The Hiding Place
The Hiding Place
Jorie Graham 1989
“The Hiding Place” first appeared in the May 22 issue of The New Yorker in 1989. The poem is not one of Graham’s most important or well known work, perhaps because it marks a departure from her typical style. Normally, Graham is known for her oblique lyrics, but “The Hiding Place” is one of her more narrative, more representational poems. Like all her other work, this poem is written in free verse in the first person singular.
A set interpretation of a Graham poem is next to impossible. The most one can hope for is a general impression while reading one of her poems. The occasion of this work is the famous Paris uprising that began in May of 1968. More precisely, Graham’s memory of events surrounding the student demonstrations serves as the genesis of the poem. Like most postmodern poetry, the text of the poem wavers between imagination and reality. The poem might be grounded in a historical event, but it remains unclear which events actually happened and which are constructed memories.
A likely theme for “The Hiding Place” is the marriage of history and memory. Some aspects of the events are crystal clear, yet some may have never happened. Another possible reading would suggest that Graham advocates a kind of cultural revolution, just as her poems have engendered a sort of poetic revolution. The insistence not to give in, not to concede, may be a call to contemporary writers and artists to hold true to a creative vision. The poet seems to be empathizing with those students and workers struggling to make the world a better place.
Jorie Graham was born in New York City in May of 1951. When she was just three-months old, her family moved to Europe, where they settled in the South of France and then later in Italy. Because her mother was a well-known painter and her father a student of history and theology, Graham grew up with an appreciation for both sacred and secular concerns. Her interest in painting is reflected in her many poems about painters, and the frequency with which her poems deal with historical issues suggests her father’s interests made an equal impact.
Graham began college in Paris at the Sorbonne where she became involved in the student uprising dramatized in “The Hiding Place.” Eventually, she transferred to New York University, where she earned her bachelor of fine arts degree in 1973. In 1978, she took an MFA in creative writing from the prestigious Iowa Writer s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she serves as a faculty member.
Unlike most contemporary poets, Graham achieved almost immediate success in the literary world. Early poems appeared in important publications like The New Yorker, American Poetry Review and Georgia Review, and Graham began winning awards that helped earn her recognition and helped get her books published. Her first two books, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts (1980) and Erosion (1983), were funded in part by grants awarded through Princeton University Press and established her as a poet transfixed by the matrix of language, history, art, and the machinations of the individual mind. Her next three collections, The End of Beauty (1987), Region of Unlikeness, (1991) and Materialism (1993) evinced a break in style toward a more disjunctive and indeterminate line and stanza, or phrases capable of multiple meanings expressed in free forms. Poems from each of these five books were collected in Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994 (1995), an extremely important book for contemporary poetry in English and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996. This book, along with attention from critic Helen Vendler, established Graham’s reputation as one of the most important living American writers. In 1997, she published The Errancy.
Graham’s Swarm (2000) is her most opaque work to date, and not surprisingly, reviews were mixed. In addition to her many awards, Graham was named the Boylston Professor at Harvard University, solidifying her importance to the world of contemporary poetry.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
In the opening two stanzas, Graham provides a time and a locale for the literal hiding place of the title. The time is May of 1968, and the setting is Paris. The uprisings of 1968 (called by the French les evenements, the events) started with university students at the Sorbonne on May 3, 1968. There was confrontation between students and police at the Sorbonne that led to a period of guerrilla warfare in the streets of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Graham, who was a student at the Sorbonne during the disturbances, lets the reader know she was there through the use of “I” and the unusual use of “you” to represent herself, as opposed to “one.” Though she never says what the “it” is in the first stanza, it can be assumed that she is referring to the hiding place, about which a great deal will be revealed. Emphasis is placed on certain words through the use of italics, perhaps to call attention to words or terms that carried loaded public connotations at the time.
Graham moves from general descriptions of the uprisings in the previous stanzas to a more autobiographical mode. A kind of narrative emerges about how long she stayed in the hiding place, and her search for a certain leader, a man who is always connected with fire, is introduced. Like the notion of the hiding place, Graham will return to the motif of the man and the fire.
- In 1991, Watershed Tapes out of Washington D.C. released an audiotape of Graham reading “The Hiding Place” and other poems.
- Graham reading her poem San Sepolcro and links to three other web sites featuring her work is available at the excellent Academy of American Poets, Jorie Graham exhibit, http://www.poets.org/lit/poet/jgrahfst.htm (June 22, 2000).
- Graham’s collection of poems, Region of Unlikeness (1991), in which “The Hiding Place” appears, is an elegant, intellectual, and historical exploration of how personal visions and experience meshes with the sweep of history.
In these four lines, Graham introduces an important motif in the poem, the motif of language and the open air. The freedom of the air (and of language) is contrasted to the cramped, confined space of the hiding place. She also returns to descriptions of the world outside the hiding place in an attempt to create alternate, but equally stark realities.
In this stanza, Graham explains how the government secret police would round up student protesters. Again, she subtly lets the reader know that she was one of the people the police captured, and again, she focuses the reader’s gaze away from the students and toward the fire, where the man’s voice might be. Like a camera in a movie, the reader’s eye is always being drawn from one scene to another.
The poem takes a dramatic turn in the next few stanzas. Engaging in what poet Carolyn Forche would call a “poetry of witness,” Graham describes some of the horrors of the cell into which she and the others found themselves squeezed. While deftly avoiding melodrama, the poet gives a stark account of people urinating and vomiting in the cell, as though the poem has turned into a documentary film. The most disturbing account tells of a policeman repeatedly striking the belly of a pregnant woman with a stick. These stanzas represent an usually realistic tone for Graham; thus, the circumstances seem particularly dire, lending the poem a rather remarkable tension.
