‘A Powerful, Strong Torrent’

You have/no rightful way//to live.

This is the apprehension hovering behind Jorie Graham’s new volume of poems, Sea Change. The apprehension springs in part from restless guilt concerning the ongoing American war, undertaken in our name by an elected president and an elected Congress. Any writer must wonder what to say when facing so many lives extirpated or damaged by our preemptive strike, so many conscienceless acts reported day by day. Every poet knows the impossibility of writing public rhetoric as such without personal imagination, but how is one to imagine oneself actively into a distant war as both invader and victim? The fear that “you have/no rightful way//to live” arises as well for Graham as for any citizen when contemplating our overconsumption of exhaustible natural resources.

The “sea change” noted with alarm here is a speeding-up, without apparent hindrance, of natural process, so that we feel that we are being pursued, like the dream-Arab of Wordsworth’s Prelude, by “the fleet waters of a drowning world.” And finally, the conviction that “you have/no rightful way//to live” wells up painfully in late middle age for a poet who remembers the idealism of adolescence, the hope invested in family life, and the uncertain imaginative project of fallible poetry. Precisely because the war and climate change are on everyone’s lips, they are particularly recalcitrant to the imagination. And because elegy—including self-elegy—is one of the oldest themes in lyric poetry, how is a poet to make real the decline of the body and a final audit of the self’s endeavors? A triple grief—over the moral complicity in war, the entropic disorder of the world, and the coming death of the self—is what chiefly motivates Sea Change. Happier poems are in the minority.

Jorie Graham, to many readers, is one of the most original American poets. She is published in England as well as in the United States, and her poetry has been widely translated in Europe. Her books have been commented on, for the past quarter-century, in many reviews, articles, and chapters in books. Sea Change is Graham’s tenth volume of verse: it follows Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Erosion, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, Materialism, The Errancy, Swarm, Never, and Overlord.

To some readers Graham has seemed difficult, diffuse, oblique, unnervingly changeable. It is true that one does not walk easily into her poems, since they are not, in the usual sense, openly confessional, political, or ideological. They have of course revealed aspects of her life (as child, daughter, lover, wife, mother) as well as places where she has lived (Italy, France, the United States), but they take the form of montage rather than sequential narrative. And although Graham has confronted current issues (from perpetually alert B-52s to homelessness to colonialism) that distress a large number of Americans, a poem raising one of these issues, far from being predictable, is likely to include not only introspection but also myth (classical and religious) and historical instances of repellent or…

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