Responding to the climate emergency: a poet’s contribution

I

No one would accuse Jorie Graham of being hopeful about the climate emergency. There is not a scintilla, not a homeopathic whiff of environmental optimism, techno-social-otherwise, in the poetry I’ve read of hers.

Which poses my challenge: Can I nevertheless find something to move forward with from her four recent books of poetry, compiled as [To] The Last [Be] Human? Is there some thing, other than anger and dread at the way things are going, that I can use in my responding to the climate emergency?

II

To expect answers from poets is to make an outrageous demand. Still, that’s what I’m doing here.

Graham directs such an intense beam of darkness on the climate emergency that I ask: What’s left, if anything, that glimmers? Whether she sees them is not the point. That I see and name them, as others might too, is.

III

There are two easy ways to finesse my challenge. First, Graham provides instances where she has been wrong (“. . .how you/cannot/comprehend the thing you are meant/to be looking/for”). Presumably being wrong could be with respect to her views on the climate emergency as well. Second, there is no reason to believe her readers read her as she hopes, regardless of any belief there will be no readers if things continue as they are.

But that kind of line of argument is too dismissive of what Graham is doing here.

To lay my cards out then: Graham’s analytic sensibility shines through the poems’ dark prospect for me. One can historicize her work or point to her admissions of fallibility, but none of that matters. It’s her scalpel-sharp talent to get to a point and in doing so make that point wholly matter. As much is going on in the compilation’s four books, the following remarks are confined to those about and for the climate emergency.

Sea Change

IV

An illustration, one from many, reflects the constellation of factors at work for me (from the compilation’s first book, Sea Change):

                                                                         the last river we know loses its
form, widens as if a foot were lifted from the dancefloor but not put down again, ever, 
                                                         so that it's not a 
dance-step, no, more like an amputation where the step just disappears, midair, although
                                                         also the rest of the body is
missing, beware of your past, there is a fiery apple in the orchard, the coal in the under-
                                                         ground is bursting with
                                                         sunlight, inquire no further it says. . .  (p. 12)

There’s that tumbling out and after of words and the turns of phrase that deepen the rush. Then they bounce off and back from the two hard left-side margins and the right-side enjambment. For someone with my background and training, it’s difficult not to see this as resilience-being-performed, right in front of me.

Some might describe this rush of words a compulsion to continue forward, but I see hard walls being repelled from and pushed up to, and sometimes through (as in the hyphen-less “dancefloor”). Not as though it were hope. Rather: as a coiling that toggles between everywhere necessary and never out of sight/site. A resilience for the climate emergency.

V

Better yet, the analytic sensibility works for me. A personally striking passage in Sea Change is:

the sound of the bird lifting, thick, rustling, where it flies over--only see it is
                                                       a hawk after all, I had not seen
clearly. . .(p7)

I know that sound. I can hear the rustled lifting up. Thick is exactly what it is. I see it.

Graham isn’t so much describing something to me. Nor do I take her meaning “this might be the last hawk. . .” I read the lines as if a report from a side planet where she resides entirely like mine: except this world in which I am has fast-forwarded. It’s the hawk-here that rises from the field and flaps toward me-here and I know it because I contrast it to her then-and-there.

VI

A tic in her sensibility is especially illuminating: her intermix of macro and micro, general and specific, universal and particular, without an in-between gradient (my terms). Two examples toward the end of Sea Change illustrate this (here too breaking into her flow):

                                                . . . .It is an emergency actually, this waking and doing and
cleaning-up afterwards, & then sleep again, & then up you go, the whole 15,000 years of 
the inter-
                                                           glacial period, & the orders & the getting done &
the getting back in time & the turning it back on, & did you remember, did you pass, did
you lose the address again. . . (p55)
   . . .The future. How could it be performed by the mind became the
                                                        question—how, this sensation called tomorrow and
                                                        tomorrow? Did you look down at
                                                        your hands just now? The dead gods
                                                        are still being
                                                        killed. They don’t appear in
                                                        “appearance.” They turn the page for
                                                        us. The score does not acknowledge
                                                        the turner of
                                                        pages. And always the
absent thing, there, up ahead, like a highway ripped open and left hanging, in the
                                                        void. . . (p45)

Again—that rush of words, use of margins, turns of phrase that cut to and make a point—but what’s most notable for me is there is no middle between future and mind, gods and hands, the emergency and losing an address.

I come from a profession and training where in contrast, because conditions get complex, we look for the meso-level(s). There are those emerging patterns and formations not seen at the level of individual cases nor at the level of universalized generalizations. Instead for Graham, the complexity is in that wide-open combinatorics of micro’s and macro’s. This too is quite a different sensibility for the Anthropocene.

