I know she is unpopular to many poets who want a neat line, a nice stanza, the beauty of a clear image. I know I couldn't get through the book Never. But she's mad. She's on to something. These poems are daring for their risk in form, which I'll argue are not just pretentious, or didactic, or overly scaffolded. And if these poems are conscious of environmental politics, their politics is inward and not forced onto the reader like an agenda (much like another overlooked book, last year's Warhorses, by Yusef Komunyakaa: a timely, necessary consideration of our still warring nation.)
These poems are bewitching, I think, with a breath that reminds one of what it's like to read Whitman aloud. Whitmanesque is her breath, but not for any stylistic catalogues. Perhaps there is a likeness here in Graham's recognition that the body, in all its gross manifestations, is sacred fodder, but hers is no Whitmanian reincarnation of Blake's cosmic polarities. Graham's breath is large and contradictory and incantatory for its sheer expansiveness, its successive phrasings that are at once thought, description and prayer. Prayer, as in a seeking, a calling of the voice for a communion--with spirit, with the forces that are nature, the great instigator, the origin of movement, invisible, myopic prestidigitator, energetic, ionic, harp string. Hers is the human voice itself, thinking, moving, Joycean:
(I've copied the poem, including / to indicate indentations of smaller phrases at the right-hand margin and stanza breaks to indicate each new line at the left-page margin in her work.
Vendler remarks this is a kind of "brush work" in which each line ends with strokes of phrases. This kind of long line with "brush-stroked" finishes is stylistically consistent in Sea Changes, and one can't help but relate Graham's line to the crashing of waves, the tidal spill and suck, on and against, the shore of the page.)
Midwinter. Dead of. I own you says my mind. Own what, own / whom. I look up. Own the looking at us
say the cuttlefish branchings, lichen-black, moist. Also / the seeing, which wants to feel more than it sees.
Also, in the glance, the feeling of owning, accordioning out and up, / seafanning,
& there is cloud on blue ground up there, & wind which the eye loves so deeply it / would spill itself out and liquefy / to pay for it--
& the push of owning is thrilling, is spring before it / is--is that swelling--is the imagined fragrance as one
bends, before the thing is close enough--wide- / eyed leaning--although none of this can make you / happy--
because, looking up, the sky makes you hear it, you know why we have come it / blues, you know the trouble at the heart, blue, blue, what
pandemonium, blur of spears roots cries leaves master & slave, the crop destroyed, / water everywhere not / drinkable, & radioactive waste in it, & human bodily
waste, & what, / says the eye-thinking heart, is the last color seen, the last word
heard--someone left behind, then no behind-- / is there a skin of the I own which can be scoured from inside the / glance--no, / cannot--& always / someone walking by whistling a / little tune, that's
life he says, smiling, there, that was life--& the heart branches with its / wild arteries--I own my self, I own my
leaving--the falcon watching from the tree--I shall torch the crop that no one else / have it whispers the air--
& someone's swinging from a rope, his rope--the eye / throbbing--day a noose looking for a neck--
the fire spidery but fast--& the idea of / friends, what was that, & the day, in winter, your lower back / started acting up again, & they pluck out the eyes at the end for / food, & don't forget / the meeting at 6, your child's teacher /wishes to speak to you
about his future, & if there is no food and the rain is everywhere switching-on as expected, / & you try to think of music and the blue of Giotto,
& if they have to eat the arms he will feel no pain at least, & there is a / sequence in which feeding takes
place--the body is owned by the hungry--one is waiting / one's turn--one wants to own one's / turn--and standing there,
don't do it now but you might remember kisses--how you kissed his arm in the sun / and / tasted the sun, & and this is your
address now, your home address--& the strings are cut no one / looks up any longer / --or out--no--&
one day a swan appeared out of nowhere on the drying river, / it
was sick, but it floated, and the eye felt the pain of rising take it in--I own you / said the old feeling, I want / to begin counting
again, I will count what is mine, it is moving quickly now, I will begin this / message "I"--I feel the
smile, put my hand up to be sure, yes on my lips--the yes--I touch it again, I / begin counting, I say, one to the swan, one,
do not be angry with me o my god, I have begun the action of beauty again, on / the burning river I have started the catalogue, / your world,
I speck tremble remembering money, its dry touch, sweet strange / smell, it's a long time, the smell of it like lily of the valley
sometimes, and pondwater, and how / one could bend down close to it
Reading these poems quietly in your head is useless. They must be spoken aloud, they must be spoken for you to lose and catch your breath, so that the whirling can become dervish, so the austerity of the voice can grow into Whitmanesque proportions, so the prayer of being can recognize the human Job, faced with the impossible task of overcoming himself, knowing and not knowing at the same time, caught in the tempest that is human nature, troubled and vulnerable and fighting, the body poised against the storms, world and Self.
Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!
. . . . . .