Runaway by Jorie Graham/ book review by Thomas Festa
A new volume, Runaway (New York: Ecco, 2020) from Jorie Graham is, if such things may be said neutrally, an event of note. It is hard to be neutral in this case. This is not only because Graham teaches at Harvard and has won the Pulitzer, but also because she has achieved a degree of notoriety rare in the poetry world. Phrases like “the poetry world” may have something to do with the complication of feelings that settles in when readers encounter uncritical or rather fawning book reviews and gullish or soft interviews. Fame breeds itself, like a pestilence. At the same time, there is a long record of skepticism among more tradition-bound reviewers, who find Graham’s work willful, obscurantist, or too abstract. Even her admirers at times admit defeat in trying to explain the coherence of the work, or at least confess her poems difficult to the occasional point of impenetrability. Love it or hate it, Graham’s mature work succeeds on its own terms when it is maximalist in its aesthetic presentation as well as its intellectual ambition.
With these thoughts ringing in my head, I decided to approach my process of internalizing Runaway, her latest book, in a new way—different not only from how I’ve experienced her work in the past, but indeed from how I ordinarily first encounter most poetry. I chose to download and listen to the audiobook before tackling the printed collection. My reasons were twofold: first, I’d been reading some of the poems as they’d appeared in journals and magazines, especially the London Review of Books, so I had something like a sense memory of a handful of them; and second, Graham herself performed the poems for the Audible audiobook version. As I listened to poem after poem, often while driving or walking, layers of texture gradually built up. Cadences emerged separate from the visual, often prosy or unorthodox appearance of the printed versions. The voice held strong as the field of the poems emerged.
Which is to say, the hearing of it can produce a different kind of pleasure, an appreciation of the subtlety of each poem as a bravura rhetorical performance. As in 2017’s Fast, Graham’s hyperactive, massively dilated rhetoric seemingly has a way of getting ahead of itself, so that some whole poems comprise a single run-on sentence in which questions do not have question marks, tech-jargon intermingles with philosophical abstraction, and vivid, concrete natural description rushes headlong into posthuman rumination. A good example of Graham’s recent mélange, often tilting toward expression of a Beckettesque existential quiddity or an Eliotic abstract brainwave, may be found in “Tree,” the furious second poem in the new collection, which reassures us that “The VR glasses are not needed yet” before facing readers with a postapocalyptic, nonhuman perception: “Something is preparing to begin again. It is not us. Shhh say the spreading sails of / cicadas as the winch of moon takes hold and we are wrapped in day and hoisted / up, all the ribs of time showing through in the growing in the lengthening / harness of sound…” (6). The hypertrophic interpretation of the nonhuman noise sounded as conventional language calling for language to cease—all of this mingles with the gorgeous susurrations of alliterating sounds (“Something,” “us,” “Shh,” “say,” “spreading,” “sails,” “cicadas,” “showing,” “sound”). Creative visual images such as “winch of moon” give pause, as we foresee already the biblical potential of “ribs of time” before the adamic reddish loam-foam of the final lines shows us from what tree we partake: “here’s a polaroid if you want, here’s a souvenir, here now for you to watch unfold, up / close, the fruit is opening, the ribs will widen now, it is all seed, reddish foam, history” (7).
Visually, the poems range across the page, many in long-lined quatrains, some in overspilling prose blocks, some few in the latter half of the collection, including the aptly named “Rail” (48-49) and “Un-” (56-59), appearing mainly as narrow columns, principally in quatrains. Five poems in the new volume are printed right justified: “[To] the Last [Be] Human,” “Prayer Found Under a Floorboard,” “Scarcely There,” and the astonishing “Thaw” and “I Won’t Live Long.” This seems a political decision, not to start with the uniform left, but to show the left running into the obstacle of a united right. Thus, the unconventional lineation unleashes a small cry of protest in its jagged left margin.
