Finally: Jorie Graham

After years of reading whatever I can find online by and about Jorie Graham and making do with what few poems by her I have in this or that anthology, I finally bought a copy of her now-15-year-old collection The Errancy yesterday. I’m surprised it’s taken me this far, given how I echo her twin interests in philosophy and film studies.

Although I’m not sure how The Errancy ranks with her other books, I was won over by reviews that mention Lacan and Deleuze, that listen to Graham’s “heady, improvisational music” and “accretionary syntax,” and that cite bits from her “mutated love poems.” It also helped that I’m preoccupied with errors, secrets, and lies–all those different ways one swerves away from capital-T Truth–and the very title of The Errancy certainly points to that.

(I should also mention that Emily Galvin, Graham’s daughter with James Galvin, has published her own collection with a strong basis in mathematics, also an interest of mine, poetically speaking. I think I should read James Galvin’s work sometime, just to complete this little family circle.)

I’ve posted a link to this interview before, pointing out Graham’s remarks about Michael Palmer, but this time, I think I’d like to paste the relevant excerpt here, as a reminder to myself about the work I’m (supposed to be) doing (all emphases mine):

keeping the song alive is keeping alive a world in which song is possible. You have to keep hope alive. Any kind of truth you might arrive at that hasn’t contended with hope is going to be very partial. [pause] Michael Palmer is very interesting in that regard. He has extraordinary music. I think he’s learned better than anyone the Stevens trick of making the poem disintegrate on the surface but stay totally alive musically. To me he’s very important in that regard. The way he uses repetition. The particular way he will bring certain images back without that turning into structure. Pure desire kept alive in the act of writing by the way fragments recur.

I also like how Graham talking about silence (“Making the silence come awake in the poem is important to my process. The silence – or anything else that resists the impulse to imagine, own, transform.”) leads her to a really brilliant disquisition on her use of the poetic line, one where I’m hard-put to emphasize any idea as more important than another:

…lines of breath-length, say, lines that contain up to five stresses, sometimes feel to me like measures that make that silence feel safe. A silence that will stay at bay for as long as it takes to get the thing said. Writing in lines that are longer than that, because they are really unsayable or ungraspable in one breath unit for the most part (and since our desire is to grasp them in one breath unit) causes us to read the line very quickly. And the minute you have that kind of a rush in the line (emphasized perhaps by the absence of commas and other interpretive elements) what you have is a very different relationship with the silence: one that makes it aggressive – or at least oceanic – something that won’t stay at bay. You have fear in the rush that can perhaps cause you to hear the fearful in what is rushed against.

What you feel – this is Romantic of course – is the pressure of a silence that might not wait until the end of the line to override you. And so you have to rush those words into it. In this new book, I’m writing mostly in traditional lines again, with less counterpoint from such prose-length units. But the calm assurance of the standard English line has always interested and troubled me. In Erosion, the line-length tended to be much smaller than the norm. The voice in that book was, in fact, so aware of the overriding presence of the white space that it just tried to mash words into that space. With great pressure. To create the sensation of that gravitational weight. Sternness. Solemnity. As if to build cell by cell a fabric that could take the weight of eternity into it – like human tissue.

And here’s a bit from a poem that isn’t in The Errancy but in a later collection called Never. It moved me this morning when I read it, out of the context of the entire poem:

from the 2002 collection Never

from "The Taken-Down God" by Jorie Graham

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Five From Cole Swensen

And now, Cole Swensen, with five poems from the same journal where I read Stuart Dybek. Although I’ve listened to a lot of the clips on Swensen’s Pennsound page, I’ve never quite had the chance to actually go deep into Swensen’s work, apart from some rather tangential encounters:

  1. the list of poems Swensen recommends as “required reading” has me vigorously nodding along in agreement
  2. a teacher mentioned her in passing a few years ago, and my ear caught on Swensen’s first name, which is the same as my son’s
  3. Nick Lantz‘s ruminations on Swensen’s Goest were beautiful and insightful but now sadly taken down from his blog archives*
  4. two years ago, I bought Caroline Dubois’s You Are The Business, which Swensen translated from French

Now I don’t think I can write about Swensen as well as, say, Forrest Gander does here, but I can gush over, say, how the first two poems combine prose sections with the usual lineated stanzas. It’s a “look” (shape? structure? form?) I’ve always loved in the works of Jack Spicer, Michael Palmer, and Ann Lauterbach, though I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know of any earlier instances. (George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky maybe? Egads, I need to bone up on my history.)

