Place: New PoemsPoetry
Reviewed By Robert Huddleston
- Ecco Press (2012)
- 96 pages
Writers, said W. H. Auden, generally fall into two classes: “Alices,” who know everything, and “Mabels,” who don’t know anything. The distinction, borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, reflects an enduring controversy about knowledge, authenticity, and tradition that points toward two divergent ideas about the self and its relationship to the world. In this argument, the Alices, appearances aside, do not necessarily have the upper hand. Alice asks, “Who in the world am I?” and begins “thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them. . . . ‘I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I.’” Alices may present answers, but Mabels must know how to ask better questions.
American poetry, beginning with Whitman’s revolution against tradition and form, is dominated by inquiring Mabels. In the American grain, the writer’s relationship to the inherited past is always vexed and often hostile. While claiming to be master of no pre-established body of knowledge, the writer’s authority rests on the “authenticity” of the persona she creates, an authenticity made manifest in and through a relentless questioning of tradition. There are exceptions (Eliot, Pound), but are they really American? Every so often, however, someone comes along who seems to defy neat categories, an American writer who is neither an Alice nor a Mabel—or is a little of both. We are fortunate to have such a writer in Jorie Graham.
Graham was born in New York City in 1950 but raised in Rome, Italy. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris until she was expelled for participating in the 1968 student uprisings. Subsequently, she moved back to New York to pursue a degree in filmmaking at New York University. It was there that, according to legend, she heard the critic M. L. Rosenthal reading the lines “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. // I do not think that they will sing to me” from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and fell in love with poetry. This background in itself makes her an exotic, sophisticated Alice in the Mabelian provinces of American letters. Though she eventually settled in Iowa City and, later, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Graham grew up between worlds with a fluid sense of identity in relation to place. This concern, often simmering below the surface in her earlier work, breaks out with a hard and penetrating brilliance in her new collection Place.
The concept of place may, as Michael Brodeur writes in the Boston Globe, furnish the book’s title and its notional center, but as Gertrude Stein (clearly an Alice) once said, “There is no there there.” Alices may have all the answers, but there is no better Mabelian questioner in our tradition than Graham (with the possible exception of Whitman). Even critics hostile to her work, such as William Logan, have recognized this extraordinary facility with ideas and labile sense of their trajectories. Place, no exception, is an investigation—not of rootedness, but of displacement.
A reader who approaches Place with traditional expectations will find it bewildering. To start at the beginning and work one’s way through the collection is to wander deep into uncharted territory, into the abyss between inner experience and the outer world. If the journey is sometimes terrifying, it is also paradoxically enlightening. With Graham, we relearn what poetry can accomplish. Ultimately, this oracular book asks a question, and if a definition of that question initially proves elusive, it will emerge before the end:
How we came to be living
but no longer be
These lines, from “Although,” demand annotation. Who is “we”? Living where? Place, like Wonderland’s Alice, gives us broad answers: We is all of us living here, on earth, in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Graham is nothing if not ambitious, and if her poems do not always rise to the level of those ambitions, it is because she set the bar so high—how high will be shown in a moment. Many of the poems in Place clear the bar.
Earth is a place. Indeed, it is the only place for Graham. “Here and there does not matter,” as Eliot writes in Four Quartets, a frequent reference in these poems. Earth is also a place singularly threatened by human greed and recklessness in a particular historical moment—the present. In this sense, we are no longer merely “inhabitants,” but we are exploiters or caretakers, destroyers or preservers. Graham is following a path traced by Heidegger in the essay “…Poetically Man Dwells…” More specifically, she suggests, with Heidegger, that what we presently call the world, our technological modernity, has drastically altered our relationship to nature with unpredictable and possibly devastating consequences. Stated like this, as a mere proposition, Graham’s driving concern in Place is no more than a truism. Everyone knows about global warming and the perils of biotechnology; most people (or at least most likely readers of Place) are convinced of these realities. Is she only preaching to the choir? An Emersonian ideological complacency has always been one of Graham’s weaknesses, though she is far from the only contemporary poet who suffers from it. Regardless of originality, what Graham does with such ideas is of interest.
For Graham, our alienated condition implicates everything, including our relationship to life itself and to earth as a place where we dwell. To quote Heidegger, “we must think of the nature of what is called man’s existence by way of the nature of dwelling,” and dwelling requires both a place and a way of living. Moreover, how we live and how far it differs from how we ought to live can only be measured in poetry. For Graham, as for Heidegger, the question of how to live, of place, is connected to God’s existence and what we call fate—usually without looking too deeply into what we mean.
Place, like Four Quartets, is a God-soaked book. Or perhaps more precisely it is a book drenched in the trauma of God’s absence. From “Of Inner Experience”:
. . . I want to break the dark with the idea of God says the
non-sleeping person on her back at the beginning of the 21st century, trying to
hold on to
duration which is slipping, slipping, as she speaks as I write . . .
As the darkness at the heart of these lines shows, Graham lacks Eliot’s serene conviction. Here a desolate Mabel, whose inner experience is closer in spirit to the agony of Hopkins’s late sonnets, resurfaces from beneath the façade of a sunny, confident Alice:
who was awaiting you all day that you hurried so—what was it you were told to
accomplish—death, rimless stare, O, hasn’t enough time
passed by now, can the moving walkway be shut down for the night, but no,
it is told, it is told, the universe
is in your mind as it
expands—and it is October once again
as it must be, the new brightness—
and again gold lays down on them
the tight rolls of hay,
the long rows the cut fields—
which Winter eyes, hidden as it is at the core of everything . . .
Here the question of fate appears. Dwelling, as Heidegger puts it, “remains incompatible with the poetic” in an existence harassed by work, scarcity, and ambition. The place depicted is one, as Graham writes, “moving blindly toward its own annihilation.” We are imprisoned by the world we have created, one that we mistake for an absolute reality. This world dominates us as nature dominated our ancestors.
At its core, if not always in its craft, this is authentic poetry. It brings to light questions at the heart of our humanity, individually and collectively, for none of us is exempt from the shared conditions these poems expose. From “Dialogue (Of the Imagination’s Fear)”:
. . . your blood is full of
barren fields, they are the
future in you you
should learn to feel and
love: there will be no more: no more: not enough to go around: no more around:
more: love that.
“To be a poet in a destitute time,” Heidegger writes (quoting the German poet Hölderlin), “means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods.” But where, amid all this darkness, is the place for song? The answer, for Graham, is surprisingly traditional: in memory, in the beauty and resilience of the natural world, which seems to resist somehow our attempts to dominate it entirely. The finest poems in Place deal with childhood, Graham’s own and her daughter’s, and with nature (“The Sure Place”). These are time-honored lyric themes, and Graham illumines their continued relevance. Thus, beneath Graham’s autumnal melancholy is a surprising, persistent vernal optimism. “Dialogue (Of the Imagination’s Fear)” begins with a bleak winter landscape of foreclosed houses and economic ruin. Then, in a characteristically abrupt mood shift:
. . . Spring!
the bulbs want to clear the sill of
dark and find the
This consolation is tenuous and fragile, but not illusory. And in this biodynamic persistence, this will to life that precisely opposes a will to power, the poet finds a reason to keep singing.
ROBERT HUDDLESTON is a poet, translator, and essayist. He grew up in the Washington, DC area and in West Africa, studying at Dartmouth College, the University of London, and the University of Chicago where he earned a PhD in comparative literature in 2006. His work has appeared in various journals including Boston Review, Chicago Review, Mantis, and Like Starlings. He currently lives in New York City and teaches at NYU.