In Jorie Graham’s hands, form is a kind of method acting, an inspiriting habitation. Breath, more than ever, is momentum in her new book, To 2040. As always in Graham’s oeuvre, the lyric explodes experience, stretches time—seems to—expanding the line’s possibilities, whether in short or long lines. To 2040 can seem both an address, an intimate but public apostrophe to a year that’s not so far away, and the title can also suggest a movement toward that year, a movement that might be fatal. The future the book is gesturing toward is the almost near future, and the poems point at a moment in the timeline of our global climate catastrophe that will be in many of our lifetimes. Apocalyptic possibilities of the near future, but in the poems, she’s also written brilliant strange renderings of VR, drones, the pinging world of phones and endless information—our very present strangeness. Meanwhile, as ever, the self who speaks and acts is slightly fugitive in Graham’s lines. The self moves in this book from splintery quatrains intermixed with one-line stanzas to a freer—but never entirely free—verse that bristles from the right-hand margin. In the quatrainish poems, it sometimes feels as if what’s happening is that quatrains are disintegrating and reconstituting, along with the fugitive. Here’s the beginning of “I”:
know myself I
say to my
self so I
led astray. Led
astray I say I
know myself more
fully now so I
cannot be made
to do some-
thing I as
do. But I
did it. Didn’t I
do it. It wasn’t
me to do such
a thing or believe
such a thing I
tell myself as I
look carefully into
the only mirror I
am given …
The form’s illusion is the delusion of stability, the tumbling, enjambed cataract a marvel. The self complicit just by being a self. On the other hand, another form—another distinct representation of being—inhabits the book: some poems are justified on the other side of the page, charging our attention at the other side of the line, the starting point always almost broken off, our eyes thrown to an unexpected edge—a heady mix, and it seems like another form for urgency.
The interplay between the two modes creates a dynamism and an atmosphere of dualism, which is appropriate given the stakes, the urgency. The reading eye is roving, restless. The self—which in this case is also a figure for human community trying not to live self-destructively, as well as being a figure for a single human psyche caught in the shock of days—is also caught and caught up in a world becoming not only unreal but enmeshed with that unreality as never before in the history of the species, as in these lines opening an account of one of our latest forms of self-erasure. “The VR”:
mask is strapped on now. The rubber brace
goes round my
face then neck, they slip it on fast, it’s cold, then it
snaps on. They’ve put
the clamp in my mouth
so I can’t bite off
my own tongue
in amazement. Amazement
comes. Hello it says. Here I am. There is an arm, look, a tiny arm
on the dirt road, yes, it’s dirt after all, the
road, I pick
up, it fits in my palm,
it’s coated with dust but I make out the lines of
destiny, they are cracked,
the line of fate is
It has the jagged movement of a read-out. The transmission is electrifying.
JESSE NATHAN: How did you find your way to the shapes, the forms, in To 2040? What do these forms, like the quatrain, allow? There’s also a set of poems, like “The VR,” that you’ve called odes. I’m especially curious how the odes in this book emerged, and what you mean here by that word—ode.
JORIE GRAHAM: I appreciate your insight that it is primarily form that helps one imagine, and bring into view—into being actually—what cannot come into view by other means, image, narrative, line of argument, “what happens as the poem unfolds”… It is a mystery, isn’t it. Form.
Inhabiting the forcefield of form has taught me more than I ever imagined I could know about, well, life itself. It is the means by which the secret of a poem—not its overt occasion but the secret subject using that occasion to “speak” itself—rises to reveal what we mean by “knowledge” in poetry, and in life. It is a “knowledge” one couldn’t remotely fathom setting out into the encounter with the occasion of the poem, and what the action of spirit undergoing form in a poem reveals. And it is revelation. It’s what the poem used you—your technique, your sensibility—to usher into the world; what the so-called “subject” of the poem needed to have revealed—to the poet, to others. A poem is alive; it uses you to get itself written, spoken, to get its wisdom to cross from the unknown into the known. From the not-yet-experienced, into experience. And its primary current, to do all this, is formal—which involves syntax, rhythm, stanza, line, enjambment, rhyme-likeness, silence. At any rate, form is the locus of music,, which is that other face of the mystery: what moves, what persuades, what makes an idea be felt, a sensation feel true, a discovery feel like a revelation—
The short-lined quatrains, well, they are and have always been, my favorite form. I love accentual stress, in lines which ride and break in ways to elevate those normally unstressed syllables into stressed positions—creating entirely unexpected meanings by those accents. Anyone who has worked with me knows how excited I get at the blackboard, moving stresses around over two- or three-stress lines. But these quatrains are almost new to me. They began to appear in recent books—but here they were the driving force of the book. I have studied Williams, Creeley, Neidecker, Oppen, Ammons … and I learned a great deal from them. But these are not that music. They are not even the calm, steady music of the short-lined poems of my second book, Erosion—written in an altogether different world, from an altogether different relationship to time and the future. And the past. I did learn a great deal in those very short “drop downs,” coiling with energy beneath my long lines, in my last four books. But these lines’ endings often crumble, fracture—and they regroup, coalesce, and drive again into the silence against which they seem, at least to me, to hurl themselves. They still modulate voice through syntax—they are not using pitch. But they make one feel the terrible strength of the current we call the silence—what’s in that new silence—which we, at this point in our history, have finally come up against. At least that’s what it felt like to me to be cutting those lines against extinction.
The fact that they are quatrains—that’s another story. If you feel the silence you are writing into when you are working with lines, then you know that having two lines envelop two other lines gives you a relationship to time which is as sturdy as it is porous. In a couplet, one line breaks the silence, and another reenters the silence. It drives me nuts. The tercet gives you one middle line to work with, so you are still sliding in and out of silence. But the quatrain—my beloved stanza—gives you an equal amount of time facing in as facing out. It has a hiding place. A quiet center. Enough time to develop and dilate. And yet it speeds through the cataracts of silence with just as much liquidity. The quatrain has an accelerator, and a clutch. It can hover. It can almost come to a standstill. And it can glide.
And yes, I do think of those other poems in To 2040 as Odes, in that they put the speaker in the presence of an entity which is both there and has to be conjured into being. These summoned beings, or entities—would seem to be in possession of a knowledge which the speaker does not yet have. In them, there’s a mixture of traditional celebration, of something beyond the merely human, and yet—especially in these late times—it is becoming harder to separate celebration from potential admonition or warning. I hate to say this, but each one came as an actual apparition—I composed an early draft of each while walking against my illness. They are more like conjurings than descriptions—more like visitations. Not that it matters, but as if by chance I wrote one, or began one, with each cycle of chemo. My fight is in them, if that makes sense. I wanted to stay alive. Odes bring a speaker closer to what a speaker lacks. In my case, they brought me closer to strength. I needed more strength than I had. It seemed like a miracle to me to have poetry—the form and power of poetry—in my arsenal.