'Being alive is a crock of shit.'
(Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut)
The Simpson family are standing on a hilltop, watching shooting stars sweep
across the stratosphere. 'Aww,' says Homer, wistfully, 'I wish God was still alive to see this.'
Simpsons, last Tuesday)
'Whenever you feel like
criticizing anyone... just remember that all the people in this world haven't
had the advantages you've had.'
Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
'So long. Fearlessness of the American. / How you are hated. Everywhere. So
'Passenger' from Overlord by
America is an introspective, self-loathing country. In much of its art over
the previous century, America takes a good, long look in the mirror and
accuses itself of having invented capitalism, Puritanism, right-wing
crypto-Methodist fundamentalism, Starbucks, labour exploitation,
deforestation, Ayn Rand, racism, homophobia, golf, the stock-exchange, war,
poverty, boredom, McDonalds, international unrest and terrorism. For a
relatively young country, America has a lot on its conscience.
The mirror is a pivotal image in Overlord. It is the metonym of the collection and
everything refers back to it. There are six 'attempts' at praying throughout
the collection - and they sting with the lethal introspection of the devout
agnostic: What if, when we pray, we are simply talking to ourselves?
There is a Raymond Carver-like sense of isolation and insomnia to some of
these which is really quite affecting:
I don't know
where to start. I don't think my face
in my hands
is right. Please don't let us destroy
No the world. I know I know
nothing. I know I
can't use you
like this. It feels better if I'm on
my knees, if
my eyes are pressed shut so I can see
things, the tiniest ones.
(from 'Praying (Attempt of May 9 '03)')
And, in the same poem, a
seemingly casual altercation with the whole Language School 'What are words?'
it is already
being lost here, the channel is filling
words - ah - these, these -
how I don't
want them to be the problem
too, there are
so many other
obstacles, can't these just be part of
Which is thought-provoking, I guess. I might write a paper on Avant
Garde Poetics and Christianity. Gosh, I'd
kill for an Ashbery non-sequitur.
Overlord is so po-faced.
but is there
such a thing as news,
history? Yes, when you want to go back
after a while
and appraise the accumulation
say, in the sandbox.
The rest is
only in season
season is always next month,
a pure but
That's better. In the margin of the first poem in this collection, the me of
a few months ago wrote 'Ashbery without the jokes' - a sentiment I am
inclined to agree with. Six of the long poems are entitled 'Praying (Attempt
of...)' and are full of distraction and fear and interesting titbits. Some
poets keep scrap-books.
before dawn no stars I try again.
I want to be
saved but from what. Researchers in California have
broken heart causes as much distress
in the pain
centre of the brain as physical injury.
This piecemeal information can become stricken and moving, as when the
narrator of the same poem exhorts,
Keep us in
the telling I say face to the floor.
Keep us in
the story. Do not force us back into the hell
of action, we
only know how to kill.
Which struck me as good the first time I read it
The world sucks. Life sucks: 'These are givens: / poverty, greed, un- /
expectedness. The bubble of the now being emitted from the / blossoming / then. That's all. Maybe disappearance - as of the moon
/ to the horror of the men already in dark.'
Remember Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs? That's a pretty good reference-point, I think. And
the same criticisms apply: A poet can make a sound, politically right-on
point about how much war and suffering sucks. But would I not get the same
result if I read a good newspaper or turned on the radio? 'What a Terrible
World' poetry is so hot right now, especially in the States. And am I the
only one who finds the 'Where's God in all this death and disaster?' somewhat
inapt - as if war, famine, greed and corruption are a twenty-first century
phenomena that disproves Christianity once and for all? Has anyone read the
Book of Judges? We're getting off pretty lightly, I think. Where's God when I
stub my toe? Why didn't he stop that?
PARODY, (Attempt of November 30, 2005)
Jorie Graham writes in a loose vers-libre that is riddled with self-
doubt and constantly interrupts itself -
Is it disrespectful? Ill-mannered to write a review as pastiche? -
Which I suppose is a kind of antiphony.
The lines sometimes run on and on and on, occasionally threatening
To turn into prose. Her writing has a shape, certainly, but little sense of
The 'line as unit'. The lines are way too long for that, definitely, I think.
And when most
of them are quite repetitive, that's a weakness.
There are lots of introspective (but are they? Really?) interjections - that is to say, interjections
of a self reflexive attitude;
Oh, and did I mention repetition? Replication?
And some of what Bertrand Russell would probably call 'gratuitous
Oh gosh, I'm being relentlessly horrible again, aren't I?
Sometimes I meet someone and they say, 'Oh, you're not half so hunched and
twisted as I expected
you to be from your reviews.'
I don't mean you to get the impression that Graham's writing is without
There is a tumultuous, breathless cadence to match
The genuine sense of urgency one gets from the poems' content.
[She also uses a lot of square brackets] [they open and close] [at random]
[No, I'm not sure why either] Sometimes she breaks off the rumination to
Deliver a truly startling last line like:
worry where else I am, I am here. Don't
if I am still alive, you are.
At the end of 'Dawn Day One' - which I love.
(Although I feel sure I've read a similar couplet before somewhere.)
Jorie Graham was recently accused of nepotism and double-dealing in the Foetry
debacle - an expose of the corrupt world of American poetry, started by a man
whose wife was an aspiring, unpublished poet. Throughout the relatively (in
poetry terms) high-profile affair, Graham's name was invoked with malicious
frequency. The crux of the matter (for anyone who's less of a poetry nerd
than I am - and doesn't have a day job that includes hours of internet
time-wasting), was that Graham had granted a major poetry award (in which
submissions were accompanied by $20 cheques and the prize included
publication) to her husband. I was thinking of not making reference to this
at all to show that I am above it, but it must have been playing on her. Must
make for troubled sleeping.
