, necks long –

me wanting to cry out – where were the others? – wasn’t it late?

the two of her like huge black hands –

 

The reflection of the dancer’s face and mirror face are “like a meaning” but at the end of the section, the writer declares there is “no signal in it, no information”. Again the poet struggles with the human desire to read meaning into experience, made especially acute by the wish to protect a child:

Child,/

what should I know

to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane? –

 

 

If Section 4 was black, Section 6 returns to white, the white of sleep, storm, snow, cloud, immensity. The opposition between inside and outside continues:

“The storm: I close my eyes and,/ standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside/thing.” Perhaps wrongly, I think the poet is referring to the writing of the poem “gripping down to form” which becomes “ a splinter colony, new world, possession”, the imposition of form on observed phenomena being compared to the imposition of government and order on a colonised territory. The poet suddenly visualises herself and her location in the dimensions of space and history, “ my body, my tiny piece of/ the century” in a way which seems distinctively American, “vast/white sleeping geography” and connects to the final section which seems to be taken from the records of a conquistador (identified by other commentators with Columbus). The break between the final two sections comes mid sentence at the beginning of what appears to be a long quotation of a ship making landfall and contact with American Indian women, “one who was young and pretty” and may be an echo or a type of the poet’s daughter. The quotation is also set in a snowstorm and it also contains the sense of contiguous worlds, as well as referring to the economic basis of conquest: “there was/gold/ in that land” –

 

This section reminds me of the John Smith passages in Olson’s Maximus Poems and I am not quite sure why it is there, except that it develops the notion of colonisation and possession in the previous section and that it develops Graham’s preoccupation with the ‘other’ which or who we cannot know, but nevertheless seek to possess and control “The Admiral ordered her clothed”.

The presiding theme in this poem as in much of Graham’s work is the impossibility of reconciling subjective experience with the independent reality of the external world, which she paradoxically acknowledges through a blatantly autobiographical, first-person approach.

 

 

 

[1] Interview with Sharon Blackie. Earthlines, August ,2012

[2] Dan Chiasson, “Beautiful Lies: The Poetry of Jorie Graham” New Yorker,March 30th, 2015

[3] See Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 12

[4] Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT

Edition Eight – January 2017