Jorie Graham has long been among our most conspicuously architectonic poets. Her formal experiments and innovations sometimes suggest an architectural playfulness; the result often looks like a stack of misaligned stanzas. Her latest collection, however, moderates this tilt toward concrete and visual poetry. In To 2040, while some poems are right-justified, which forces the eye to work, most are written in short-lined quatrains—a form Graham has used in the past, especially in her earliest collections.
The thrust of this collection is not so much aesthetic as it is thematic. Graham faces the coming environmental apocalypse as an expression of her own mortality, with freeze-frames of its many clues and symptoms. In “In Reality,” the disruption of right-justification intensifies the sense of crisis:
Everything hangs in the balance, say the looping vines
the late red light begins articulating. Think about it, they scrawl,
try to remember
what it was you loved, try to clean up your memories
The poems written in quatrains allow the eye to move normally from line to line, though they present other challenges. Like all poems in this book, they address a second person with whom the reader might choose to identify. Identification, however, is not enough. One of the central problems of To 2040 is the construction of a self of sufficient cognition to deal with the threat of self-extinction. In “I,” the search and cognition become indistinguishable:
is my body to
guide me I
think. I tap at
the prisoner in
there, is that the
blank in the lesson,
is that my soul
gradually by its ten
to its own in-
creasing absence opening
too far. Is it blind. I
tap my face which is
gone on the glass which is
not gone. Don’t stop
I hear my mind hiss,
don’t stop for
The title of this poem reminds us, as Arthur Rimbaud famously noted, that “I” is an other. “I” is also the self constructed on the page before us. It is an invitation to reconstruct our own sense of personhood and to redeem ourselves from the grammatical notion of “I,” to undergo the difficult process of reorientation.
In my review of From the New World: Poems 1976–2014, I argued that Graham’s poetry tends to be more narrative than lyric. This collection, however, is primarily lyric. Lyric poetry typically explores disjunctions: between the self and another (love poetry); between the self and the perceptible world (philosophical poetry); between the self and the ineffable (religious poetry). Graham adds another disjunction: between the part of the mind that perceives nature and the part of the mind that is nature. She juxtaposes her sense of her own mortality with impending planet-wide extinction. This is fraught territory, and Graham uses complex and subtle rhetorical devices to explore it.
Yet in her closing poem, “Then the Rain,” Graham invokes rain as an all-inclusive metaphor. Here, rain is not just a marker of renewal but the embodiment of creation. The speaker (and someone else) first mistake it for wind, but then they realize it is richer and more inclusive than wind, a source of memory and cosmic reach.
as if the air turned green,
as if the air were the deep in-
side of the earth
we can never reach
where it reaches out to
those constellations we have not
discovered, not named, & now
and which are not dead, no—
And it brought memory.
Then she steps out into the weather, sits on a wall, and allows herself to be absorbed or sculpted by it. The rain, a process more than an event, assures her she isn’t dying, though much of this collection suggests otherwise. The poem and the collection conclude with the rain, wind, earth, seeds, and everything else urging her to “touch it all, / start with your face, / put your face in us.” This play on “put your faith in us,” overleaps the disjunction between self and nature by asserting the physicality of our bond. In reading Graham’s earlier work, I thought she sometimes treated the self as an abstraction as Wallace Stevens and other philosophically inclined poets often do. To 2040, however, comes down firmly on the physicality of our being. Its urgency is infectious.