Jorie Graham on the climate emergency, and why the poems matter (longer read)


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 own challenge: Can I nevertheless find something to move forward with, in this case 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?


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 regardless? Whether she sees them is not the point. That I see and name them, as others might too, is.


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”). Being wrong could be with respect to her views on the climate emergency as well. There is also no reason to believe her readers read her as she seems to imagine, irrespective of thinking there will be no readers if things continue as they are.

But that kind of line of argument fall shorts 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 sharp scalpel in getting to the point and making it wholly matter. Much is going on in the compilation’s four books, but the following remarks are confined to those about and for the climate emergency.

Sea Change


One from many excerpts 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 in front of and for me.

Some might describe this rush as a compulsion 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 a hope. Rather: as a coiling that toggles between everywhere necessary and never out of sight/site. A resilience for the climate emergency.


This analytic sensibility works for me. A passage in Sea Change strikes me:

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 rustling, the lifting up. I see it.

In this way, Graham isn’t 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 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 toward me-here and I know it because I contrast it to her then-there.


A tic in her sensibility is 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 career where, in contrast, because conditions get complex, we look for the meso-level(s). Patterns and formations emerge that are not seen at the level of individual cases nor at the level of universalized generalizations. 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.



I kept stumbling over making sense of the placement and role of “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” at the beginning of this second book. It seems so different from what follows just after. That is, until I stumbled over what she was erasing.

Where then does “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” take its readers for what follows in P L A CE? My answer starts in medias res as the poem moves to an ending:

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)

I now read these lines and the ten poems that follow (to and including “Torn Score”) as a layered palimpsest. It’s a commonplace in my profession 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.


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, contorted 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
wholeness? a congerie of chemical elements? of truths held self-
            evident? – how do I see them?. . .(p101)

It’s now “artificial fire” instead of “the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine;” the earlier “body” is presently “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.


By the time we get to “Torn Score,” Graham has rendered “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” unrecoverable. 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 of 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 if so needs prophecy, let alone rummaged signs from the past, when now the writing is 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?


Again: So what?

It means Jorie Graham’s analytic sensibility takes us far, and farther than we thought we could 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 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 when at first reading.



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 rapid pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes by labeling (yes, this is what’s left of Eden). The headline in her news is: “we are in systemcide” (“Shroud,” p148).


To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others (pp141-157)—is to experience beginnings (“I spent a lifetime entering”) sutured 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.

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 the concatenation 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.


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. [1]

So much for bridging a 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, though, the climate emergency does have middles with 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…”



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

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 highlighted 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 throughout. This kind of movement-within-now is highly suggestive, I believe, and I want to conclude with a remarkable passage showing 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

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.


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

My answer turns to an older optic. I stand in a creek and the pebbles below look like 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?

[1] Here is Isaiah Berlin who was at Valery’s lecture: “Valery delivered an agreeable but dull lecture here…He said words were like thin planks over precipices, & if you crossed rapidly nothing happened, but if you stopped on any of them & stared into the gulf you wd get vertigo & that was what philosophers were doing.”

Principal source

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s