An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 19881991
Region of Unlikeness
The titles of these new volumes by two distinguished poets remind us of literary predecessors. Jorie Graham’s title comes from Saint Augustine, who said he found himself far from God, in “a region of unlikeness.” (The phrase—in the form Land of Unlikeness—was used by Robert Lowell too.) Rich’s geographical title may recall titles by Elizabeth Bishop, who called her last book Geography III, and thought of herself as a mapper of those regions named, in another book, North and South. Both Graham and Rich, in their titles, are emphasizing that the description of contemporary culture is a primary commitment of the artist. If for the reader the description is convincing—formally as well as thematically—the poems have a chance; if not, not.
Many of the poems in both these books are several pages long (we are far from the origins of lyric in the short song, the charm, the riddle, the quip, the carol, the epigram). Here are some of their “real-life” subjects. Among Graham’s twenty-four poems we find the following:
“Fission”: Being an adolescent in 1963, sitting in a movie theater and watching Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita; a man suddenly runs in shouting, “The President’s been shot”;
“From the New World”: A splicing-together of three vignettes—
a) A historical scene: a young girl in a concentration camp “who didn’t die in the gas chamber comes back out asking for her mother” and is raped before being sent back in;
b) A contemporary (1987) scene: the trial in Israel of a former Nazi concentration camp guard, the one who ordered the rape;
c) A personal anecdote: the author’s senile grandmother, in a nursing home, is no longer able to recognize her granddaughter;
“The Hiding Place”: The “disturbances” in Paris of 1968 (“les évènements,” as the French called the student strikes and closing of universities);
“The Region of Unlikeness”: A thirteen-year-old girl waking up disoriented and frightened from a first sexual experience and running home through the dawn;
“The Phase After History”: The attempted suicide of a young man; his commitment to a hospital; his subsequent successful suicide. These episodes are spliced between the phases of an incident in which two birds are trapped in the speaker’s house.
Among Rich’s thirteen poems, we find the following:
“An Atlas of the Difficult World,” the title poem, a sequence, of which these are some parts:
—Migrant workers ill from the effects of picking strawberries dusted with malathion;
—A trailer; the man in it beating his wife, tearing up her writing, throwing the kerosene lantern at her, backing the truck into her as she tries to run away;
—Memories of Rich’s young married life in Barton, Vermont, with her husband, before he died;
—The 1968 shotgun attack by a man on two women camping on the Appalachian Trail; the attack was made (according to Rich’s note) because the women were lesbians. One was killed, the other wounded by five bullets;
—The life of the father of Annie Sullivan (Helen Keller’s teacher); his emigration to America as a result of the Irish potato famine;
—George Jackson in prison, with quotations from Soledad Brother, his prison letters;
“Eastern War Time”: Splicings of the anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 with Baltimore during World War II (during Rich’s adolescence); the concentration camps; the “Final Solution.”
The two lists should suggest the thematic ambitions of both poets, who range far into public life and into the predicaments of history, as well as into ethical (Rich) and metaphysical (Graham) questions. Though both poets swing their poems into large orbits, they retrench with brief closing poems, as though to come back to the almost forgotten lyric norm. Neither of these books is easy to read; each is in its way fiercely uncompromising. But the aesthetics they embody could not be more different.
To the casual eye, Rich’s poetry appears representational; she writes about events and ethical issues in the “real world,” and usually takes a polemical or sorrowing position with respect to them. The chief imaginative act in Rich’s work would appear to be the choice, from all the difficulties of this difficult world, of a set of difficulties to map. I believe, as I will go on to say, that she is not primarily a representational poet, nor is she very free in the apparent choice of terrain in her atlas.
Rich is drawn to question certain distinct kinds of social evil. A natural “evil” like the Irish potato famine would not interest her were its results not compounded by British indifference and mismanagement. Such things as slavery, marital brutality, racist persecution, social discrimination, industrial crimes against health, and the conditions of imprisonment are her natural territory (rather than, for instance, the kinds of sophisticated individual moral evil that interested Henry James or Proust). She thinks it the duty of the poet to bear witness to, and protest against, these social evils. She appears to manifest the reformer’s faith that there is something that can be done against evil, and her poems invoke heroes and heroines (more often the latter) who fought for social welfare.