In yet another abrupt shift, the poet poses a shocking question to both herself and the audience: are the memories she’s just recounted real, or did she make them up? In a classic postmodern gesture, Graham calls the certainty of memory and personal observation into question. She has a visual image of the cell, but is it an image she saw in a photograph? A common feature of postmodernism is the questioning of knowledge and the realization that there can never be one, singular truth. Here, Graham has no idea what is “true.”
Once more, the poet quickly jerks the reader back to the reality of the uprisings. It is difficult to tell whether or not events are imagined or are being reported. Either way, the poem turns from posing questions about truth to a descripton of the city after someone is released from jail. The motif of the open air recurs: space, openness, freedom seems to be squeezing out absence just as the bodies in the cell squeezed space out of the jail. Graham notes the sky seems to light up, perhaps referring to a fire lighting the dark Parisian sky.
The poet muses on the theme of emptiness. What does someone find in the air once they are released from prison? Graham connects this kind of seemingly impossible searching with the student demonstrations: the question, “What were we meant to find?” becomes loaded with suggestion.
Though there is no stanza break, there is a break in the flow of the poem. The shifts are becoming even more abrupt. The reader is transported now back to the poet’s room, a rented room, where she sits, watching the exchange of inside and outside air. The notion of insides and outsides becomes yet another theme in the poem: is she an insider, or an outsider?
In one of the most confusing sections of the poem, Graham conflates memory, voices from outside the window, sounds of helicopters, questions she asks herself, and historical information. When Graham says, “I was inside,” the reader is left to wonder what, exactly, she is inside of: her room?; her memories?; history?; the twentieth century?; this poem?.
Even though Graham assures that everyone went back to work and that the government survived the demonstrations, the poem continues. She has more questions for the mysterious man above the fire. Throughout the poem, there is reason to believe she is speaking of an actual man, but there is evidence here that the man, like the memory of the hiding place itself, might be fictitious. The red wool shirt seems to be a reference to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers, known as the “Red Shirts,” and the “No tell them no—” of the poem’s final lines, mirror’s a famous speech Garibaldi made to his men. Like the rest of the poem, the final lines are ambiguous. They could suggest a denial of violence. Or, Graham might be advocating a revolutionary spirit that refuses to compromise. Or, she could be talking to herself, telling herself the memories of such violence are simply not real.
History and the Present
While it is extraordinarily difficult to narrow in on anything as consistent as a “theme” in Jorie Graham’s work, “The Hiding Place” does contain some ideas to unpack. Perhaps the most tenable theme in the poem is one of history and the present. The problems and burdens of history are always encroaching into the present day. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, “Love is so short. Forgetting is so long.” In this poem, forgetting is long for Graham. In fact, she can’t forget the memory of the beatings, of the cell, of the energy of the uprising, or the fervor for political justice. Towards the end of the poem, Graham writes, “I was inside. The century clicked by.” Then, later, in referring to the man above the fire, she says, “He looked straight back into the century.” History moves by at a rapid pace, and it brings memories with it. At one time, May of 1968 was the present. Now it is history. At some point, the poem will be history, as will the moment this essay is read.
Linked to the notion of history is the theme of seeking. Throughout the poem, Graham asks what she and the others who were revolting were supposed to find. What is one supposed to find by searching the historical past? What can one discover through memory? Through facts? Like most of Graham’s poems, she provides no solid answers. When one examines history, when one examines one’s memory, when one examines the present, all one gets is more questions. Facts tell only one side of the story, memory another. Perhaps history is the greatest hiding place of all. Graham might ultimately be suggesting that the secret to history is found in the present.
Public vs. Private
“The Hiding Place” dramatizes the tension between public and private worlds. The public world can be represented by streets, schools, history, events, buildings, and facts—items or occurrences that the public has knowledge of. The private world is a sphere hidden away from public scrutiny: memory, desire, fear, dreams, anxieties are private concerns that the public does not have access to. In this poem, public and private worlds collide, not only in terms of the hiding place or the cell but also in terms of what actually happened. In stanza eight, Graham is uncertain how reliable her memory of the cell actually is: “I remember the cell vividly / but is it from a photograph? I think the shadows as I / see them.” Is her memory “vivid” because she actually experienced these events, or because she has seen these images in photographs in newspapers or magazines? Of course she was there, but are the specific images she remembers her own or constructed? In other words, are her memories, like the poem itself, publicly informed or privately informed?
The italicized words in the poem seem to carry a more public connotation than the non-italicized words. One can imagine seeing these words in the headlines of a newspaper, or hearing them spoken by countless people in Paris. Since the poem itself is an amalgamation of public and private language, Graham suggests that history, like poetry, is both a public and private facet of human life.
Places to Hide
After reading the poem, one might ask what the title has to do with a cell, a man above a fire, the uncertainty of memory, and political activism. Graham might argue that her poem explores events or memories people try to hide and the places in which they attempt to hide things from others and themselves. A good place to begin is to ask what, exactly,
Topics for Further Study
- 1968 was a turbulent year in France, Germany, and America. Research what was going on around the world during 1968 and come up with some explanations as to why the political climate was so volatile during this period of recent history. Why were students so upset? Why aren’t students rioting or protesting to this degree today?
- Graham is often cited as an important postmodern poet. Research postmodernism and look at some other postmodern poetry. Based on your findings, determine in what ways “The Hiding Place” may or may not be considered a postmodern text.
