A Review of Jorie Graham’s fast — August 14, 2017
by Christopher Nelson
fast, Jorie Graham’s new collection of poems, is a powerful addition to an oeuvre that I regard as one of the richest in American letters. Since her first book, her subjects have always been large—language, selfhood, history, war, God—, and fast stays true to that high-lyric trajectory. It begins with an epigraph by Robert Browning: “Then the good minute goes. // Already how am I so far / Out of that minute?” Time—its ravages on body and mind, its merciless onslaught upon the self and those closest to us—is its subject. Unafraid of asking big questions (or afraid but compelled to ask nonetheless), Graham’s poems are epistemological journeys in which the mind is traced in its shifting questing, its brilliancy and confusions, and we readers ride its wake into a wakefulness uncommon.
Carl Jung believed that regardless of our religious upbringing or choices, regardless of the gods we acquire on our life journey (fear, wealth, love, shame, the panoply of desires), our primary gods—the first and most affecting—are our parents. Several poems in fast chronicle the physical decline and death of the father and the cognitive erosion of the aging mother, and they do so with heartbreaking and unguarded intimacy. Shortly after the father’s passing in “The Post Human,” Graham writes, “The aluminum shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it. / The sun and the bedrail—do they touch each other more than you and I now. / Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.” And in “Reading to My Father,” the speaker at her father’s deathbed looks upon him and thinks, “The cease of increase. / The cease of progress. / What is progress. / What is going. The cease of going. / What is knowing.” The omission of the question marks suggests that, in the gravity of such loss, the normal possibilities of question and answer are suspended—death eliding the known and unknown until even syntax dissolves: “[you passed in here] [you left] [‘you’—what did your you do?]”
Practically all of fast is an attempt to answer unanswerable questions: What is a self? As a singularity that rapidly changes in time, what can a person be sure of? How can a self matter inside a history that contains the world? Graham does not pretend to know the answers; instead her poems draw strength from making uncertainty central to their explorations. In “The Medium,” which has the desperate speaker call a medium to channel the spirit of her just-lost father, she writes, “The time for wisdom is past … it is not useful.” And yet, from the same poem: “one must / keep trying / to make / the unsaid said.” This tension between the unknowable and the poet’s dictum to give words to all—even the void—is another major subject of the book, a subject that will seem inevitable to readers who have been following Graham’s work through the years. In fast her penchant for philosophy has never been more keenly displayed, and in its overall power, fast is on par with her best books. What Graham accomplished in, for example, Overlord, Region of Unlikeness, and The End of Beauty, she accomplishes again in fast: through a difficult fidelity to personal experience, perceptions, and thinking, she brings readers closer to the archetypal—the cosmic code that underlies human experience.
Formally, the poems in fast take the shape seen in most of Graham’s recent books: run-on thoughts in long lines which are interspersed with occasional “dropped lines” (deeply indented lines), poems that span several pages, and frequent dashes that splice parallel and divergent tracks of mind together. What is stylistically new in fast is her use of the arrow as a piece of punctuation, employed in nine of the twenty-three poems. Compared to the rest of the book, these “arrowed” lines occur in stanzas that have a decreased line-spacing, making them dense, a sort of associative thought-avalanche. In the poem “We,” which takes as its subjects humanity and history in abstract, she writes:
we are way / past / intimation friend—the pastness of → you can only think about it → it won’t
be there for you → you can only talk about it → they are gone who came before → left us
nothing but ourselves → on our tiny axis of blood → surrounded by all the broken
columns → the marble which will itself surrender → to time → to radioactivity → to
→ we are all we ever were →
Like an em dash, the arrows function to indicate breaks in thought, but they also denote a forward momentum; they are time—physical manifestations of the primary subject of the book. Also, in the sciences, the arrow means “yield,” as in the outcome or production of a process. It’s as if each thought, fragmentary as it may be, yields another and then another in an ever unfolding becoming: time and thought catalyzing the world. The poem “We” ends with the speaker in admirable hopefulness but feeble refutation of the form, which isn’t only the form of the poem but the form of life in time:
I say to myself keep on → it will not be the end → not yet → my
children sleep → not yet → a friend who’s dead said this to me → it is not dead →
In the poem “Cryo,” which addresses the possibility of cryogenically preserving one’s mind after death as a way to avoid or alter dying, Graham arguably makes the book’s greatest leap: a body is cryogenically frozen, but the mind continues to function—yet it does so beyond daily cognition’s hold and out of time and out of contemporary language into myth-making:
looking back at that prayer that was not
received → and in this was brought to my mind the word that Crist sayed “I
thurst” → for I saw him a doubille thurst one bodely and another gostly → the body
dried alle alon long time with wringing of the nailes and weight of the body → the
skinne and the fleshe that seemed of the face and of the body → was smalle rumpelde
with tawny coloure → like a drye bord when it is aged → period of ludicrous
cognition → suddenly in the next mode of sentience → who is the “he” that cannot
exist without him →
fast plumbs the depths of our one human truth, our mortality, and it does so with a reverence and bewilderment befitting that ultimate mystery. In the poem “Double Helix”— which harkens back formally to Sea Change and P L A C E with its primarily short indented lines woven with longer ones—Graham attempts the impossible subjects of creation and destruction, acknowledging “eukaryotic cells with membrane-bound nuclei / expanding rapidly into eleven different body plans / which eleven still encompass / all creatures ever to inhabit Earth”—and “Venus is almost big as Earth was lush at origin had / oceans imagine yet has no / water anywhere / today. Venus / had runaway / greenhouse. Could Earth. Of course we know it could.” The remarkable range of the five-page poem is difficult to convey; it includes pastoral, meditation, history, lyric self-reflection, and somehow is able to be a metaphysical ars poetica as well. A long unfolding conceit has an anxious school boy at a blackboard writing a seven-letter word, wondering if he spells it correctly “will there be someone on the other side of this to meet me,” the chalk a “piece of moonlight” enacting his “mineral imagination” that “nothing can stop.” In a book at times harrowing, a book committed to being fully about death, we are given this optimism, this assurance: against the nothingness, the void, we are armed with the world-making word.