by Jorie Graham
The Ecco Press, 1997
A Review by Jan Schreiber
I found a strange text in my hand, a text in my native language, yet one that made almost no sense when I read it. Being impatient by nature, I was at first inclined to dismiss it and go on about my business. But being also curious, and aware that others had praised the text extravagantly, I wondered if there might be a way to understand it on whatever terms it might offer. It came labeled as a poem, so I tried to apprehend it using a mental stance that usually works with poems: to suspend judgment as to its veracity while trying to determine its literal meaning, at the same time being alert both for associations that might enlarge and deepen that meaning and for a rhythmic pattern that would establish and enhance the emotional coloring of the statement. But the text did not yield. It seemed to have been designed to thwart such stratagems. It was full of refractory passages, like this:
Then, sugary at first, then monstrous, cuneiform,
as if a microscopic chain had rattled once –
bony lightning – invisible inscription –
the call is returned – or no, another call, almost identical,
is cast – like a hoofmark on the upper registers –
across the housetops ...
Even on repeated readings, the sense of this passage remains elusive. The root of the sentence is "the call is returned," but the phrase is cancelled by "another call ... is cast." The phrases that precede and follow it would syntactically qualify "the call," but how? The call is "sugary," "monstrous, cuneiform"; it – presumably its sound – is compared to the rattling of a microscopic chain, to "bony lightning." Is something very small (microscopic, invisible) being described, or something cosmic: lightning, like a hoofmark on the upper registers (of hearing, perhaps)? How do "sugary" and "cuneiform" add to image or understanding? Why should I be interested?
I decided to take another approach: to regard the text as I might view a game I had never seen before. I imagined I had been told it is a game, but not told its rules – or even whether it has rules. I have a small and shakable faith that games need rules of some kind, but I know some sets of rules are elaborate and others very simple. What might the rules of this game consist of?
I started in on another poem, the first in the book, called "The Guardian Angel of the Little Utopia." It begins like this:
Shall I move the flowers again?
Shall I put them further to the left
into the light?
Will that fix it, will that arrange the
This at least is comprehensible as a scene, a situation. I could not tell what the "thing" was to be fixed or arranged, but I could see a person, a hostess perhaps, fussing over a bouquet. This time the scene unfolds with details that may or may not illuminate. It appears the hostess is preparing for a party. Then, a few lines later:
Please don’t touch me with your skin.
Please let the thing evaporate.
Unclear whether this "thing" is the same as the one mentioned earlier. Unclear whether the words are addressed to the flowers or a sometime lover. The actual situation is fuzzy, but there is a general sense of edgy anticipation. The syntax, however, operates at almost every point to defeat the completion of an idea. If an object looms in a sentence, it is avoided (would it be too obvious?) and an ellipsis is substituted:
there’s the feeling of being momentous, mouths submitting to air, lips
and dreams of sense, tongues, hinges, forceps clicking
in anticipation of ... as if the moment, freeze-burned by accuracies-of
could be thawed open to life again,
by gladnesses, by rectitude – no, no – by the sinewy efforts at
This is a bit Wagnerian: portentously moving from key to key, but perpetually avoiding a cadence, a resolution.
The poem appears to develop by accretion, adding more and more extended language to the initial simple situation:
... to cast a glow resembling disappearance, slightly red,
will that fix it, will that make clear the task, the trellised ongoingness
and all these tiny purposes, these parables, this marketplace
of tightening truths?
The situation of the poem appears to be simply this: a hostess arranges a table in an upstairs room before a party at which, perhaps, there will be a guest she has loved. She worries about the party and about her place in it. This is a small reed on which to hang a poem two and one-half pages long. The details of the language are not enlightening. "Trellised ongoingness," a phrase composed of an awkwardly formed abstract noun yoked to an adjective made from a verb made from a noun, appears to refer to a continuing series of events. But it does not make the series come alive as a concept, visual or otherwise. What it conveys, rather, is an appearance of deliberate eccentricity, as if the writer had set out to warp language into something that would never be spoken.
So I began to infer the rules of this game. If a situation lay buried in the text, it must be deeply buried, by highly emotional and highly unidiomatic language. Its rhythms might be predominantly iambic, but there should be no regularity of line. Indeed, line breaks should seem arbitrary and capricious: "will that arrange the / thing?" Expectations set up by syntax should when possible be defeated, either by contradicting that which has just been asserted ("or no, another call"; "no, no – by the sinewy efforts at / sincerity") or by dodging the implied object toward which the sentence seemed headed. This seems a strangely romantic approach to poetry: to write in a language no one but a "poet" would use, and to lard the language with far-fetched tropes that obscure meaning with a vague emotionalism.
Still, I felt I was making progress in penetrating the nature of the game. Armed, therefore, with some inferences and some bravado, I waded into the next poem, the title poem of the book, which begins this way:
Then the cicadas again, like kindling that won’t take.
