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:


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.


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:


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