I really like The Dream of the Unified Field - Graham's selected poems from 1974 - 1994. I
don't really like Overlord.
There are some WWII poems in Overlord - a reference to Operation Overlord, the largest sea-born invasion
in history (involving three million troops crossing the English Channel to
Normandy). On tour around France, Graham has the sense that the past is not
really past - not in a contemporary unrest kind of way, but in the
metaphysical Henri Bergsson kind of way. See 'Europe (Omaha Beach
cries, miles, pools, bars, war. No
container, friend. No basic building blocks
constituent particles from which everything
is made. No
made. No human eye. The rules?
speeding towards 'the observer.' Who is
other who is me perceives
stream of particles, hazy,
superimposition of states. Entanglement. Immediacy.
time has passed from then. No now.
This is somewhat undermined by the poems made of unedited quotations from men
who fought in Operation Overlord.
ahead of us by a few days was hit, many ships sank.
I saw the
bodies of so many sailors and soldiers floating by us
with all the
other debris and ice on the water...
The three of
us Jake, Joe and I became an entity.
An entity -
never to be relinquished, never to be
entity is where a man literally insists
hungry for another. A man insists on dying for
Protect. Bail out. No regard to
A mystical concoction.' A last piece of bread.
You must understand what is meant by
'Spoken From the Hedgerows')
This is a great sentiment, well expressed, but it belongs to someone else.
Don't get me wrong - I enjoy found poetry as much as the next PhD student,
but I think it requires a pretty major recontextualisation of the chosen
material. Fridge instructions as a love poem. Cat food ingredients as
political protest. Whatever. But here we are to admire Graham as a
poet for interviewing someone about their
experiences in Operation Overlord and writing it out, verbatim, in a poem
about the experiences of soldiers in Operation Overlord. Well it won't stand.
Congratulations on a good interview. It would look fab in an anthology of
As discussed above, a lot of the other poems are about God - who stands here,
I suppose, as the ultimate Overlord. This strikes me as one of those
synthetic analogies a poet might use when they want to place some WWII poems
that have been gathering dust in a desk draw since the commission. I'm sorry
for being cynical. I have a cold, okay?
'Wartime is business as usual: for hand grenade manufacturers and poets.'
There are some wonderful lines among all this - stuff that reminds me why I
liked Jorie Graham in the first place:
Are you an
entire system of logic and truth?
Lines that disguise their own weight. And I have no doubt that the pain and
frustration expressed are genuine. It is a thoroughly honest collection:
'beyond salvation'? Will you not speak?
Such a large
absence - shall it not compel the largest presence?
Can we not
break the wall?
And can it
please not be a mirror lord?
It's just that on the whole, it would be more worthwhile talking over these
things with someone you knew - they probably have more or less the same
fears, and at least then you could put your arm around them. One of the
'Praying' poems is mostly about a cat Graham and her husband found in a
hedge. The cat has been diagnosed with AIDS - which, again, is very sad. I
love cats. I still have poems I wrote when I was twelve about my cat dying.
Stop me if I'm being a complete bastard, but there's something a little tasteless
- no, not tasteless, just blinkered - in a poet creating an analogy between
all the suffering of the Second World War and the desperate state of the
world and their cat dying.
That said, there are some fine moments of clarity and transparency so unremittingly
introspective they become universal, whether feverish, as in 'Physician':
the room, shyness in him, then the note
is sounded. A
crowd of horses tries to turn around in
room - the bed in their way - the nightlights
Or horror-struck by insignificance, as in 'Disenchantment':
you are but a
little flash, a cloud taking form in my neuron chamber, my brainpan,
in your site of my manufacturing of you -
not to mention
all the cultural variables - that I am white, a woman, live in
x, earn my
means via y - in a
city, on a
portion of the globe where empire collects its secrets - where I
am one of its
secrets - prey to the fine dust of its ideology,
which slips into my very gaze this dawn...
Also, the writing occasionally intensifies - when Graham focuses on something
physical or uses a metaphor (Woohoo! Poetry!):
You have to
recover hope, says the moon. Are you
reply. The moon rises further. No,
you have to
think about the whole situation from some other
Like how? My head is full of blood. So is
my mouth. The
moon is full. Did you already know that
before I said it here, I ask...
I search for
gratitude, as if feeling around in a
nightfall for a lost hat...
This is like finding a twenty pound note in an old jacket, so absent is
allegory and image from the rest of the collection.
'This is what is wrong: we, only we, the humans, can retreat from ourselves
and / not be / altogether here.' Graham declares in 'Other'. 'That's great,'
says the reader. 'Now what the blazes do you mean by it? How about a
metaphor? Pretty please?'
'...Zeno reasoned we would / never get
there. Reason in fact never gets there. / But we step back onto the path each
time.' she says in 'Dawn Day One'. 'Excellent,' says the reader. 'I've read
some Zeno. Or at least the Jorge Luis Borges parable where he mentions him.
Now do something fun with Zeno! Turn him on his head! If we want Zeno, we'll
More often than not, the reader is left to do this for herself.
keeps you up at night, though.
must. What is it. What is it keeps you up at night.
Let no one
persuade you you do not exist. Yes yes
you too are
destined to die.
you have to
worry, confine your worrying
subject: money is always a good choice.
Never worry about 'the absurdity of existence,'
large vaguenesses which are really like
the memory of
a grandmother who died before you were born.
will it do you? And do not become enslaved to anything.
'Some Words of Advice: After Hesiod')
© Luke Kennard 2006