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This review is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.

PUNDITS OF THE WEATHER JORIE GRAHAM, The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994 (Carcanet), £12.95
MARK STRAND, Selected Poems (Carcanet) £9.95

Irrefutable proof that Jorie Graham is a very serious poet will be found on page 84 of The Dream of the Unified Field: the subtitle of the poem 'Breakdancing' is 'Teresa: Saint Teresa of Ávila'. A reader unfamiliar with Graham's poetry who comes across the poem in an anthology would be more than justified in expecting a little humour to follow - visions of Whoopi Goldberg revolving on a pavement in a Carmelite habit - but there's not a quip in sight. But another reader who approaches 'Breakdancing' via the preceding eighty-three pages of these selected poems is not likely to bat an eyelid. It didn't strike me as bizarre until the second-reading. A few things can be drawn from this. Firstly, Jorie Graham's poetry is cumulative in effect: there are no virtuoso pieces that you can take out and flourish as evidence of all the poet's brilliance, as you can with, say, Richard Wilbur. Secondly, that accumulation - there is a generous selection here from all her books to date - is at a tangent to most expectations of not only what poetry should be but what life is about. Thirdly, Graham possesses the poetic resources to draw the reader along that tangent with her. Anyone who takes that trip will find himself 197 pages later thrown back into a world that looks very different indeed.

This might sound like a hard-sell for the Moonies, but the impression I was left with at the end of the book was of a strikingly original intelligence that has taken the lyric form apart and put it back together again according to new blueprints. Graham had no choice but to do this in order to accommodate the huge ambition she has for her poetry, that is, in a secular age, to write with the eschatological breadth of Milton. James Merrill in The Changing Light at Sandover was up to something similar but he raided Christianity's costume chests for his heavenly cast of angels and deities and made them perform their pageant in another dimension. Graham makes no such otherworldly recourse. She wants the same scope, but in the here-and-now. Often a poem will begin with a straightforward account of a mundane event like a family picnic or bringing her daughter the leotard she forgot, and then with a masterly gear-change she brings considerations of eschatology, science and philosophy swooping down out of an empty sky. This sort of thing is usually done through metaphor (to put it crudely: 'The hedgehog squashed flat on the road is just/Like the fate of Humanity because…', etc.), but Graham's method is synecdochal, taking experiences in a deliberately random fashion, and then seeing how far they are answerable, as part of all matter, to the large abstractions. The surfaces that I perceive right now, how do they hold together? Are they a code? Do they stand for something? Or are even these questions the wrong ones? Rather than just slapping down the old explanations like templates onto experience, her best poems dramatise the distances that intervene between direct perception and spirit; they are truly breathtaking as one wonders how she found the line, the voice, to bring these things even one inch closer.

In Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), her first book, these questions were restricted to the individual intelligence facing a world of material objects, but in later collections she brings these meditations out of that hermetic space, making them collide with larger horizons, such as recent American and European history, cities with all their violent contingencies, autobiographical narrative, conversations with other people. The unified field of the title is, I think, a kind of supreme fiction which erases all disjunctions between the different stories of the world as told by science, religion and individual perception. It is wonderful to witness poetic ability grow in tandem with ambition as it does here. For me, the meridian occurs around The End of Beauty (1987) and Region of Unlikeness (1991). In the poems here from her latest collection, Materialism (1994), it is as though Graham has got too firm a handle on her themes. In earlier poems, the reader, scrambling to orient himself in this new poetic terrain, felt that Graham too was uncertain as to where the words and things would lead: everything from the lyric form to US politics was in the balance. Now she's not, and neither is the reader. This aside, there's little doubt that The Dream of the Unified Field is one of the most compelling and impressive books of poetry to be published in recent years.

Despite a longer career and more books to his name - poems, art criticism, anthologies, stories, the strange prose work, The Monument (1978) - the new Mark Strand Selected is just over half the length of the Graham. This is unfortunate. With the exception of Strand's latest long poem, Dark Harbour (1993), we end up with just a little bit of everything: sometimes the selection from a book is no longer than six pages, making it difficult for the first-time reader of Strand (who else is this book for, after all?) to get a clear picture of the trajectory his work has followed. If, instead, a collection like The Continuous Life (1990) had been published in its entirety then, although the reader would still have been unable to trace that trajectory, he would have had a firmer idea than his selection provides of Strand's range and brilliance.

The best poems in that collection are landscapes bathed in a bizarre light, a light that brims with the promise of revelations (never delivered), illumination of the work and loves of the people inhabiting that landscape, and all this with a poetic tone that modulates between irony and open lament like no other since Stevens's. Writing elsewhere of Edward Hopper's work he describes one painting thus:

In Cape Cod Morning a woman in a pink dress stares from a bay window toward the light. She leans forward expectantly. Yet we cannot tell what she is looking at or if in fact she is looking at anything. The object of her attention, like the source of the light, is beyond the picture. We can witness only its effects, how the woman's pose manifests her attraction to it. In Hopper it seems there is always something 'beyond' that works its influence on those within the picture.

It's an old trick but substitute Strand for Hopper and you have a good description of what's going on in a poem like 'Luminism'. That the source of the illumination, or final explanation is off-stage intensifies the poet's painterly attention to what's in front of him. There is a responsibility to gather all available fragments of that radiance as reflected by the landscape, the houses, the people standing there transfixed.

Sometimes the limitation Strand places upon the poem is different as for instance in 'Translation' when we are cut off from reality and let loose into Surrealist zones:

A few months ago, my four-year-old son surprised me. He was hunched over, polishing my shoes, when he looked up and said, 'My translations of Palazzeschi are going poorly.'
 I quickly withdrew my foot. 'Your translations? I didn't know you could translate?'

'You haven't been paying much attention to me lately,' he said.

This prose poem ends with Jorge Luis Borges coming into the bathroom while Strand is in the tub ('Borges, be careful,' I yelled. 'The floor is slippery and you are blind.'), and their discussing some of the problems raised in the course of the poem. These surrealist episodes are narrated at a lower register than the luminous landscapes but the voice is recognisably the same, and the overall effect of their contiguity with the landscapes is to make the latter look surreal also, heightening our sense of the fictiveness of the valley, the river, the houses and the changing sky. Strand's best poetry in The Continuous Life and Dark Harbour radiates that knowledge; it's worth catching some rays.


This review is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.

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