Her poems also commemorate people from marginal groups who have been victims of (usually violent or socially codified) oppression. In this volume, they include the imprisoned George Jackson, the lynched Leo Frank, a murdered lesbian, a beaten trailer-camp wife, Annie Sullivan’s father (the victim of forced emigration from the Irish famine), the Jews in the camps, and Hispanic migrant workers in California. A socially oppressed group from a so-called “elite” class or a so-called “dominant” sex does not much interest her (e.g., well-off Jews in a Christian society, impoverished white males), even though the suffering of such people may be considerable and prolonged and damaging. Nor is she much interested in those who have been oppressed by women (notably children, but also some husbands, parents, and siblings). This is my chief difficulty with the moral position of her poems; there seems no obvious reason why she should choose to sympathize more with one set of victims than with the others.
The positive values Rich has embraced thematically in her books include female friendship and love, outspokenness, working for reform, truth telling, sympathy, conversation, moral outrage, persistence in work, introspection, and memory. These have as their aesthetic counterparts a devotion to the plain style and to an unremitting earnestness of tone. As Randall Jarrell once wittily said, “Her poetry so thoroughly escapes all of the vices of modernist poetry that it has escaped many of its virtues too.”*
Rich’s most visible American predecessor in social sympathy is Walt Whitman, but her work goes back in English poetry at least to Langland’s Piers Plowman, with its sociological personifications and stratified social analysis. For Langland, moral theology is the norm by which sinners are judged, each individually, as Christian souls. But in modern life, sociology, with its treatment of people in groups rather than as individuals, has replaced theology as the analytical mode for attacking evil. According to Christian theology, all people are sinners, the socially victimized and oppressed as well as the victimizers and oppressors, the social reformer as well as the ones he reproaches. All persons—victims and victimizers and reformers—share some sins (adultery, theft, blasphemy, slander, anger, intemperance, envy, etc.); the oppressors, no doubt, do have more opportunity for a special set of sins—more leisure for sloth, more money for gluttony, more economic wherewithal for pride; and the reformers might have more temptations to intellectual pride, anger, and pharisaical complacency.
Sociological analysis tends to ascribe sinlessness to the oppressed—or at least to excuse their sins as the deplorable consequences of their being oppressed (without extending a similar charity to the oppressors). Therefore we do not, in Rich, see the malathion-sickened migrant worker beating his wife, or the murdered lesbian being indifferent to her sick mother, or the black prisoner victimizing another prisoner. No: Rich’s victims tims are all morally innocent. The poor wife in the trailer offended her husband only by her writing; the Jewish camp prisoner is not an oppressive Kapo but “a young girl.” And the victimizers are all unredeemed: the husband who backs the truck into his wife is not shown to have been an abused child; the Nazi doctor is not (like, say, Gottfried Benn) a man of divided sentiments serving as an Army surgeon; no, he is the experimenter in human flesh “who plays string quartets with his staff in the laboratory.”
For all her stylistic appearance of realism, then, Rich is actually a moral allegorist. We might as well have the Spenserian Una and Archimago (Truth and Evil) as the innocent girl and the doctor/aesthete/sadist. Rich has a powerful Manichean conviction that the world exhibits a struggle to the death between structural Good and structural Evil, and she picks (from history, from the news, from sociological analysis) allegorical illustrations of her Manichean world. Personal good and evil, one-on-one (the possessive mother dominating the victimized son, the cruel brother tormenting the naive brother, the attractive sister stealing the boyfriend of the plodding sister) don’t interest her because such relations don’t stand for anything in her allegorical scheme of Oppression and Victimage. For another writer, such examples of personal evil might stand for that other powerful allegory, Original Sin, anathema to reformers because it means nothing can be done.
