Jorie Graham
(Ecco/Harper Collins)

The American poet Jorie Graham, the critics tell us, can be compared to T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and e. e. cummings. A reviewer in the Post-Dispatch said that Graham's style "is so personal that the poems seem to have no author at all..." The "Library Journal" stated that her style is "unapologetically solipsistic," one that is "almost quaintly Miltonic." And the august Richard Eder in the august New York Times said hers was a "remarkable voice." He compared her to Rilke, and said "Even as the brain struggles, the neck hairs lift."

Now I have to admit that when I read stuff like this, and then leaf through her poems, my neck hairs don't do much of anything, but the rest of me gets a little weird. I feel like I've just landed on earth from the planet Ixneabar, discovering a world filled with conspiracies of nonsense.

Agreed, on every page of this, her newest booklet, we find end-stopped lines. This makes it poetry, n'est-çe-pas? We also find a heap of five-dollar words, like "empyreal," "stasis," "spezzato," and "enjambment." And the volume is jam-packed with all your hoary classical references --- Agamemnon, Eurydice, Socrates, Lear and Ulysses.

Furthermore, there are words and phrases that some of us innocents can't make head nor tail of: "the swag of clay," "nerves wearing only moonlight/whelm sprawl," "The furrow of the hard now." There are lines like

looking through the end of afternoon into your glance


let no one see us here whitening in the century


the slow river of my spine.

Who can tell if it's poetry or merely oatmeal mush? I sure can't.

They gave her a Pulitzer in 1996, and compared her to T. S. Eliot. But when I read, in "East Coker,"

    The whole earth is our hospital
    Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
    Wherein, if we do well, we shall
    Die of the absolute paternal care
    That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

...when I read that, I don't hear a sound, an echo, a trace of Jorie Graham.

Rilke? Well, the first of "The Duino Elegies" starts out,

    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
    hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
    suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
    in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
    but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
    and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
    to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

Graham? I don't hear her there, either, not a whisper. Instead, what we get from her is stuff like,

    We were somebody. A boat stills on a harbor and for a while no one
    not on deck, not on shore
    only a few birds glancing round,

    then --- before a single face appears --- something
                  announces itself
    like a piece of the whole blueness broken off and thrown down
    a roughness inserted,

    the infinite variety of
    having once been...

What Eliot and Rilke have, flowing from their fingertips, is an art of poetry and a poetry of soul. "The whole earth as a hospital" is a daunting image. "Every angel is terrifying" is a wonderful twist of a holy image. But "a boat stills in a harbor and for a while no one appears" is not so much an image as a flat tire (Graham is so enamored of it she repeats it twice in her title poem --- so we have two flats.)

Maybe with her spacing, and lines like "thighs pushed to hold thighs back," we are supposed to compare her to cummings, but when I read

    explain    acccident

    after gods

    is born

    (I'll catch)

    I'm asking    for weight
    The Ready    flowers

and then compare it to cummings' wry-funny-sad

      Buffalo Bill's
           who used to
           ride a watersmooth-silver
    and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

    he was a handsome man
               and what i want to know is
    how do you like your blueeyed boy
    Mister Death.

...there is, I must confess, no comparison, no comparison at all. Why? "A woman of clay is speaking to you now," Graham tells us. She got it.

They tell us that she teaches at Harvard. They don't say what. Let's hope it is something useful, like nuclear physics, molecular biology, or chiropody. Something hot like that. If it is English, or Creative Writing, god help the future teachers and writers of America.

--- Lolita Lark

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