Jorie Graham is a tenacious fighter who has been building up her liberating poetic arsenal for two decades.
The meeting with Jorie Graham’s (b. 1950) new poetry book TO 2040, published in April 2023, leaves marks, and the highly necessary and rejoicing celebration of this great authorship already started in the fall 2022 with the publication (TO) THE LAST (BE) HUMAN. The book gathers her four groundbreaking poetry collections Sea change (2008), Place (2012), Fast (2017) and Runaway (2020). Notice that the rate of publication increases along with title choice, and the American poet’s acute poetry also increases in intensity. Readers and authors – a culturotope threatened with extinction? – will with these books be allowed to enter a poetic world where linguistic form and rhythm become the bearers of a mystical hope from an unknown future, like a disenchanted Elysium. It is the slightness of this hope which seizes in Jorie Graham’s new book TO 2040, where the poetic voice shows the way to the musica practica of reading.Have we lost both the ancient languages and the shared songs in the madness of nature loss? Song can show to be liberating, like the children’s songs we learnt became liberating for the voice and the imagination, the «song treasure» (sangskatten) as we say in Norwegian about folk songs, which once gave us historical belonging and the experience of generations for free, or like the songs we sing along with masters like Bob Dylan or Alicia Keys. This said, it doesn’t mean that Graham’s poems are singable, but the reading is.
Jorie Graham’s poems seem to be written in an archeological layer of language where they little by little, piecewise will let themselves be excavated like language objects and a codified language system which also, perhaps, will appear foreign in the “future”? Is it strange that this civilization is paralyzed and unable to act, if people and thieves are asked to believe in something which doesn’t exist now? A new heaven and a new earth can never arise in non-paradoxical times, due to the holy promise of an “already now and a not yet”.
I think of the Seed Vault in Svalbard and the genetic memory bank deep in the night-dark inside of the white frost, whether the genetic alphabet itself isn’t fully smelting, in a natural category which makes the atomic mushroom easy to grasp by comparison? Nazists and fascists will make their comeback as the parallel collapse of human nature in politics, if more of us don’t take up the resistance fight.
To grasp Jorie Graham’s span and thematic range, it is possible to dive anywhere into the body of text in order to undertake a literary biopsy. Needles are, by the way, a central element in her last books, where the poems testify about disease at all levels of living organisms. In Runaway (2020), there is for instance a poem entitled «The Hiddenness of the World». It establishes a connection between a hidden world and the Earth, which we all, in a diversity of ways, are supposed to know and love, as fellow creatures, but in a schism between an inside and an outside. In many of Graham’s poems, «inside» is a place in the natural surroundings which the dominating technopower of capitalism annihilates / with the uncanny automatic intelligence which ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor has been / autonomous, epistemologically speaking, hyper / activated in Putinesque propaganda, like a small scale well focused weapon / drone, with / clusters of atom-dirty microchips in nano dimensions, programmed / to penetrate / into all forms of simple and natural organisms. Because these are also linguistic destructions which passivate human / beings through horror and disgust, the only thing we can do is to share such insights with one another, her poems say to me, by memorizing and praising the beauty and the dignity of all / life, in order to then save as many as possible of our / fellow creatures in the air, earth and water. It can be formulated in a simpler way, with Pope Francis’ words: “The earth is destroyed”. Wouldn’t people who are eager to learn be able to rediscover their natural surroundings, in order to avoid fatally stumbling on the great chain of being, and to receive the grace of participating in acentury long reconstruction? In the transition passage between outside and inside, we hear the creatures of beauty come and leave us, like a cry for help.
…But could it be more beautiful. The wind has dropped. Two cardinals playin the young oak. They slip and rise. In distance, bells. Wind then no wind. A previous life, a hummingbird, has found the agapanthus there. It always does. Its blossom always blossoms just in time. Either nothing is alone. Or everything. You are alone in
the alone. To exit the human is to exit the singular, the plural, the collective, the dream. The woods have an entrance. From where I watch I do not think I’ll see them exit who went in, here at the start, the only start, we are filtering them out, are leaving them in dark, in hiddenness, all excess, all sincerity. Don’t touch. In the
flamboyant interim, burn. Feel this outsideness here. Here on this page. Here in my head. You. You in me in this final time. My shadow. Haunted. Organic. Temporary.
