reviewed on May 11, 2023
While much of her work shuttles in mode between Stevensonian abstraction and Williams-esque concretism—between “the blue guitar // Is a form,” for instance, and the “blue / mottled clouds” on “the road to the contagious hospital”—Jorie Graham works most insistently, in To 2040, in the tradition of Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, in particular in her investment in a procedural poetics possessed of its own quasi-mystical potential.
One’s influences are manifold, of course, and often indiscernible and unconscious, but in her latest collection Graham marshals Black Mountain poetics toward grave existential and ecological reckoning, situating her speaker’s own confrontation with mortality—Graham herself has been diagnosed with endometrial cancer—against a backdrop of climate change, environmental degradation, and an almost cosmic, anti-human emptiness.
To 2040 is funereal, steeped in death at the level of both individual and era—it is late in the Anthropocene, Graham suggests; or, in her own words: “we are // alive in the death / of this iteration of / earth.”
Neither Creeley nor Duncan quite shared Graham’s sense of belatedness, much less her ecological conscience, but both viewed the procedures of poetry—the relation of line to breath, for instance, or the sonic texturing of language—as fundamentally mystical in nature, a way to allay the absurdity and inconsequentiality of existence. In the imaginative freedom of poetry, moreover, Graham, like both poets, finds a kind of counter-world characterized not by necessity but by possibility. “[N]o water / anywhere,” she writes in “Dawn 2040,” “though here, listen, / I make it / for you—drip, drip—”.
As charming as it is profound, Graham’s mystic aestheticism draws from Duncan in both style and substance, maintaining poetry itself as a space for the gathering—or “indwelling,” to use Duncan’s term—of a supra-human presence. Both Graham and Duncan refer to this presence as “it.”
Here is Graham in the poem “Translation Rain”:
More says my baffled soul, yes more.
It will push itself through & more deeply through till all must grow.
And yet we pray for it.
We thought it would never come.
Something did come says the code.
But it did not come.
And here is Duncan in the prose introduction to his 1968 collection Bending the Bow:
It is striving to come into existence in these things, or, all striving to come into existence is It—in this realm of men’s
languages a poetry of all poetries, grand collage, I name It, having only the immediate event of words to speak for it.
For both Duncan and Graham, as these passages make clear, there exists a hidden “code” toward which poetry approaches—or which it reenacts, or “translates”—in its own formal patterning. Poetry is, for them, a kind of conjuring, a collage.
What Graham draws from Creeley, in turn, is the spare, spindle-like column of text—reliant on both abbreviation and severe enjambment—the speed of which attains to the speed of thought.
Here is Graham in “Why”:
is this we are
entering—me taking yr
hand now to speed
as fast as we can in this suddenly
hard rain, yr
hand not letting go
Here, in turn, is Creeley, from “I Know a Man”:
the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
And here is Creeley, from “The Rain”:
this quiet, persistent rain.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.
If the velocity of a poem enables it, for Graham, to re-present both thought and breath, nonetheless the lines threaten here as elsewhere to speed out of control into a non-breathing, non-verbal state, to the point that to “enter” Graham’s rain is to enter the alterity of the natural world and, through it, the otherness of death itself, of non-being.
I belabor Graham’s affinities with Black Mountaineers like Creeley and Duncan not becauseTo 2040 feels derivative, but because I find it incredibly refreshing, in the present climate, to encounter a poet with such awareness of—and who makes such use of—her predecessors in the craft. In To 2040, Graham incorporates and in many ways pushes beyond what Black Mountain accomplished; for this new collection, Graham’s fifteenth, possesses an intimacy that simply does not exist in Creeley and Duncan, a humanness to counterpoint the mysticism, a sense of embodiment to match Graham’s quicksilver intellect.
In “I Catch Sight of the Now,” for instance, Graham renders the strangely alien experience of chemotherapy hair-loss, describing the “green / tiled ledge
just up to my right in the glistening shower-stall, slightly above my open
eyes, square window in it, & slender citrine
lip onto which I place, gently, this first handful of hair […]
This is Graham in the mode of Williams-esque concretism, but she is just as forceful in To 2040 as a Stevensonian, managing to wrench intimacy from abstraction. “I will be wild again, // I will be taken in,” Graham writes in one poem. “And all is. All is. // Do you remember.” she writes in another, that last phrase a deliberate imperative rather than a question.
Graham is able to achieve this, it seems to me—to give abstract statement the resonance of the immediate image—because of the profound simplicity in her mysticism, as in her syntax. “We are returning to some prior place,” she writes in “The VR,” emblematic of both:
where we will find everything as it should have been,
the evenings shall be the evenings,
the sun shall be warm but not too warm—there will be gazes in the eyes of creatures
which will be recognizable to us, not fear, not all the time hunger & fear,
there will be time for curiosity,
there will be children, and time, the creatures will not avert their eyes […]
Curious in its approach to tradition, courageous in its vision of death and the afterlife, To 2040 deserves recognition with major acclaim in the coming year, not necessarily as the capstone of a career but as a singular and arresting engagement with mortality—neither should we, in other words, avert our eyes.