Thinking with feelings: a reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room’ compared with the prose of ‘The Country Mouse’.

Elizabeth Bishop described writing poetry as ‘thinking with feelings’[1]; in the conventional division between logic and emotion, this phrase seems to be an oxymoron; from a different point of view, it is a representation of the ‘unified sensibility’ which Eliot identified in the metaphysical poets. Many readers have recognised the elusive nature of Bishop’s work, even when it seems most straightforward.[2] This arises partly from the accuracy of her descriptions which often seem to have the objectivity of science combined with her use of these observations as part of the process of thinking through what she is feeling so that what she describes always resonates with what lies under the surface. Her poems are notable for how they travel, for their ‘journeys’, even when they are cast in forms as static and restrictive as the villanelle (‘One Art’) and the sestina (‘A Miracle for Breakfast’).[3] Despite her skill and fluency in using fixed forms, many of her poems, particularly the later ones, are in free verse. Most of them are based on personal experience, events or periods which she may also have recorded in memoir or autobiographical fiction, in prose which, like her verse, conveys an observer’s cool objectivity even when what they recount is deeply subjective. 

‘In the Waiting Room’ which appeared in Geography III, (1976), revisits some of the same material as found in the autobiographical memoir, The Country Mouse (1961). Both pieces describe a visit to the dentist with an aunt which triggers a traumatic recognition of selfhood. ‘In the Waiting Room’ is written in free verse and is quite long, nearly three pages of verse; the incident described in prose takes half a page, and uses just over half as many words. Here is the paragraph:

After New Year’s, Aunt Jenny had to go to the dentist, and asked me to go with her. She left me in the waiting room, and gave me a copy of the National Geographic to look at.  It was still getting dark early, and the room had grown very dark.  There was a big yellow lamp in one corner, a table with magazines, and an overhead chandelier of sorts.  There were others waiting, two men and a plump middle-aged lady, all bundled up.  I looked at the magazine cover – I could read most of the words – shiny, glazed, yellow and white. The black letters said: FEBRUARY 1918.  A feeling of absolute and utter desolation came over me.  I felt…myself.  In a few days it would be my seventh birthday.  I felt I, I ,I, and looked at the three strangers in panic.  I was one of them too, inside my scabby body and wheezing lungs. “You’re in for it now,” something said.  How had I got tricked into such a false position?  I would be like that woman opposite who smiled at me so falsely once in a while.  The awful sensation passed, then it came back again.  “You are you,” something said.  “How strange you are, inside looking out.  You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be youforever.”  It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?

The prose, which uses very simple language and syntax in a way which suggests a child’s language or a spoken anecdote, conforms to Labov’s framework for oral narrative,[4] both in structure and linguistic features. It opens with an abstract, telling us what the story will be about – the visit to the dentist. It continues with orientation, with lots of descriptive detail building up time and place ‘the waiting room’, the ‘big yellow lamp’, the ‘overhead chandelier’. Past progressive tenses are used to set the scene: ‘It was still getting dark early’, ‘There were others were waiting’. These are succeeded by simple past verbs indicating that the complicating action of the story has begun; ‘I looked at the magazine cover’, ‘I felt I, I, I, and looked at the three strangers in panic’. The actions are interspersed with evaluation, the writer’s comments on her own story. These feature modal verbs and comparisons with unrealised events: ‘I would be like that woman opposite’, ‘It was like coasting downhill’ as well as intensifying evaluative adjectives such as ‘absolute and utter’ and ‘awful’. The resolution or final action of the story ‘it quickly smashed into a tree’ reveals the writerly nature of this story because the subject of the simile in the ‘unrealized comparison’ ‘it was like coasting downhill”  becomes the actor in the final action, transposing the whole story from literal to metaphor. The message or meaning of the story is carried in the coda: ‘Why was I a human being?’ The writer has simultaneously recognised her own selfhood and that she is a member of a species.  She is both ‘you forever’ and ‘one of them’.

Bishop’s story or anecdote differs from the account of the same incident as presented in the poem, but neither of them are factual accounts of what actually happened. [5] Although both are very carefully located in time and space, they describe a subjective experience or memory which is unverifiable.  Despite shared features, which make it clear that they are different explorations of the same event, we can see that in each, Bishop thinks with feelings which take her and her readers to different places and that these differences are realised through differences in content, structure and form.