The poem, when read in the course of the collection, would entail a little different interpretation, but I show here how the thinking force in Graham’s poetry makes itself accessible: The hummingbird and the agapanthus, Africa’s blue lily, shining green and bright blue, belong to a common Mind where creatures are together in their loneliness, in an exit which is definitive and with a catastrophe which can be called «forest», where an I imperceptibly becomes a violent we – as an I so quickly can become – an exclusion which is both grammatical and environmental. Don’t touch, the poem warns, burn. Be on this side, in my head, the poem holds the reader and points: You. And then a sudden organic turn, with the heartbeat of the collectivity and a reminiscence of a contemplative prayer: “You in me in this final time”. Before a new twist follows, cash, but with a poetic insufflation before the full stop: Temporary».
The formal rhythmic structures in Graham’s both learned and playful poems belong to a kind which pulsates from verse to verse rather than between strophes. Sometimes like abrupt cognitive u-turns, more seldom like an emotional rest, but never in any form of stillness. The dedicated reading becomes accordingly, fast in slowness, a flow through hypersensitive line breaks, and a pendulum-like oscillation between the right and the left side of the book page which takes its source in the movements between past and present in ancient Chinese rhetorics, not the technature’s «left» and «right» side of the body, but by force of cardinal directions, organic like Yijing’s nature-like scripture of transformation, under the title Book of Changes. Whereas the European intellect has been focused towards a goal both in life and reading , from left to right, hence developing a literature where fulfilling and climax is the goal, a technological functionality in spe, strictly taken a logical and argumentative literature which has its origin in the epos and the hero, the plot and the recompense of the listener, the original nature calendar Yijing became a cut-up work through the centuries, where the combination of texts in each hexagram displays differences in linguistic, historic and stylistic levels. In this context, both the Greek tragedies and the Bible could be said to belong to a more oral and lifelike linguistic segment in the history of human beings, where peripeteia (plot twist) and salvation, in spite of their huge differences, share the cardinal directions of change in common.
To map and mock the forces which consume human lives to secure power and profit, is the fight for dignity Jorie Graham’s poetry embraces and inspires to.
Jorie Graham’s text corpus appears increasingly as a cosmic poetry with a transforming potential: Cell therapy against cancer, drones and thanksgiving for the trees’ roots (which bleed under the earth) take the form of a defamiliarized life form, in another world, which perhaps is the memory’s representation of our own world? Which memory? It could be called the utopia of mourning, with a shock-like upheaval of insight: Beware the war potential of fossil resources.
(Here, I slide in a shortest possible paragraph about the modernistic straitjackets of Norwegian poetry in the same time frame, two-three decades, with a rigid prohibition of metaphor and a puritanical regulation of the concepts’ abstract and concrete contents, which for the latter became incantations of the purity of concretions. This regime could only lead to journalism and new simplicity. But now the promising upheavals are finally happening here too).
It is Graham’s last book, TO 2040, which in my reading crowns the authorship with something of the most fascinating and touching she has written. The message of the book can be traced in the form itself, which is more concise, with more frequent leaps and shorter verse lines. Time is running out. It seems like the poems have not only been worked with, but continue to work with themselves and their content of meaning. Her radical method requires the readers to work with their own life, I would claim, through the insistent questions she asks and the gravity of the topics she raises. If we surrender to AI, machines and skip life work, then we have become the cannon fodder for the weapons António Guterres called “weapons of mass extinction”. / But listen. The respect for fellow human beings who are slaves in plantations, in refugee camps, in the petroleum industry, or being jobless and underpaid all over the world, is the way to the uprising the climate movement hasn’t been able to find yet. To map and mock the forces which consume human lives to secure power and profit, is the fight for dignity Jorie Graham’s poetry embraces and inspires to.
In many ways, she is herself a language laborer who leaves traces of the work in the poems, which in turn work further within the formative experiences of the reader. This is made possible, among others, by the fact that she manages to unite the I’s fight to survive cancer with the earth’s fight to survive its death-bringing wounds. Here, she uses a technique developed through many books, a constant involvement of the reader’s responsibility, as if the reading poet knew way too good where the heavier parts of the poem will press against the vagus nerve of the reader / and entail a direct experience of the loads and the lability of the bodily surroundings.