The Protestant allegorical tradition from which Rich descends is a rich one, complicated by its best practitioners in a variety of ways. In Spenser it is “contaminated” by fairy tale, Greek romance, and neo-Platonic idealization, all of which keep The Faerie Queene from a fatal mimetic earnestness. In Bunyan, it is enlivened by considerable satiric energy (Mr. Facing-Both-Ways, e.g.) and by an exalted religious faith. Rich has stripped this tradition to its basic conflict—of Christian and Apollyon, of good and evil—but she lacks the radiant confidence of Bunyan and other religious allegorists (from the author of Job on) in the eventual triumph of the good. The good in Rich are the weak, the social underdogs—women, blacks, lesbians, the poor, prisoners, Jews, mothers of the disappeared. And though at first glance it would appear that Rich has a reformer’s faith in social improvement, one hears, for all her condemnatory energy and active sympathy, an air of lament rather than of certainty pervading her work. “Join me in condemning the reprobates and grieving for the victims,” she seems to say, and we can, because there are, as we recognize, real reprobates and real victims. But because (unlike, say, Milosz) she never places herself among the reprobates (even in imagination), and never tarnishes the victims with evil qualities of their own, we may feel she imperfectly understands social phenomena. The capacity to be a reprobate is as alive in victims as in the victimized, as the young Joyce (no allegorist) showed in his story “Counterparts,” where the victimized becomes in his turn a victimizer. Victimization in Dubliners, as in lived life, is a chain reaction.
As an allegorist stopping this chain reaction, letting her victims be “good people,” Rich has to see her victimizers as not themselves victims. If we give her her way, and agree to see the world through her eyes as a morality play, we find that her work, like other stylizations employing simplification, can have a powerful effect. That effect is chiefly one of pathos, of the innocent wronged. Perhaps this is an especially maternal feeling. Good mothers spend so much of their energy trying to protect children, who are by definition weak in all respects, that the impulse to close ranks and lament is about all that mothers can fall back on as a means of defending their children, who are physically and mentally undeveloped, economically impotent, legally dependent, and institutionally in subjection.
Rich’s “children,” whose fate she laments, whose unjust treatment she protests against, seem mostly versions of her present or past self. Like charity, pity (as Elizabeth Bishop said in “Crusoe in England”) begins at home. This suggests that Rich still imagines herself in the position of the helpless child rather than of the adult. She presents herself less as a champion or a leader than as a co-sufferer, pitying herself (indirectly) in others. There is nothing so confident in this book as Shelley’s Promethean determination “To hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”
The title of Rich’s book is revealing: An Atlas of the Difficult World. “Difficult” is an adjective of bafflement and struggle rather than of revolt and revolution; this is a marked change from her previous titles Leaflets or The Will to Change. The word “atlas” implies a steady-state world that has always been, and always will be, difficult. The difficulty that Rich recurs to in this book is the stand-off between discouragement at social evil and attachment to natural life. For all the ills she sees, Rich also has a poet’s deep attachment to the beautiful—the beautiful as she has found it in the material universe, in sexual connection, in ethical action. She has been too much of an activist perhaps, in recent years, to say much about beauty, but she salutes it in this book in unashamed love. Here she is on her attachment to the California landscape:
…I am stuck to earth. What I love here
is old ranches, leaning seaward, lowroofed spreads between rocks
small canyons running through pitched hillsides
liveoaks twisted on steepness, the eucalyptus avenue leading
to the wrecked homestead, the fog- wreathed heavy-chested cattle
on their blond hills.
And here she is describing the combined beauty and usefulness of the universally found black-eyed Susan:
Late summers, early autumns, you can see something that binds
the map of this country together: the girasol, orange gold-petalled
with her black eye, laces the roadsides from Vermont to California…
…her tubers the jerusalem arti- choke
that has fed the Indians, fed the hobos, could feed us all.
These hymns to beauty are addressed to natural beauty, not the beauty created in art. Rich seems mistrustful of art, and contradicts outright the conviction of both Keats and Dickinson that truth and beauty are inseparable:
…What homage will be paid to beauty
that insists on speaking truth, knows the two are not always the same,
beauty that won’t deny…?