- Graham deliberately makes her poetry difficult. It would be much easier to write a short story about a memory of the 1968 uprisings in Paris. Consider why Graham would chose to write a lyric poem for an exploration of this memory. In what way is reading the poem similar to trying to make sense of a hazy memory?
- Graham is often compared to Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and Adrienne Rich. Read some poems by one or more of these poets and think about how and why her work mirrors theirs.
is the hiding place? First of all, the hiding place is, literally, the place where the characters are holed up in the building; probably where she slept for eleven days. Figuratively, however, the hiding place is almost certainly the past. The speaker keeps harking back to the past, to May of 1968, posing questions about her actions and her motivations. One can never return, completely, to the past. The masks of experience, age, and priorities always hide its precise details. Additionally, the hiding place might be history itself. The individual experiences of the pregnant woman and the girl vomiting are hidden to most people behind the more objective, more public discourse of historical facts. And, lastly, the hiding place is human memory. How often do people (both intentionally and unintentionally) forget? Once a feeling or experience is forgotten, it is next to impossible to find again. So, there is tension in the poem between present, active language that may or may not be public, and past, public language that was intended to be active, both linguistically and politically. Given the potential reference to the revolutionary figure Guiseppe Garibaldi, it’s possible that Graham is making a statement about the absence of political activism in contemporary society; perhaps that instead of standing up for what one believes, many choose to remain, forever, in their own hiding places.
Like most postmodern poetry, “The Hiding Place” refuses to let the reader separate form and content. The jagged lines, the lack of symmetrical stanzas, the quick shifts from present to past and from public to private, underscore the thematic issues at work in the poem. Just as memory is chaotic, unpredictable, asymmetric, and always jumping from point to point, so is the poem itself.
Not only is the poem free of rhyme, meter, and any consistent stanzaic formation, it deliberately creates a sense of disarray. Furthermore, as the poem progresses, the poem’s already tenuous order digresses. In stanzas 1-7, Graham employs enjambed lines fairly often, and each line contains similar numbers of words. After stanza 7, thoughts spill over into other lines, words spread out on the page, and lines may have only one or two words in them. Additionally, Graham occasionally makes the first word of a new sentence the final word in a line, so that the reader is always halting or pausing the reading process. For many postmodern writers and thinkers, history and knowledge are not fixed, uniform entities. Rather, they are fragmentary. Thus, the postmodern poem mirrors the postmodern view of history, culture, and knowledge.
Graham is famous for her difficult language, her obfuscating descriptions, and her non-linear lyrics. Oddly enough, “The Hiding Place” is one of her more narrative poems. Essentially, it is a complex short story. Techniques such as italicized words and non-transitional leaps puzzle the reader at first, but, ultimately, the form of the poem helps contribute to its theme of the uncertainty of memory.
“The Hiding Place” takes as its point of departure the infamous student uprising in Paris in the spring of 1968. The uprising of 1968 started with university students at the Sorbonne on May 3, 1968. There was confrontation between students and police at the Sorbonne that led to a period of guerrilla warfare in the streets of the Latin Quarter. Students and their sympathizers built barricades in the old Parisian revolutionary tradition. Armed police fought back. The government zigzagged between conciliation and repression. The conflict grew still worse and then spread to the provincial universities. Toward mid-May many workers began to join in. Strikes (usually of the sit-in variety) closed down factories and by 20 May at least 7 million workers had laid down their tools. Public services ground to a halt. Transportation broke down. In short, the country was paralyzed for a short time. In the Latin Quarter, the Sorbonne building was occupied and turned into a commune.
The students tried to reach out to industrial workers during this period by offering a broad critique of the present system. However, the workers really weren’t interested in making common political cause with the students. In the end, the workers had different interests than the university students. Hence, students ended up settling for relatively limited concessions. So, what looked like revolution, turned out to be nothing more than a student-led uprising. It lasted only a few short months. But it did make clear that the university system needed a complete overhaul, and that students and faculty had to be involved in the changes. The result was that during the next several years, the Education Ministry carried out reforms. Among other things, it broke existing institutions into smaller units, with more local control over budgets and instructional methods. At the same time, though, student and faculty participation in institutional governance tended to politicize French universities. In fact, some of them became communist strongholds, others bastions of the right.
Graham was a young college student at the Sorbonne at the time. Her autobiographical account, oblique as it may be, dramatizes what it must have been like for students and political activists in Paris amidst the war-like conditions of revolution.
“The Hiding Place” appears in Graham’s 1991 collection Region of Unlikeness, probably Graham’s least recognized book. Perhaps because of that and more ambitious poems in the collection, “The Hiding Place” has garnered virtually no critical attention. In fact, even the book reviewers of Region of Unlikeness avoided commenting on or even mentioning the poem. Similarly, recent book chapters by Helen Vendler, one of the two or three most important scholars of contemporary poetry, concentrate on Graham’s more formally complex and experimental poems. Indeed, even though “The Hiding Place” might seem a bizarre poem, it is one of Graham’s most traditional pieces.
However, while “The Hiding Place” may not be a magnet for literary criticism, Graham’s poetry is. Aside from Helen Vendler’s chapters on Graham in The Breaking of Style and The Given and the Made: Recent American Poets, influential critics such as Thomas Gardner, Bonnie Costello, and Mark Jarman have each written on Graham in the past few years. In a review of Region of Unlikeness, Costello notes the shift in Graham’s poetry toward a more narrative energy, one that fuses plot and poetry as exemplified in “The Hiding Place”: “Graham has taken it upon herself in her recent work to confront the power of plot and image head on. First she tested her metaphysics in a quiet, lyric space of nature and art, but lately she has plunged into the rush of history, memory, and contemporary life.” In The Given and the Made, Vendler maps Graham’s altered poetics in Region of Unlikeness: “Graham’s tendency, in her first books, toward the exalted and the prophetic has been severely tempered, by the time she writes Region of Unlikeness, toward the material and the actual. Nonetheless, she remains determined not to let go of a principle of transcendent judgment, even in the presence of the unreliable and deniable chronicle we call history.” For both Costello and Vendler, Graham’s best poetry is that which sees the lyric as a meeting place for public and private concerns.
