Jorie Graham’s systemcide

In an earlier entry I liken one of our common challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic). So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of the moral and intellectual pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her words, “we are in systemcide”.

To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”) Because hers is no single story, she has no need to explain or explicate. (Anyway, need and want fuel this ecological-environmental-human crisis.) By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

“no place to rest—you/need to rest—there is nature it is the rest—…”

“action unfolded in no temporality—>anticipation floods us but we/never were able—>not for one instant—>to inhabit time…”

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Occasional enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running smoothly.

Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

“Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.” (Translated by Charles Guenther)

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is not about my understanding how Graham feels or what any other reader may understand. Rather it is my experience of the rush of crisis, dashes and arrows. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not.

It’s invidious to quote a passage of Valery and only a composite of Graham, so let me stop here. I would need to quote an entire poem in the sequence for you to achieve the feeling(s) I am asking you to undergo. Worse, my quoting her selectively is as if I have made them my own words to describe a scene from a movie I want to tell you about. That doesn’t do justice to the scary brilliance of the sequence.

Graham has little good to say about the new or news in this sequence, and there is an irony in my being gratified with this new experience she evokes. I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes the insistent sorrow and anger I feel from reading the lines.

Guy Davenport, the author, once wrote that poets “untie handwriting and then knot it up again in a different way,” and I can think of no poet better at that than Graham. Certainly, she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

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