This seems Rich’s question about her own fate; she implies that her own lines insist on speaking truth and are willing to forgo the sort of beauty that denies the truth or conceals it. She doesn’t explain what sort of beauty this concealing or denying beauty is, or what we find beautiful in it. Reproving art for leaving out the unbeautiful is an old accusation. It is perhaps a just reproach to sentimental versifying, in Valentines, say, but it is not a reproach sustainable (so far as I know) against any verse we would want to call art. (In fact the presence of undeniable truth is one of the usual criteria for separating true art from kitsch. True art, even of the most “beautiful” Spenserian or Keatsian sort, doesn’t shrink from the difficult, the ungraceful, the ugly, and the evil, while kitsch chooses to represent only the pliant, the pathetic, the lissome, the acceptable, and the inoffensive.) What can Rich mean, then, by opposing her “beauty that won’t deny” to some (uncharacterized) beauty that does, or will, deny truth? Does she mean the idealization, say, of the body in Greek statuary versus the realism, say, of Roman sculpture? Is it correct to call the former a beauty that denies truth? If her sort of beauty “knows [that truth and beauty] are not always the same” are we to deduce that truth is always beautiful but beauty is not always truthful?
These are important questions, and old ones. But an artist who distinguishes beauty that denies truth from beauty that does not deny truth, and seems to choose the latter, needs to explain what she means by the former.
However, Rich does predicate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of life, so that what she separates metaphysically (when she argues that truth and beauty may not coincide) she unites in her accounts of experience. She says about the murdered lesbian:
…I don’t want to know
but this is not a bad dream of mine these are the materials
and so are the smell of wild mint and coursing water remembered
and the sweet salt darkred tissue I lay my face
upon, my tongue within.
Sex, notoriously hard to write about, comes off less well here than the wild mint in the brook, but the point is made that sensuous and sexual satisfaction are earthly counterweights to human violence and victimage.
If I understand Rich correctly in this book, she even brings into question her own fundamental Manichean myth, as she offers her readers, in the eleventh section of her “Atlas,” the figure of an androgynous patriot attempting to know what America (this “difficult world”) really is. A patriot, she says, is a citizen trying to wake from the burnt-out dream of American innocence:
A patriot is not a weapon. A pa- triot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country
as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country
(gazing through the great circle at Window Rock into the sheen of the Viet Nam Wall)
as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a citizen trying to wake
from the burnt-out dream of inno- cence, the nightmare
of the white general and the Black general posed in their camouflage,
to remember her true country, remember his suffering land: remember
that blessing and cursing are born as twins and separated at birth to meet again in mourning
that the internal emigrant is the most homesick of all women and of all men
that every flag that flies today is a cry of pain. Where are we moored? What are the bindings? What behooves us?
The three closing questions ask, in turn, what our history is, what our culture or religion is (“bindings” glances at re-ligare), and what our ethics should be. The final question is an ethical one, as we would expect from Rich, but it uses as its verb an archaic word both ethical and aesthetic: What is needful to us, what befits us?
Rich has two characteristic methods of transforming her sociological generalizations into lyrical meditations, both of them methods that Whitman also found useful. They are the enumeration or catalog, and the vignette or anecdote. Both confer a deceptive particularity on what is essentially a single-class group. While Whitman’s catalogs tend to summon together quite diverse species within the group (cf. “The Sleepers”), Rich’s tend to offer successive members of the same species. She will list, for instance, a variety of readers to show how (to use Keats’s metaphor) a poet can be physician to ills of the spirit. Here is part of her catalog poem “Dedications,” with its address to all readers from any poet:
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office…
…I know you are reading this poem.
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean….
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stag- nant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet….
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age….
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading….
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
Rich’s second Whitmanesque method of conferring particularity on what are at bottom group observations is the use of anecdote. She succeeds less well at this than at the catalog, too often falling into stereotype. Before she can write an anecdote, she has to have classified under some allegorical rubric the person it concerns. (Whitman was more interested in specific occurences in life and history, for example his mother’s meeting with an Indian girl or Washington’s farewell to his troops.) But sometimes Rich’s crispness of expression will save the allegory. So, for instance, in “Through Corralitos Under Rolls of Cloud,” she proclaims the eternal twinning of the survivor-self and the victim-self, seeing the survivor as ultimately heartsick and bereft without the victim-self that went under. “You” died, says Rich to the victim-self, and the survivor is “uncertain who she is or will be without you.” And then the poet addresses the survivor:
If you know who died in that bed, do you know
who has survived? If you say,
she was weaker
held life less dear expected others
to fight for her if pride lets you name her
victim and the one who got up and threw
the windows open, stripped the bed, survivor
—what have you said, what do you know
of the survivor when you know her
only in opposition to the lost?
