Sunday, April 15, 2018

Poem: Jorie Graham

When I think of the poetry of Jorie Graham (1950-), what immediate comes to mind is a dense, philosophically and phenomenologically infused lyric, ever searching, in pursuit of something--ideas, memories, experience--that lies just to the edge of where the language might take her. To me the acme of this approach in her work appeared in her early volume Region of Unlikeness (1991), which, when I read it, felt almost unlike any other poetry book I was reading at the time. (Jay Wright's poetry had a similar effect, but in a different way.) Its unremitting strangeness--"the sax pants up the ladder, up"--has stayed with me more than 25 years later.

Yet a few years before I had come across Graham's work, and what struck me was its mellifluousness, its sensuous quality. I am thinking particularly of Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, her 1980 debut, and Erosion (1983), in which she refined this style and from which I draw the poem below. By her next book, The End of Beauty (1987), she had shifted into the style and subject matter for which she is now very famous; this collection also includes the poems about angels, the poems with the blank spaces, and so on. "San Sepolcro" bears the name of the town where the Italian Renaissance Florentine artist Piero della Francesca (1415-1492) lived and painted, and references one of his most famous paintings, "The Madonna del Parto," which is in the Monterchi Museum, in the Comune di Monterchi, Italy.

"San Sepolcro" opens Erosion and sets the tone for all the poems that will follow. Its invitation is a seductive one, letting the reader know an adventure is beginning, guided by the poetic speaker, a cicerone of tremendous skill, that will require some work, some dynamic participation with the texts, the imagery, the books ideas. "I can take you there, / snow having made me / a world of bone / seen through to. This...." Just read those lines aloud, and note how the mind and tongue trip and then rebalance on that turn at "bone / seen through to." In fact, as the poem proceeds, it is clear that this will not primarily be a description of the Madonna del Parto" as much as a conversation between the artwork, the poem itself, and the reader, a step into contingency, interpretation, feeling.

"This is / what the living do: go in." That is exactly what we do when we read poetry or look at art or listen to a song, at least if we go at all beyond a superficial engagement, but then again, even if we think we're operating on the surface, as "San Sepolcro" suggests, some deeper process may be underway, a peeling away so that those multiple layers of meaning reveal themselves, briefly. Like the Madonna here, a relic, the poem carries the traces of the past it invokes, as well as the substrate of the poet's process of writing it and poem's coming into being. This brings to mind both theorizations about art and our encounters with it by very different minds, Martin Heidegger and John Dewey, chief among others. As I noted a few posts ago with Rainer Maria Rilke's and Francisco Aragón's poems, in the encounter we are altered, even if temporarily--or, as Aragón wittily asserts, made blind. And then, we see again.

At any rate, here is Graham's "San Sepolcro," which I think is best experienced when read aloud, or when Graham reads it.


by Jorie Graham

 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

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
finding all of the stops.

From The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994, by Jorie Graham, published by The Ecco Press. Copyright © 1995 by Jorie Graham. All rights reserved.

And the image:

The Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca
© Comune di Monterchi 2015 – Monterchi Museum

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