Thus, she also continuously challenges her own language. The aura of the poems accommodate meditative attention, Gurdjieffian alertness and a definite bodily presence which fences the precious time: within the holy poetic universe each human being exists. This alertness includes to the highest level the poet’s critical questions to herself and her own life. The old distinction between light and dark is replaced in TO 2040 by the distinction between rain and drought. Even Hildegard of Bingen’s greening forces take abode in this writing.
as if the air turned green,
as if the air were the deep in-
side of the earth
we can never reach
The intensity in her tactile and rhythmic language also comes to expression through oral contractions of pronouns and prepositions, for instance when “you” becomes “u” and “your”, “yr”, as well as the inserts’ and enumerations’ &. When it comes to stylistic devices, it’s Graham’s personifications of landscapes, animals and plants which creates a widened poetic room, like Francis of Assisi taught posterity in the “Canticle of the Sun”. Trees, birds and landscapes are not only equally important voices for Graham – as they are in the natural world, but they also receive a voice in the poems, in the voice of the poet. The poetry which creates this organic form is itself a kind of nature, but it doesn’t prevent the drone, the cyborg or the ether from becoming voice bearers. With such poetic authority, it becomes clear that the poems don’t ensoul, they at-tune, (be)voice and de-termine.
Literary critiques often highlight Graham’s film competence via cut-up techniques and sequential thinking, but in TO 2040 the sequencing is at least as clear on the acoustic side of the stream of images. The remarkable thing with TO 2040 is that it cannot merely “be read” such as you read meaning, images and phrase rhythm in a good poetry collection. It requires voice and the slowness of the voice. The book is a cornucopia when it comes to the organic originality of the images, if one can put it like this, but it is at the same time a solid labor of thought, as Graham’s books always are. The level of knowledge implies references to historical, cultural and scientific events and phenomena, something which in itself slows down the reading tempo. She creates an Earth of poetry and works persistently and targeted in order to witness everything we never should forget from this outstanding Life of love and unique species. Graham’s Shakespearian ability to represent the future in the mode of posterity, through a representation of history in an insistent literary now, becomes a farewell with life as we humans have known it, a shaking reading experience.
When read with attention, TO 2040 abolishes the culturally poor distinction between poet and reader in ways I seldom experience. It must be with Jon Fosse. When I raise my voice and let the poems take abode in me, the bodily-made slowness of reading aloud gives a clearer understanding of the difference between stillness and acceleration. The voice is the medium of silence. That time is accelerating has lately been updated with the contribution of German philosopher Hartmut Rosa, but also the lowbrow incantation “time is speeding up” applies to the increasing expansion of the universe.
Jorie Graham herself has chosen titles like Fast and Runaway, where “speed” can have both mental and cosmological dimensions: “What are our rates of speed. Where is runaway. How far / away. I listen for it.” Listens, but states that there is no way back.
I could at most read one or two poems a day, because the poems required the fullness of my voice. Speech, notation, I really don’t know where it happens. Lasting is the trembling joy of undulating from line to line, borne onboard a new poem and become lifted in flock formations which give the warmth of togetherness. Jump off again, and go a long walk in the Alone. The I in the book becomes a we which takes the reader through a poignant mourning process. Dualism abolished. Like Graham gives the natural elements a voice, I lend mine to the nature-belonging of the poem, imperfectly.
True poetry is actually able to make people speak out, with their own voices.
With TO 2040, Jorie Graham commits the masterpiece of turning climate collapse into a continued Homeric lyric poetry, prepared for the voice instrument of its reader, on stages and in concert halls, in streets and squares, in a chair, in a hot air balloon! / I have lately seen moves towards poetry as lyric poetry, composition and drama in Norway too, and certainly with Ukrainian poets who historically speaking have turned poetry and lyric poetry into a written-oral weapon for fight and insight, especially after 2014. It cannot be said too often, because it is the only way to create anew the collective in the reader, and thus the reader in the collective. When will you come? As soon as more of us will take part in the vital consciousness of crisis, of which poets are familiar, a change will come about which will be able to put together social formations into a resistance movement – a movement which in some way has to become better at imitating nature’s genial diversity, level differences and evolutionary unpredictabilities. True poetry is actually able to make people speak out, with their own voices.
When I as a conclusion read Robert Mcfarlane’s epic foreword to (TO) THE LAST (BE) HUMAN, I see that he too sometimes is led to read the poems out loud, but in no way as often as it turns out to be in TO 2040,this year’s publication. His introductory sentence is an observation so accurate that it becomes a kind of narrative around Jorie Graham’s tetralogy: “The earliest of the poems in this tetralogy were written at 373 parts per million of atmospheric CO2, and the most recent at 414 parts per million; that is to say, in the old calendar, 2002 and 2020 respectively.”
I can’t forget the incredulity among scientists as the threshold of 400 ppm CO2 got passed. Since that time there has been a number of transgressions for which we almost don’t have anything but numbers, except in these poems? Graham has understood further than most of us those nature-historical upheavals by which we are passively letting ourselves be swallowed, and her writing comes from a future we cannot imagine at all. Perhaps only because the future as a category is a passivating fiction and a sensory deception. The “Tomorrow-sickness”, as a philosopher once said. Our only hope is now, the widened now of the senses, which moves around deep time, in the multispecies togetherness of the natural surroundings, like the heavens moves around the earth.
