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A Philosophical Poet : MATERIALISM, By Jorie Graham (Ecco: $22; 146 pp.)

March 20, 1994|David St. John | David St. John's book, "Study for the World's Body: New and Selected Poems' will be published by Harper-Collins in August

The distrust between poets and philosophers is ancient, and like all disputes over turf and borders, each side usually views the other with deep and enduring suspicion. In her poetry, Jorie Graham has always stood a bit precariously on the narrow cusp of this barely civilized mayhem, siding with neither of the antagonists yet drawing her strength as a poet from them both.

Graham's fifth collection of poems is a startling and commanding step forward for one of our most exciting younger poets. "Materialism" is a book-length meditation on the nature of the spirit and the nature of "matter" in our material world--concerns that echo throughout her work. The destruction of our body and the loss of our cultural selves are at the heart of Graham's poetry, as are questions about the future of the modern soul. Graham has always been an intensely philosophical poet, as abstract and "difficult" in her own way as John Ashbery; yet like Ashbery she writes with such passion, beauty and sensual love of language that she is able to rescue even the most highly abstruse of poetic passages.

In her introduction, as editor, to "The Best American Poetry 1990," Graham reminds us that poetry "implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values." In fact, "Materialism" could have sprung from a question posited in a poem ("Who Watches From the Back Porch") from Graham's previous collection, "Regions of Unlikeness," in which she asks, "Is it because of history or because of matter,/mother Matter--the opposite of In-/terpretation . . . /that we feel so sure we lied/or that this, here, this thing/is a lie. . . ."

"Materialism" is punctuated by a series of poems, all tellingly entitled, "Notes on the Reality of the Self," which contain some of the book's most compelling and searing self-questioning. In one instance, the speaker says, "I put my/breath back out/onto the scented immaterial. How the invisible/roils." Later, with both personal and poetic disquiet, this penetrating question follows, "Is there a new way of looking--/valences and little hooks--inevitabilities, proba-/bilities? It flaps and slaps. Is this body the one/I know as me? How private these words?"

With "Materialism," Jorie Graham has written many of her finest poems to date. The poem, "The Dream of the Unified Field" stands as one of her most dazzling accomplishments. Interleaved with these poems are passages drawn from what are described as some of "the great male voices of Western culture": Plato, Sir Francis Bacon, Emerson, Brecht, Wittengenstein, Jonathan Edwards, Walter Benjamin, Whitman, not to mention Leonardo da Vinci. Some are represented with selections as discrete as filets and others with whole slabs of philosophical beef. The project of "Materialism" is both to offer and to challenge these voices, from the the perspective of Graham's own poetic female "otherness."

Jorie Graham often has--to my ear, at least--the upper hand in these implied conversations, as her language is predictably more supple and sensual. Yet the sense of interchange is far more successful than one might at first imagine. And, having tuned her poetic satellite dish across time in this way, Graham makes it possible for us as readers to imagine we're overhearing those urgent whispers of thinkers and artists who can, she clearly feels, help to provide a kind of civilizing, meditative context for the brutalities and incongruities of our public and personal histories.

For some readers, Graham's work has often seemed too laden with philosophical and artistic allusions, as if the poems existed in a kind of echo chamber of traditional Western culture, invoking both its best and worst aspects with equal--therefore suspect--aplomb. To my mind, this resonance has always been a great virtue of her work, a shrewd way of reckoning with and revising those many influences and traditions that any artist inherits.

Perhaps to more fully appreciate the power and accomplishment of her recent poems, it might be helpful to back up a moment and take a brief overview of Jorie Graham's poetry. Her first two books, "Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts" (which takes its title from Nietzsche) and "Erosion," were also philosophically inclined, self-consciously invoking the likes of Voltaire, Plato, Montesquieu and Bergson. Yet even in this early work, the constant counterbalance to these philosophical heavyweights was the powerful influence upon her poetry of the world's great art, especially the works of the Italian Renaissance.

This combination of complex influences, as she moved from the more conventional stylistic gestures of her first two volumes to the far more expansive and discursive meditations of her next two volumes, "The End of Beauty" and "Regions of Unlikeness," served to help unlock Graham and her poetry. With these latter titles, she emerged as one of our most highly imaginative and innovative poets.

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