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Casting Lines in Search of Meaning

NEVER: Poems By Jorie Graham, Ecco Press: 114 pages, $22.95

April 07, 2002|JOHN PALATTELLA | John Palattella writes for several publications, including the London Review of Books, the Nation and Dissent.

For the epigraph of her new book of poems, Jorie Graham has snatched two terse sentences from the letters of John Keats. In 1818, Keats went on a walking tour of Scotland and northern England. "How can I believe in that?" he wrote upon first seeing the Lake District, the home of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the wellspring of the Romantic Sublime. "Surely it cannot be?" Graham's choice of these sentences is apt, for "Never" teems not only with questions of belief but also with a sense of astonishment that the physical world exists at all.

"Never" is Graham's eighth book. It would be more accurate, however, to call the volume the eighth episode of Graham's quest for absolute meaning and wholeness, one that has routinely led her down a path mired in human imperfections. Foremost among these hazards are consciousness, which can know itself only by exposing itself to an elusive physical world, and language, which in her previous book, "Swarm," Graham called a system "built on forgetting word by word how life/feels." In this respect, the presiding spirit of "Never" is not Keats or even John Ashbery, whose coruscating, quicksilver poems have often intrigued Graham. Rather, as with Graham's other books, it is T.S. Eliot, an idealist whose poetic protagonists are bruised by their failure to pierce the veil of time to a radiant spiritual absolute.

Divided into five sections, "Never" attempts to enact an acutely mental drama, and the crucial scenes occur while Graham is pondering the sea. In the poems "Evolution I," "Gulls," "Dusk Shore Prayer," "The Complex Mechanism of the Break," "Ebbtide" and, most important, "The Time Being," the ocean is Graham's antithesis and ideal. It is a roiling fluid mass, the "residue of origin" that both defies description and tempts Graham to construe it as a model of expression:

Sometimes the whole unraveling activity

for just an instant

pools, all its opposing motions suddenly just pattern on these briefly

lakelike flats--the shore's upslant unspooling then in only two dimensions.

Accordingly, Graham tries to establish a correspondence between the forms of her verse and the shape of the sea. The poems are a surf-scrim of periods, dashes and colons; cuts, reversals and fragmentations; bracketed phrases, parentheses and parentheticals nested within bracketed phrases. Graham wants the sea to make her voice most acute at its unraveling.

But there is a nagging problem with the sea poems and with "Never" in general. At times the sea is a metaphor that overstays its welcome, operating more like a narrow intellectual conceit than a door to a more acutely felt world. As for the poems in general, the problem is not their philosophical cast of mind, because in a poetry world thick with emotional platitudes, a poetry of ideas is always welcome. Nor is it their formal difficulty, because difficulty is inherently neither good or bad, reactionary or revolutionary. The problem is that the poems are maddeningly abstract, their language defiantly knotty yet remarkably staid. Graham liberally uses scare quotes (quotation marks around questionable words), some buzzwords of academic postmodernism ("speaking subject," "self-presence") and compound predicates fused by hyphens and back-slashes ("finally-arriving-boat-wakes," "mind/gaze"). All language is abstract, but Graham seems determined to push its abstraction to its baroque-breaking-point.

Given the severity and willfulness of Graham's abstraction, one wonders if she is determined less to find a language adequate to her vision of the sea's "supreme unfolding" than to demonstrate that all language is unfit for her visionary quest. Throughout "Never," Graham returns to the notion of silence, that unsullied space between her elliptical clutches of words: "Everything depends on the point where nothing can be said," she writes emphatically in "Via Negativa." What's especially telling is that while "Never" is riddled with doubts about comprehension and eloquence--

Understands? Shall I wave a 'finished' copy at you

whispering do you wish to come for lunch.

Nor do I want to dwell on this

--Graham does not refrain from dwelling on the unambiguous value of silence. From "In/Silence":

Because the truth

is a thing one is not permitted to say.

That is preserved for silence,

a buttress in silence's flyings, its motions

always away from source.

From "Where: The Person": "after which silence tumbling down as if a birdsong without/song."

In "Soul Says," the concluding poem of her celebrated 1993 volume "Region of Unlikeness," Graham approvingly depicts Prospero's decision to doff his magic robe and assume a less assured role:

O pluck my magic garment from me. So.

[lays down his robe]

Lie there my art....

Graham's encomiums to silence in "Never" are uttered in the spirit of Prospero's renunciation of his powers, but it is an alliance that raises a crucial question. How soon will Graham's desire to speak an unspeakable absolute lead her to meditate on the only true poetic equal of silence, the empty page?

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