Place is Jorie Graham’s twelfth book of poems, her first since Sea Change in 2007. The title recalls an earlier volume, Region of Unlikeness, but the word “place” all on its own is so bland as to be a seriously polemical title for a book: we can think of many books of poems named for a place (North of Boston, Water Street, Paterson) but none called simply “place,” as though forfeiting any further specificity. Graham has often used one-word titles (Materialism, Swarm, Never), but never a single word so apparently deficient in philosophical or sensory content. It is a word waiting to be filled in, a blank, a placeholder: it clears the ground upon which the poems themselves will build.
Place is in fact full of vividly described real places, notably the Normandy coast, where Graham and her husband owned a sixteenth-century house (they have now sold it). This is the milieu of Graham’s last few books. Few European landscapes have been so lavishly depicted by an American poet, but Graham, who was raised in Rome by American parents, has always seemed the most European of American poets. The landscape is notable, of course, for its fresh scars from the D-Day invasions. But Omaha Beach is a perfect wading beach, shallow and still; you can now stand upon it, alongside French children building sand castles, and find, on your iPhone, a Robert Capa battle photo of your exact spot. (I have done this.) The tall shore grasses occasionally yield bits of artillery shells, but mainly the beach is now as it had always been before June 6, 1944.
Place opens with a poem set on Omaha called “Sundown,” written in the rapid, jittery, code-red style of Sea Change, long lines broken by eruptions of short lines, long, unpunctuated sentences made to tighten and loosen like the clenching of some massive fist:
Sometimes the day
behind you and it is
a great treasure in this case a man on
a horse in calm full
gallop on Omaha over my
left shoulder coming on
calm not audible to me at all until
I turned back my
head for no
reason as if what lies
one had whispered
what can I do for you today
Line breaks never coincide with sentence units; often a line ends just as a new, unpunctuated “sentence” opens. “Ecstasy provides the occasion/And expediency provides the form,” Marianne Moore advises. Graham’s lines are expedient in precisely this way: every sentence gallops toward a point of conflict with the line, a little like that horse and rider gaining upon, then overtaking, the poet out for her evening walk.
“Sundown” is a poem about the arrival of joy where one had reserved a place for dismay. That horse and rider is part angel, part emergency; it is up to Graham to figure it out, a hard task to perform in the real-time rush as …