The struck match of some utopia we no longer remember
the terms of –
the rules. What was it was going to be abolished, what
restored? Behind them the foghorn in the harbor,
the hoarse announcements of unhurried arrivals,
the spidery virgin-shrieks of gulls, a sideways sound, a slippery,
and then the subaqueous pasturings inexhaustible
phosphorous handwritings the frothings of their own excitements now
erase, depth wrestling, with the current-corridors of depth ...
Again I found myself at a loss. Evidently an issue of great moment had placed the poet at the very verges of madness, for the word choice was violent and extreme. I noted the following epithets: shrieks, frothings, excitements, wrestling, cadaverous, hysteria, crazy, bloody, haunted, scorched, skeletons rotting, shuddering, dread. This is unbuttoned Poe. What can possibly justify such ferocity?
Returning to the start of the poem, I made another pass, underlining the passages that offered any hint of narrative. This time I succeeded in discerning what might be an outline, which I give in italics as a distillation of the poem’s own words:
Then the cicadas again.
Behind them the foghorn in the harbor,
the hoarse announcements of unhurried arrivals,
but here, up on the hill, in town,
we stand quiet, at the end of day, looking out.
Utopia, remember the sensation of direction we loved,
that being carried forward by the notion of human
And how we would comply some day. How we were built to fit and comply –
because that is what is required,
her putting down now the sunset onto that page
as an expression of her deepest understanding sentiment,
will take down the smoldering in the terms of her passion[.]
[Y]ou know this of course, what has awakened which we thought we’d
and the heat is too great, the populace not really
abandoned ... just very tired on its long red errancy
down the freeways to the dusklight
towards the little town on the hill.
(The roman-type words, incidentally, were italicized in the original. These poems use a lot of italics, a tic from which we discourage beginning students of composition, telling them to write so that the voice comes through the prose rhythms without mechanical signals.)
So this poem seems to be about the wish to achieve what one believed one was destined for, and the impediments and divagations that distract one. It is expressed in physical or geographic terms: one sees the harbor or a line of traffic from a hilltop. The writer appears to tie this perception to the act of writing, although what with the "deepest understanding sentiment" and the "smoldering in the terms of her passion" the thing written looks to be a bodice-ripper.
This is certainly a perception that could be developed, although one would want it to be made more precise and more resonant. But precision is not a goal, evidently, and resonance is not what the poem achieves by adding words to words. In fact the impression left by the whole construct is that of an idea, somewhat inchoate but struggling to emerge, being goosed up by violent and increasingly irrelevant language until the poem becomes a torrent of disparate images and outrageous phrases in which the motivating perceptions can scarcely be discerned.
Let us take those gulls, for example. We are told they emit "spidery virgin-shrieks." I grew up in earshot of seagulls. "Shrieks" I can conceive, though if I were to anthropomorphize the gulls (always a dangerous procedure), I would hear their cry as plaintive, not panicked. "Virgin" means nothing to me here. Do virgins shriek differently? Is this a shriek that was never shrieked before? I do not know the author’s association with "spidery," but I know spiders are silent. Is "spidery" an elegant variation on "thin"? I am given nothing that would make such an adjective even speculatively relevant. The shriek is "a sideways sound, a slippery / utterly ash-free / delinquency." The adjective "sideways" neither aids me in mentally hearing the sound nor reinforces a meaning or memory I have of a gull’s cry. If the cry is a "delinquency," it is presumably a trespass, something outside a social norm. Yet nothing is given to suggest why this should be so, and "ash-free" does not help. Something may perhaps burn so completely that it leaves no ash – is that the meaning intended? And if I cannot interpret "ash-free," the adverb "utterly" is of no help.
Then the poem speaks of "subaqueous pasturings" which I take to mean feeding below the water surface. It is a curious figure. "Pasturing" suggests a kind of contented grazing, as of cattle. But gulls do not graze beneath the surface, they swoop into the water, seize a fish or other prey, and carry it aloft. The poem then speaks of the "inexhaustible / phosphorous handwritings the frothings of their own excitements now / erase, depth-wrestling with the current-corridors of depth ..." I believe we are to understand here a sort of feeding frenzy in which gulls are churning up water in a greedy passion. But this image contradicts the placid "pasturings" and like that word betrays little or no observation. Gulls can certainly behave with frenzy in flocks and around food, as anyone who has watched them following a fishing boat will know, but they do not "depth-wrestle"; they plunge and rise and wheel and cry with great speed, precision, and urgency.
