In 1997 the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dream of the Unified Field drew together poems from Jorie Graham's first five
collections; subsequently, The Taken-Down God selects from the next five collections: The
Errancy; Swarm; Never;
Overlord and Sea
Change. This new volume complements the
first selected poems for it is possible to see Graham approaching, again, the
colossal themes of the divine and the material, art and life, but The
Taken-Down God also stands independently.
Indeed, it is a compelling selection, made by Graham herself, that details
the personal and the global concerns that have informed Graham's work in the
last decade and a half.
In the past, Graham has described how ninety percent of her time is spent
revising the poems she writes; attending to the music and metre of each line.
It is no surprise then, that the poems in The Taken-Down God have been chosen and arranged with similar care.
The selection feels orchestrated in the sense that the tone and subject
matter of each poem echo one another not only between the poems themselves
but also between the different collections. This will surely challenge the
criticism that readers have often made over the fragmentary nature of
For example, 'the glance' is introduced as a preoccupation of Graham's in the
1997 collection, The Errancy.
In a poem such as 'Thinking' Graham describes a crow and 'my steady glance on
him, cindering at the glance-core where / it held him tightest, swelled and
sucked'. Here, Graham displays an anxiety regarding how the eye perceives the
natural world. Placing 'Thinking' before 'That Greater Than Which is Nothing'
highlights 'the many promises of vision' that the latter poem describes.
Furthermore, it initiates an exploration of these 'promises' in poems such as
'Woods' and 'Gulls' collected in 2002's Never.
With The Taken-Down God it
becomes tempting to suggest points at which Graham expresses particular ideas
that direct her later writing; the poems selected from Never seem to indicate such a transition. Importantly, The
Taken-Down God has included 'Evolution'
with its endnote concerning 'the rate of extinction [that] is estimated at
one every nine minutes.' Having explained how this time span 'inhabits' as
well as 'structures' Never, it
is appropriate that the poems that are included in this selected work concern
temporality and environments. By parodying the writer's attempt to achieve a
'finished' representation of the natural world, 'Woods' provides a refreshing
- oh swagger of dwelling
in place, in voice -
surely one of us
understands the importance.
Understands? Shall I wave a 'finished' copy at you
whispering do you wish to
come for lunch.
Nor do I want to dwell on
I cannot, actually, dwell
There is no home. One can
stand out here
and gesture wildly, yes.
One can say 'finished'
and look into the woods, as I do now, here,
but also casting my eye
to see (although that was
yesterday) (in through the alleyways
of trees) the slantings
of morninglight [...]
'Gulls' dives ever more deeply into this subject matter and illustrates the
'en plein air' technique that Graham used to write Never. Engaged with 'porting' the natural world rather than
reporting it, as Graham described in an interview, the poem becomes
obsessively present-tense when considering the birds,
[...] the whole flock
rising and running just
as the last film of
leaving behind, also
rising and falling in
tiny upliftings [...]
As the poem continues it becomes clear that the observer cannot keep up with
the observation. As the scene changes with the movement of the sea, the light
and the gulls, 'the words' are described 'leaping too, over their own /
So then it's sun in
surf-breaking water: incircling, smearing: mind not
knowing if it's still
'wave,' breaking on
itself, small glider, of
it it's 'amidst' (red turning
or rather 'over' (the
laciness of foambreak) or just what [...]
The Taken-Down God continues to
explore these environmental concerns with poems from the collection that
follows; Overlord. Indeed,
these environmental concerns have led Graham to approach her early themes
regarding the divine and material worlds from a different perspective.
'Please don't let us destroy / Your world. No the world', Graham implores in 'Praying (Attempt of
May 9 '03)', and later, in another poem, Graham realises the harmful
consequences of 'the
disappearance of hope' and so declares 'A new illusion must present / itself
immediately'. In the light of this it is even more apparent that what is
missing in the book is the poem that lends its name to the selected work. It
seems like a strange omission as the poem, 'The Taken-Down God', that was
originally included in Never
would seem central to many of Graham's wonderfully articulated anxieties
regarding belief, sight, writing and language.
Yet this is a small problem in view of a selected poems that will appeal to
both a reader who is familiar with Graham and who wishes to explore the links
between her collections, and a reader who may wish to gain a first impression
of Graham's work. As the book concludes with a selection from Sea
Change, Graham begins to enact the
declaration made earlier, that of 'A new illusion'. In 'Embodies' Graham asks
'what am I to do with my imagination' and later answers (in poems such as
'Root End') that the imagination must envision the future. This attempt to
find a way of dealing with environmental change continues to be explored in
Graham's most recent Place
(2012): a collection that readers will surely turn to after The
Taken-Down God in wanting to see the
direction in which Graham's work progresses at this uncertain time.
© Isabel Galleymore