Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

This is not an uncommon pattern of thinking. Among the opponents of climate change denial, there are many who also reject the current scientific consensus as expressed in, say, the detailed, cautious and peer-reviewed publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), finding themselves more comfortable with the absolute certainty of catastrophe. Mark Levene, for example, in his article ‘Climate Blues: or How Awareness of the Human End might re-instil Ethical Purpose to the Writing of History’ (Levene 2013), presents a nuanced examination of the need to rethink the history of the earth in the light of our new and terrifying understanding of anthropogenic climate change. However, he chooses as his scientific mentor not the collective voice of the IPCC, with all its estimates of risk and caveats about uncertainties, but a single conference paper by David Wasdell, whose main academic expertise appears to be in psychoanalysis. Wasdell foresees an inescapable rise in temperatures of over 7˚C and the likely extinction of the human race. Levene’s discussion of the practice of history moves therefore away from strategies for survival towards focussing on the need ‘to be able to see some human point and purposefulness as we move towards the end’ (Levene 2013, p. 161). Profound social change, on a scale that may be capable of bringing with it the possibility of some mitigation of longer-term global warming, and of a difficult adaptation to a changed world, is not on his agenda.

To examine the occasional chasm between a poet’s work and what the poet has said about the work is not to denigrate the poem or its creator, but to take seriously the disconnection between the poet in the act of creation and the poet producing a later, ‘rational’ analysis-cum-promotion of their own work. To speak of diverse and contradictory voices within a collection of poems is not to pillory the author for inconsistency, but to acknowledge complexity and open up another level of reading, in which earlier, simpler readings of the same work may be destabilised.

In this spirit, I want to go back to the structure of the book. Its three sections have no section titles, no epigraphs, just plain roman numerals. Stylistically the poems in each section are pretty similar. Why make that division? I want to try thinking about these three sections as representing broadly three voices or groups of voices, three states of consciousness.

Thomas Gardner once asked Graham which poems in her earlier books ended up mattering most to her. She answered, ‘Some poems in each book that become the poems I follow to the next book’ (Gardner 2003) – the ones that lead her to the new music that allows the new book to come into existence. The voice of despair in the face of extinction which we have found in the first section of the book may be illuminated by such a poem in Graham’s previous book, Overlord. In ‘Praying (Attempt of April 19 `04)’ (Graham 2005, pp. 80–82), Graham describes a student coming to the narrator’s office in a state of crisis.

The girl standing in my doorway yesterday weeping.
In her right hand an updated report on global warming.
An intelligent girl, with broad eyes and a strong
wide back. What am I supposed to tell her? (p. 80)

The narrator’s mind wanders: the girl is still there –

more terrified
by the lack of terror in the others – ‘where are all the
others’ she is crying, ‘why does no one know, why
is this not being reported’ – how is she supposed to bear
the silences. (pp. 81–2)

The narrator has no answer to the girl’s desperation: she fears for her – ‘Because we cannot ask another to live / without hope.’ – and imagines some of the terrible possibilities that may lie ahead for her, struggling as she is with this new knowledge:

                                   Tomorrow she
will jump out a window or pick up a gun or believe
with a belief that hums so loudly no human reason
will ever reach into that hive again, that whatever
will be ordained. (p. 82)

That word ‘ordained’ appears again in the poem ‘Sea Change’, which we have been examining: in which the weird low light of the storm is

                                   making of the fields, the trees, a cast of characters in a
drama, ordained . . . (Graham 2008, p. 3)

In the earlier poem, all the teacher has to offer is: ‘Tell her to tell the others. Let the dream of contagion / set loose its virus’ (Graham 2005, p. 82). A belief that the most catastrophic possible consequences of climate change are now ‘ordained’ must lead, inevitably, to despair.

In the first section of Sea Change, something very similar to the desperation experienced by that student is taken on by the narrator: inhabited rather than described. But the teacher’s response – that ‘dream of contagion’, the slender political optimism that can imagine a collective response to our collective political failures – is not present. The emotional place in which the narrator stands is reminiscent of that of the student standing in the doorway: the absence of denial, at least for this moment, horror at the catastrophe unfolding, grief for the losses already under way, and disbelief faced with the obtuse denial by means of which most of us continue to conduct our lives. It was not possible for that young woman to believe that change can begin with something as simple as people talking to each other – or indeed that positive action has any chance of counteracting the lethal possibilities of the future. Like Benjamin’s angel, her vision blurs the emergency we face into one single, immovable pile of debris.

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