Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

Like the two poems that precede it, ‘The Violinist at the Window’, which is the final poem in the second section, consists of one long, complex sentence, of which the first three lines are crammed with short sentences (dis)connected by dashes. There is not, in other words, the acceleration that we find in some of the earlier poems: this voice has reached maximum velocity from the beginning. The poem is full of the memories of the deaths in that war and of the ruins left behind:

                                   the furrows of earth
                                   full of men and their parts, & blood as it sinks into
loam, into the page of statistics, & the streets out there, shall we really
                                   be made to lay them out again …

The war is ending, however, and the violinist has his instrument in his hands. Without forgetting the millions of war dead and in spite of the terror of allowing oneself to hope again,

                                   … we shall bring the bow now up &
                                   down, & find
the note, sustained, fixed, this is what hope forced upon oneself by one’s self sounds 
                                   like – this high note trembling – it is a
                                   good sound, it is an
ugly sound, my hand is doing this, my mind cannot
                                   open –

and the poem ends on a note of very tentative hope:

... the hands at the end of this body
                                   feel in their palms
                                   the great
                                   desire – look – the instrument is raised –
& this will be a time again in which to make – a time of use-
                                   lessness – the imagined human

This is 1918: the end of one war and the beginning of the events that will lead to another. But a very cautious hope reasserts itself; this is a time to make music again.

With the third section of Sea Change, we have another voice again. It is possible to read ‘Nearing Dawn’ (pp. 37–39), the first poem in the final section of the book, almost entirely as a lament for the coming of old age and the approach of death. It moves from a narrator observing the sky lighten and the dawn chorus begin, ‘into which / your listening moves like an aging dancer still trying to glide’ (p, 37), and continues with Graham’s characteristic quantum leaps, which takes the narrative into historical time: ancient Egypt and ‘the millennia of carefully prepared and buried / bodies… ’, the soil of the field in front of the narrator’s eyes merging into the decomposition of bodies over the ages, and to a powerful sense of the futility of human life – ‘we will / inherit / from it all / nothing’ – and of the repetition of war, and of the cycles of marriage and death: ‘always these ancient veils of theirs falling from the sky / all over us’ (p. 38).

The poem ends with an explicit casting of fingerprint and footprint (as in ‘Embodies’ in the first section – ‘I can see my prints on the sweet bluish mud’ p. 6) as the fragile evidence of the body’s existence:

where are your fingerprints, the mud out there hurrying to
                                   the white wood gate, its ruts, the ants in it, your
                                   imagination of your naked foot placed
there … (p. 39)

which is followed by another characteristic Graham leap, from this existential anxiety to a sudden moral conclusion – which draws not so much on this one poem for its force but on the book as a whole: its examination of human culpability for the political and ecological crises we face. In imagining that footprint, there is

… the thought that in there
                                   is all you have & that you have
no rightful way
                                   to live – (p. 39)

It is tempting to identify the repeated reference to footprints in the book, particularly here, as incorporating a shadow reference to the measurement of carbon dioxide emissions in terms of the carbon footprint of an individual in, say, the United States as compared to someone in, say, Bangladesh. The naked human footprint in a particular patch of mud would then become as compromised in its meanings as the barbed wire around the field or the chainsaw in the distance. But within ‘Nearing Dawn’ as a single poem that possible meaning cannot be assumed; the footprint that might survive its maker’s death takes precedence over the broader political significance: evidence of a lost body, a premonition of the narrator’s own return to the soil – until that is, the final two lines: ‘no rightful way / to live’; which identifies the impossibility, for the narrator, of a genuinely ethical life: compromised at a level deep below that of individual choice.

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