Longing for Pastness
Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard poet Jorie Graham opens her new collection, Fast with an epigraph by Robert Browning: “Then the good minute goes./ Already how am I so far/ Out of that minute?” The quotation is fitting: Fast concerns itself with many things but most prominent among them is the fleeting nature of our existence in time and the manner in which that “good minute” continually slips our grasp and recedes into an inaccessible but vaunted past. Quite in opposition to Goethe’s Faust, we do not find ourselves bereft of moments we would bid “Stay!” but rather discover that we are immersed in them. And as they withdraw farther from us, we feel their absence all the more acutely. We are haunted by the ghosts of experiences we barely registered while they were occurring and haunted even more by those we always recognized were important.
In Fast Graham explores and articulates experiences that are both harrowingly personal (the deaths of her parents, her cancer treatments) and ostensibly impersonal (deep sea trawling, interacting with conversation bots, the vicissitudes of plankton and algae blooms). The sleight of hand that she manages in the best of these poems is to suggest that what appears to be impersonal and simply the state of our seemingly “posthuman” existence surges through the landscape of our emotional lives while those moments that we so desperately need to be utterly personal, to be ours alone, have within them an uncanny objectivity and recede so rapidly from the present that we fail, despite our desperation, to maintain their affective presence.
Even the orthography employed in these poems involves a thinking through and confrontation with time. Graham employs a striking mark throughout the collection: the Times New Roman arrow. This is essentially an em-dash with an arrow head to the right, thus pointing to the following word or phrase. Now, of course, in most English-language writing (except perhaps in the most concrete of concrete poetry) we move from left to right. The em-dash by itself (and the em-dash is still used in these poems, as well) does not thwart or inhibit forward motion exactly but it does imply a sense of equipoise, a sense that the preceding and the following are on somewhat equal footing (even if one progresses toward the other). Indeed, a very typical use of the em-dash is to denote apposition—the grammatically parallel, side-by-side balance of two or more clauses. Another typical usage is to designate the clause within the em-dashes as subordinate to the surrounding clauses—that is, the clause set out by the em-dashes is understood as a parenthetical remark or exempli gratia.
The arrow negates any such sense of apposition or subordination. The arrow demands forward motion; it does not merely assume it or take it for granted. The arrow impels the reader forward. In these passages, one feels swept up in the onrush of the poetic undercurrent, rushed out into the depths of a tumultuous thought, an image that crests and crashes down upon the reader inexorably, ineluctably. And yet, part of me as a reader resists this onrush of motion. In its efforts to push me forward, the arrows sometimes inspire my readerly resistance to pull back, to question the relentless impulsion of time, to endeavor (as these poems often seem to endeavor) to hold on to the fleeting moment, to cry out in Faustian despair, “Stay, though art so beautiful!”
The pastness of our lives inflects our present, which stands both as an accumulation of past experience and a negation (a registered loss) of that experience. In “We”, Graham suggests: “we are way/ past/ intimation friend—the pastness ofyou can only think about itit won’t/ be there for youyou can talk about itthey are gone who came before.” The past is something we discuss and think about but can no longer hold in our grip. Our intimate moments are always in the past and thus we are sorrowfully, longingly “past” them.
Bound up with our being in time is our being involved with a body: being a body, losing our bodily presence in death, the proximity and distance of bodies in relation, networks of bodies in families and forests, the seeming dematerialization of the body in our interactions on the internet, the occlusive nature of the ailing body as it blocks our (what “our” without the body?) progress in life. Our bodies experience the ravages of time, are dependent upon time for their meaning, and register time’s passage by displaying its inscriptions as carved into our wrinkles, our frailties, our inevitable decline.
Perhaps my favorite device that Graham employs with respect to the body is her particular care with the preposition “in” and verbs such as “to enter”. The body in these poems wants to be inside, with loved ones, connected to a community (whether the nuclear family, a sea of algae, decaying flora, or the subterranean matrix of roots and fungi that sustains the life of a forest amidst individual death). And yet the body continually breaks down, betrays and is betrayed, fails (even at the height of its power, which is all too rare in these poems of extremity and sorrow). The body loses itself in the midst of its yearning to return; it continually slips toward the outside, away from the circumference of companionate comfort, away from the bittersweet familiarity of home.
Graham divides her book into four large sections; each section is rather loosely organized around a theme: 1. an examination life’s enmeshment with death writ large—the manner in which death serves to nurture new life, the possibility of global death, our lifelike interactions with nonliving things such as bots on the internet; 2. ruminations on the death of the poet’s father—the loving interaction of the still-living with the recently dead; 3. thoughts on the human body—the sick body, the underappreciated body, the body engaged with the machine; and 4. another foray into the deaths of loved ones—the father again but now also the mother.
