Graham, Jorie

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 9 May 1951. Education: Sorbonne, Paris; New York University, B.A. 1973; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1978. Family: Married James Galvin in 1983; one daughter. Career: Assistant professor of English, Murray State University, Kentucky, 1978–79, and California State University, Humboldt, 1979–81; workshop instructor, Columbia University, New York, 1981–83. Since 1983 staff member, University of Iowa. Poetry editor, Crazy Horse, 1978–81; Bayelston chair, Harvard University, 1998–99. Awards: Academy of American Poets prize, 1977; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1981; Bunting fellowship, 1982; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985; Whiting award, 1985; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1990; Lavan award, Academy of American Poets, 1991; Martin Zabel award, Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1992; Pulitzer prize for poetry, 1995, for The Dream of the Unified Field: Poems, 1974–1994. Address: University of Iowa, 102 Dey House, 507 North Clinton Street, Iowa City, Iowa 52245, U.S.A.



Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1980.

Erosion. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1983.

The End of Beauty. New York, Ecco Press, 1987.

Region of Unlikeness. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1991.

Materialism: Poems. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1993.

The Dream of the Unified Field: Poems, 1974–1994. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1995; Manchester, Carcanet, 1996.

The Errancy: Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, and Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1997.

Swarm. New York, Ecco Press, 2000.

Recordings: The Hiding Place, Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress, 1995; Lunch Poems, Jorie Graham, 9/11/97, University of California, Berkeley.


Editor, with David Lehman, The Best American Poetry 1990. New York, Scribners, 1991.

Editor, Earth Took of Earth: A Golden Ecco Anthology. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996.


Critical Studies: By Peter Stitt, in Georgia Review (Athens), spring 1984; "Accurate Failures: The Work of Jorie Graham" by Thomas Gardner, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), 24(4), October 1987; "Air and Earth: Recent Books by Jorie Graham and Ellen Bryant Voigt" by James Ulmer, in Black Warrior Review (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), 15(2), spring 1989; "Jorie Graham's Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts: Nature as Matrix" by Gerri Reaves, in Carrell (Coral Gables, Florida), 27, 1989; "The Grammar of Glamour: The Poetry of Jorie Graham" by Mark Jarman, in New England Review (Hanover, New Hampshire), 14(4), fall 1992; "Jorie Graham: Art and Erosion" by Bonnie Costello, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 33(2), summer 1992; "Fin-de-Siecle Lyric: W.B. Yeats and Jorie Graham" by Helen Vendler, in Fins de Siecle: English Poetry in 1590, 1690, 1790, 1890, 1990, edited by Elaine Scarry, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; "Ad Interim: 2000—A Delayed Reading Lightly Attended" by Lisa Issacson, in Denver Quarterly (Denver), 28(4), spring 1994; "Iconoclasm in the Poetry of Jorie Graham" by Anne Shifrer, in Colby Quarterly (Waterville, Maine), 31(2), June 1995; The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1995, and The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Definition, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1995, both by Helen Vendler; Political Poetics: Revisionist Form in Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Charles Wright, and Jorie Graham (dissertation) by Phyllis Jean Franzek, University of Southern California, 1995; "'The Honest Work of the Body': Jorie Graham's Erosion," in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), 46(2), summer 1996, and The Glass Anvil, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997, both by Andrew Hudgins; "Jorie Graham: Living in the World" by Charles Molesworth, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), 120, fall 1998; "Critical Mass: Jorie Graham and James Tate" by Bin Ramke, in Denver Quarterly (Denver), 33(3), fall 1998.

*  *  *

American poet Jorie Graham's "Flooding," from Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, begins,

   Just rain for days and everywhere it goes it fits,
   like a desire become too
   accurate to be of use, the water
   a skirt the world
   is lifting and
   like a debt ceiling…

For Graham the world is like a vast text deserted by its author late in the process of composition. One can almost read it fully. "The clues are everywhere," says one poem, and in another starlings make "a regular syntax on wings." In yet another poem we read, "Indeed the tulips / change tense / too quickly." She sees "small building materials / awaiting an idea." Her characteristic explication du monde is evident in "One in the Hand"—

   A bird re-entering a bush,
   like an idea regaining
   its intention, seeks
   the missed discoveries
   before attempting
   flight again.

—and in "The Mind"—

      The leaves,
   pressed against the dark
   window of November
   soil, remain unwelcome
   till transformed, parts
   of a puzzle unsolvable
   till the edges give a bit
   and soften. See how
   then the picture becomes clear,
   the mind entering the ground
   more easily in pieces,
   and all the richer for it.

Graham's work is sustained by continuous associative activity. Her poems seem almost to be woven, and into her raw material go ideas, visual images, abstract and very concrete nouns, and, again and again, figures for language itself. The play of perception over the waters of the perceivable world make a kind of continual reference to Genesis and remind us what an important poet Wallace Stevens is for Graham. Occasionally, as in "Flooding," her associative urgency causes a skein to ravel, but her intellectual abilities and ambitions give her work gravity and free her from anecdote and occasion.

For the volume Erosion Graham developed some new formal strategies. One is a short-line stanza, usually of six lines, with indentations, as in this one from "Love":

   Here it's harvest. Dust
   the light. In the heat
      in the distance
   the men burn
      their fields
   to heal them…

The stanzas swirl down the page in long, complex sentences, resembling the other stanza form Graham uses frequently in Erosion, a long single-strophed poem with all of the lines, of carefully varied lengths, printed flush left. Thus, "Mother of Vinegar" begins like this:

   Because contained damage makes for beauty, it shines
   like a brain at the bottom of each vat, the sand
   in the shell,
   a simple animal.

