To read P L A C E by Jorie Graham is to have human experience filtered through the mind and body of a translucent poet. There is clarity and transparency as she takes us on a tour of places interior and exterior, of historical and personal meaning.
P L A C E is Graham’s twelfth book of poetry. Clearly there is maturity. She contemplates her life, what she thinks, what she believes, sitting boldly at her beginning, the “dark spot where one story does not yet become another.”
The collection begins on the beaches of Normandy on the eve of the anniversary of D-Day and ends in the cathedral at Armagh in the (almost) present day. From the memory of war to the reverence of church. In between these extremes of experience are five sections.
Graham could be in five different physical locations in each section. Or reflecting on five different places of her life: daughter, mother, wife, naturalist, mystic or muse. Either way we agree to be carried along, eager to learn what she is prepared to impart, “thrilled to the declivities.”
Graham’s poetry is visceral. And then not. She takes the furniture of place and transmutes it. We feel what she feels.
In section I, she remembers her mother. How only she bears witness to her “mother’s voice in that particular shadow”:
How the archway and the voice and the shadow
seize the small triangle of my soul
I, Cagnes Sur Mer 1950
Later, she observes a bird on a railing, an anomaly in the cold weather. The bird
lets out the visible
heat of its
I, The Bird on the Railing
The poems capture Graham at a watershed. More than half her life lived.
as alive as it dead.
II, Dialogue (Of the Imagination’s Fear)
There is loneliness…
you feel your astonishing aloneness grow funnily
P L A C E (contd.) – Page 2.
The collision course of time and death…
death, rimless stare, O, hasn’t enough time
passed by now,
And the God question.
—I want to break the dark with the idea of God says the
III, Of Inner Experience
But mostly there is this amazing riff of felt-language that thumps you on your head and heart and wakes you up somehow. Like this:
a huge breath-held, candle-lit, whistling, planet-wide, still blood-flowing,
howling-silent, sentence-driven, last-bridge-pulled-up-behind city of
the human, the expense—
column of place in
place humming… To have
a body. A borderline
of ethics and reason.
IV, The Bird That Begins It
that gash you create in the evening air at your highest,
your own unique opening
which you can never fill,
cannot ever crawl back through and out,
except when that one moment comes and it will open and you will go,
once and once only and then, yes, you will.
Read it. Go places.
Jorie Graham is the author of twelve collections, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Harvard University.