Despite this overall division, however, the poems are not laid out in a schematic fashion. The various themes interpenetrate, and each poem, at times bordering on free association, encompasses a plethora of referents and allusions, unforeseen connections, and abrupt shifts in register and voice. But throughout, the collection is pervaded by images of time as it relates to and conditions life, death, and the body.
The brief opening poem, “Ashes”, provides a fine example of the vertiginous manner in which Graham spins out her ideas and images and indeed presents in a brilliantly telescoped manner the concerns and devices explored in the collection as a whole. The narrating voice seeks some kind of ontological foundation, some solidity of being. She asks “the plants to give me my small identity. No, the planets.” Notice the swift turn from the terrestrial to the heavenly, from the biology of decay (the loam waits “to make of us what it can”) to the Platonic conception of the microcosm’s relation to the macrocosm of the celestial spheres (Graham’s disenchanted postmodern Platonism reducing the planetary motions to a “groove traversed where a god dies”).
The dizzying alternation between the small and the large impacts the understanding of time here as well. The narrator’s “lifetime” gives way to a wish to become glass and then assonantly shifts toward the glacial; the human lifespan echoes with the “prehistoric frozen mother’s caress”. Maturation and senescence are not merely human attributes. Our growth and death are accompanied by an untold wealth of beings that come and go, all encompassed by a system (the universe) that itself came into existence and is fading out of it. Hence the dialectic of micro/macrocosm plays out on the temporal stage; considering the vicissitudes of human birth and death leads to the realization (hardly profound and yet shattering all the same) that “a universe can die”.
In the midst of all of this are bodies: bodies of plants that in their fecundity transmute absorbed death into incipient life; bodies of fish and insects and birds that are victims of the life cycle; the Platonic, emergent body “dragged down through shaft into being”; and, most immediately, the living human body that anticipates, fears, and attempts to justify death, the body “trammeled with entry” and “thinning but almost still here in spirit”. This is the body that wastes away and experiences that decline as the meaning-granting essence of that body’s existence, that knows death but does not understand it.
These poems are not all on an equal footing. Graham is at her best in free verse pushed forth by free association. Her gift for connection is what typically prevents her sometimes (often?) banal observations from crossing the threshold into being trite. There is nothing particularly revealing about the connection between our personal death and its contribution to the moldering richness of the soil giving rise to new life. What makes this image work in a poem like “Ashes” is the agility with which that biological image vaunts over into the Platonic, the cosmological, the ecological, the theological, and the corporeal. Some poems, like “Dementia”, appear less sure-footed in their peregrinations through concepts and categories of thought.
Others, such as “from The Enmeshments”, clearly the weakest poem in the collection, attempt to infuse the free verse with some allusions to meter through rhyme but only manage to create a stilted rhythmic effect (“But what if I only want to subtract. It’s too abstract. I have no contract. Cannot enact impact/ interact”) that detracts from the rigor and charm of her usual poetic design, devolving into the clumsy and the mundane.
Certain of these poems, however, will and should assimilate themselves to your consciousness, insinuate themselves into your way of thinking. Poems such as “Fast”, “Reading to my Father”, and “The Post Human” are replete with thoughts and images that haunt me, that shake the tendrils of my nervous system, and appear to me in unbidden moments. “The Post Human”, in particular is enchanting and horrifying at once. The narrative “I” finds herself in the room of her just-deceased father, standing next to his body, which is no longer his, no longer someone’s body but just a body, a bit of detritus, but beloved detritus. She is holding his hand as it stiffens with rigor mortis: “The aluminum shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it./ The sun and the bedrail—do they touch each other more than you and I now./ Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.”
Time, the body, life, and death—all hold together in a beguiling, evocative tension. Sunlight, a bringer of life and vitality, shines upon the deathbed, touches it, drawing a connection between the innerving, immaterial warmth of light and the cold, steely indifference of the aluminum. The daughter holds the hand of her departed father, but, of course, he is no longer holding her hand, cannot do so. There is no one there to do so. The father has vacated the Now and no longer “is” while the daughter continues to reach out, to attempt to touch that which has fled into pastness. And yet, this is not an image of futility, some quixotic endeavor to overcome the unsurpassable finality of death. She manages, in some small but crucial way, to touch her father and he touches her—beyond a place, beyond a now, beyond the materiality of bodies and the irrevocable isolation of the present. The bodies that we are will always seek and somehow impossibly find a way back in.
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