Overlord by Jorie Graham, Ecco Press, 2005, $22.95 cloth, ISBN 0060745657.
There is something lawless about the poems in Jorie Graham’s tenth collection, Overlord (the name of a WWII allied operation on the Omaha beach in Normandy, near where Graham lives half the year with her poet-artist husband, Peter Sacks). Yet at the same time, I can think of few poets writing today who strive more toward moral accountability than Graham. She has recognized the insufficiency of traditional lyric modes for registering the fractiousness and complexity of twenty-first-century experience. Her response is a particular brand of poetic experimentalism, which, although difficult to measure, is of the highest grade.
If we define experimental as “related to experience,” then such poetry must somehow mirror what is shaped by experience, including moral networks. What exactly happens in Graham’s poetry, and what are her poetic principles? Conventional ordering devices are hard to discern, but the moral principle is fervent. Of twenty-five poems, most of which are a few pages in length with lines that extend like telegraph wires, messages pulsing, across the horizon of the page, six are entitled “Praying,” followed in parentheses by the date of the “Attempt.” Despair about the world’s state of affairs led her to write these prayers, which she initially did not think would become poems.
What is engaging about this book is the sustained intensity of the lyric. The poems demand the same kind of breathlessly attentive reading that the writing must have required. In “Impressionism,” a blue heron, as it lifts its foot in the shallows, becomes
… half-interrupted now, as if in mid-thought.
Look how it’s held
as the eye discerns, among the currents, the half-truth that can be
Her lines brim over with such half-truths. Because her work does not conform to traditional poetic standards or forms, and contains asides, parenthetical remarks, and sense perceptions, Graham in the past has sometimes been dismissed as incomprehensible. But her poems achieve a closer resemblance to thinking and experience than many that are written in more predictable structures (although one poem in the volume, “Little Experiment,” is a sonnet in disguise). Her poems are untidy, brilliant, bruised by moments of desperate reckoning. They mimic our internal experience closely. Ashbery creates a collage of voices, all that we overhear and think about what we are overhearing, and Graham, in juxtaposition, writes as if her soul could sound out words.
Composed after the beginning of the Iraqi occupation, the book reflects on wars past. Using the Allied invasion of the Normandy coast as a counterpoint, Graham questions the motives behind war-making. In one respect, this is a highly necessary book of protest and one that speaks out against American complacency. Denise Levertov once wrote that we “humans cannot absorb the bitter truths of our own history, the revelation of our destructive potential, except through the mediation of art (the manifestation of our other, our constructive potential).” Overlord succeeds in embodying this potential, while keeping an eye on the “bitter truths” of history. This is not just art as political and social engagement, although such engagement is not uncommon among our better poets; the remarkable beauty of these poems reveals that political expression can still possess full aesthetic integrity. As Adorno remarked, “Art is in anticipation of a nobler condition.”
Three poems that fall near the book’s center are called “Spoken from the Hedgerows,” the title of which suggests the pastoral but turns out to be anything but. The voices are those of dead soldiers refusing silence. The term “urgent” is often used to describe Graham’s work and I have no quarrel with that. There is a lot of clenching going on in here (“knees tight, face pressed”). Something, eventually, has got to give. Graham questions and is sickened by our easy acceptance of brutality. By linking the “other” with the self in many of these poems, she tries to vanquish our dangerous sense of remove. The opening poem, “Other,” begins with a description of what an “I” used to love, showing how short the distance between the two actually is. This sets us up for the later suggestions of “our shared humanity.” “Other” is a designation that Graham returns to, as in “Praying (Attempt of May 9 ’03)”:
… It feels better if I’m on
my knees, if my eyes are pressed shut so I can see
the other things, the tiniest ones. Which can still escape
The tone is remote and intimate; humble and yet what it’s asking for–peace, widespread compassion, and understanding–is impossible. In “Passenger,” she implicates not only others but also herself in such queries as, “How does one peel this sticky/nationhood off. The vehicle keeps moving I can only be its good/passenger.” In a “Praying” poem dedicated to her daughter, Emily, she states that “Whom I stand for is not clear,” a thought that must have rippled across the conscience of many Americans since the Iraqi “engagement” began two-and-a-half years ago. She questions our allegiances: “That/others I will never know are being killed in my name–by/us–oh what is that–that us?”
Phrases that appear throughout the book such as “radical doubt” and “radical mind” encourage us to return to the roots of things, rethink our assumptions, resist our complacency. In some instances the impulse behind the poems becomes startlingly clear, as in “Copy (Attacks on the Cities, 2000-2003)”: “This is a poem about wanting to survive.” Protest and enquiry are not the only voices here. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse surfaces in a passage from “Disenchantment” and Whitman can be heard throughout but most particularly in “Praying (Attempt of Feb 6’04)”: “and the music–god what an orchestration–of all the footsteps/at once, right now, on this planet,… all the grammars playing themselves out/in all the languages.” These pages sound warnings, reminders of our commonality, which could save or sink us, and pleas. But this book is about so much more than political urgency. The spiritual insistence, the need for us to take account, is as great. I wonder if anybody is listening.
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