In terms of title and content, I should like “What Is On The Page” a lot and I do, actually. Swensen’s poem begins with “There is no ink on the page but a shadow,” and ends with “…I do not allude, though / we are fond of words / and use them when we can.” I’m reminded of some of Michael Palmer’s 80s poems though, as well as my own proclivities. I can read “What Is On The Page” again and again like a close friend, but it doesn’t quite make me feel as if the top of my head had been taken off. It’s comforting, which is both good and bad.

That the second of Swenson’s poems here is called “Bastille Day” is appropriate. My head does feel taken off, blown off, with lines like: “I finish the letter as the sky fills with toy windows, the smell of water and an irregular pulse.” I’m not sure what it means, but these images are provocative, stronger in their effect on me than the metalinguistic pronouncements of “What Is On The Page” (although it does have the beautifully enigmatic “…the ocean / left out in the rain you wear for dying”).

The three poems that follow are more formally conventional: no hybrid of prose and lineated verse, just the latter in the irregular short lines common in the contemporary lyric form. But I just love these, because they certainly belong to Visiting Wallace and should have been included in that anthology: “Wallace Stevens Waking At Night,” “Wallace Stevens Walks By The Sea,” and “Wallace Stevens Walks Along The Beach At Night.”

Interesting linkages going on here, as evinced from the titles and some recurring words and images. The first poem begins with “Something from the dark sea / rises and flies,” and it becomes an easy temptation to read the other two poems as happening in the same “imaginative space,” especially when the second poem starts with “And now it is that it rises” and the third with “The edge of the dark sea rose.”

(Some questions: why is the first poem in the third-person–a “he” which seems to be Stevens–but the other two use the first-person?)

Some of the words and ideas also appear freighted with significance in Stevens’s own poems: the sea and the ocean, flight, “…what freedom / resists the mind and everything” from the first poem. The second poem repeats some of these and adds “Everything beautiful is also in motion,” motion and movement being important to Stevens since Harmonium and after.

Things get really interesting for me though, in the third poem. There is “a ghost in an open mind,” but this phantom becomes flesh by an insistence on the carnal and the emotional not always seen directly in Stevens: “And that which might have been a man / made of blood and love and grief.” There is a necessary violence before we reach the late-Stevens sense of simplicity (the plain sense of things, perhaps?) and slowness, and the direct rhymes emphasize the words: “The world rocks down to its / direst simplicity / and the shock of evening / which settles in slow.”

And when it ends with “Far back in the town / I hear my house burning,” this image of a noisily-burning house, one that is heard as it burns, is a shock, certainly unlike the quiet decline and abandonment of “[t]he great structure [that] has become a minor house.” The destruction is closer to the aural Sensurround-Stevens of Harmonium, rather than the quiet physicality of a late poem like “The Rock.”

I don’t know whether Swensen has other poems directly addressing Stevens like in these three poems. I don’t think she needs any more–these three have more than enough substance to work with–but if she has more, I for one would love to read them, as atypical it may be of her usual work.

Bonusa blog entry on Swensen’s identification of “four specific modes of ambiguity.” Now I’m interested in Noise That Stays Noise, her book of essays.

* If I remember right, and I may not, Lantz had a three-part reflection on the ghostly in three poetry collections. Though I can no longer be certain, I have a lingering impression that one of the two other pieces was on Cornelius Eady. I wish I saved a copy of those pieces. Aside from Lantz’s poems, those pieces were instrumental in getting me interested in him as a writer.

