I am in awe of Jorie Graham’s gifts as a poet. But although I have spent time powering through her later poems, they haven’t captured me with the same breathless wonder that her earlier work evokes.

As an artist, I feel uncomfortable when this happens. It’s the art maker’s creed–we want everyone to respond most to our latest work, that latest culmination of our experience and know how. Old work is viewed with honor, but new work…well, it gets all the love.

The fact is, new work can cause a kind of inebriation. Lots of artists have taken wrong turns, missed the mark, had to backtrack. I know some who ended up leaving one audience behind and having to find another. In the moment of making, it is hard, very hard, to be objective about where you are being taken with your work.

Not that Jorie Graham isn’t clear about where she is headed. The issue here is the willingness to say, straight up, I feel my connection in the earlier work.

In an essay by Jack Anders on Mipoesias about a volume of poetry by James Galvin titled X, I found a tie in to my own vague dissatisfaction with Graham’s poetic evolution. I was also heartened that he uses one of my favorite Graham poems as an example of her early style— San Sepolcro is a lush and powerful work. Anders’ essay is very rich and deeply personal on so many levels. It is a bit long so I’m going to break up these extracts into a few separate posts so that the length doesn’t make the read too daunting. Stay with it, he’s plumbing a primal vein here.

James Galvin was married to Jorie Graham for about 25 years, until they broke up in 2000. That’s a long time, a long marriage. Maybe the breakup was in some sense organic to their overall relationship, or potentially inevitable, because they are a study in contrasts. Galvin is less the critical theorist, less the highbrow. He wants to derive his ethic from chopping wood, not reading Merleau-Ponty. Graham, however, as anyone who has read one of her interviews or essays knows, revels in the intersection between critical theory, philosophy, and poetry, and can talk a high-powered blue streak in that regard. (Galvin noted this personality difference in one comment at a reading when they were still married: “I live with a woman with more firepower upstairs than anyone I know. I just try to catch her on the curves.”). Graham is much more urbane, much more a city poet, and in some ways more European than American (she was born in Europe). She is more influenced by postmodern, deconstructionist and post-structuralist critical theory, which has heavy roots in urban European intellectual culture (figures such as Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes). She does spend time in her poems musing on the countryside, raw nature, but her bookishness and interest in critical theory makes her, for me, a more urban than country poet.

In fact, I am tempted to go further, and extrapolate that the decline one sees in her poetry over the last decade or so might track in some arcane way whatever decline it was in the marriage that ultimately led to the divorce. Of course I know neither person so I am just speculating. But I have myself been in a bad marriage before where I loved the other person very much but just ended up hurting her, and I know that it had a straining, paining, scattering effect on my writing. If you compare a later to an earlier poem by Jorie you see in the earlier poems a clear seductive presentation of sensory particulars and true mystery and wonder. Whereas in the later poems you see this sort of corrosive doubting and imbrication, or rubbing, of the doubt-notations, right into the text (all the parentheticals and italics we see in the later poems), in a way that becomes (I would argue) confusing and depressing for the reader. Between her earlier and later poems, some sense of pleasure, some “jouissance” to use the French word, has been lost. For example, look at this earlier Jorie poem:

In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,
my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor’s
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
A rooster
crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,
holy grave. 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. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly
line—bodies
and wings—to the open air
market. This is
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.

(“San Sepolcro”).

This is a dark, sunny, scary, seductive poem, with brilliant sensory particulars in such fine details as “milk on the air” and “ice on the oily lemonskins.” The metaphysical, mystical core of the poem is like a lizard that flicks just out of reach beyond your eyesight – there is a delicious sense of a mystery that has been invoked but not defined, touched but not imprisoned. It is a subtle effect also found in some of Ashbery’s best poems. In her earlier poems Jorie shows true orphic fire sometimes, by saying more than she knows, like the old Greek Delphic oracles through whom spoke the gods even they could not fathom. By opening up a mystery, her best earlier poems counteract nihilism. “San Sepolcro” is also a poem which is referring back to European memories, Italian landscapes, and further, to European art history. I could argue that the basic voice and sensibility one finds in this poem, is not necessarily a voice and a sensibility that is going to translate well into and be entirely happy and at home living in Iowa or Kansas. There is just something too chic, sophisticated and to my mind, European about it.

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