While time runs out, I think more and more often of the remembrance portraits from the collection Fast(2017) – of a mother and a father – and of the closed archetypical vaults in the lives we wish to live, without succeeding, while we try to love our children’s now. Aren’t parents who die our closest link to organic life, nature? and I think of the portrait of a dog on a feature wall in the Villa of the Faun, Pompeii, or here:
Again through the haze the dog awakens me. It stands and breathes and makes me
look. Embroidered night. Pelt-skin and pushing nose.
Is it come this time. Gaze looking hard at something which is me. Comes into here
these nights handing me nothing but
this gaze—you, you—and again now it
insists—looks hard then looks away. Leery but intimate. Thinks like a
shovel, digs. Spotted torso. Never forgets anything. Says this is how the
burning of being feels—nothing—something of moths beating trapped wings in the
air—air spotted too—air saying I am still here or it is or she
nudges hard, refusing delay—has no whim—knows not
the is-it-worth-it thought, nor decision, nor indecision,
has no self in mirror, sleeps through din then without lifting heavy head watches us
lose reason, lose by reason. Then sleeps again. Hears reasoning resume. Like clotting of
blood. What do we need? Would you bring me some now I think, it is more now we need— then there will just be all the
rest—but this version, this which is the only
version, this is where pretending (even if you’re not pretending) ends. Just like
that. No extra time to make up later. No later. …)
(Fast, «Vigil», p. 171)
About Jorie Graham:
Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950. She was raised in Rome, Italy, and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris before attending New York University as an undergraduate, where she studied filmmaking. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. Graham is the author of 14 collections of poetry, most recently Runaway (Ecco 2020), Fast (Ecco 2017), PLACE (Ecco 2012), Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Graham has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1996) and The Best American Poetry 1990. Her work has been widely translated and is the recipient of multiple awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, The Forward Prize (UK), The International Nonino Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and The Wallace Stevens Award. She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.
About her work, James Longenbach wrote in the New York Times: “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption—intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic—rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.” / Copper Canyon Press
Photo: Jeannette Montgomery Barron
Freddy Fjellheim, poet, editor-in-chief of Norwegian Writers Climate campaign, was born 1957 in the city of Fredrikstad, Norway. He earned a BA from the University of Oslo, 1982, and studied the History of Antiquity at The Norwegian Institute in Rome, 1980-81. Fjellheim made his literary début with 1st Olsen´s Book in 1983 and has since published 13 books. His works are characterized by a widespread experimentation and integration of different literary forms: poetry, prose and essays – all in mixed genres under the label sakpoesi (slightly related to the concept of nonfiction poetry). He is an outspoken participant in current literary debates, and his essays and articles are widely published. He is also a recognized literary critic, currently in the Oslo daily Vårt Land. From early on Fjellheim embarked on a ecopoetic way of writing, e. g. in Smaragden (The Emerald /Se quences, 1989.) «Language=Environment=Literature” is one of his grounding perspectives. Pressing eco-social issues set him on track for the new genre ”essayistic action”, and ecological matters in different forms and levels are always central to his essays and articles– many of them collected in Community Arts (2010). In his literary criticism he has for many years promoted a reading which takes climate crisis into account; its consequences and new premises for all modes of communication. In 2011 he established the festival Poetry at the Borders. In 2013, he directed the initiative group for The Norwegian Writer´s Climate Campaign and served as NWWR´s first Chairman of the Board. He established this webpage in cooperation with Martin Fjeld. Fjellheim is a member of the Norwegian Writers Association, The Norwegian Non-Fiction Association and The Norwegian Critics Association. In 2001, he received a lifetime grant from The Norwegian Arts Council. His last book is an interactive series of texts at the webpage of Varslerens ansikt / rikdommens speil (The Face of the Whistle Blower/ in the Mirror of Wealth). In this literary work the reader is integrated in the oeuvre, both through their suggestions for changes to the texts, and in the character of a modern ghost-writer who is working with a similar book in a parallell universe. / This essay originally appeared at Krabbenpoesikritikk.no.
Foto: Maja Hattvang
Naïd Mubalegh is a PhD candidate at Sorbonne University and University of Lisbon, and a guest researcher at the University of Oslo. Her research focuses on the significance some economic theories (neoclassical in particular) have had on evolutionary theory, and vice-versa. She also works as a writer and translator.