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

Foucault On Nietzsche And Mallarme

The great task to which Mallarmé dedicated himself, right up to his death, is the one that dominates us now; in its stammerings, it embraces all our current efforts to confine the fragmented being of language once more within a perhaps impossible unity. Mallarmé’s project — that of enclosing all possible discourse within the fragile density of the word, within that slim, material black line traced by ink upon paper — is fundamentally a reply to the question imposed upon philosophy by Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, it was not a matter of knowing what good and evil were in themselves, but of who was being designated, or rather who was speaking when one said Agathos to designate oneself and Deilos to designate others. For it is there, in the holder of discourse and, more profoundly still, in the possessor of the word, that language is gathered together in its entirety. To the  Nietzschean question: ‘Who is speaking?’, Mallarmé replies — and constantly reverts to that reply — by saying that what is speaking is, in its solitude, its fragile vibration, in its nothingness, the word itself — not the meaning of the word, but its enigmatic and precarious being. Whereas Nietzsche maintained his questioning as to who is speaking right up to the end, though forced, in the last resort, to irrupt into that questioning himself and to base it upon himself as the speaking and questioning subject: Ecce homo, Mallarmé was constantly effacing himself from his own language, to the point of not wishing to figure in it except as an executant in a pure ceremony of the Book in which the discourse would compose itself.  It is quite possible that all those questions now confronting our curiosity (What is language? What is a sign? What is unspoken in the world, in our gestures, in the whole enigmatic heraldry of our behaviour, our dreams, our sicknesses — does all that speak, and if so in what language and in obedience to what grammar? Is everything significant, and, if not, what is, and for whom, and in accordance with what rules? What relation is there between language and being, and is it really to being that language is always addressed — at least, language that speaks truly? What, then, is this language that says nothing, is never silent, and is called ‘literature’?) — it is quite possible that all these questions are presented today in the distance that was never crossed between Nietzsche’s question and Mallarme’s reply.

from Section 1 (“The Return Of Language”) of Chapter 9 (“Man And His Doubles”) of The Order Of Things by Michel Foucault (pp 332-333)

David Rivard

And speaking of…

I’m pretty sure I’ve come across Rivard before, but most recently, it began with an essay evocatively entitled “The Interrupted Now.” It was a great read with several insights that make so much sense to me, like the following on syntax:

For me to be fully inside the body of the poem I have to feel a flex and alertness in the syntax. Otherwise I go around slumping and round-shouldered, and the poem flops. The syntax has to be muscular enough to hold together in the midst of shifting speeds, but flexible enough to make the turns. That speed, that variable propulsiveness, is a thing I trust. The speed gives me a way of narrating experience that depends on elision and compression; but it also mimics the way that one moment of interruption fades into another.

And just as I was struck by the title of his now out-of-print debut collection, so too am I with Otherwise Elsewhere, the title of his latest collection. (Notice how that review links to “The Interrupted Now”?)

And despite / because of my difficulty with what he calls “The Minimal, the Miniature, & the Little-More-Than-Nothing,” I found riveting a piece that offers, among other things, a discussion of poems that “depend upon indirection and a sort of Wi-Fi networking.”

And this not-so-recent interview has Rivard talking about the fragment, which has long interested me, but here’s a bit about syntax and line in Torque:

I can see how I’m using a line to parse out sentence rhythms as the line moves down the page. It’s not a book that depends on the line to articulate a rhythm; it depends on the sentence. The line makes you more aware of how phrasal units counterpoint the sentence, or how the complications of syntax are being released, how the syntax tracks.

And finally, for now, Heather McHugh, whose work as critic and editor I like, has nice things to say about him. Discussing one of Rivard’s poems from Wise Poison, she says–in her typical way–the following, which I like because some common words that pop up in my poems include sin, sing, and singe, poems which I aim to work as “song-sense”:

To sin, to be singed, ever to have sung a single thing–such links are forged, not on the anvils of deductive reasoning, but rather in the spark-bed of song-sense itself.

Line and Phrase

For those interested in what Ann Lauterbach has to say about her own poetics, other online resources may be more comprehensive or intensive, but two reviews of  her 2009 collection Or to Begin Again address two of my current poetic preoccupations. (Oddly–at least from a Gray Wolf Press point of view–I’m talking about line and syntax.)

There’s more to be found in the reviews themselves; I’ve simply picked three statements that I thought were pithy enough to paste below. If I had hard copies of these, I would have already marked these passages with a highlighter:

Michael D. Snediker’s piece for Rain Taxi is centered on the geometry he sees at work in Lauterbach’s collection, but the following statements are more about the poetic line per se than its geometric or figural counterpart:

  1. “Linear vivacity is suggested in this poetry’s predilection for the parade—a line made raucous, celebratory, symbolic, navigatory (more simply, moving)…”
  2. “The line, as both collective and formal denominator, is uncontainable…”
  3. “The line is a path, a sequitur…”

Vincent Katz’s piece for Jacket contain what seems to me useful strategies for reading Lauterbach’s work. While he does talk about “want[ing] to graduate to reading her line by line,” he opts for a more productive starting approach that deals with “single words [that] stand out and can be read as a thread, apart from the safety of their lines,” as well as what I’d like to call the syntax of the phrase:

  1. “by paying close attention to its phrases, one finds them echoing and interlocking—or rather repeatedly locking and unlocking, in new iterations, with different possible readings”
  2. “Lauterbach’s method — composition not by field, though, as we have seen, she makes great use of the arena (or area) of the page, but rather composition by phrase”
  3. “Because no narrative is begun or concluded, each phrase begins from immediacy, that is, from some bodily, perceptual, calling or inkling.”

Katz also talks about Lauterbach’s use of parentheses, and I was struck by a remark he himself encloses in parentheses: “(parentheses, unlike ellipses, including instead of excluding).” It’s a simple, even obvious, statement, but one especially useful for emphasizing the “whole” in what Lauterbach has often called “the whole fragment.”