There is nothing wrong with having to work at elucidating a poem, as long as the reward justifies the effort. We learned much as a culture from the effort to understand the poems of Dickinson in the last century or Stevens in this, but it is disappointing to apply oneself diligently to a text only to come up with chaff. What we can add to the inferred rules of this game is that the poem is elaborated by affixing to the skeletal narration a congeries of highly emotive, tangential phrases not rooted in careful observation of either natural events or human relations. In short, the violent expression that gives the poem much of its texture has little discernible connection to what the poem is apparently saying. In the language of I. A. Richards, the poems we have been looking at lack a motivating situation (vehicle) to justify the emotional aura (tenor) that has been foisted on them. They are all tenor and no vehicle – hence the title of this essay.
But surely I bring a bias to this enterprise – a bias toward connecting a poem with experience. Why do this? Why not simply receive the language and let the words and their associations wash over one? Why should a gull’s cry not be spidery, sideways, delinquent, ash-free?
Well, yes, why not arbitrarily assign meanings to words, or divorce words and meanings? Perhaps these are the rules of the game. But the poems are written with painstaking grammar: the sentences parse. Relations between subject, verb, and object are evidently intended. And just as a game, whatever its rules, depends on gravity and other physical laws, so a poem necessarily depends on the meanings of its words and the sinews of its syntax. There is no choice.
If the meanings of words are unavoidable, their only referent is experience. This is a tautology: experience is what gives words reference, and a word without reference is a mere sound. We cannot avoid pointing to experience with our words, but we may do so gracefully and perceptively, or crudely, jarringly, with static and irrelevancy.
Shall we go on? The passage quoted earlier about a "call ... like a hoofmark on the upper registers" is from a poem called "Red Umbrella Aubade" which depicts an experience I would summarize as follows: Heading home, I heard a cardinal call, and another answer. I was dumbfounded and depleted by the experience of listening. Again, the effort required to distill this romantic and sentimental content from the nearly two pages of verse seems unjustified by the details of the poem, which are questionable as observation and awkward as expression. At one point, when the poem says, "I stand beneath. The paraphernalia of my listening / stands beneath," I might be forgiven for wondering if the paraphernalia of the writing justifies the paraphernalia of my reading.
So it goes from poem to poem. This is not a case of the emperor having no clothes. The clothes are loud and flamboyant, but there is no emperor. The process of composition is evidently that of generating phrases tangentially associated with a motivating situation or scene, then piling on further clauses of increasing violence and fury, as if to give force and energy to the observation. In this process there is little stylistic decorum, in fact its opposite seems the operative principle. Not fitness of one thing to another but disparateness; not precision of observation but outrageousness; not grace of expression but linguistic distortion and contrivance. Here are some examples: fetishized, trellised ongoingness, braceletings, tongued over the molecular whiteness, out of the manyness – a molting of the singular, winged volumetrics, pregnant bagfulness ...Certain words repeat and repeat. Errancy. Aubade. Plenitude. "The reader is tired," says one poem. "I am so very tired." Yes.
This essay does not have the form implied by its beginning. It should start with an unpromising text, then discover, one after another, hidden bounties that would convince a reader to applaud both the text’s and the essayist’s perspicacity. Nothing is duller than seeing a reviewer confirm his worst suspicions. To do so not only disappoints the reader, it also breaches an unwritten rule of reviewing, to wit: that any collection of poems that manages to be published, let alone win prizes and other accolades, surely must contain many virtues and should therefore be praised, if only to encourage its author, its publisher, and the legions of aspiring poets who no doubt deserve to follow in the same footsteps.
And in fairness there are a few poems and passages that are less obscure than the ones I have been discussing. Not many, but a few. They are revealing too, for they show verbal constructs stripped of the defenses of both obscurity and form. In the book’s last poem, a man who might be an animated cartoon figure or a wind-up doll dances away from the observer, "growing smaller" and adjuring one to "remember me always dear for I will / return." We are told that he represents liberty "careening gently over the giant earth, / and the cat in the doorway who does not mistake the world, / eyeing the spots where the birds must eventually return." So life is freedom (poetry?) experienced in a world of imminent disaster. It is a possible premise, a starting point. It needs development, complication, subtlety, and insight. It might profit by old-fashioned virtues like wit and irony. It cannot be helped by obfuscation.
And so I will endeavor to be large-minded. There are doubtless readers suspicious of poems embodying either discernible formal structure or evident rational content. Such readers may well seek out and respond to texts employing a violent and impenetrable language that obscures the generating experience. They may well be intrigued rather than put off by displays of awkward linguistic contortion. They may not believe there is any necessary relation between occasion and emotion, or agree that language is an agent of understanding and of the refinement of perception. Such readers may well take pleasure in high-decibel adjectives, literally in sound and fury, and in the sense that they are in touch with a creative process akin to rage. Such readers evidently comprise a significant and influential portion of the audience for poetry in America. To them I commend these poems.
[This article originally appeared on Expansive Poetry & Music On-Line.]