Other recent readers of Graham, such as Thomas Gardner, have compared her to John Ashbery in terms of both poet’s use of language as a means of engaging the world, while William Olsen argues that Graham and Chase Twichell see the lyric as a way to disengage from the world. Vendler, Graham’s best reader, sees her as following in the tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Seamus Heaney as poets who break away from conventional modes of expression to create new worlds of experience.
Rader has published widely in the field of twentieth-century American poetry. In his essay he
“For the poet, the hiding place is not only the literal space in which she and other students hid, but the hiding place is also, history, the past, and, ultimately, the poem itself.”
discusses the various thematic possibilities of the title of Graham’s poem, ultimately suggesting that all are linked.
Jorie Graham’s poem “The Hiding Place” recalls another text bearing that same title, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, an autobiographical account of Boom’s experiences hiding Jews from Nazi soldiers during World War II. Though the hiding place Graham explores in her poem is a vastly different kind of “place,” Graham’s poem seeks an intensity similar to that which ten Boom’s book elicits. Like ten Boom’s text, “The Hiding Place” is autobiographical, though to what degree is always up for debate. However, where ten Boom’s text refers solely to the actual location in which Jews were hid, Graham’s text is far more elusive. For the poet, the hiding place is not only the literal space in which she and other students hid, but the hiding place is also, history, the past, and, ultimately, the poem itself.
Oddly enough, Graham never mentions the hiding place specifically in her poem (“The last time I saw it was 1968”), a poetic move that suggests the title refers to more than one specific place. However, she does make reference to a literal hiding place where she and others stayed for 11 days during the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968: “I spent 11 nights sleeping in the halls.” This line and the opening passage are the only real signs that the title denotes an actual place and not a mythical or symbolic place. Graham needs for the actual place to exist, however, so that she may dramatize the other hiding places her poem considers. The place in question is a room or building in which she and other students seek refuge. During the uprisings, the Parisian Police turned the area around the Latin Quarter in to a kind of war zone. Students were beaten, arrested, harassed, and small bastions of student support groups sprouted throughout the city. Graham, who was 18 years old and a student at the Sorbonne in 1968, was in the middle of the action. Since she hid for 11 days, she must have felt that her safety was in jeopardy; apparently, it was, for she and a host of others were imprisoned in a cramped cell amid miserable conditions.
To write a poem about such a hiding place and to include in that poem a very realistic representation of women vomiting and urinating in a prison cell is to engage in what poet Carolyn Forche might call a “poetry of witness.” In her introduction to her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, published in 1991 (the same year as Graham’s Region of Unlikeness, in which “The Hiding Place” appears), Forch claims that the poems in her anthology “will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they themselves have been marked.” Forch is correct: it is easier to forget than to remember. Graham’s poem forces readers who do not know and readers who may have forgotten to remember the Paris demonstrations, the prison-like conditions, the mini-reign of terror. In her introduction to the Best American Poetry 1990, Graham implies that American poets have let the world off the hook, that they don’t confront the difficult issues like they could or should. In “The Hiding Place,” Graham reminds readers what was done to people and what poetry can do to those same people.
Because people forget, because history erases the past, people write. The implication of Graham’s poem is that the hiding place under question in the poem is not just the geographical locale where she and others holed up, but history itself. The passing of time, the sweep of years, the accumulation of dates and facts and personal experience obliterates memories from the minds of the living. History successfully hides its more embarrassing moments simply by allowing people to forget.
Throughout her poetic career, Graham has used the lyric as means of forcing readers to remember by taking on history. In Region of Unlikeness, Graham has two poems with history in their titles, one called “Short History of the West,” the other “The Phase after History,” suggesting that how history is created and recreated is one of her more important themes. In “The Hiding Place,” as in other of her poems, Graham posits that history is made, like a poem. It is not an objective, finite fact. It is a construct, and anything can be constructed to hide anything else.
In writing about Region of Unlikeness, Helen Vendler argues that by invoking historical moments in her work, Graham participates in the construction of new knowledge about history: “Language about history is as contingent as the ‘beast’ and its linked stories, but if uttered at the ‘right’ time will partake, however socially and historically constructed, of the shape of that historical moment.” Thus, as is the case for most of Graham’s lyrics, “The Hiding Place” does not offer any answers to the problems of history. Rather, by its very existence, it raises provocative questions.
Just as “The Hiding Place” evokes an interrogation of the public realm, so does it invite the reader into the uncharted waters of the private realm. Throughout the poem, Graham wonders how reliable the memory of her own past actually is: “I remember the cell vividly / but is it from a photograph?.” A few lines later, she writes “Do I see it from the inside now—his hands, her face or / is it from the news accounts?” Here, Graham poses questions most readers have also posed. Are memories of the past accurate? A great deal of the poem dramatizes the tension between being inside and outside. Graham wonders if her memory of these events is from inside, that is, from her own experience or if an outside force, like a story or a photograph, has planted the images in her head. If history is unreliable and one’s memory is unreliable, then on what can one rely? Graham might ultimately argue that like history, one’s past is indeterminate. In the final analysis, all one has is interpretation.
