By Jorie Graham
Let’s try an experiment. Let’s imagine that you have never heard of Jorie Graham. You have never encountered a line of her verse.
If you’re a steady consumer of poetry, that’s going to be difficult. Now 70, Graham has claimed a berth in the American literary establishment for four decades. She is an empress of credentials, an avatar of all-the-right-moves: grew up trilingual (speaking primarily Italian and French into her late teens), was asked to leave the Sorbonne amid the student protests of 1968, got an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has taught for years at Harvard. “Writing about Jorie Graham at this point, seven books after she won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994,’ means joining a cacophony of voices,” Craig Morgan Teicher once wrote in this newspaper. And that was five years ago.
But let’s try anyway. Let’s say that someone has waved a neuralyzer (one of those memory-wiping wands from “Men in Black”) in front of your eyes, and you are picking up her new collection, “Runaway,” in a state of newborn cluelessness. You flip to the first poem, called “All,” and it starts to carry you away. Graham kicks off the book with a downpour, or its immediate aftermath. (Has Noah’s ark found land?) And she describes the sound of a drenched landscape with a vigilance that suggests she could lead a workshop on the art of panoramic listening:
… After the rain stops you hear the
washed world, the as-if-inquisitive garden, the as-if-perfect beginning again
of the buds forced open …
She knows how to get your attention. As you move through the book, subsequent poems like “I’m Reading Your Mind” and “Rail” dare you not to get pulled into their riptides. From its opening page until its final lines, Graham’s 15th collection of poetry has the heightened urgency of a young writer’s debut. True to its title, it hurtles forward. Poems pour forth, frothing and pooling and threatening, at times, to overflow their banks.
In this way “Runaway” extends the oracular alarm of Graham’s more recent books, such as “Sea Change” and “Fast,” in which the signs of impending global doom — climate change, species collapse, acidifying oceans, stupefying information overload, cataclysmic storms and fires — have catalyzed her urge to speak up and chronicle what we have before it is gone. Like Deborah Landau’s “Soft Targets,” Victoria Chang’s “Obit” and Maureen N. McLane’s “This Blue” (to cite three examples from the past decade), “Runaway” taps into a free-floating end-of-the-worldness (is there a German word for that?) that so many of us feel even if we can’t express it.
Graham abandoned the tidy compression of her early work — if you’re a fan, you might think of poems like “An Artichoke for Montesquieu” or “San Sepolcro” — a long time ago. Her latter-day poems arrive instead like effusions, Whitmanic gusts of words, as if she’s channeling a sort of emergency scripture. “Runaway” feels as though it has been written for right now, especially as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, but also for a target audience that might emerge 100 years on. You imagine someone in the future flipping through it, finding a record of a great unraveling, and spending hours trying to decipher it. In the poem “I’m Reading Your Mind,” Graham appears to anticipate engaging with such a reader:
Have been for centuries. No, longer. Everything already has
been. It’s not a reasonable place, this continuum between us, and yet
here again I put the olive trees in …
Deciphering it won’t be a cakewalk for that future pupil. The suggestion that Graham can be willfully cryptic is not a new one. (One voice from that aforementioned cacophony, David Orr, referred in The Times to “the fogginess that has been a chronic problem in her work” back in 2005.) Another way of saying it might be that she chooses to err on the side of Team Beauty instead of Team Coherence.
But if you really are new to Jorie Graham’s body of work, you could read her poems, as you might read Nathaniel Mackey’s or John Ashbery’s, less for a quick click of understanding than for the pleasures of the flow. Snippets of her lyrics can stop you in your tracks. Look anywhere: “Stillness in time. Rich concentrate.” “Honeysuckle, / bramble, vine, / vibration / and / web-tremble.” “Take this October. The deep white turn the air is taking. / How many more / Octobers. Is there another October with us in it. / Blood flows in my hand writing this.” “The phone call comes. You pick up the / receiver and hear the / final sounds of the islands. They are murmuring we want to / weep and lie down.” And “on the screen / in the screen / you die. Are / dying. It’s taking / time.”
Over the years, in poems such as “The Surface,” Graham has written skillfully about rivers. Her body of work, too, can be experienced like a river, a current that passes through patches of stillness and turbulence and winds up being all the more mesmerizing because of its constant movement. “Runaway” reminds us that Graham is aware of where that current is heading — for her and for all of us. If the book begins with a wet roar, it ends with a dry whisper, when Graham’s narrator — “accidentally / listening” — picks up a signal from the home that humanity seems determined to leave in ruins. This last poem in the book is simply called “Poem,” and here the churn of Graham’s language settles into a benediction that couldn’t be clearer:
hear it every-
where. The earth
me. I am the
earth it said. Re-