Five From Stuart Dybek

Somewhat odd bringing up two American contributors (one here, the other in the next blog entry) from the Spring 1990 issue of Manoa, given how this very issue of the “Pacific Journal Of International Writing” features a special focus on Papua New Guinean literature. Still, I rather enjoyed the “five fictions” by Stuart Dybek and the five poems by Cole Swensen that I read this morning. I’ve come across Dybek’s name before, but I really don’t know his work.

Both Dybek and Swensen get three pages each, the former’s “fictions” more microfiction than standard-length short stories, at least the type of short-short pieces Lydia Davis is known for.

The first two pieces, “Confession” and “The Girl Downstairs,” are relatively straightforward in their depiction of situation rather than story, down to quirky little details: confessing to alcoholic Father Boguslaw “deadly sins” like “hitch-hiking, which I’d been convinced was an offense against the Fifth Commandment, which prohibited suicide” in the former and the latter with a narrator who wakes up in alarm one night only to be reassured that “it’s only the girl downstairs, the ordinary-looking one who wears rimless glasses and her hair in a bun, it’s only her moaning a floor below in that steady rising chant that she can’t know has disturbed me.”

The other three are progressively weirder and further away from conventional fiction.

“The Knife Thrower’s Daughter” is again situational about its title character like the second story, but while “The Girl Downstairs” has a conventionally descriptive first sentence in “The girl downstairs is moaning again,” the third story begins with a litany that displays more stylistic flourish: “Each evening at the dinner table, knives, forks, chopsticks, skewers, corkscrews, can openers, broken bottle necks, jagged-edged cracked plates of food embed themselves in the wall directly behind her.”

The first sentence of “Who” is even more breathless, taking eight lines of the nine-line piece to ask “Who has been stealing from me, picking my locks, bludgeoning in my windows and screens, rifling drawers, stalking the rooms leaving footprints of plaster dust up and down stairs…” It ends with the two other sentences that make up the piece, both questions that begin with another interrogative pronoun: “What am I missing? What did they find left to carry away?”

Finally, “Seven Sentences” is simply a paratactic enumeration that begins with “One. Tonight the moon has a street number,” and ends with “Seven. It will take more than a few days to erase tonight’s moon.” In between are the five other sentences, one barely so (Breath: a concertina of evening air pressed back and forth between us in a doorway.”), none of them enumerated with numbers like the first and the last. Instead, we get Lilacs. And Proverb. Also, A Novel. And Curtains.

Dybek’s Wikipedia entry has links to longer stories, none of which I’ve read yet, so I can’t say whether he’s better at longer stories. His views on the “flash fiction” trend a couple of decades ago can be found here and certainly illuminate the five pieces he published in Manoa twenty-two years ago.

The Spoils: January 2012

I used to buy at least twice as many more books in a single month, but those days are gone. Thankfully, the idea of “quality over quantity” takes on the strength of a bona fide principle when applied  to books. So not only am I pleased to own these titles, I’m also quite grateful to my wife; everything except the last title was her Christmas present to me:

  1. Visiting Wallace, edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan
  2. My Index Of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge by Paul Guest
  3. Active Boundaries: Selected Essays And Talks by Michael Palmer
  4. Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988 by Michael Palmer
  5. Hapgood: A Play by Tom Stoppard

 

Odes To Nightingales

Keats, of course. And Benedict Cumberbatch reading it.

And then Stevens says this:

Vachel Lindsay, however, gives us “The Chinese Nightingale,” with its cartoonish Orientalism (but which isn’t the same as this 1935 cartoon of the same title.)

To go back to the Keats poem, however, and its exploration of music (as compared to the focus on the plastic representational arts in “Ode On A Grecian Urn”), here are two different songs from The Dubliners and Julee Cruise.

And I’ve nearly forgotten: med-school dropout, nightclub singer, and Eyes Wide Shut character Nick Nightingale.