In a recent interview with Jericho Brown at the Harvard Bookstore (available on YouTube), Graham revealed her plan to assemble and publish as one volume “the four ecobooks,” Sea Change (2008), PLACE (2012), Fast (2017), and Runaway (2020). Graham’s “four ecobooks” trace the development and realization of a shamanic ecopoetics, a visionary cry of outrage and witness tempered by awareness of our collective imbrication in the ways of life that produce “systemicide” (“Shroud,” Fast 10). Evolving out of the nature poetry composed en plein air for her earlier collections, Never (2002) and Overlord (2005), Graham’s poetry in “the four ecobooks” takes stock of, and attempts to give form to, the real-time subjective experience and deep-time objective fact of acceleration in climate catastrophe. Throughout this retrospectively assembled corpus, a prophetic urgency interpenetrates Graham’s longstanding philosophical project—her committed interrogation of the possibility of a rigorous metaphysics through poetic phenomenology. Graham’s rhythmic, formal, and typographical innovations induce the potent delirium of a trance when they body forth what she calls the wailing of “the filigree of syntax”:
The body is stiffened by something happening far away→though the curious bag
inside beats like a heart still→like a line repeated→an opinion from the
future→low, repeating some science→looking back at that prayer that was not
received…. (“Cryo,” Fast 65)
Voicing “an opinion from the / future,” Graham’s emergent poetic shamanism wells up in response to the existential threat of climate crisis. An acute formal intelligence guides the circulation of this awareness in Graham’s later poetry to the discovery of an authentically ecopoetic imagination. This discovery is, it turns out, as much a matter of the materiality of Graham’s poetry—from its distinctive graphic design to its unspooling lineation and maximal acoustic effects—as it is a product of her intellectual concerns, her content’s conceptual matrix. From the opening lines of the title poem of her 2008 collection, Sea Change, the wind at the etymological heart of “inspiration,” the “blessing in this gentle breeze” heard by Wordsworth at the start of The Prelude, provokes sudden consciousness of impending disaster:
One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger than
ever before in the recording
of such. Un-
natural says the news. Also the body says it…. (“Sea Change,” Sea Change 3)
“Un- / natural” provides the keyword and signal, formal motif of environmental disaster through human rupturing of ecosystems, in poem and collection, even as the shape of the lines provide a melancholy, belated visual allusion to the spiritual renewal promised in George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” Lines are defined by line break, enjambment no harbinger of sustainability, but rather inspiring the curdled horror of a negation realized midstride, a neither-nor that bespeaks the coming apocalypse of the sixth extinction. The split in our consciousness between what we keep telling ourselves about our present moment and the erupting catastrophic events that portend future disaster creates the pushback in the lines, so that we as readers must work hard to sustain attention against the rupture and forge connection in the midst of unexpected disruption. This poetic device morphs over the course of Graham’s most recent four volumes into a practice culminating in “Poem,” the last in Runaway, in which the spectral “hyperobject” of the earth itself speaks to us a dismembered injunction like that of the ghost of old Hamlet: “Re- / member me” (Runaway 83). As she conceives it, the perspective she has adopted in the latest collection is that of seven generations in the future, a practice she adopted from an Iroquois tradition, as she recently explained to Jericho Brown. “We are looking ahead,” as Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, explained, “to make every decision we make relate to the welfare and wellbeing of the seventh generation to come.…What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?” In Runaway, Graham moves from the shock of bearing witness in the midst of catastrophe, as she imagined her task at the start of “the four ecobooks” in Sea Change, to the even more astonishing sensation of looking back on our seemingly inevitable future, speaking prophetically and retrospectively at once with a voice of wistful regret as much as bitter outrage: “yr in- / difference is yr / principal beauty / the mind says all the // time—I hear it” (“Poem,” 83). Against and through the mind, we see and hear in Graham’s latest collection the fractured recollection of the earth.
Thomas Festa is Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz. He is the author of a study of John Milton, The End of Learning (2006), and two dozen scholarly articles, mainly on early modern English literature. Co-editor of four anthologies, he is currently at work on a study of the late W.S. Merwin’s poetry as well as his own original poems and translations and is a frequent contributor to Lightwood.