Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

In some of the poems in this first section, alongside the precision of scientific language and the passionate, detailed attempt at recording the movement of the narrator’s own mind, her vision – her ability to see the external world accurately, and to find the right word for the things that she’s looking at – appears to blur. In ‘Embodies’, she records the process of failing to identify a bird, perched in a tree in her garden. It must be migratory, she thinks; she hasn’t seen it before. Not until the end of the poem, when the bird takes off, does she recognise it as a hawk that she’s often seen hunting above a neighbouring field (pp. 6–7). Note the word ‘hawk’ here; we also have ‘dove’ in other poems. Both words refer to the genus not the species, not the particular bird in a particular tree; and incidentally both words draw on a political vocabulary that links them to recent American wars. There is an awkward detachment, it seems, from clear and immediate seeing.

Graham is very far from being incapable of observation: some of her earlier poems contain the most brilliant detailed passages taken from the natural world around her: minnows in shallow water in ‘Prayer’ (Graham 2002, p. 1), dead leaves caught up by a winter flood in ‘Notes on the Reality of the Self’ (Graham 1993, p. 1). In his generally positive review of Sea Change, James Longenbach asked sarcastically, in relation to this uncharacteristic vagueness, ‘Are a poet’s errors of perception comparable to the mistakes that raised the temperature of the Gulf Stream, forcing a plum tree in Normandy to blossom out of season?’ (Longenbach 2008). Poet and narrator are here clearly assumed by the reviewer to be one and the same. The predominant voice of this first section – anguished, despairing and failing to see things clearly – is taken to be an unmediated projection of the poet’s own mind.

Jorie Graham herself has also made this assumption, saying of the book: ‘I wouldn’t have written this if I were hopeless. I think artists have a large responsibility at present – that of awakening the imagination of a deep future … I happen to feel one can reawaken that sensation of an ‘unimaginably’ far off horizon. We are so collapsed-down now into a buzzing noisy here-and-now, an era of instant gratification, decimated attention-span, that it is going to take some work to help people ‘see’ in their mind’s ‘eye’ that far-off horizon many generations beyond their own time …’ (Wengen 2008). Here, in the poet’s rationale for her own work, the shifting narrative voice that can be found in the poems is erased by the assumption of a central, responsible self, writing in the hope of creating some kind of real social change. She sees the necessity of hope, but in many of the poems in the first section of Sea Change, those future generations, for whom she wants to speak, are – not improbably – doomed.

I will take the titular opening poem, ‘Sea Change’, as representative of the six poems of the first section; the movement of each one varies, but there are underlying areas of similarity. In this poem, the writer’s hand is slow to get moving. The scary weather is recorded in jerky, short sentences:

One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger than
                                   ever before in the recording
                                   of such. Un-
natural says the news. Also the body says it. Which part of the body – I look
                                   down, can
                                   feel it, yes, don’t know
where … (p. 3)

At the bottom of the first page, we have the beginning of another partial sentence: ‘Like the right to / privacy …’; this time however some other kind of energy has been tapped, and the hand does not stop moving; it continues to write for another two pages, a single sentence continuing for an astonishing 60-plus lines, incorporating a dazzling array of rhetorical strategies. (Helen Vendler’s detailed analysis of a similar passage in an earlier poem, ‘The Turning’, published in The Errancy in 1997, is relevant here, see Vendler 1995, p. 91.) The narrator here, it seems, simply cannot pause in her writing: she is frantic, trying to record a fast-moving, terrified chain of thought.

In what voice does this poem speak? There seems to be an ‘anyone’, as in, ‘stronger wind than anyone expected’. There’s a comment from the news: ‘unnatural’. And ‘the body’ speaks: the body of the voice that is speaking the poem; and an ‘I’ that inhabits that body and looks down at it. Then we have a ‘one’, as in: ‘a vanity that comes upon one out of / nowhere …’, and an ‘us’ (‘it / fussing all over us’) – and then we have ‘I’ who is fastening the shutters and listening to the wind from indoors, which shifts to ‘we’ – ‘we set out willingly, & also knew to / play by rules, & if I say to you now / let’s go / somewhere …’ – and then the wind speaks: or the voice of the poem inhabits the wind and gives it consciousness: wind and ocean in symbiosis, acquiring the knowledge of scientists – and then we’re back with the narrative voice, the poet on the third page, ‘so that I, speaking in this wind today …’. The voice is thinking about itself as a writer, becomes aware of all that writing as being in the past with a horrific vision of ‘breaking grins – infinities of them …’ – and then back into the non-human voice of the wind (pp. 3–5).

This unstable narrator lives in a compressed, blurred present moment: body reduced to unlocatable sensations, almost escaping language, and the mind’s powers of observation diminished. Any sense of the erotic, of the body as reliably engaged with the mind, has been displaced into the violence of wind and ocean. The past races away while the future accelerates ominously in the narrator’s direction. The fields and trees around the house – in a strange low light brought by the hurricane – have become ‘a cast of characters in an / unnegotiable / drama, ordained . . . ’ (p. 3); we are in the realm of predestination, in which human agency has been eroded to the point of nonexistence. The consequences of climate change are upon us, in this narrative, and there is nothing left to do about it except try to close the shutters, and grieve.

There is a knowledgeable and rational mind at work here. The narrator brings an awareness of the science of climate change to the poem – ocean warming and disastrous changes in ocean currents – together with a despairing sense of imminent extinction:

                                   … in the
                                   coiling, at the very bottom of
                                   the food
                                   chain, sprung
from undercurrents, warming by 1 degree, the in-
                                   dispensable
plankton is forced north now, & yet further north,
                                   spawning too late for the cod larvae hatch, such
that the hatch will not survive, nor the
species in the end … (p. 4)

Where climate scientists are cautious, however, at once raising the alarm, monitoring each other’s work, and keeping current estimates of possible developments under constant review, the narrator has no such restraint. She goes for broke, assaulting the forces of climate change denial by means of a passionate inhabiting of the worst possible outcome.

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