The Dream Behind the Wall of Words

Jorie Graham at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003
Collection of Jorie Graham
Jorie Graham at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003

Some writers prompt us to respond in kind, to reply—speaking out loud to the page, or scribbling notes, or, if we are writers ourselves, riding the energy of the words we have read to make our own. Among poets, surely Walt Whitman has always been one of those prompters—for good and ill—to his enthusiasts. Not only is it almost impossible to read Whitman quietly to oneself; as well as declaiming him about the house, or reading him aloud in a group, writers and would-be writers almost always leave a session with Whitman by running to the page or screen or soapbox to spew. And although Whitman’s specifically King James Bible cadences have been taken up by only a few poets, most notably Allen Ginsburg, his covering-the-page tidal-wave poetics set their own broad style for American poetry, a wall-of-words (like pop music’s “wall-of-sound”) mode that has carried forward through such otherwise disparate and magnificent poets as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, A.R. Ammons, and John Ashbery.

Jorie Graham has been producing her own powerful wall-of-words poems for several decades now. But unlike many of her fellow garrulous poets, Graham does not tend to incite her readers into their own words of response. Rather, her gorgeous, dense poetry more frequently works as a preemptive force, stunning her readers—this reader, anyway—into a deep and interior silence. So for me it is almost a betrayal of the experience of reading Graham to write about the work, a paradox indeed.

But the interiority she inspires is worth dwelling on: like incantations, her best poems cast spells that enforce rapt readerly attention to the speaker’s interiority, and then in turn call up a shared sense of privacy. Whether Graham is writing about a philosophical/metaphysical problem, as she often is (concerning materiality, or what can be known, or time), or politics (particularly, of late, the fate of the natural world), her childhood, or simply, as so many lyric poets have, describing the items in the local natural landscape—she dramatizes the mind, her mind, in movement over the problem, the memory, the landscape. And that drama—the drama of the mind in motion—is what holds our attention.

Her new collection, From the New World: Poems 1976–2014, is arranged chronologically. The opening poem is a very early one, “Tennessee June”:

This is the heat that seeks the flaw in everything
and loves the flaw.
Nothing is heavier than its spirit,
nothing more landlocked than the body within it.
Its daylilies grow overnight, our lawns
bare, then falsely gay, then bare again. Imagine
your mind wandering without its logic,
your body the sides of a riverbed giving in.
In it, no world can survive

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