‘Notice All That Disappears’
Jorie Graham is a poet facing down the end of the world.
Imagine you are looking at a flowering tree branch in a vase on a table. You think of trying to write about it. As you look, you’re aware of your own breath, the warmth of your clothes. You smell the fragrance of the flowers. You struggle to keep your attention focused on the vase. You reach to touch the branch and notice some unopened buds. Do they have their own way of communicating? You recoil, ashamed to be part of the damage of removing the branch from the tree. You imagine the tree. You place your hands over your eyes, and now your mind and its images occupy the space where the blossoms were. What message can you take from this encounter? There is the beauty of the blossoms, the damage to the tree, and the inescapable progress of your consciousness as you react to both.
For more than four decades, Jorie Graham’s poetry has documented the complicated, multidimensional, ever more uncertain sallies of human perception into the bristling presence of trees, birds, streams. Virginia Woolf followed Mrs. Dalloway and others over the course of 24 hours in London. Graham, whose lines are Woolf-like in their walks about the page, tracks a minute in the life of a raven. Her forays also lead her to strangers, art, angels—and recent poems have ventured to speak in the uncanny idioms of artificial intelligence and machines. The free play of her attention gives rise to precise descriptions of what she sees, hears, smells, and touches, but the unfolding drama of consciousness is always an indispensable part of the poem.
The urgency of the poet as messenger animates Graham’s new collection, To 2040, her tenth since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. Its poems address the demise of the world—the vase of blossoms on the table, the tree from which they came, even the human mind attending to them—which has provided poetry with so much of its material and its source of power. Imagine, they say to the desolate future, how this world once existed, how we once lived alongside other species. They exhort us, her readers in the present, to “look behind you, turn, look down as much as you can, notice all / that disappears.”
“I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way,” writes John Ashbery, also a poet who follows the unpredictable play of the mind. “And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” Graham is a poet who, for much of her career, has tried out various ways of putting it all down, and of reflecting on the mind’s and body’s leaps and limits in that quest. In her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), the fraught enmeshment of the human in the natural world had already oriented her eye and ear: “When a forest / burns, the mind / feels compelled to say / I did it, I must have / done it,” she wrote in “Mimicry.”
That ecologically attuned perspective has intensified since. “The earth said / remember me,” begins the final poem in Runaway (2020). You can sense the focus in the titles of the three preceding books, Sea Change, PLACE, and fast. It is explicit in their subjects (melting glaciers, the pollution of the seas, “systemicide,” war and occupation, famine, empty riverbeds), and in a newly wide-ranging polyvocal style (underwater voices and nonhuman beings, machines and computers, bots and surveillance technology). At the same time, the theater of human action is vivid. Poems starkly address the haunting experiences of caring for children and grandchildren in a warming climate. They report, with blunt candor, a cancer diagnosis, and they sit vigil by the deathbed of a father.
Graham by now has poetic company in wrestling in versatile ways with the existential questions and apocalyptic shadows that accompany climate change, as Natasha Trethewey, for example, does in her memoiristic portrait of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Beyond Katrina. Graham’s own poems have sometimes included the rhetoric of arguments, propositions, or essays. But they are about perception, not policy, even as they implore us to think of the two as closely related. Her work sets the scale of the damaged human body in relation with the global scale of the planet in crisis. When her poems find fault, they find fault with the human tendency to turn off, tune out, step back, and detach. A poem called “Other,” from her 2005 collection, Overlord, puts it this way:
This is what is wrong: we, only we, the humans, can retreat from ourselves and
altogether here. We can be part full, only part, and not die. We can be in and out of here, now,
at once, and not die.
The presence of the human has irrevocably changed nature. But the absence of the human—our recusal from bearing witness to the changing world—perpetuates its own form of damage. In her new book, Graham’s poems continue to exhort us to be present, and she has found a startlingly intimate way of situating an individual consciousness among its precarious cohabitants.
Some poetry makes a virtue of compression. A red wheelbarrow, plums in the fridge. Gwendolyn Brooks’s sonnets, Rae Armantrout’s images. Graham has often explored the possibilities of dilation instead: lines that travel far across the page, passages that move from one detail to the next as her attention is stoked by the emergence of the world and by the mind’s own self-scrutiny. That’s not to say that her poems have ever lacked form or structure. On the contrary, they develop their music from the tension between the poetic line and the grammatical sentence. Here is an excerpt from the middle of “The Bird on My Railing,” a poem from PLACE (2012), which manages a feat of complex unfolding:
you are not seeing it with your own
across that flower on
at this exact speed—right now—right here—now it is gone—yet go back up
five lines it is
still there I can’t
go back, it’s
but you— what is it you are
seeing—see it again—a yellow
Note the shifting rhythms in this description of a daisy. Graham’s single sentence (from “this light” to “daisy”) gets interrupted multiple times as the speaker pins down the light to the exact moment (“right now—right here”). At that point, the poem aligns itself with the reader’s mental image of the flower: “it’s / gone, / but you—/ what is it you are / seeing—see it again.” She recognizes that no reader will see the same image of the daisy, but every reader will experience the call to see the flower and the vanishing of the flower when the poem moves on. Then, as we shuttle between the somewhat longer lines and the shorter ones, the speed of the poem increases, slows, increases again. Graham is like a conductor orchestrating multiple claims on our attention while bringing the parts of the poem together into a whole.
