On Jorie Graham
There is an interesting review by Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books of Jorie Graham's Sea Change (ECCO /HarperCollins, 2008).* Vendler writes:
"To some readers Graham has seemed difficult, diffuse, oblique, unnervingly changeable. It is true that one does not walk easily into her poems, since they are not, in the usual sense, openly confessional, political, or ideological. They have of course revealed aspects of her life (as child, daughter, lover, wife, mother) as well as places she has lived (Italy, France, the United States), but they take the form of montage rather than sequential narrative. And although Graham has confronted current issues (from perpetually alert B-52s to homelessness to colonialism) that distress a large number of Americans, a poem raising one of these issues, far from being predictable, is likely to include not only introspection but also myth (classical and religious) and historical instances of repellent or thrilling human action (from Inca sacrifice to Greek games at Delphi). Graham is an intellectual poet writing in a society hostile to intellectuality; her range of reference and liberty of expression have sometimes baffled reviewers."
"The reader is delighted, in Graham's mobile lines of flashes and sparks, by recognizing in them the stratified intensity of poems-in-process, illustrating the 'innumerable compositions and decompositions' described by Keats."
My sense of Graham is somewhat different. As a poet, she relies almost entirely upon her thought processes, arrayed across a long line that Graham herself refers to as "visionary." What she has turned away from is the constructed poetic image. Although a wide range of historical and intellectual referents are contained within her poems, there is nothing cinematic about her work. Few scenes are ever developed, character is largely absent, Graham seldom enters--or attempts to enter--the mind of another. One rarely feels located in time, place, or scene and the only "person" one finds in her poetry is the mind--lately, not even the physical body--of Jorie Graham. The larger problem with this is not Graham's erudition (seriously, Jorie; keep talking--we'll all try to keep up with you), it is that Graham's intellect has developed--or always had--a hushed, humorless reverence for itself as oracle, and not much genuine empathy for those laboring beyond her own synapses.
The ability to mediate depends, at some level, upon the willingness to engage. How effective, how compelling, how necessary is an oracle who lacks genuine engagement with the human world--with the poor sots who make their burnt offerings and look to the oracle for wisdom and advice?
With that said, I continue to find myself interested in some of the formal aspects of Sea Change--for example, how Graham makes the longer line work in her poetry.
"A Powerful Strong Torrent" by Helen Vendler, The New York Review of Books (June 12, 2008) pp. 64-67.