Because all one has is interpretation, an exacting lyric poem provides the perfect medium for raising these questions. Readers unaccustomed to Graham’s elusive thematics or her fragmentary lines may find her motives concealed behind these distancing gestures. Indeed, without question, the most satisfying reading of the title points to the real hiding place being the poem itself. Thus, the poem becomes a metaphor for the room in the Parisian building, history and one’s past because it participates in each. Meaning, answers, formulas are hidden in the poem. It is difficult to determine what, exactly, the poet wants readers to take from her poem. In the final stanzas, Graham describes asking a man, a certain leader, a question: “The man above the fire, listening to my question, // the red wool shirt he wore: where is it? who has it? / He looked straight back into the century: no concessions. / I took the message back.” If one replaces the word “it” with the words “the meaning of the poem ‘The Hiding Place,’” then the “it” in the first line and the “its” throughout take on an entirely different significance. Where is the meaning to the poem? Who has the meaning? Does the reader? Does Graham? Is the meaning lost in history? Is the meaning hiding in the hiding place that is the poem “The Hiding Place”
Graham is an important postmodern writer, and one tenet of postmodernism is the text’s awareness that it is a text and not life itself. In other words, the poem is not a photograph; it is not reality, nor does it pretend to be. It is an interpretation of reality. It is one of many versions of reality, just as there are many versions of history, or, for that matter, of one’s past. The poem, a participant in both the present and the past, reveals itself only a little, like life itself. Only over time, can people begin to understand the complexities of the present and the past, and how they converge.
Finally, it should be clear by now that the hiding place is not the past or history or the poem: it is all of them, and more. In fact, all are connected via the poem. Carolyn Forche claims that poems about events become events themselves, carriers of the events they refer to: “If, as [Walter] Benjamin indicates, a poem is itself an event, a trauma that changes both a common language and an individual psyche, it is a specific kind of event, a specific kind of trauma. It is an experience entered into voluntarily…. One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.” Readers of Graham’s poem take on the trauma of the Parisian students, the burden of history, the ambiguity of interpretation. The message Graham refers to in the stanzas above, the message she brings back, is the experience of exchange, of expression, of listening and engaging. If readers and writers do this, there will be no need for a hiding place of any kind.
Source: Dean Rader, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Barnhisel holds a Ph.D. in American literature. In this essay, he describes how Jorie Graham uses the powerful experience of being involved in the 1968 Paris student/worker strike to explore questions of being and the representation of the world.
Jorie Graham’s poem “The Hiding Place” takes as its subject the student and worker uprisings in Paris in May of 1968, but as is the case with most of this very deep and complex poet’s work, the poem also addresses more profound metaphysical issues. The volume in which the poem appears,
“This is history seen from the ground level, not history told by a historian.”
Region of Unlikeness, takes its name from a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Throughout the volume Graham, like Augustine, mediates on the difference between the physical world and the unknowable world of God. But where Augustine’s jumping-off point is his own sensual experiences of the world, Graham’s is the broader world of human experience and of history.
Graham’s comfort in European settings is a essential element of the poems in Region of Unlikeness and of “The Hiding Place” in particular. Graham grew up in France and Italy and spent much of her childhood surrounded by the religious and artistic artifacts of those two countries. As a child, she says, she played in the churches of Rome; the churches’ mosaics and sculptures and paintings were a part of her play. But “The Hiding Place,” like a number of other poems in Region of Unlikeness, is less about that aspect of European culture than it is about the chaotic, often violent events of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1960s, Western Europe underwent many dramatic social transformations. World War II left Europe in shambles, but the two decades following the war brought the non-Communist half of the continent economic development almost unparalleled in its history. Countries such as Italy that had been poor and undeveloped at the end of the war were now prosperous. As a result, those countries’ populations began to become accustomed to comforts they had never known. The young generation chafed under the old structures of family, religion, and government that had been put in place in the lean years after the war, and began to demand societal reforms.
1968 was the year in which the student-led unrest in Europe exploded. In Italy, Marxist students led strikes at universities and occupied the university of Rome. Even Communist Eastern Europe was affected, for in Czechoslovakia the “Prague Spring,” a gradual loosening of the Communist strictures on expression, was in progress. But Paris was the location for the event that came to define “the 1960s” in European minds. In May of 1968, students in Parisian universities went on strike to demand structural changes in the higher education system. Soon, they were joined in their strike by union members. The strikes turned violent and fighting in the streets of Paris ensued. In the end, the government of General Charles de Gaulle, who was the very representation of the French nation during World War II, fell. With the end of de Gaulle’s government and the Gaullist party’s dominance of French national life, France could now move beyond the aftermath of World War II.
Graham was in Paris for the strike, and the events and incidents of “The Hiding Place” come from her experiences there. Whether the “I” of the poem is actually her, whether the details she narrates are “true” in the strictest sense of the word, are not in themselves important. The details ring true, and the narrator—whether Graham or a stand-in for her—recounts her story in the breathless, sense-impression-laden way of someone who has lived through a traumatic, chaotic, and large-scale upheaval. This is history seen from the ground level, not history told by a historian. The poem draws two kinds of distinctions: the most important distinction is between the world of physical being and the unknowable “being” of God, whose nature cannot be expressed in human language. Graham introduces these themes in the book’s foreword.