Whereas Graham’s earlier books cast their lines rhapsodically and elegiacally—and, for some readers, confoundingly—across the page, To 2040 puts its messages in bottles. Many of the poems have four-line stanzas with short phrases and only a few words in each line. The effect is not one of scarcity or exhaustion, but rather of exact construction—of distillation instead of dilation. “Are We” is the title of the first poem and the beginning of the first sentence:
extinct yet. Who owns
the map. May I
look. Where is my
claim. Is my history
verifiable. Have I
included the memory
of the animals. The animals’
memories. Are they
Typing out these lines, I felt the dramatic kick of each word. I was reminded of Earth Took of Earth (1996), the anthology of 100 Great Poems of the English Language that Graham edited—“some of the songs people … have sung (have needed to sing) to keep themselves spiritually, morally, and emotionally awake”—and of the accents of the Old English poetry in that book, which drop like stones into the short lines (“Earth took of earth earth with ill; / Earth another earth gave earth with a will”). In “Are We,” the absence of question marks flattens the tone and pulls each phrase down to the same plane as the next. What better source for these new elegies to the Earth than an elemental poetry of close-ups, one that keeps our eyes trained on the Earth?
As a reader, you are invited to see what appears directly in front of your face: a raven, which lands and flies off. The sheen on his feathers makes them bright: “His coat is / sun.” When the raven looks at the speaker, cicadas begin to sing. This scene exists only in the mind, because “the / raven left a / long time ago,” and the cicadas are long gone too. The poem, addressed to the future, re-creates the past experience of everyday astonishment at the arrival of a bird. At the same time, the poem also captures, on the sparse stage of its apocalyptic setting, the human capacity for image-making, the untethered drift of the mind, the pull of distraction and the return to focus.
To 2040 guides the reader slowly and carefully from solitary witnessing to bodily suffering to a set of interspecies and interhuman encounters. Those trail blazes should not suggest too orderly a sequence, given that all of the poems attempt to follow and transcribe the interwoven movement of conscious thought and emergent nature, but they do signal Graham’s ambition.
Her book begins by asking if we are extinct yet and ends with a summons to physical presence, and I was struck by its resemblance to the kind of triptych often found as part of an altarpiece. The first section comprises poems “seeking to enter the in- /conspicuous”: The speaker, generally alone, remembers looking at the raven, at tracks on the ground, at a stream, at herself in the mirror, at the light on snow. The second section inhabits the body under duress. “Dis-ease came,” we learn, and in the next poem, the speaker places a clump of her hair on the ledge of the shower. In the third section, the set of characters expands. The speaker converses with “a small personal drone,” which “was old, had been / patched thousands of / times, maybe more, was medalled with debris,” itself a repository of history; she listens as her granddaughter looks at fallen cherry blossoms and asks why; she herself feels ashamed, looking at a vase of quince branches and reflecting on the harm done to the tree.
In the book’s coda, “Then the Rain,” the speaker places her head in her hands as rain, long awaited, begins. It’s a summarizing gesture of lamentation, of remorse, but also an exposure to tactile sensation, and an expression of being overcome by amazement. The poem has given us a litany of “after”s—“after the trees,” “after the animals,” “after it all went.” Graham ends with the arrival of the “unknowable / no matter how / quantifiable.” The rain comes from the “accident of / touch,” of one atom by another, a lesson for the speaker to emulate, as she looks at her hands and imagines their command to “touch, touch it all, / start with your face, / put your face in us.”
What is it like to put your wet face in your shining palms? She asks that question at the end of “Then the Rain.” What is it like to watch the snow falling at dawn, as the speaker does in the title poem? Or to listen to the sound of your own breathing, which “Can You” implores us to do? In “They Ask Me,” we follow birds into a field
in rising ground-
mist, in the pull of its fast
evaporation as that strange
sun rose, arms
laughing, out of
breath, we ran to chase them
till they dis-
To preserve the world in poetry is to transform it, to make it almost unrecognizable, to push us to recognize it anew—not only through close attention and careful description, but also through the accidental, generative capacities of ordinary language. In the poem “Translation Rain,” the speaker wonders if her words, like the absent rain, have been exhausted, rendered extinct through use. “Each word I use I have used before. / Yet it is not used, is it? It is not used up, is it? Because what is in it stays / hidden.” And suddenly “the words / appear again as if / new. Rain, I say. Rain now.” The power of Graham’s new poetry is that, in its return to words we’ve used before, “it will touch everything. It will make more of the / more.”
This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “The Poet Facing Down the End of the World.”
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