In the prose paragraph, Bishop focuses on her self, on the discovery of her selfhood, ‘I felt… myself’ and thinks through what it is to have that feeling. The ellipsis and the italics emphasize the shock of recognition as does the second use of italics and repetition, ‘I, I, I’ as she struggles to understand the significance of the first person pronouns. Italics are used again for ‘you’ and ‘one’, as she tours around the idea of self.  There is a peculiar dialectic at work as she moves between the feeling of individuation, separate from the world, ‘not Beppo[6], or the chestnut tree, or Emma’, and recognition of herself as part of the species, ‘I was one of them’. Part of this unwelcome realisation is a strong awareness of the restriction of physicality. Just as the middle-aged woman opposite her is ‘all bundled up’ so she is confined ‘inside her scabby body and wheezing lungs.’[7] The sense of revulsion she feels against the others in the waiting room becomes self-disgust. As well as the restrictions of the flesh, and of clothes, she also anticipates being bound into the social code, of smiling ‘falsely’ as she accuses the middle-aged woman of doing. 

This is a dramatic story, presented, as we have seen, in narrative form; even though the events are thoughts not deeds and entirely subjective, they are given a setting and then recounted in a succession of past simple verbs: ‘I looked’, ‘the black letters said’, ‘ a feeling…came over me’, ‘I felt’, ‘the awful sensation passed…came back’, ‘it quickly smashed’.  As in oral narrative, the author evaluates or comments events as she recounts them.  In the poem, however, the sequence of events, while still present, takes second place to the thinking through and expanding on the feelings experienced.

The poem opens with the same setting as the prose, in a dentist’s waiting room on a winter afternoon. The language at the beginning of the poem is paratactic, using short sentences and clauses connected by ‘and’:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early.

This could create the effect of a child’s perceptions, but it also suggests that the writer is tiptoeing around the experience before she begins to explore the feelings it evoked.  Notably, the poem is firmly placed in Massachusetts, home of Bishop’s family on her father’s side whom she lived with after her early years in Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents. She never felt as comfortable in this second placement so the emphasis on location may prepare us for the sense of alienation later in the poem. Although at this point the poem is following the narrative structure of the prose, already evaluation is coming to the fore as the writer examines the significance of her story for her, rather than simply telling it. The modal verb in the parenthesis, ‘(I could read)’, may suggest the adult looking back at the child’s experience, perhaps with a sense of pride, but possibly also reassuring herself about the moment or stage in her own development.  When she notes that she ‘carefully’ studied the photographs, we are again detached from the child’s experience and shown the adult looking back, rather as if the camera had pulled back from a shot of the magazine to show the whole scene: a precocious child sitting on a chair with a magazine which is not appropriate for her surrounded by adults she doesn’t know. 

A major difference from the prose version is the importance of this National Geographic magazine. In the prose, we never get past the cover but here we dive straight into the content of what is implied to be the February 1918 issue. Apparently Bishop checked the magazine in 1967, when she was near to completing the poem, confirming ‘a photo essay on  “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” that “has been haunting me all my life, apparently”’.[8] The pictures in this essay, which was about Alaska ,have been conflated with many other images from elsewhere. For instance, Osa and Martin Johnson, an American couple who were explorers, were in the Pacific in 2017 and the story of their adventures was made into a feature film but I can find no trace of them in the contents of the National Geographic in February 2018 or any of the issues for the previous year. I can remember from my school library, or possibly also from dentist or doctor waiting rooms, those yellow bordered and often dog-eared National Geographics, which were supposedly educational but provided insights into the truths about adult human bodies, so decorously clothed in everyday life. I also remember pictures of African women with their necks impossibly extended by an accumulation of neck rings.  After the protracted, almost fearful orientation stage of the poem, she plunges from a colon into a collage of photographs which opens with a terrifying, hell-like description of a volcano:

the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

This is one of several dizzying and disorienting moments in the poem. Suddenly, it is as if we are no longer in the waiting room but inside the volcano made more terrifying by the active verbs which convey movement despite being based on a still photograph, quite probably in black and white. It functions as a transition and is paralleled by the transition at the end when the protagonist emerges from her altered state back into the here and now of the waiting room:

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth 
of February, 1918.

The way she presents the return to everyday consciousness in the poem is very different from the metaphor of smashing into a tree in the prose. It is an inward-looking attempt to describe a loss of control or even of consciousness and creates a sense of vertigo and nausea through the blackness of the wave which complements the blackness of the volcano, two elemental and overwhelming images of fire and water.