But in the poem, she also calls attention to registers of human language, and provides two kinds of voices. In the first stanza, Graham distinguishes the world as she saw it from the world as explained by those who stand apart from the events. Her personal impressions dominate the poem in sentences full of concrete nouns and adjectives. But the first stanza is in the language of one who is not involved; the description is abstract, bloodless. The poet uses italics to highlight the words of public rhetoric— negotiations, workers, students, disturbances, concessions. These are the words that newscasters and the leaders of each side would use, and Graham, interested in the complications inherent in using language to describe sensory impressions, alludes to “language floating everywhere above the sleeping bodies.” Language, especially the language of abstract nouns, is separate from experience.
After the first three stanzas, though, this register of public rhetoric is lost, and the reader is immersed fully in the language of sensory impression for a while. The poem calmly and frankly describes the scene in a crowded jail cell, attempting to show the reader how such abstract nouns and concepts can end up determining people’s physical circumstances—the bloodless word “disturbances” translates to the narrator, in a jail cell, being vomited on and seeing a pregnant woman beaten by police. In her descriptions of the sensory details of the scenes, she utterly omits her emotional or mental impressions; she is simply a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate, recording impressions but not reacting to them.
For all of the vivid physical details of the poem, though, the narrator’s mind is constantly drawn to a very abstract feature of the world—light. Like a painter, Graham’s narrator notes the play of light and remarks on how the light feel even as she plainly and unadornedly describes the horrors of the jail cell. “Once I watched the searchbeams play on some flames. / The flames push up into the corridor of light.” she says in the fifth stanza as she is in the process of describing the “swarm[ing]” police vans. Instead of giving her emotional impressions of this scene, she tells about the meeting of two sources of light. Where is the fear that she must have had? Where is the disgust and anger and terror that she must have felt in the jail cell? Instead, she tells about “the shadows as “I / see them still— the slatted brilliant bits / against the wall.”
The poet’s concern with light and her detached attitude toward her experiences comes to a climax when she is released from the jail. As she leaves, she notes that “the strangest part of getting out again was streets./ The light running down them.” Light now represents freedom, for it cannot be curbed, cannot be held. This stanza ends with a number of images of swelling and bursting, both of air and of light.
The stanza that follows is the heart of the poem. In it, Graham asks the unanswerable questions about the nature of the world that are always on her mind. Her use of abstract language is confusing, but can be pulled apart. She speaks of how “the air filled—doubled—as if the open had been made to render.” “Render” here is an important word, with multiple meanings: it can mean to hand over, to give up, to give back, to cause to be or to make, to represent or depict, to prounounce or declare, or even to melt down. In addition, the word suggests another word, “rend,” which means to tear apart. The open, or all that is outside the jail, is torn apart, and the air and light spill forth, and this physical sense of “to rend” or “to render” is the primary sense in which she is using the word. But she also suggests that the open is handed over to her, that it is pronouncing or declaring something, that it is depicting something. Like air, like light, the open is undefinable and cannot be captured or held.
Language works similarly. Using “render” for all of its multiple meanings, Graham emphasizes the tricky, inaccurate, but also open nature of language. If it cannot ever express exactly what one is trying to express, if it is insufficient to describe sensory or emotional experience, it also can open up infinite possibilities for meaning. Like the air, which is filling and doubling until its “hollows spill out,” language is so filled with meaning that its richness must be explored for its own sake. “How thick was the empty meant to be?” Graham asks of space and of language. “What were we finding in the air?”
Graham’s metaphysical concerns, omnipresent in much of this volume, are muted in “The Hiding Place,” but still traceable. The poem is suffused in the physical details of a particular place and time, but at this point the narrator’s mind slips into an oblique musing about the nature of physical space and of language—the kinds of thoughts expressed by Augustine in the book’s foreword. Moreover, like Augustine, Graham is sent into her metaphysical musings by sensory input. In his Confessions, Augustine frankly and at times humorously describes the sensual pleasures of the world that he enjoyed before discovering the deeper and more perfect world of God: he talks of the pleasures he takes in tastes, in sights, and even in human touch. As the narrator is released from jail, she enters the narrow streets of Paris and observes “the light running down them./ Everything spilling whenever the wall breaks.”
But, like Augustine, she is always aware of the inability of language to capture the nature of God, of the transcendent, of the infinite. Humans and God are far apart, “in a region of unlikeness” as Augustine says, and language, a human construct, by definition cannot sufficiently describe God. The physical world, the fact that objects have definite shapes and ends, underscores the world’s separation from God. In the “things that are contained in space,” Augustine writes, he “found no place to rest.” As we are confined in space and in time we cannot understand the nature of God,” he continues: “so it is with all things that make up a whole by the succession of parts; such a whole would please us much more if the parts could be perceived at once rather than in succession.” And Augustine also notes the futility of language: he I imagines the Word of God comparing its nature to the nature of human language and saying that “it is far different. These words are far behind me. They do not exist.” Language, working as it must by metaphor and metonym and analogy, can never
What Do I Read Next?
- Graham collected her best poems from her first five collections in The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994 (1995). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, this book gives an excellent overview of Graham’s poetry.
- Graham’s introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990 (1991) is a well-articulated statement of what she thinks contemporary American poetry should do and be.
- Poet, journalist and anarchist Angelo Quattrocchi was posted in France in 1968 and captures the tensions of the student uprisings in Beginning of the End: France, May 1968.
- Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1994) is the most comprehensive collection of Postmodern poetry in print. A helpful introduction and an immense menu of poets offers a panorama of perspectives on postmodernist verse.
capture God, because there exists nothing on the earth that can be compared with Him. “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One,” Graham quotes, from the Book of Isaiah (40:25).
Source: Greg Barnhisel, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Pamela Steed Hill
Pamela Steed Hill has had poems published in over 100 journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times. Her first collection, In Praise of Motels, was published in 1999 by Blair Mountain Press. She is an associate editor for University Communications at Ohio State University. In this essay, Hill examines the use of images of light and fire, which make us question whether there really is a place to “hide.”
