Graham continues her run as one of the poets with whom we most need to reckon.
The world has long been ending for Jorie Graham. It started with her cancer; no, her mother’s dementia, her father’s death, with climate change, with thought, with breath, with the beginning of things. Her new poetry collection, Fast – the title referencing both speed and a lack of physical essentials – brings this decline hurtling forward. As always, she places demands on herself and her readers, searching for hesitating perspectives on reality, questioning the nature of reality itself even as she hurries to mark it down in ink, before it disappears.
The book brings several of Graham’s obsessions to a tentative end point. Her work on ontology has been captivating, finding a tension in her disagreement with dualistic approaches. While her poems rely on her conceptions of embodiment, the sense of something other comes through, as when she realizes in “Embodies” from Sea Change that “I cannot/ go somewhere/ else than this body.” That sort of questioning permeates Overlord, which questions how and why we are what we are, and what, if anything, transcendent stands over us. Still, none of this might matter (or might matter infinitely) as the world stumbles towards its possible end.
In Fast, these sorts of thoughts emerge as the imminently personal. Concerns that were never entirely abstract become concrete when Graham faces her mortality as well as that of her parents. The ever-present question “What is human?” takes on new import in the face of a forever empty bed or a loss of mental health. The first section of the book tackles these questions with an awareness of sci-fi becoming reality, as the gaps between modern computers, AI and digitally preserved selves narrow.
“Ashes” presents the doom: “Loam sits/ quietly, beneath me, waiting to make of us what it can.” If the earth isn’t reabsorbing us, we know that, “A universe can die,” but we still don’t know if we “have” or “be one body.” The decline weighs heavily, and the possible outcomes and solutions vary–Graham points to a fullness of possibilities rather than of solutions throughout her work. As the world ends – as we end individually, as humanity ends itself – Graham finds combinations of solace and blame in the digital age, and if “Fast” suggests the already coming age of bots, it reveals our confusion over who is or isn’t human: “If some of you/ are also bots, bot can’t tell” or “I treated him like a computer/ but I was wrong.” Existence ties to a body and bodies leave, but we are not only our bodies; as Graham has found in the past, so, too now: “To dwell is to leave a trace.”
Much of the rest of the book searches for these traces. “Incarnation” finds the traces in the form, in the shape. Reality, even the past, is what we can touch, and yet “apocalypse feel the shape of becoming machinic … Bring it upon yourself … Be disindividuated.” As everything collapses, Graham sends us a warning, not just to cool down the earth or clean the water or beware the robots, but to trace the outline of our own realities, to not lose a year forgetting “to look” at our soon-to-pass parents.
Amid her big thoughts (a treatise on her work would swerve to phenomenology and hard science and the deepest questions of philosophy), Graham finds meaning in briefly pinning down the small things that existence incarnates, like the way “this uniball pen” can cover a “void” in “Double Helix.” The specific objects outside her dying father’s window make for a meditation on where, if anywhere, further existence takes place. Maybe in digital information, or maybe nowhere.
It all makes for a lot of weight and Graham’s more difficult passages are part of the point. Stylistically, she builds on hallmarks of her previous work, using long lines and the deep indentation. Her key innovation in this volume lies with an arrow she uses between phrases. Ostensibly, this graphic should push the poem forward, adding a visual component to the language and theoretical speed of the work. In “Deep Water Trawling,” she writes, “then there is–>no more–>oxygen–>for real–>picture that says the speaker.” The effect is disconcerting; the visual onrush persists, but the chopping of the language makes it feel more robotic and less human. It might be tiresome stammer; it might be the edge of Graham’s real-time language.
Through the challenges, the twists, and the doubts in Fast, Graham continues her run as one of the poets with whom we most need to reckon. This new collection addresses our biggest concerns, that of time running out for each of us and potentially for our species