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Friday, 30 May 2008

Sea Change

I had been told (by reviewers and others) that she is too cerebral; even "cold" and "bloodless" was mentioned by one, and, from a passing acquaintance with individual poems, I was inclined to agree - but then if folk keep telling you that the water is cold, and all you ever do is dangle a toe in it to see if they are right, then you will be almost certain to agree, for it will feel cold. In order to be sure you have to take the plunge. There are some poets who can draw you in and make you theirs for ever, just on the strength of a single poem, but with others it is necessary to immerse yourself. At least, that's how it is for me. Jodie Graham is one of the latter. The effect of her poems on me is cumulative. Partly it may be because of her long lines and the fact that I had read them mainly in reviews. They just do not do what they are meant to do when contracted to three or four column-wide lines. Of course, one should be able to imagine them stretched out and looking as they will look on the book page, but for me it does not work quite like that. I saw the difference as soon as I opened her "Sea Change" in my local book shop. It brought about a sea change in my attitude towards her work. Well, not immediately perhaps, but it was the start of something almost magical.

If you will forgive the pun, one of the things her poems do, and do electrifyingly well, is to bring us to the point where we can see change, and see it for what it is. She has been accused - as was Seamus Heaney - of ignoring the political and social disasters of today's world, but one of the poems in "Sea Change" deals with the collapse of our belief systems - and that surely is a cause at the root of much modern turmoil and turbulence. Already I consider my purchase of "Sea Change" to be one of the most thought-provoking of recent acquisitions. Here, the opening lines from "Nearing Dawn":-

Sunbreak. The sky opens its magazine. If you look hard
it is a process of falling
and squinting - & you are in-
terrupted again and again by change, & crouchings out there
where you are told each second you
are only visiting, & the secret
whitening adds up to no
meaning, no, not for you, wherever the loosening muscle of the night
startles-open the hundreds of
thousands of voice-boxes, into which
your listening moves like an aging dancer still trying to glide - there is time for
everything, everything, is there not-
though the balance is
difficult, is coming un-
done, & something strays farther from love than we ever imagined, from the long and
orderly sentence which was a life to us, the dry
leaves on
the fields

This was where the book opened in the shop. It was where the browse began, and it won me over, persuaded me to take the plunge. Actually, the second sentence showed me the way of things: "The sky opens its magazine." Magazine as in what? Gun - a bullet or cartridge holder? Glossy - full of images? T.V. programme - a collection of disparate items? Storehouse? A supply device feeding raw materials into a machine? You do not know until you have read on - and then you do not know for sure whether you know or not. The poetry is dense with layers of meaning and dense with alternative meaning. And each layer has its alternative and each alternative its layers. We are interrupted again and again by change, but that which is changing is our perception. Graham's is a world grounded in the phenomena of the natural world in which we live, and yet it is, above all, a mental universe, so the word "interrupted" is interrupted by a line-break, a use of spatial form to represent a spiritual or psychological experience, in this instance a changed perception in which we see ourselves as merely visitors. At least, that is how I read it; you may read it differently - and tomorrow, so may I. Meanwhile there is much to enjoy, not least passages like:

meaning, no, not for you, wherever the loosening muscle of the night
startles-open the hundreds of
thousands of voice-boxes

and lines like:

your listening moves like an aging dancer still trying to glide

I absolutely love that line. That line and many another.

The blurb on the book's back cover reads:' Sea Change is a poetry of the tipping point, when what is lost and damaged in our world and our humanity is forever irrecoverable, when time itself has disintegrated", yet rightly or wrongly I detect an inextinguishable hope in the tone of the verses. Not everywhere, but here and there, like a fire about to break out gain.

Graham is no newcomer. She has published eleven collections , and in 1996 won The Pulizer Prize with The Dream of the Unified Field - definitely my next purchase. She lives part-time in western France and part-time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University.

The most difficult poem in Sea Change (of those I have read so far) I found to be Guantánamo, which is perhaps as it should be, but what about this, the opening lines of Day Off?

from the cadaver beginning to show through the skin of the day. The future without
days. Without days of it?
in it? I try to-just for a second-feel
that shape. What weeds-up out of nowhere as you look away for
good. So that you have to imagine
whatever's growing there growing forever. You shall not be back to look
again. ......................


The Muse said...

Hello Dave!

This is one I will have to check out. The cover art is intriguing. Her words are meaningful. I truly enjoy reading poetry like this. Thank you.

Dave King said...

Hi Muse,
Thanks for dropping by. I real;ly hope you will enjoy it - I was bowled over by it.