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Guest Review: Bury On Graham

Dominic Bury reviews
by Jorie Graham

Most striking about Jorie Graham’s Forward Prize winning collection of poems ‘P L A C  E’ is not so much its accomplishments, of which there are many, but what it attempts to realize. In eschewing traditional form Graham’s ‘expanded lyric’ not only acts as an antithesis of ‘the pretty little lyric’ predominant in British Poetry but also in doing so opens up the possibilities of what a poem can achieve. The book is described by its publishers Carcanet as being:

Written in the uneasy lull of a world moving toward an unknowable future. Jorie Graham explores the ways in which the imagination, intuition and experience help us to navigate a life we will have no choice but to live. How does one think ethically as well as emotionally in such a world? How does one think of one’s children – of having brought a child into this world? How does love continue?
A bold, albeit necessary poetics, it is the poems' form as supposed to their diction that helps carry the subject matter. Through a lack of punctuation many of the poems read almost in one breath, and this along with the canvass form produces a sorrowful, almost mournful tone, a lament for the worlds Graham’s poems inhabit.

If however, coming to terms, or navigating a future ‘we will have no choice to live’, in which love has little chance of continuing is the function and role of these poems then the diction does not quiet satisfy. Such a poetics should be fraught with unease and violence, a violence that previously having run subcutaneously to the continued gentility of society is now creeping to the fore, in all its necessity. Yes, there are occasions, such as in ‘Sundown’ and in ‘Mother and Child’ where an underlying sense of violence and unease are hinted at, but Graham rarely sees them through to conclusion. Perhaps instead it is the interplay of hints and snatches of sensory information, coupled with a self-reflective, often questioning framework, that creates the lull which is ascribed.    

In trying to do something different, there is always an element of risk, and there are inevitably a few poems that don’t completely ‘come off’. The poem ‘Although’ is an example of this. The lines:

                        The vase of cut flowers which the real is (before us on this page)
                                                permeated – is it a page – look hard – (I try) – this bouquet
                                                in its
vase – tiger dahlias (red and white), orange freesia (three stalks) (floating
                                                out), one
                                                large blue-mauve hydrangea-head, still
                                                wet (this
bending falling heavy with
                                                load) (and yellow
(wide open head, three just-slitting buds) (also holding drops of rain)
                                                Each at
Diagonal, urchins in sea sway, this
                                                From the real, which the real may continue (who can know

offer a rare example of when the sensory-intellectual interplay which characterizes the book is not completely successful. At their best, the continuous broken form of these poems have a forceful, almost ecstatic quality, and only on occasion do they seem slightly cumbersome, as if perhaps they were written with strict instructions on form, and would perhaps be better suited in a shorter, more recognizable guise.

Nevertheless, the construction of these poems is clearly the result of a great intellectual and poetic mind. The form, the urgency, the ambition, the risk taking that pervades these poems is the work of a poet who is comfortable in her own bravura, and who is aware ultimately that in order to write great poetry, risk is a necessity, even if at times, albeit seldomly in Grahams case, failure is possible. 

Bury is a recent graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University, London.  He is currently at work on his first collection.
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