One can read Jorie Graham’s poem “The Hiding Place” and comprehend its general meaning and sentiment without knowing the specific historical reference on which this work is based. It takes place in Paris in 1968, and it involves that turbulent time of student unrest and labor strikes. But a more thorough knowledge of the actual events that occurred during the “May 1968 revolution” in France enhances the understanding of the historical perspective and the ironies that Graham relies on in the poem.
The decade of the 1960s was a time of social upheaval all over the world. Young people, especially, wanted to bring about a change in practices and values not only social, but political, economic, and moral as well. While revolts against governments have been around since government itself, the rebellion that occurred in the universities and factories in France during the spring of 1968 was the first time a western capitalist government was nearly toppled by a mixture of organized revolution and outright anarchy. The Sorbonne, one of the world’s most renowned universities, founded as a theology college in 1253, was at the heart of the uprising, and Jorie Graham was a seventeen-year-old high school graduate living in Paris at the time.
Graham was born in the United States but spent her first 17 years in both Italy and France. During the 1960s, working class citizens in France (and elsewhere) became more vocal about the injustices they felt they were suffering at the hands of a bourgeois government and unsympathetic management. University students took up the cause of the workers, as well as that of international students and workers who were supposedly treated even more unfairly than the French. As opinions, arguments, and tempers intensified, so did actions. In May 1968, a series of violent clashes between students and workers on one side and police and government forces on the other began to occur on a daily basis. The Sorbonne (and other schools) and several factories were taken over and occupied by students and workers. Unsympathetic university officials and factory managers were locked out. In response, French Prime Minister Charles De Gaulle sent in the police and the ACRS, the government police, to oust the rebels and restore the status quo. In the end, that is what occurred, but “The Hiding Place” presents a first-hand account of the violence and degradation that many suffered throughout the ordeal.
The major irony in this poem is the title itself. In the first line, the speaker states that the last time she saw “it [the hiding place] was 1968.” After that, it is never mentioned again and it is unclear where or what it actually was. More importantly, it is unclear whether such a place even existed. Throughout the poem, it is clear that opportunities to “hide” are rare, if not impossible. On a literal level, there is nowhere to hide from the police. Inevitably, “The ACRS would swarm in around dawn / in small blue vans and round us up.” On another level, there is no chance for privacy, no way even for the rebels to “hide” themselves from each other, for in the Sorbonne, they had to hold meetings “above the sleeping bodies” and in jail “no one could sit or lean. / People peed on each other.” On a larger, more universal and abstract scale, there is no place to hide from history itself. Whenever one looks “straight back into the century,” one cannot deny or be protected from the knowledge that humans have always been cruel to one another and the world has always been unbalanced by those who have and those who have not.
The poem is a straightforward account of events that occurred in the streets and in the jails of Paris at that time, but it is also interwoven with images of fire and light, implying some type of revelation, but never quite revealing the answer. The speaker runs from the university to look for one of the student leaders and finds “his face above an open streetfire” and his voice refusing to make concessions “above the fire as if there were no fire.” Later, as the police vans arrive, the speaker watches “the searchbeams play on some flames. / the flames push up into the corridor of light.” In the jail cell, shadows play off light like “slatted brilliant bits,” and in the streets it is the “light running down them” that seems strange to those who have been imprisoned. At the end of the poem, the speaker sits in her room with the windows open and watches the white curtain blow in the breeze “until the lights / outside made it gold.” The poem then returns to the image of the “man above the fire,” still proclaiming “no concessions.”
A run-through of the general premise of the poem helps place people and events in somewhat chronological order, but one can also examine how the fire/light imagery is incorporated into the undercurrent of irony of the idea of a “hiding place” where there is no place to hide. Graham paints a very vivid picture of Paris in 1968 in the poem’s fifth line: “Marches, sit-ins, helicopters, gas.” These four words describe the actions of both sides of the struggle, marches and sit-ins by the students/workers and helicopters and gas as used by the CRS. The “certain leader” for whom the speaker searches does not appear even to attempt to hide, for he stands near a fire in the street, ignoring
“Whenever one looks “straight back into the century,” one cannot deny or be protected from the knowledge that humans have always been cruel to one another and the world has always been unbalanced by those who have and those who have not.”
its existence and all the turmoil and violence that the flames represent. He is determined not to give in to the authorities, nor to concede anything through negotiation. In a sense, this student reflects the more universal and historical perspective on hiding. He is the one at the end of the poem who looks “straight back into the century,” seeming to recall all the atrocities that have occurred in the past and using that knowledge as an impetus to keep fighting, to refuse any concessions. Compare the description of him at the end of the poem (“The look in his eyes, shoving out, into the open”) to a line in the tenth stanza describing the open air: “The open squeezed for space until the hollows spill out, / story upon story of them / starting to light up.” What the student’s eyes “light up” is perhaps the entire point of Graham’s poem. There is no place to hide from history, and the only way to prevent any future need to is to continue to fight for human and civil rights.
