Dissecting the Apocalypse: Jorie Graham’s Sea Change

1 May 2017

With one exception – ‘Positive Feedback Loop’ – the poems of this third section are brilliantly suspended between this reading of them as embodying the narrator’s awareness of her own inevitable death and her sense of the catastrophes that hang above us as a species, and above the ecosphere as a whole. The final one – ‘No Long way round’ (pp. 54–56) – begins with haiku-like compression:

Evening. Not quite. High winds again.

self-correcting within the first three words, and moves into a confrontation with what can be read as personal extinction:

                                   … The dark
                                   gathers. It is advancing but there is no
progress. It is advancing with its bellyful of minutes. It seems to chew as it
darkens.

But at the same time there is a reckoning with ‘truth – whatever we meant by it’, which is itself fading, along with the world that the narrator has known. In a rare moment within which humour can be detected, the narrator addresses the time of day personally:

… Your excellency the evening, I begin. What is this trickiness. I am passing
                                   through your checkpoint to a nation that is
disappearing, is disappearance … (p. 54)

A personal, continuing life is more embodied here, in more detail, than in any other poem in the book: a particular room with its gorgeous carpet, particular memories – the end of an unspecified war; being a child in bed listening to rain; a moment of crisis in an unidentified relationship; and then a disconnected memory of a frightened woman in the subway and ‘the em- / broidered linen handkerchief’ she pulled out (p. 56). All these are summoned up as if in evidence of the narrator’s existence, like that footprint in the mud.

But the poem and the book end with another jump cut: from a largely comforting sequence of memories to the bleakest and briefest of visions:

                                   there are sounds the planet will always make, even
if there is no one to hear them.

Wind and waves on a rocky, barren planet: as with the last lines of ‘Nearing Dawn’, the weight of this line is not earned by the one poem but by the book as a whole, and by the blending of voices within it. This voice – coming from the beginnings of old age, the confrontation with personal mortality – merges here with the terrified younger voice of the first section and the calmer, engaged voice of the second section, which brought the ability to take pleasure in the moment and the strength to begin again after catastrophe.

The completion of the book left Graham silent: unable to write for three years. She is aware of this space as in some ways productive, but she does not attempt to account for it.

Those silences are always strange – although this one has been the longest by far – because, as you say, even in the total silence, it shifts. The voice shifts, the poems seem to keep growing in some subterranean way. And when the voice re-surfaces, it is always somewhere further down the road than one could have ever imagined. So one actually reads one’s first new poems with a kind of strange incomprehension, and one has to learn to catch up with them, so to speak. (Grubisic 2010)

In this passage, Graham effectively provides a subdued critique of her own attempts at accounting for the complexities of her own work. The poem knows best, and its maker cannot always expect to be able to explain her progeny’s behaviour.

There are other ways of being in the world: that is part of what this book is telling us, in spite of itself. It remains partly possible to live well, in some ways, in spite of what may be waiting for us: to walk along the street and watch builders at work, to see and hear clearly, without fear. Hope, in this way of being, is not part of some improbable future, but becomes – in Andrew Benjamin’s words – ‘an integral part of the present’s constitution’ (Andrew Benjamin 1997, p. 57).

Nevertheless, the final lines of the book have brought us back to despair, putting the lid on any kind of hope for a messy but continuing survival. In Frank Kermode’s terms, in this book the sense of apocalypse as the end wins on points. However, in reading the book as embodying, broadly, three voices rather than one, it becomes possible to examine each one: to move beyond an identification with terror towards thinking about different kinds of response to the crisis in which we are enmeshed. We are not quite in the territory of Benjamin’s ‘confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude’, but the door may be beginning to open to other ways of experiencing the present moment, and to the ever-present possibility of profound and unexpected change. Benjamin’s seeds of time, buried in the everyday, are here almost ready to grow.

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