What does it mean to say I have
until you take the mirrors and turn them outward
and read your own face in their outraged light?
This has a fierceness and wit that justify Rich’s habit of stripping her poems until they consist almost solely of nouns and verbs, eschewing those adjectives and adverbs which have normally been the stuff of lyric description. It remains, I think, for Rich to extend this twinning of the-self-that-went-under with the self-that-survived to the relation of victimizer and victim: Cannot those positions be structurally interchangeable too? If Rich can see herself as in part the weaker dying sister, in part the immunized survivor, can she not see herself too as potentially Judas, or Macbeth, or Iago? “What shocks the virtuous philosopher,” says Keats, “delights the chameleon poet.” For Rich, blessing and cursing are twins separated at birth, to be joined again in mourning; perhaps outrage and criminality are also such twins.
The value of Rich’s poems, ethically speaking, is that they have continued to press against insoluble questions of suffering, evil, love, justice, and patriotism. For all their epic wish to generalize to the social whole, they are both limited by, and enhanced by, their essentially first-person lyric status. They hate what the person Adrienne Rich hates, love what she loves. Their sympathies are her self-sympathies, their victims the victims closest to her own heart. They are not dispassionately epic, and broadly socially curious, as Whitman’s poems strove to be. Perhaps Whitman was more heterogeneously moved, emotionally speaking, than Rich; while his poems tend to arise from observations from without (his letters bearing witness to his delightful and insatiable curiosity about the whole comic and tragic spectacle of America) her poems are exfoliations from within. Her present work shows a version of lyric almost reluctant to confess its own inwardness and privacy, resolved to find a match in the larger world for its own deprivations. But the real and complex Rich remains more convincing than her allegorical surrogate victims.
Like Rich, Jorie Graham, a younger poet now teaching at the University of Iowa, uses vignettes and anecdotes, but to raise metaphysical, more than ethical, questions. Graham’s grand metaphysical theme is the tension between existence and death. These are its ultimate terms; but the tension is also expressed as that between other polarities, such as continuity and closure, indeterminacy and outline, being and temporality, or experience and art. Graham sees human beings as creatures capable both of “intentionality”—directedness of aim—and of suspension in moments of pure being without aim.
These two inherent, inescapable capacities are fatal to each other. Nothing goes nowhere, however much we might want it to. Courtship presses toward commitment, idea toward its enactment, sensation toward exhaustion. For the artist especially, the passion to impose a determinate shape on experience is at war with the passion to live suspended within experience. The Graham muse sings two siren songs: the one says, “Hurry: name it”; the other says, “Delay: be it.”
In her earlier work (Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, 1980; Erosion, 1983; and The End of Beauty, 1987) Graham was already sketching the crucial intersection of the passional and the philosophical from which the poems radiate. The metamorphoses of the theme, even in early work, were numerous and inventive—and yet this is the wrong way to put it. Rather, experience kept leading Graham back, by way of formal discoveries, to her central theme of what one could call openness versus shape. At first, each moment of experience tended to have its own single poem, in which the tension between being and interpretation was named rather than shown, as in “Strangers”:
when objects lose their way, you
throw a small
red ball at me
and I return it.
The miracle is this:
the perfect arc
of red we intercept
over and over
until it is too dark
to see, reaches beyond us
(From Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts)
Later, the moment of suspension—imagined in the poem “Updraft” as an upward motion bearing us temporarily away from gravity—begins to be shown in action rather than described, and Graham’s use of the present tense and long unfolding sentences keeps us afloat in the updraft for a long time. The actual moment of suspension itself becomes the center of the poem, as in “San Sepolcro” from her second volume, Erosion, we see the Madonna unbuttoning her dress before labor:
…It is this girl by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning her blue dress,
her mantle of weather, to go into
labor. Come, we can go in. It is before
the birth of god….
what the living do: go in. It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening from eternity
to privacy, quickening. Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment forever stillborn,
but going in, each breath is a button
coming undone, something terribly nimble-fingered
finding all of the stops.
These poems often end in a standoff between suspension and finality: “Wanting a Child” (from Erosion) ends with the force of the ocean pushing up into the tidal river meeting the force of the river draining into the ocean.
