Jorie Graham 4:…and, finally

Having floundered my way through “Fast”, I shall say goodbye to Jorie Graham (at least for the time being) by considering two of the elegies from the second section of  this collection and then trying to pull together some of my thoughts and feelings about this poet.

“Reading to My Father” and “The Post Human” are very closely linked, both having as their starting point the moment of death of the poet’s father. The second poem is more closely focused on this moment and on the father, while the first brings together the poet’s preoccupation with endtime, ecological catastrophe and her father’s death in connections which are not always convincing. There is a sense that the poet’s political and philosophical commentary are strongly coloured by the incidence of decay and death in her own life.

            Listen I say to you, forgetting. Do you hear it Dad. Listen.

            What is increase. The cease of increase.

            The cease of progress. What is progress.

            What is going. The cease of going.

            What is knowing. What is fruition.

            The cease of. Cease of.

            What is bloodflow. The cease of bloodflow

             of increase of progress the best is over, is over-

            thrown, no, the worst is yet to come, no, it is

            7.58 pm, it is late Spring, it is capital’s apogee, the

            flow’s, fruition’s, going’s, increase’s, in creases of

            matter, brainfold, cellflow, knowing’s        

            pastime, it misfired, lifetime’s only airtime – candle says

            you shall out yourself, out-

            perform yourself, grow multiform – you shall self-identify as

                                                                                    still

            mortal – here in this timestorm –this end-of-time

            storm – the night comes on.

           

The poet appears to be apostrophising her just-dead father. The six lines following the injunction: “Listen” appear to mimic the inhalations and exhalations of breath or possibly the systolic-diastolic sound of the heartbeat, both of which, in the case of her father, have ceased. The repetition of “cease” emphasises death and echoes its synonym “decease”. Some of these two part lines could be offering question and answer; alternatively, they may be merely an accumulating list of questions. The form is gnomic and the progression is based on word and sound association rather than argument. “Cease” and “increase” are rhymed to represent one of the fundamental themes of the collection which is the opposition and causal connection between proliferation, abundance, the rapidity of technological change and the depletion of natural resources leading to the starvation  and death of species, including our own.  Graham throws these ideas together, expecting the reader to pick up on them, or perhaps to recognise the jumble of thoughts which come together as she confronts her father’s death. The poem is held together by its location in the moment and the image of the candle.  The poem successfully represents the actuality of this moment, “dusk-end’ when “the night comes on”, showing how mind encounters and engages with the world in which it finds itself. As the poet attempts to come to terms with her father’s death, she recalls reading to him but cannot make the memory coherent, ”the words don’t grip up into sentences for me’. Nevertheless, the matter of what she has been reading is revealed to be an article about the extinction of species: “the blue-jewel-butterfly/ you loved”.  The list of doomed species co-exists with the extinction of life in one man as the writer flicks between her grief, random thoughts about funeral procedures and her fear of accelerating technological advance. She alludes to the MRI, which reappears in Section 3 in “From Inside the MRI”. Here, it seems like one aspect of the technology which increasingly monitors us, knows us and controls us: “I feel the hissing multiplying/satellites out there I took for stars”.  The poem ends in two profoundly ambivalent lines where the poet reveals herself caught between flesh and machine: “I caress you now with the same touch/as I caress these keys.”  Throughout the book, Graham conveys this mixture of fascination and dread for the future.

The idea of life after humanity is evoked in the title of the next poem “The Post Human”, although at another level this is a description of her father’s condition after he has stopped living.  This is a beautiful piece and much more accessible than many others in the volume.  The association of ideas is more transparent and supported by closely observed physical detail which manages to capture scenes, not as snapshots but more as videos, with time incorporated into them:  “the silver morning grow as if skinning night,/that animal, till day came out raw and bleeding./Daylight mended it for now.” This extraordinary metaphor at first seems almost gratuitous but is then recognised as an image of birth which is saying something about death.  As the morning is allowed to dawn in the next few lines of the poem, Graham uses brackets to insert the moment of her father’s death and to question the difference between our relation with a dead person and a living one: [you passed in here][you left] [“you” –what did your you do?]. The italics and the unusual use of the question mark signal the importance of this question.  Given the appearance of a medium in the next poem and the exploration of cryogenics at the end of section 3, it may be that the boundary between life and death seems less absolute to Graham than it does to others.

