Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

On a first reading, Jorie Graham’s collection Sea Change can sweep a reader away. It draws on scientific accounts of the dynamics of climate change: shifting ocean currents, more frequent and more violent storms, floods and droughts; and at the same time on a broad awareness of the consequences of US foreign policy: most prominently the prison at Guantánamo Bay. It inhabits the despair that can overwhelm anyone for whom the common mechanisms of denial are absent, in relation both to the appalling histories which we have inherited and the imminence of climate change which will massively disrupt and damage both human life and the ecosphere as a whole. The poet is grappling with the challenge of confronting entities so far beyond the human scale of things that they might be considered as being beyond the reach of poetry: hyperobjects, in Timothy Morton’s term. ‘We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time … That’s why you can’t see global warming. You would have to occupy some high-dimensional space to see it unfolding explicitly’ (Morton 2013, p. 70). Jorie Graham attempts this.

The lines of each poem alternate freely between the long (set full out, the page width unusually wide to accommodate them without awkward breaks) and the short (deeply indented to about halfway across the page). It’s a striking layout, that accommodates both a torrent of language (Vendler 2008) and the suspension of a single word or phrase as a thing in itself, an object for brief contemplation. The poems are unashamedly rhetorical in the style of, say, Whitman, and could be said to be courageously old-fashioned, coming as they do from a poet also known for her abstract, philosophical, difficult work.

Since Graham’s first volume of poetry came out in 1980, she has published approximately a book every three years, each one stylistically distinct, a cohesive volume rather than a diverse collection of recent work. As James Longenbach has pointed out, she ‘has been driven to turn against her own best discoveries, risking everything she has achieved. Each of her books is a new beginning.’ (Longenbach 2005, p. 82) She is restless, ambitious, always in search of some ‘new music’ to drive a volume of poetry as a volume, not simply a collection of whatever has been written most recently (Wengen 2008). Her work has been lauded from early on by one leading US poetry critic (Vendler 1995) and decried by another as subtly conservative (Perloff 2004, 252–57). She is not ignored.

This book’s nineteen long poems are divided into three numbered sections of six, six and seven, without subtitles or any other indication of the significance of this division. The poems are unified by a striking layout. Each one consists of long lines, full out to the left-hand margin, interpersed with several short, deeply indented lines, which, in the poet’s words, gives ‘a sense that the music moves out for a long moment, then drops, then recovers and ‘hovers’ again, then drops again (accelerating)’ (Wengen 2008). In a thoughtful review, Sarah Howe has described the structure as ‘minutely cantilevered’, and quotes ‘Root End’, from the third section of the book: a ‘spiral staircase / made of words’.

These two margins force a nervous energy on the reading eye as it is dragged up short across the page, uncertain where it will be asked to begin again … the short lines feel like a kind of homecoming to the Williams-like compressions of her first two books. The long lines, on the other hand, are deliberately and even excessively long. They explain the book’s extra-broad format, which … has an air of luxury and excitement, like in the cinema just before the film when the curtains draw out the screen that little bit wider. (Howe 2008)

The visual consistency of the collection masks some subtle internal shifts, from the accelerating passion of the early poems, each one culminating in massive, multi-page coiling sentences, to some more measured, steady-paced developments in the second and third sections. In describing the rhythm of these poems Graham has both the politics and the science of climate change in mind:

I … was able to enact a sense of a ‘tipping point’ – the feeling of falling forward, or ‘down’ in the hyper-short lines at the same time as one feels suspended, as long as possible, in the ‘here and now’ of the long line – so that the pull of the ‘future’ is constrained by the desire to stay in the ‘now,’ which is itself broken again, as a spell is, by the presence of the oncoming future. This also involves a tipping back and forth between hope and the brink of its opposite. (Wengen 2008)

Graham describes a dynamic relationship between present and future which Benjamin might recognise, alongside a struggle between hope and despair – Brechtian determination versus the angel’s hopelessness. The immediate impact on the reader, however, as noted by several reviewers, has often been that of a long howl of pain: extended sentences that lengthen throughout the poem to a crescendo of despair: ‘… overwhelmed with grief’ (Mann 2008).

I want to offer another analysis, keeping in mind both Frank Kermode’s comment that ‘the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world’ (Kermode 2000, p. 28) and Walter Benjamin’s complex interrogation of the politics of time. I want to attempt a reading of the book not as a straightforward expression of despair, but as an exploration of voice, of different ways of apprehending the ecological crisis we inhabit.

The six poems in the first section are in an understated temporal sequence: from early autumn, perhaps, beginning with ‘Sea Change’ (pp. 3–5), in which the trees still have their leaves. ‘Embodies’ (pp. 6–7) begins with the words: ‘Deep autumn’. In ‘This’ (pp. 8–9) the trees are leafless, and there’s a full moon. By the time of ‘Guantánamo’ (pp. 10–11) the moon is waning. In ‘Underworld’ (pp. 12–13) there is ‘great rain’ and it’s cold, and ‘Futures’ (pp. 14–16) is set in midwinter without any sense of a returning spring. Each poem begins with some indication of weather, season, or phase of the moon; the long meditation that follows is firmly grounded in that brief haiku-like perception.

In each poem there is a sense of the hand moving fast across the paper, recording events in movement – a bird landing in a tree, a waning moon on the rise – and at the same time attempting to record the movements of the mind:

                                   … I wonder says my
                                   fullness. Nobody nobody says the room in which I
                                   lie very still in the
darkness watching. Your heart says the moon, waning & rising further . . . (‘Guantánamo’, p. 10)

In words that foreshadow the task that Graham sets herself here, Benjamin wrote in The Arcades Project that ‘everything one is thinking at a specific moment in time must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand’; he also said that ‘knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.’ (Benjamin 1999, p. 456). Within these six poems, Jorie Graham’s ‘lightning flash’ is a moment of terrible awareness, recorded as if in the act of its realisation. Despair is taken for granted; this is a mind confronting contemporary atrocity, both political and ecological, and an appalling future, under threat from political repression and anthropogenic climate change; the narrator envisions the possibility of human extinction.

Each of these poems inhabits a present moment about to be overwhelmed by catastrophe. The immediate omens include a hurricane, unseasonal blossom, the branches of a winter tree triggering a meditation on death and on the living torturer, the unlawful prison at Guantánamo Bay, the oceans rising. There is a contemplation of a future ‘like an amputation where the step just disappears, midair’ (‘Underworld’, p. 12); or one in which water is undrinkable: ‘radioactive waste in it, & human bodily / waste’ (‘Futures’, p. 14). In the final lines of this last poem in this section, the narrator is in some dystopian future:

I your speck 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
and drink. (p. 16)

This particular future takes place beyond some unimaginable catastrophe: economic obliteration, no clean standing water on land, and only a few temporary survivors remembering what they’ve lost.

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