P L A C E

VII

I had a difficult time making sense of the placement and role of “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” at the beginning of the compilation’s second book. Why is this poem so different from the Graham country that follows and we know so well by this point? A clue offered itself when I later crossed T.J. Clark’s more recent, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the present.

In comparing Cézanne’s version of a Pissarro painting to the original, Clark pinpoints many features attributed to impressionist or modernist painting:

The reader will have registered the familiars: groundlessness, airlessness, absence of contact, lack of distance but also of proximity, lack of the sense of a palpable shared world, uncertainty, a strange false vividness. . .a vividness that is irresistible but puts one nowhere… (p50)

These features were striking precisely because I could not find them together in P L A C E, except “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950.” Save for the latter, many of this book’s poems are tactile, grounded and tensile, vividly there, tangibly calamitous at times and utterly confident in their urgency for the palpably shared world, human and nonhuman.

Where then does “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” take its readers for what follows in P L A CE? One answer, my answer, starts with the poem’s last lines:

When my mother’s voice got closer it had a body.
It had arms and they were holding something
that must have been a basket. My mind now
can go round her, come in front, and wrap her
as her arms wrapped that basket.
And it must have been wicker
because I see in the light the many lucent browns, the white tips,
as she steps out of the shadow
in which nothing but her hands and the front of her act of carrying
are visible. And when her body arrives
it is with the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine,
which the heavy basket is still now carrying,
and her bright fingernails woven into each other,
and her face with its gaze searching for me,
gaze which felt like one of the bright things she was carrying
in front of herself, a new belly.
All I was to invent in this life is there in the wicker basket among the lemons
having come from below the horizon where the sound of the market rises
up into the private air in which she is moving,
where she is still a whole woman, and a willing woman,
and I hear what must be prices and names called out
of flowers and fruit and meat and live animals in small cages,
all from below us, at the bottom of the village, from that part
which is so comfortable to me which is invisible,
and in which everything has to be sold by noon.
I think that was the moment of my being given my name,
where I first heard the voices carrying the prices
as her face broke and its smile appeared bending down towards me
saying there you are, there you are. (pp65-66)

It’s also difficult for someone with my training and background not to read these lines and the ten poems that follow (to and including “Torn Score”) as a layered palimpsest. It’s a commonplace in policy analysis and public management that current policies have overwritten past policies, but never completely: Erasures are not entire and different bits of different past texts surface in a new version. This isn’t a completely arbitrary analogy on my part. Graham clearly treats some of the sequence poems as commentary on “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950″ and commentaries form an important part of the history of really-existing palimpsests.

VIII

So what?

By the time we get to “Torn Score,” “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” with its sunshine, pregnancy. body and more has been excised and reassembled, twisted and re-margined. The score has in-deed been torn; the sequence-palimpsest is scored over. “Torn Score” starts:

I think this is all somewhere inside myself, the incessant burning of my birth
            all shine
            lessening as also all low-flame
            heat of
love: and places loved: space time and people heightening, burning, then nothing . . .(p100)

The earlier mother “saying there you are, there you are” to the kicks inside has become a kickless “yes” of a wondering I-am:

            this world that 
                                             was, just minutes ago, the only one that
            was – you’re in it
            now – say yes
            out loud – say am I a
            personal
wholeness? a congerie of chemical elements? of truths held self-
            evident? – how do I see them?. . .(p101)

It’s “artificial fire” that has replaced “the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine;” the earlier “body” is now “sacrificial” and “animal;” the remembered “smile” becomes “the last bus out no longer held in memory by anyone”; and “I first heard the voices” becomes a question, “a suddenly right second-thought?”

If we start with “Torn Score,” how are we then to recover anything like a “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950,” had we not read the latter from the start? For that is how a palimpsest has to be read: from the most recent text though to earlier ones, and only then as far as has been recovered or reconstructed.

IX

This will sound harsh but it follows from my construction. By the time we get to “Torn Score,” Graham has rendered “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” unrecoverable. (As if the latter is now invisible in her body of work as its own fossil record of the Anthroopocene.) This is more than the earlier poem is now extinct. If read backwards from “Torn Score” to the a layer below (“Treadmill”), right off the reader is warned about any exercise in recovery:

                                                                           death by water, death by
wearing out -- death by surprise -- death by marriage -- death by having rummaged 
into the past, into the distant past -- death by ice core and prediction -- the entrails are lying on 
a thousand years of tabletops. . . (p92)

We are by this point in that Graham country with its propulsive phases between staggered margins, where rummaging in the past is also a death foretold. The last words of “Torn Score” are “all appetite”; the final words in P L A C E are “I can’t wait until tomorrow.” Who then needs prophecy, let alone rummaged signs from the past, when now is the writing indelibly on the wall? Yet few would be so foolish as the predict a poet’s next poem from their body of existing work. Why different for the Anthropocene?