Critic Peter Sacks, writing for the New York Times Book Review, calls Region of Unlikeness, Graham’s collection containing “The Hiding Place,” the poet’s “darkest book,” alluding to the number of poems that involve “a terrifying experience of crisis” and compulsions for release, for “the capacity to face and survive one’s own implication in stories of entrapment and unredeemable pain.” It is true, on one hand, that the people who find themselves in jail in this poem are there due to their “own implication” in the social uprising. If the speaker or any of the other students or workers had not chosen to riot, the police would not have arrested them. On the other hand, Graham implies that one should not be so quick to blame the students and workers exclusively for their troubles. She exposes guilt on the part of the authorities as well, addressing the “two Americans rounded up by chance” and the inexcusable beating of a pregnant girl in the jail cell. The vicious attack, exaggerated or not, implies an authority that would stoop to the lowest level possible to exert its power. Not only does the “man in a uniform” beat people indiscriminately, but, when he finds “the girl in her eighth month,” he beats her “frantically over and over,” aiming directly for her unborn child by pummeling her belly. Of course, the obvious irony in this stanza is the fact that the attacker is the one screaming “aren’t you ashamed?” at the helpless mother-to-be. His question is not only ridiculous and hypocritical, but it is also ambiguous: should the girl be ashamed for her part in the student unrest or for being pregnant and (probably) unwed, or both? The point is that the answer doesn’t matter. Any “guilt” the young student may bear is completely overshadowed by the atrocious cruelty of the uniformed man.
In stanzas 10 and 11 of “The Hiding Place,” Graham asks three questions that ultimately have no answer, but that indicate there is something for the “light” to reveal, if only one can figure out what it is. “How thick was the empty meant to be?” refers to “the air thick, with dwellings, the air filled doubled” which the speaker encounters upon her release from jail. Freedom feels especially vibrant and thick after having lost it for a period, and the question is really asking how free human beings are meant to be. The other two questions that Graham poses are related in terms of how things are and how they should be. “What were we finding in the air?” and “What were we meant to find?” again examine the role of freedom in our lives, the “Everything spilling whenever the wall breaks.” What one may actually find upon first release is the immediate rush of liberty and abandonment, a sense even of victory or complete autonomy. But these emotions are usually short-lived. Perhaps what one was meant to find is a way to maintain that freedom, so that when looking back into the past, one can do so without shame and without a need to hide from history. That the poet uses the word “meant” twice in these three questions implies the existence of a higher, or a designed, purpose in life and in the events people create for themselves. The hard part is in achieving that purpose and keeping it in the light.
The hiding place in this poem is just as elusive at the end as it is in the beginning. The contention here is that one does not actually exist. So why title a poem by a name that has no representation or explanation within it? Beyond the obvious “writers do it all the time” reply, Jorie Graham seems to want people to ponder more than the existence (or non-existence) of a place to hide. What is more pressing, and more indicative of human life and human history, is why one needs one. This is a question that has many centuries’ worth of answers, but, at this point, no solution.
Source: Pamela Steed Hill, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Costello, Bonnie, in The New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 4, January 27, 1992 pp. 36-40.
Forch, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Norton & Norton, Co., 1991.
Gardner, Thomas, Review of Region of Unlikeness, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 712-34.
Graham, Jorie, Region of Unlikeness, Ecco Press, 1991.
Olsen, William, “Lyric Detachment: Two New Books of Poetry (Jorie Graham’s Region of Unlikeness, Chase Twichell’s Perdido),” in Chicago Review, Vol. 38, No. 3, 1991, pp. 76-89.
Sacks, Peter, “What’s Happening,” in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1996, p.16.
Vendler, Helen, The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995.
_____, The Given and the Made, Faber and Faber, 1995.
Costello, Bonnie, review of Region of Unlikeness, in The New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 4, January 27, 1992, pp. 36-40.
Intriguing reading of Graham’s poetic journey up until Region of Unlikeness. Although the review is not negative, it is less laudatory than most.
Gardner, Thomas, review of Region of Unlikeness, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 712-34.
Gardner contextualizes Graham’s poetry among that of three other contemporary poets, Phillip Booth, Linda Gregg, and John Ashberry, ultimately suggesting that for these four poets, language functions as both “wilderness and home.”
Henry, Brian, “Exquisite Disjunctions, Exquisite Arrangements: Jorie Graham’s ‘Strangeness of Strategy,’” in The Antioch Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 281-94.
Intriguing article that argues that Graham is one of very few female poets to achieve success using the long line. Henry claims that Graham has developed three distinctive, significant styles in employing this poetic strategy.
Olsen, William, “Lyric Detachment: Two New Books of Poetry (Jorie Graham’s Region of Unlikeness, Chase Twichell’s Perdido),” in Chicago Review, Vol. 38, No. 3, 1991, pp. 76-89.
Olsen claims that both poets make a deliberate effort to distance themselves from life’s experiences, yet it is this detachment that attracts the reader. For Olsen, Graham is more abstract and achieves a unity in conflicting ideas.
Spiegelman, Willard, “Jorie Graham’s ’New Way of Looking,’” in Salmagundi, Fall, 1998, pp. 244-76.
Focusing on her constructs and interpretations of perception and description, Spiegelman explores Graham’s use of painting as a metaphor for seeing the world.
Vendler, Helen, The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Vendler argues that Graham, like Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins evinces a break in style over her career. Focusing on the individual line, Vendler suggests that Graham find herself writing a poetry of excess via a move to longer, more disjunctive lines.
———, The Given and the Made, Faber and Faber, 1995.
Vendler considers Graham’s poetry alongside that of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Rita Dove. Drawing on both biographical and thematic issues, Vendler argues that Graham’s poetry seeks a resolution to numerous tensions, both personal and political.
———, review of Region of Unlikeness, in The New York Times Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 19, November 21, 1991, pp. 50-57.
Though she doesn’t mention “The Hiding Place,” Vendler places Region of Unlikeness in the context of Graham’s larger poetic project. Ultimately, Vendler’s review of Graham’s book is overwhelmingly positive.