Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

If the first section brings Benjamin’s grieving angel to mind, the second section resonates with his thinking on time. In ‘Later in Life (pp. 19–21), the narrator is absorbed for a moment in the sight of builders at work, on a beautiful morning in an unnamed city. This poem inhabits an expanded sense of the present moment, not in the isolated house of the first section, but in the city. The narrator walks past a building site on a summer morning; and experiences a moment of pure contentment as she watches two men skilfully working a crane, lifting a girder from street level to the seventh floor. In lines recalling Benjamin’s description of time as ‘a precious but tasteless seed’ inside the fruit of ‘what is historically understood’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 396), she writes: ‘The / future is a superfluity I do not / taste, no, there is no numbering / there, it is a gorgeous swelling…’ (Graham 2008, p. 20); and she goes on to connect the skill of the workers to her own intense experience of fully inhabiting a moment in time:

… that man holding the beam by the right end and saying go on his
                                   ground from
                                   which the word and the
                                   cantilevered metal
rise, there is no mistake, the right minute falls harmlessly, intimate, overcrowded,
                                   without pro-
                                   venance – perhaps bursting with nostalgia but
ripening so fast without growing at
				all, & what
is the structure of freedom but this, & grace, & the politics of time ... (p. 20)

Freedom, grace and the politics of time: there is a great weight put by the poet on this moment of pleasure. Graham has spoken about the way she sees the long and short lines of these poems as

enacting a complex relationship to time … one which questions where the ‘beginning’ is … does time flow uniformly, does it fray or gather, does it bunch up, does it thicken? We are being asked to live, if you will, as people, now more than ever, on multiple parallel end-stopped lifelines: our own individual one, potentially that of our species, our planet. (Wengen 2008)

This moment at the building site is outside that sense of things coming to an end. The builders are working in the moment, their skill and attention allowing them to lift a great weight without effort or danger. The watcher too is briefly absorbed in the sight of other people at work, and in the beauty of that early summer morning. The poet’s observations are subtle and precise, in direct contrast to the narrator of the first section, who failed to identify a common hawk in her garden.

This brief moment of clear seeing is ‘without provenance’, floating free from the weight of history. It has no origins, ‘ripening so fast without growing at / all’. This is not Benjamin’s acute, historically driven awareness of the possibility of change, but something that has escaped from the overwhelming sense of doom, almost in spite of the narrator’s rational self. Escape it does, however.

Graham’s moment of stasis, gazing at those building workers, recalls another line from the seventeenth section of ‘On the Concept of History’: ‘Thinking recalls not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad.’ (Benjamin 2003, p. 396) Monad or poetic image: are these terms comparable in their different contexts? Benjamin goes on to say that the historical materialist, confronted with a monad, ‘recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.’ Graham does not take that step, but the moment of complex pleasure is there on the page:

                                   … feel the heat fluctuate & say
                                   my
                                   name is day, of day, in day, I want nothing to
come back, not ever, & these words are mine, there is no angel to
                                   wrestle, there is no inter-
                                   mediary, there is something I must
tell you, you do not need existence, these words, praise be, they can for now be
                                   said. That is summer. Hear them. (p. 21)

Helen Vendler writes of this poem that it offers ‘… choices open to the mind, instances of ‘the structure of freedom’ available to the poet who tries to remain actively in the present, without nostalgia, without prophecy’ (Vendler 2008).

Similarly, the following poem, ‘Just Before’ (pp. 22–23), expands upon a moment of not-thinking: ‘… a pool. Of / stillness.’ That moment of stopping expands to incorporate a vast awareness of the ecosphere: ‘the / earth’s whole body round / filled with / uninterrupted continents of / burrowing – & earthwide miles of / tunnelling by the / mole, barkbeetle, snail, spider, worm …’ and on into a brief imagination of a world without armies or homelessness, ‘& the sensation of empire blew off the link / like pollen …’ The poem, however, ends ambiguously, speaking of the blood-soaked soil of history, ‘& we are asked to call it / good’ (p. 23).

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