In the highest realm of poets and poetry, Jorie Graham and her poems are gorgeous. Even if you don’t understand a single line, you know you’re in the presence of something extraordinary – something worthy of three or more readings to “get” what’s too often apparent in poems from the start. So, when I learned of the latest book, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, I eagerly awaited my review copy, kindly sent to me by the publisher, Ecco Press.
When the book arrived, however, I froze. Like, who am I to comment on the work of any Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, much less this one! Some time ago, in fact, a friend asked why I keep on reading and re-reading Graham’s work when I was often frustrated by my lack of understanding. I said I felt I could learn something important, which is a good enough reason anytime, but especially during NaPoMo (National Poetry Month.) However, a more precise response to why I read Jorie Graham’s poetry is, “How can I not?”
If you’re a poet who likes to eat, sleep, and breathe poetry, you know what I mean. But then, maybe you don’t, and thus far, I’ve done nothing to entice you, so let’s remedy that!
Mid-way into the first verse of the first poem, “Tennessee June,” for example, you’ll find these exquisite lines:
your mind wandering without its logic,
your body the sides of a riverbed giving in.
In it, no world can survive
having more than its neighbors;
in it, the pressure to become forever less is the pressure
to take forevermore
to get there….”
If you want to understand the poems of Jorie Graham, those lines might pull you under, but if you want to experience her work with its sensitive insights, acute observations, and highly intelligent thought patterns, try going with the flow of that river and enjoying its depths and possibilities for change. You might even catch a reflection of the poet herself.
But then, the next poem reminds us that we’re all “Strangers” – to one another, to our surroundings, to ourselves. For example:
“The vigor of our way
the infinite finding itself strange
among the many….”
Such lines might be considered flat statements were there not so many curves! But this poem, as typically happens in Graham’s work, includes images as fresh as the tulips who “change tense/ too quickly” and as startling as the starlings who “keep trying/ to thread the eyes/ of steeples.”
If you think you’ve heard those lines before, you probably have since this collection consists of several poems selected from each of eleven previously published books before closing with new poems. But, if you’ve never read Graham’s poetry, having poems representative of her work collected in one volume makes an excellent place to start – not only for the sweeping, all-encompassing view but for the life these poems take on when combined and arranged as they have been.
We could talk about that. We could talk about what the poems mean, and if you want such assessments by numerous poets and poetry students, you’ll find explications on the Internet. To relish the taste of Jorie Graham’s poetry, however, I recommend you simply enjoy the play of words, the sound echoes, the complexities of thought, then give yourself over to the experience of each poem.
When I began to do this, I discovered a spirit of wonder, a sense of breathlessness, a stream of consciousness that engaged me with its musicality and lush imagery. I also found connections arising from the disconnected and reorientation from various disorientations lit on by a highly active mind.
Because we’re now well into National Poetry Month and because my review copy has been with me too long without response, I’ll stop here for now with the hope you’ll let me know in the Comments below how you approach the poems of Jorie Graham. Then, when I’ve had time to read and absorb each poem a few more times, I hope we’ll chat again about this major poet and what makes her poetry so memorable and her new book so important to read and recommend as I do now.
©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.
From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, Hardcover