Jorie Graham, Fast, (Carcanet, £12.99).
Much is made of Jorie Graham as a ‘phenomenologist’; ‘phenomenology’ being ‘the description of things as one experiences them, or of one’s experiences of things.’ Further distinctions follow, one of which is often the rejection of Descartes’ division of mind and body, and also the rejection of usual distinction of reality and appearance. These sometimes dry analyses might be kept to the philosophy books were it not the constant temptation of poets to ‘describe’ things and also invoke, the act of experiencing, not only the ‘thing’ but also the experiencing itself, and the very act of rendering those experiences in the language itself.
This act of experiencing has always particularly present in the poetry of Jorie Graham. And that sense of the body experiencing as much, if not more, than the mind has often been Graham’s signature way of working; as in this early poem ‘Wanting a Child’, ‘Sometimes I’ll come this far from home/ merely to dip my fingers in this glittering, archaic/ sea that renders everything/ identical, flesh/ where mind and body/ blur.’ Thus the ‘want’ of the title is translated into a physical engagement where, perhaps, the sea is a metaphor for that need, and there again, perhaps it is a real, physical sea with which the empirical Graham is ‘really’ engaged.
In this new book, Graham works through the illnesses and deaths of her parents. Those manifestations of bodily decline and ending are replicated very closely in the engagement of Graham’s language. Not that Graham’s language declines or dies, however, if anything, the clue is in the title of the book, Fast. Not only is the language fast, but the poetry explores the senses of that word: the body’s lacking nutrients and then depleting, but also the sense of the body’s holding fast to life. The French phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty calls this, ‘the phenomenology of perception’, since Graham might seek to replicate the body’s decline and death but Graham as Graham can ‘only’ perceive these things and not actually experience them.
These intense perceptions run throughout the whole of this substantial book. One such poem is ‘From Inside the MRI’; which begins:
tropical dancer, partner, or is it birdchatter I’m hearing now, vein in,
contrast-drip begun, everything being sung in the magnetic field’s no-upward-rung
unswerving tiny dwelling‒you earthling‒awaiting your biochip‒
they are taking tranches of the body which is one‒which has been one all of my life‒
I’ve quoted this at length to show how Graham’s language has moved into a more staccato, almost fragmented mode in this book. The lines are long but within them the clauses are brief and separated. Here the separation with the em-dash both joins and enforces a hiatus, which elsewhere is reproduced with an em-dash with an arrow, described in the endpapers as a ‘Times New Roman arrow’. These typographic devices both encourage the onrush but also encourage a halting, breathy feel which also indicates part of the emotional involvement and tenor of the writing. As we can see from the extra above, the perceptions crowd in on the narrator, and the narrator moves these perceptions through a range of worlds: the exotic dance partner, bird chatter, the earth viewed from the point of view of the ‘alien’, but also all contained within the chamber of the MRI. And this chamber threatens to excise parts of the body which perceives.
One of the other things this poem illustrates is Graham’s willingness to mix the precise language of science with the excursions of the imagination. In ‘The Mask Now’, describing Graham’s father’s final illness, that mixture is used to describe the harrowing nature of her father’s decline. Here the previous breathlessness of typography is more conventionally illustrated with an abrupt, curtailed syntax; as in, ‘In the last weeks wore red sleepmask over eyes day and night. Would/ ride it up onto his forehead for brief intervals, then down pulled by/ hand that still worked.’ The elisions of the articles, and, more importantly, the ‘he’ both recess the father but also push his actions to the fore. With these elisions, Graham actually moves the reader nearer the father. It is not the person with whom one is sentimentally engaged but the actions of the dying man. And, again, the effect is a contradiction, the reader is more involved somehow; the dying man becomes more real, our feelings are almost deeper. Graham’s skill throughout this book is to make the dying more poignant, the deaths more real, more affecting.