The ecstasy of the state of suspension itself, however, had finally to be analytically examined as well as sensually rendered; and this became the (partly chilling) achievement of Graham’s third book, The End of Beauty (with its intended pun: the aim of beauty and the termination of beauty are one). Graham’s technique in The End of Beauty was to anatomize the moment of suspension in being by isolating each of its successive seconds in its own numbered freeze-frame. Here, for instance, is Eve, tired of the stasis of Paradise, deciding to eat of the apple and give it to Adam.
so that she had to turn and touch him to give it away
to have him pick it from her as the answer takes the question
that he should read in her the rigid inscription
in a scintillant fold the fabric of the daylight bending
where the form is complete where the thing must be torn off
momentarily angelic, the instant writhing into a shape,
the two wedded, the readyness and the instant,
the extra bit that shifts the scales the other way now in his hand,
the gift that changes the balance,
the balance that cannot be broken owned by the air until he touches,
the balance like an apple held up into the sunlight
then taken down, the air changing by its passage…
(“Self-Portrait as the Gesture between Them”)
Here motion no longer is absorbed in a swirl of impulse, but is broken down and minutely studied, its progress almost halted in the slow-motion inching forward of the film, frame by frame.
But we are still concerned here with a single action, a moment of fateful impulse given a mythological shape. Poems on subjects like this are the defining poems of The End of Beauty, where archetypal moments of relation (Apollo and Daphne, Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone) are isolated, unsparingly (even cruelly) investigated, magnified, slowed down, and understood.
Now, in Region of Unlikeness, Graham has taken what seems, with hind-sight, an inevitable step. She has made the demanding leap to a practice of connecting together moments widely separated in time and space and occurring on disparate mental levels (usually the autobiographical, the historical, and the mythical). Each of these moments is important, each has its own unintelligibility, each demands to be both recorded and comprehended. But even more, the hidden connections among them in the writer’s sensibility (and perhaps in the culture at large) have to be exhumed. The mode of comprehension derives from the, at first unintelligible, connection of separate stories in the writer’s mind. As she understands why she has intuitively connected them, she can compose a poem juxtaposing and interlacing them.
For instance, Graham’s maternal grandmother appeared in Erosion (1983) in an unremarkable poem showing her consigned to a nursing home. The image occurring to the poet as corresponding to her grandmother’s confinement was the myth of Daphne enclosed in bark. The link between the autobiographical and the mythical is the speaker recalling a tree in her grandmother’s “tiny orchard.” “She looks,” says the poet (fusing grandmother and Daphne), as if she could outrun anything.
…although of course she’s stuck
for good here in this memory,
and in the myth it calls to mind,
and in this late interpretation stolen from
a half-remembered tree which stands
there still like some god’s narrow throat
or mind nothing can slit her free of.
(“At the Long Island Jewish Geriatric Home”)
The rather heavy-handed transition here (“in the myth it calls / to mind, / and in this late interpretation”) gives the story of the grandmother temporal priority, makes the myth secondary and decorative, and places interpretation in the place of honor, closing the poem.
The grandmother appears in the new book in two far more complex poems, one called “From the New World” (and another called “Chaos”), both containing a visit from the granddaughter to the nursing home. To see one of the later poems against the earlier one is to see a writer returning to troubling material to do it over, do it better, do it—if such a thing is possible—right. No longer are the autobiographical, the mythical, and the intellectual on three different planes.
“From the New World” splices together three stories, two of them historical, one autobiographical (as I have earlier noted). The first is a 1940s story of a young girl “who didn’t die / in the gas chamber, who came back out asking / for her mother.” The second is the story of the 1987 trial, in Israel, of a man identified as the concentration camp worker who ordered the rape of the young girl before she was sent back into the gas chamber. The third story is the personal one—the last chapter of the life of the author’s grandparents:
We put her in a Home, mother paid.
