On one level, this is simply a note that a significant book’s been released: Jorie Graham’s Place, which I’ll contend is her best book in a decade. The easy charge against Graham’s work is that it strikes some readers too arch or intellectual or studied or crafted: if one comes to Graham’s work after having spent time reading a good chunk of other contemporary poets (the bulk of whom are writing in Block-O-Poem form), it’s hard not to feel radically adrift—her work’s hugely more messed- and fussed-with, almost sort of Rube-Goldbergian: lines stretch away and contract and break off. She’s quite simply doing more, engaging more, with structure than 99.9% of poets presently working. If you read Graham and feel her, the structural tinkering and finickiness ultimately resonates doubly, quadruply—her layout decisions will seem shockingly smart, twitchily incredible, generous to the reader (because of how much it’ll feel like she’s thinking of the poem, of how to make it deliver in as many ways as possible). If you don’t feel her, her moves will likely leave you thinking she’s just trying to play her intelligence across various levels, like she’s showing off.
Writer friends of mine have said they can get through Graham’s first two books—Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts and Erosion—but thereafter they lose the thread. My own belief is that Graham’s crowning masterwork has, so far, been Never, her book from ’02, but the caveat is that the full glory of Never becomes most clear once a reader’s read the rest of Graham’s work, in order—start with Hybrids, do Erosion and End of Beauty and Region and all that, up through Swarm (her strangest, most murky work) and then hit Never. Here’s why Never is, for my money, among the most beautiful books of poetry of the last half century: Graham’s very first poem in her very first book is titled “The Way Things Work” and is a brief lyric considering just what the title says. Right before the poem’s end, however, Graham’s narrator says “I believe in you— / your head is the horizon to / my hand. I blieve / forever in the hooks.” It may as well be a statement of purpose on Graham’s part, a line that’ll echo over and through all her work: she’s writing ultimately for connection, and not just the abstract, we’re-all-human connection, but a specific one between writer and reader—there’s a contract she’s looking to enact. If you like Graham, the feeling of her poety is seismic for the ways in which she tries so hard to get you to feel and understand, in all complexity, the issues she’s tackling (without getting too bogged in this stuff: each of the books can, in ways, be understood as focusing specifically on central issues—art, masculinity and feminity, history). In Never, Graham’s focus is hard to make pithily clear: her attention’s ultimately on the unravelling and disconnect between physical and spiritual (that’s almost comically an understatement), and she’s writing in that book with as much second-person reach and charge as she ever has. It’s a phenomenally powerful book, one which asks a good deal but gives infinitely.
Okay, so now: since Never, Graham’s released Overlord and Sea Change and, now, Place. Here’s where things get a bit dicier: I believe Place is a beautiful and interesting book, if not, in my own estimation, as powerful and complete a book as Never was (nor, even, as complete a book as Sea Change was, in its way). That said: Place is Graham’s best book since 2002, and maybe the most tender, fragile book she’s done.
Something to consider: Graham’s never gone as long without a book as she now has—a three year silence elapsed between the arrival of Sea Change and the poems that make up Place. Where in other, older books, a reader could quickly find some route into the larger issues Graham was exploring, in Place the reader is, through the very first poem, introduced not to some obvious larger theme (environmental ruin, experiencing art or history, etc.) but is instead invited into a specific place and time for the purposes of being there exactly. If you’ve read Graham you’re already bucking: she’s always inviting the reader into a specific place and time—and that’s true, certainly, but the difference is that in Place the being there together, with an awareness of the precision of experience despite/within/through the chaos of life, is enough (to fracture and mess with some Stevens).
Perhaps this is a misread, but I’d invite any reader to attempt “Lapse,” the first of the book’s trio of final poems, and not be sort of stunned by several aspects, not least of which is that there seems more autobiography in Place than in any of Graham’s previous books. “Lapse” of course has the requisite beauty and insistent questioning that marks all of Graham’s work, but the big, generous ah-hah moment Graham so often provides is not, in this poem, the result of a brilliant mind grafting larger philosophic ideas onto experience (as, for instance, she does in Reguin of Unlikeness‘s “Fission,” in which the speaker’s innocence is burned away simultaneously by watching Kubrik’s Lolita and hearing about JFK’s assassination, or in Never‘s “High Tide,” in which the speaker’s experience of a homeless woman is transformed in a goosebumpy way—just read that poem, it’s crazy how good it is). Okay, so, with all that: in “Lapse,” Graham writes of pushing her daughter on a swing in 1983 in Iowa City, and that:
I was not yet so tired of believing—
I was still in the very beginning of being human,
the thing no one can tell another—he didn’t find
what he searched for, she didn’t understand what she
These lines by themselves go some ways in articulating what “Lapse” is trying to address: how do we find ways to believe through the exhaustion that trying to believe induces? How do we live with the fact that our searches fail and that understanding and desire are thwarted? Ultimately what the poem is dealing with and addressing is the moment of the speaker’s daughter’s self-awareness coming online—a realization of being there, of being alive. It sounds simple, but it’s anything but; most of Stevens’s stuff, in fact, danced similarly. What makes Place so interesting great is the fact that Graham’s said, in an interview, that with each book she’s trying to work her way into more moral territory. In that push, Graham’s seeming to, with Place, let go of larger drums to beat and flags to wave, and is offering more personal poems, ones in which the enacted dramas are still high-stakes, as Graham always makes them, but also deeply personal. You’re unlikely to find as refreshing and emotionally intelligent book of poetry anytime soon; get reading.