The volcano is succeeded by a succession of pictures, which could represent the way the little girl turns the pages,[9] focusing mainly on the photographs, despite her reading skills. The impact of these images is to make her recognise her nature as a human, specifically as a human animal and a gendered human animal at that.

Rather strangely, the first image Bishop notes is of Osa and Martin Johnson, ‘dressed in riding breeches,/laced boots, and pith helmets.’  It may be that she is trying to diminish or dismiss gender difference: she names Osa first, and presents the pair in unisex clothing. However, the following pages or images, which show people undressed, defeat this attempt: ‘black, naked women’ with ‘horrifying’ breasts.  It is striking that so many of the images she details are connected to mutilation: ‘A dead man slung on a pole’, ‘Babies with pointed heads/wound round and round with string’, ‘women with necks/ wound round and round by wire’. The impression of humanity which the child is forming is one of ugliness and vulnerability. The theme of pain and mutilation is transferred from the magazine to the dentist’s surgery through the verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain

It is not immediately clear whether the pain has come from inside the magazine or inside the surgery, so that ‘Aunt Consuelo’ is put on a level with the ‘black, naked women’. The choice of name for her may also contribute to this, whether deliberately or not. The change from ‘Jenny’ in the prose, comfortably white Anglo-Saxon, suggests Latino, and a lower, oppressed class, an ‘other’ type of humanity. The ‘othering’ of Aunt Consuelo is intensified when Bishop describes her as ‘a foolish, timid woman’. Being foolish and timid, like having ‘awful hanging breasts’, may be part of the condition of being a woman from which Bishop seeks to detach herself. Almost immediately, the perception of the other is overwhelmed by the perception of sameness:

What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt

Again, as boundaries blur and disappear in a fusion of first person plural and singular, there is the sense of vertigo: ‘I- we – were falling, falling’.  In the following stanza, Bishop explores further this new confusion over ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘them’.  She splits herself into ‘I’ and ‘you’ in order to conduct an internal dialogue: ‘I said to myself’; this is a process of ratiocination, used to stave off the existential nausea she is experiencing:

I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.

Although she is thinking, she is thinking with feelings: 

But I felt:[10] you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.

Bishop succeeds brilliantly in showing not only the child coming to an awareness but also the terrifying instability of that self. Recognition of self demands the recognition of, and implies the perpetual struggle to maintain separateness from the other. The result is a confusion which resists language:

How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here

‘Unlikely’ resonates first because of its inadequacy and understatement and then because of its root which is the theme of the poem, ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness’, together with the second meaning of ‘unliking’, not enjoying or not being pleased by something, an emotion which is much stronger here than in the prose. The poem ends as it began, with an orientation. However, in this case, the protagonist is orienting herself, establishing the ‘here and now’ which she has so dizzyingly been removed from.


[1] Quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[2] In the Bloodaxe collection of essays, Elizabeth Bishop – Poet of the Periphery, ed. Linda Anderson &Jo Shapcott, 2002, Linda Anderson says that ‘her value seems to elude definition’ while Deryn Rees-Jones admits the ‘mixture of love and resistance’ which has made it hard for her to write about Bishop’s work.

[3] Bishop’s effective use of the sestina and the villanelle have almost won me over to these forms, to which I have previously expressed my antipathy.

[4] Labov’s narrative model
Table and exercise adapted from Sample Unit, Simpson, Paul. Stylistics. London: Routledge, 2005 http://www.routledge.com/textbooks/0415281059/  https://webpages.uncc.edu/~bdavis/LabovHymes.pdf

[5] Bishop’s aunt was not called Jenny or Consuelo.

[6] A dog

[7] Bishop suffered from asthma and eczema.

[8] Letter to Robert Lowell, quoted by Megan Marshall in A Miracle for Breakfast,2017.

[9] Even though the images included may come from a variety of times and sources. The photograph below from Megan Marshall’s biography was taken by Bishop in her exploration of the interior of Brazil in 1958. ‘Pointy-headed babies’ is probably also an image from the South America. The Olmec people of Mexico apparently bound their babies’ heads to produce a shape like an ear of corn. (Neil MacGregor, History of the World in 100 Objects, Radio 4, repeated 27.08.2020)

[10] My underlining

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