We put him in a Home, mother paid. There wasn’t one that would take both of them we
could afford. We were right we put him down the road it’s all
there was, there was a marriage of fifty years, you know this
already don’t you fill in the blanks, they never saw each other again…
we put her in X, she’d fallen out we put her back in,
there in her diaper sitting with her purse in her hands all day every day, asking can I go now
meaning him, meaning the apartment by then long since let go you know this
The moral of this story is not explicitly drawn, but we are intended to see the parallel between the helpless “Please” of the girl in the camp and the equally helpless “can I go now” of the grandmother. The granddaughter’s place in the story is revealed at the crucial moment of the grandmother’s shocking amnesia:
The one time I knew something about us
though I couldn’t say what
my grandmother then already ill took me by the hand asking to be introduced.
And then no, you are not Jorie—
but thank you for
saying you are. No, I’m sure. I
know her you
The granddaughter flees into the nursing-home bathroom and acknowledges, for the first time, the certain extinction of everyone in the world. Yet she realizes at the same time how nature’s infinite desire for life presses more and more beings into existence, although all of them are headed for death. The bathroom becomes a surreal gas chamber:
they were all in there, I didn’t look up,
they were all in there, the coiling and uncoiling billions,
the about-to-be-seized, the about to be held down,
the about to be held down, bit clean, shaped, and the others, too, the ones gone back out, the ending
wrapped round them, hands up to their faces why I don’t know,
and the about-to-be stepping in….
Without existence and then with existence. Then into the clearing as it clamps down
all round. Then into the fable as it clamps down.
Even in this abbreviated quotation, the two cruelties—the intended cruelty of the camp and the “necessary” cruelty of the confinement of the senile, both ending in extinction—can be seen. But the poem cannot stay “in existence” (“the clearing”) or in history (“the fable”); it must examine itself as consciously shifting between the close perspective of living and the detached focus of telling. There is a rapid montage of the familial (the grandfather talking to his wife, nursing home to nursing home, on the telephone), the historical (the guard in the dock), and the personal (the horrified granddaughter watching her grandmother nervously and pleadingly clasping her pocketbook with its “forties sunburst silver clasp”)—all of this bequeathed by time to the grown-up granddaughter, now the poet, who has in her keeping these fragments of history:
and Ivan (you saw this) offering his hand, click, whoever
he is, and the old man getting a dial-tone, friend, and old whoever clicking and unclicking the clasp the
silver knobs, shall we end on them? a tracking shot? a
close-up on the clasp a two-headed beast it turns out made of silvery
The montage and the self-conscious, formal questions are steps toward the overwhelming metaphysical question: Why, if these are the conditions of existence, do we want life? What is Being like? In what words, what symbols, can it be made intelligible?
Like what, I wonder, to make the bodies come on, to make room,
like what, I whisper,
like which is the last new world,
like, like, which is the thin
young body (before it’s made to go back in) whispering please.
The story can finally end only if satisfactory words can be found to encompass the facts—the facts of man’s inhumanity to man, of senility, and of death, but equally the fact of the subversive, persistent, and random energies of life. I have here flattened out and made logical the tissue of language which, in the poem itself, comes to us in a zigzag of half-articulated suspicions, invocations, silences, hints, glimpses, stumblings, and contradictions—the very picture of the mind making meaning.
Graham now uses the lyric to connect things widely disparate in time and space by means of metaphor and simile. The dramatic, even theatrical sweeping of the searchlight of the artist asking, “What is like this?” or “Why do I feel that these things or stories are alike?” provides the tension of the poem, as it leaps from past to present to past again, from passively absorbed personal history to intellectual self-consciousness, from confusion to mythological or metaphysical clarification. Underneath the parallel layers of autobiography, history, myth, and philosophical interpretation lies the faith that “the storyline” (as Graham has often called it) is not linear but a “coil” (the name she gives it in “From the New World”). This means that resemblances spiral over resemblances with each turn of the coil of time. Deciphering the coiled sequencing of memory on different planes is the artist’s task—finding (or inventing) likenesses in a region of unlikeness.
Insofar as the artist’s materials lie in the half-forgotten events of her childhood and youth, she has to describe those events, reclaim them from partial amnesia, in order to explain why later impressions (from history, literature, experience) seem urgent, meant, revelatory, demanding. To catch, accurately, the impressions undergone by a child twenty years ago is a strange endeavor, brought most vividly into literary representation by Wordsworth in The Prelude. Like Wordsworth, Graham “sees by glimpses” and must capture a past almost uncapturable. In the title poem, “The Region of Unlikeness,” we are shown the flight home of a thirteen-year-old girl, in the dawn, from the bed in a man’s apartment where she has had her first sexual experience. The artist makes herself maintain a trance-state between sleep and waking, staying in the long-past memory:
Don’t wake up. Keep this in black and white. It’s
Rome. The man’s name…? The speaker thirteen. Walls bare. Light like a dirty towel.
