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
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” 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 –“  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.
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.