by Eric Lorberer
Perhaps a summing up is in order: Jorie Graham's first two books, with their deftly spun yet tightly reined poems, introduced her as a poet of immense lyric capabilities. Her third book, The End of Beauty, exploded the very idea of lyric wide open, scattering it into myriad fragments that Graham meticulously tracked down over long-lined, cubistic poems that relentlessly questioned their own existence. Graham pursued this strategy further in her two subsequent volumes, which added to her explorations of mythological detritus a sustained examination of historical consciousness. Boldly facing down the ur-texts of western civilization, the latter of these books, Materialism, nearly collapsed under the weight of large remnants of philosophical and other writings that had been stitched to her own concerns. At this point, perhaps, a summing up was in order, and Graham's selected poems, The Dream of the Unified Field, gave the poetic establishment its least controversial shot at awarding her the Pulitzer Prize. As a whittled down history of her career to date, the book indeed deserves the accolade; it shows the development of a poet not content to write elegant verses, but one who would rather smash atoms together and attempt to describe the results.
Graham's new book, The Errancy, comes full circle, or perhaps full spiral—it returns her to her lyrical roots while still navigating the dense thickets of philosophy and language. There are even love poems here, loudly announced by a series of aubades. Yet there is no mistaking this work for the sentimentality which so often intrudes upon the genre; here is what love poetry sounds like when it comes from the mind of Jorie Graham:
I watch the lovers a long time—
they kiss as if trying to massacre difference—
the alcove around them swarms its complex mechanism made to
One of Graham's characteristic strengths is her unwavering gaze, which often combines with her breath-based music to hurtle images past mere description, even the sacred image of the beloved's body:
we look again into your violent mouth,
into the edifice of your whisper, into the dwindling oxygen
we look into the glassy eyes we have between us—
we try not to shift, we stare,
there seems to be an enclosure in there, maybe a struck
note, an hypothesis,
we look in each other's hair
("Studies in Secrecy")
In addition to these mutated love poems, Graham offers a series of poems spoken by guardian angels, but again, these angels bear little resemblance to the millennium conjured angels that litter the new age section of the bookstore. Charged with watching over such ideas as "the Little Utopia," "Self-Knowledge," and "Point-of View," they sadly articulate their worries and limits:
As where a wind blows.
I can teach you that.
The form of despair we call "the world."
("The Guardian Angel of Not Feeling")
There is also a group of "Manteau" (coat) poems toward the end of the book, which use Magritte's painting (reproduced on the cover), Pascal's famous wager concerning the existence of God, and Gilles Deleuze's theoretical concept of the "fold" as the basis for Graham's metaphysical meditations. But none of these series holds the book together so much as the trope of errancy, which Graham instructs us to think of as a lingering knight-errancy, the opposite of which is playfully demolished through false nostalgia in the title poem:
Utopia: remember the sensation of direction we loved,
how it tunneled forwardly for us,
and us so feudal in its wake—
Graham conveys this post-feudal, pervasive errancy as both the physical journeys of all these lovers rushing back and forth reciting their aubades:
The winglike silences of just-before-dawn slur on.
Tiredness blossoms like a path, vectoring me.
("Red Umbrella Aubade")
and as the wanderings of the eye and mind "fraying off into all the directions, / variegated amnesias" for which the poet finds a language, however broken.
For all this missed direction The Errancy is a beautifully constructed book, each poem seeking out the next by means of an intricate verbal sonar; Graham wanders into larger and larger realms of imagination until the entire topography of spirit has been mapped. She gets us out of this dizzying landscape just as masterfully, following up "The Turning"—a brief but terrifyingly huge poem in which the direction change of a flock of birds is disassembled to study "a war between singular and plural"—with two poems of resolution, "Recovered from the Storm" and "Of the Ever-Changing Agitation in the Air," the latter of which ends with "the cat in the doorway who does not mistake the world / eyeing the spots where the birds must eventually land—." If this is not exactly hopeful it at least is stable, finished.
Since The End of Beauty, Graham's work has demanded parenthetical rhythms and unexpected silences; it is a difficult music and it thunders gorgeously in this new book. Also still in evidence is her postmodernist textuality; she effortlessly and seamlessly incorporates whatever she wants into her poems, borrowing lines from contemporaries such as Charles Wright and James Galvin, from modernist mentors such as Stevens and Moore, and from the various pre-Romantic lyricists who have clearly captured her attention. (It's important to note that Graham doesn't merely include this material, but reenvisions it; even the book's epigraph from Wyatt sounds utterly contemporary through the prism of The Errancy.) With each book, Jorie Graham continues to further and refine her poetic project; to read her work is to bear witness to new possibilities for poetry, and thus to watch literary history inscribe itself. All other rewards aside, that is a distinct pleasure.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997