It’s Claudio. He will overdose before the age of thirty….
A black dog barks. Was it more than
one night? Was it all right? Where are the parents? Dress and get to the door.
Each sense impression of the girl’s flight roots itself into her flesh, “the field where it will grow.” Each impression is “a new planting—different from all the others—each planted fast, there, into that soil.” Later, the artist will have to find an exact word for each memory-planting, or she will not reach the essential psychic assuagement for her adolescent violation:
Later she will walk along, a word in each moment, to slap them down onto the plantings,
to keep them still.
For twenty years the artist has been in bondage to the memory, twenty years in which the thirteen-year-old has not stopped running, twenty years in which the right words have not been found to “slap down” on the plantings and lay the ghost. Life lies “entombed in being” (“Immobilism”). But the mind’s search for the adequate expression of the past is arduous and tormenting—
It darts, it stretches out along the dry hard ground,
it cannot find the end, it darts, it stretches out—
When Augustine awoke after a vision of God’s “unchangeable light” to say he found himself “far from You in a region of unlikeness,” he suggested that the region of likeness would be a place where no metaphors would be needed, where thing, thought, memory, imagination, and language would all coalesce in the oneness of eternity. But in temporality, as we yearn forward and the object of desire or the object of memory perpetually recedes, we are shaped by the absence of the object of our longing. Graham quotes Augustine and Heidegger (What Is Called Thinking) among her epigraphs, but she could as well have quoted Coleridge’s “Constancy to an Ideal Object,” where “the enamoured rustic” does not realize that it is his own shadow, cast before him on the morning mists, that he worships as a divine presence: “Nor knows he makes himself the shadow he pursues.” The concept of desire fulfilled is always deduced from desire unfulfilled, and yet we give it ontological priority in our imaginings of original perfection.
Graham is a poet of strong polarities, playing in the space between male and female, being and ceasing to be, sense and thought, ritual and eschatology, veiling and apocalypse, matter and interpretation, immobilism and shape-making, nesting and flying free. Her music is that of the traditional lyric in its highs and lows, its accelerations and ritardandos, but the new poems are so long in themselves and so stretched-out in their elastic and “illogical” lines that it is difficult to master, measure, or enclose them, especially at first reading. Eventually one can map them, connect the dots, see the “coil”—but by their arabesques of language on different planes they frustrate this desire both at first and in the long run, however much one grasps the underlying map. The reader must, to remain “in” the poem, stay with the poet, going deeper and deeper down, not knowing whether or not the labyrinth has an exit.
The expansion of the poetic line visible in both Rich and Graham (and in other contemporary poets from Ginsberg to Wright and Ashbery) means that many poems are coming to resemble cloud chambers full of colliding protons rather than well-wrought urns. Many particles of experience and history are put into play; they are bombarded by more particles of thought and feeling as both imagination and analysis are exerted on the materials at hand; the excited states resulting from the collisions are registered by the poem as a new field of energy, rather than as a linear “result” or “conclusion.” Rich argues that we have to compile an atlas of the whole “difficult world”; Graham wants us to find words for the whole “region of unlikeness.” Rich said years ago, in the person of a woman astronomer, “I am bombarded yet I stand.” This could be the motto of both of these new volumes, which ask lyric poetry to take on epic dimensions. As if to temper their breadth and earnestness, however, both poets end their volumes with a short poem. Graham closes, in “Soul Says,” with cosmic laughter enveloping human mortality:
Now then, I said, I go to meet that which I liken to
(even though the wave break and drown me in laughter)
the wave breaking, the wave drown- ing me in laughter—
And Rich ends, in “Final Notations,” with a prophecy about the poem of the future:
it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple
Even the new poetry of the force field, it seems, cannot forget its origins in simple song.
Kipling, Auden & Co. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), p. 264.↩
Kipling, Auden & Co. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), p. 264.↩