X

Again: So what?

It means Jorie Graham’s analytic sensibility takes us far, and farther than we thought we could or should go, but that far and not further. It requires another kind of analytic sensibility–different poems from Graham?–to take the accreted palimpsest now called the climate emergency and recover from below anything like a re-readable “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950.”

That “re-readable” is very important when it comes to the optic of a policy palimpsest: It’s to go back and, in our case, find that line, “saying there you are, there you are,” and, in reading that, find you are no longer as distant as you would be if it were extinct but not as close as you would be had you been around when first read.

Fast

XI

One of the complexity challenges of the climate emergency can be likened 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 section of poems in Graham’s Fast, the compilation’s third book. This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she labels and evokes. The headline in her onwards-now: “we are in systemcide” (“Shroud,” p148).

XII

To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others (pp141-157)—is to experience beginnings—“I spent a lifetime entering”—conjoined immediately to the 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.”) We saw such absence of middles in Sea Change as well.

By not narrativizing the systemicide into beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… (p154)

She achieves her elisions with long dashes or —>; also through series of nouns without commas and of endings without periods. Along the way are 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…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running smoothly.

XIII

So what?

Graham’s lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what 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.

So much for any bridging meso-level! The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I also feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since the latter is part of my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is catastrophizing or not.

For me, the climate emergency does have middles with far more mess than memorable beginnings and always endings—but that in no way diminishes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

Runaway

XIV

Analytic sensibilities are each unique because each doee not narrow the ambit to one topic but consolidates across many. This is demonstrated in Graham’s preceding three books and well manifest by the time we get to Runaway: death, mothers, children, birds, stillness, wind and a leaf. It even more outrageous for me to ask, but still fair enough for my opening challenge: How does her overarching sensibility illuminate the climate emergency for me?

XV

The sense and sensation of immediacy (my stale terms) recur more intensel, it seems to me. As in:

                                                                                                                         Any
breeze and I'd be human again. Swirl of leaf and I'd see it again. The vacancy. The
crust afloat the thing itself. There being no further than this as-if
hallucination. The hallucination of no as-if. The end. What is utterly. Is this

ancient. Is this. As if a huge pity but entirely and only made of matter. Where
has motion gone--it has taken time fate need. All lies here now in
the seen. Not seen as such just there entire in. the laying-out of itself in the
which-is. No if. That's it. The stillness of no if. . .(p270)

It’s an immediacy with those earlier and now other tics: the rush of phases without commas (“time fate need”); questions that are answers (“Is this//ancient.”); ambiguities (“All lies here now”); and some turning toward irony (“That’s it.” as in “The end” earlier). There is also that deliberately placed adverb, “utterly,” and italicized terms, both of which are pinpricks to (re)turn me to her persistent presentism.

That “turn” and “turning” are also recurring terms in the compilation demands recognizing that this immediacy is not stone-solid. This kind of movement-within-now is highly suggestive, I believe, and I want to conclude with a remarkable passage shwoing how (“Thaw”, p256):

It was like this:
someone turned your way.
It was a free turn. It was made by them freely.
And what they did then was this.
You had done something. You
seemed to become un-
masked. You
had done something you should not have done. You felt in you that u
wished you had not.
And they did something with their free face,
they tossed it out at you,
a thing not yours to dial-up or own – a thing free – a free thing –
they forgave you.
You are not sure you know what this means. But you are sure this happened once. You
were a thing
that required it.
And it was a thing which was not exact, not on time, not wired-in,
which was able to arrive in
time – just in time – & could be
given.

This I read not as hope or love, it is not resignation, nor does it sound like the earlier “a huge pity” but rather: rings honest, even in the irony, and like a bell-weather, can’t be un- rung.

XVI

So what? What does this tell me about the climate emergency?

My answer in recasting her insights turns to an older optic, and one more familiar in my profession. I stand in a fast-flowing creek and the pebbles below look like luminous treasure in the refracted sunlight. I am of course disappointed when I scoop a handful up and take the closer look. It’s nothing like treasure. Until I see that “true as a wet stone’s shine” I have also been handed (in the phrase of Sally Festing, poet). Where are we registering that version of “shine” in the Anthropocene?

Principal source

Jorie Graham (2022). [To] The Last [Be] Human. Introduction by Robert MacFarlane. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA

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