However, the emphasis on “you” reminds us that the poem is concerned with the nature of identity and selfhood, in what “you” means in the context of the extreme discontinuity of death.  In the last few lines of the poem, she returns to this concern but is able to grant her father a new way of being, an afterlife which exists in the consciousness of those who remember him:

            There on the bed just now – (look, all of a sudden now I cannot write “your”

   bed) – I watch your afterlife begin to

   burn.  Helpful.  Making a space we had not used

   before, could not. Undimmed, unconsumed.  In it this daylight burns.

 

This image of light and energy seems to refer to and refresh the image of the candle in the previous poem. There are biblical echoes in the allusion to burning which does not consume and the discovery of, if not immortality, at least an afterlife is surprisingly optimistic and consolatory.

I like this poem, partly because I can find meaning in it, but it exemplifies a number of the concerns I have about Jorie Graham’s work.  First, there is the immediacy, or apparent immediacy, of the text: “It has been just a minute now”.  This must be disingenuous which is acknowledged in the last lines of the previous poem which refer to the computer keys simultaneously to the body of her father. I’m assuming that she was not writing the poem literally beside her father’s deathbed.  Whether she was or not, I feel that this pose of immediacy can lead to some slack or redundant writing, as in the penultimate section of the poem”

                                    There are so many copies of this minute.

            Not endless but there sure are a lot

The phrase “sure are a lot” seems unnecessarily flabby while two lines further down, the associational thinking and rhyme are so open in their reference that they annoy rather than enlighten:

                        Or, no, cup in hand, end at hand, trying to hide from the

            final ampersand.

“Final ampersand” is a kind of oxymoron but it is so vague it does not delight.

Another problem I have with much of Graham’s writing is the claim that she is trying to escape the tyranny of the subjective “I” and allow the other, the phenomenal world to exist in her poems. She views this as a version of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –“ [1] We could say that Graham’s work leaves the reader with mystery and doubts but it is very difficult not to reach after fact and reason, especially when she often seems to be making statements. Perhaps more relevant is the other famous passage from Keats, often quoted alongside this one, when he describes the poetical character as

not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago  as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.[2]

 

This seems closer to what Graham is looking for, particularly in more recent work. She has talked about allowing voices into the poem (see previous posts) ; a poem can become an arena where different ideas and perspectives are allowed to interact, which can be confusing for the reader.  However, as I have already suggested, this is notional rather than real. Graham is not a Sybil nor a medium channeling the voice of the gods, or the ocean floor, or bots; she is writing consciously and subjectively expressing what she thinks these voices would be, except of course where she quotes directly from another source, as from Columbus or Julian of Norwich.  Even here subjectivity takes control through the way the found material is ordered in the poem.  I would argue that Graham is not an example of negative capability but rather that she has one of the largest poetic egos currently at work.  This is not intended to be an insult but rather a recognition that she uses the first person, her own subjective consciousness and its engagement with the world as her material, and that when she does this well she creates an dynamic impression of the subject interacting with the object in a constant process of change.

 

Graham writes in a tradition much more familiar in America than Britain. The open poem, often appearing to lack form or order apart from its own organic shape, has never really gained widespread recognition here. For many British readers, Graham’s poems might read like drafts, like notes for a poem or even as self-indulgence.  I do not think this is a fair criticism; this is writing which is very exposed.  It entails constant attention to what is going on in the world and a monitoring of how that is being processed inside the writer’s own head.  The attempt to record that is strenuous and difficult and there is no place to hide, as there might be in the shapeliness of a sonnet or other prescribed form.  It only works when it is done well and it would be surprising if all Graham’s work, of which there is a lot, were equally successful.  I think there is a danger, however, of elevating a writer to the status of a guru and then treating all their work as important.  Although climate change and artificial intelligence are obviously of pressing concern for humanity, I am not sure that their topicality in itself makes for great poetry.   Graham is a very serious poet; she is consumed by the fundamental issues of the age.  Reading her work over the last few weeks, I have been both impressed and bewildered. At times I would have just liked her to lighten up.

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[1] Letter to Tom and George Keats, 1817

[2] Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 1818

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