Graham has spent a lot of time in Italy, much of it looking at paintings. Works by Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, Masaccio, Goya, and Gustav Klimt are central to the poems in Erosion. One poem in the book is titled "Still Life with Window and Fish." By such means her poems refer not to a body of knowledge—art history—but to a live tradition, a palpable continuity in the present of the longer sense of history Italy gives in comparison to the American landscape. Graham's sense that culture is an organism rather than an artifact distinguishes her work and keeps it free from cultural tourism.

The closing lines of "San Sepolcro" suggest the reach and amplitude her best poems attain:

   …It is this girl
      by Piero
   della Francesca, unbuttoning
      her blue dress,
   her mantle of weather,
      to go into
   labor. Come, we can go in.
      It is before
   the birth of god. No-one
      has risen yet
   to the museums, to the assembly
   and wings—to the open air
      market. This is
   what the living do: go in.
      It's a long way.
   And the dress keeps opening
      from eternity
   to privacy, quickening.
      Inside, at the heart,
   is tragedy, the present moment
      forever stillborn,
   but going in, each breath
      is a button
   coming undone, something terribly
   finding all the stops.

If Erosion is, on a certain level, concerned with the role of human beings within the animal world, Graham's The End of Beauty examines our human relationships from a mythic origin. Many poems in the collection feel like replications of the braided process of thought, with long, unpunctuated lines that explore, as much of her work does, the process of intellectual and imaginative work. The stunning "What the End Is For" explores both the erosive quality of dusk into evening as well as that of an emotional and physical state:

   …The last time I saw you,
   we stood facing each other as dusk came on.
   I leaned against the refrigerator, you leaned against
      the door.
   The picture window behind you was slowly extinguished,
   the tree went out, the two birdfeeders, the metal
      braces on them.
   The light itself took a long time,
   bits in puddles stuck like the useless splinters of memory,
      the chips
   of history, hopes, laws handed down.
   …We stood there. Your face went out a long time
   before the rest of it. Can't see you anymore I said. Nor I,
   you, whatever you still were replied.
   When I asked you to hold me you refused.
   When I asked you to cross the six feet of room to hold me
   you refused.

In the collection Materialism Graham turns to another kind of dramatic poetry, one that involves conversation and philosophy. Long passages selected from the works of thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Francis Bacon, Brecht, Plato, and Walter Benjamin implore the speaker to search for the bedrock of Western culture's philosophical assumptions, and they create an especially challenging terrain in the book. The abstract language of metaphysics feels like Graham's true obsession in this collection, but when she diverges, she finds the world in its integrally shaped wholeness, its directness, its simplicity. One closing passage includes an address to dust: "oh, but tell me, morning dust, dust of the green in things, on things, dust of water / whirling up off matter, mist, hoarfrost, dust over the / fiddlehead …"

Making sense and, by turn, unmaking sense are the constant processes of Graham's Pulitzer prizewinning The Dream of the Unified Field. In this collection she persists in a constant impulse to untangle the relationship between the physical world and the nature of metaphor. In "Chaos Eve" a charge of matter instigates transformation in a moral atmosphere:

   There's the god that locked herself in the tower,
   there's the
   one cast out into the hissing open,
   the white pushing out,
   the white flaring and pushing,
   until the whole thing steps out, opening and
   shuddering, thousands
   of wings,
   into the early morning, into the late twentieth

Somehow the synapses of the mind are charted in this poetry. Simultaneity, which we understand largely as an event or events of timing and externality, is something Graham manages to track and locate on the interior. In "Easter Morning Aubade," from her collection The Errancy, a woman tries to "clench the first dawnlight inside her skull," but the world will not be clenched. Within her view, past sleeping soldiers, there is a boy dropping a pebble in a river. The stone passes through the surface of the water just as the scene enters the mind of the woman:

   …as he stares I can see
   that the place of disappearance has
   it cannot be recovered, his eyes darting
   over the moving waters,
   and how a life cannot be lived therefore,
   as there is no place,
   in which the possibility of shapeliness
   begins to rave,
   and the soldiers, awakening, of course, to
   the blazing not-there,
   and the 30,000 mph of the sun's going,
   rubbing its disappearance now all over this,
   and the hand going back into the dirt at
   one's feet, fingers feeling around
   for another perfect stone, wanting to see
   it once again, that opening.

For Graham the external world is critical to the imaginative vitality of the interior. She has a term, "intractable thereness," that alludes to the way we comprehend physical spaces and accuracies and yet continually yearn for a completion that eludes us. The poetry of this state is both lushly sensuous and persistently fleeting. "The Guardian Angel of Self-Knowledge" depicts an angel considering people on earth scraping off superficial characteristics in attempts to find their inner selves, their core truths. Self-revelation is transformed into self-extermination: "who will they be when they get to the bottom of It? … Who will they resemble when they're done with resemblance?"

Graham's collection Swarm is intended as a book-length sequence of poems. Several poems in the volume, titled "Underneath," address suppression and restraint—via text, violence, sex, and history—and assert that our inquiries and problems are the same ones our ancestors raised. Reformation is the sustaining hope, expressed in the metaphor of a swarm of bees gathering for migration to a new home. As invested in masks and personae as Graham has always been, she takes on Eurydice, Calypso, Daphne, and Eve as voices through which she questions the possibilities of morality: "To be told best not to touch. / To touch. / For the farewell of it. / And the further replication. / And the atom / saturated with situation."

—William Matthews and

Martha Sutro

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Graham, Jorie

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