Jorie Graham’s first poetry collection, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980) has a way of receding from memory despite its potency due, in part, to the great success of her second collection. Her career as we know it today began to take shape after Erosion (1983) was reviewed by Helen Vendler in the New York Times. Vendler wrote that the volume contained “a poetry of delicate and steady transgression in which the spirit searches the flesh and the flesh the spirit.” She praised Graham’s line of inquiry “into the largest question of life, the relation of body and spirit” as something “more often considered by theologians and philosophers these days than by poets.” Here one can find the beginning, or at least the culminating origin, of a set of labels of often tied to Graham’s work: intellectual, philosophical; but also: difficult, obscure.
If Graham’s poems are accused of being difficult (and they frequently are, the New York Times review of The New World: Poems 1976-2014 notes that “her poems tend to be difficult, but not in an academic sense” while a 1997 New Yorker profile, more on that later, argued that “Jorie Graham’s poetry will never be an offshoot of popular culture. It’s too hard to get.”), they are never thought of as trivial. Mark Strand’s assertion that Graham “writes big poetry” has been upheld over the years, but the bigness of her poems has also had to contend with the grandeur and status of their author.
In the 1997 New Yorker profile, written around the publication of The Errancy, her first collection after winning the Pulitzer for The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, Stephen Schiff spends as much time meditating on her poetry as he does on her magisterial and privileged upbringing. He wrote that “At [Graham’s mother’s] soirées, new money and old would mingle with Clare Booth Luce and Alice B. Toklas, with the Black Nobility, which is to say the princes of the Catholic Church, and the with film-makers and stars of the ‘dolce vita’ era…” while also noting her eccentricities (“She is also, it must be said, one of Iowa City’s great eccentrics”). Schiff also gave voice to the irritation many feel (Richard Howard is their main named representative in the profile) at Graham’s giant presence in the poetry world (“I think Helen [Vendler’s] response is entirely genuine, but she’s overblown Jorie Graham’s achievement to the point where it irritates or provokes resistance”). The poems are tied to her upbringing, her fashion, her travels, her languages, her connections, and her champions, all leading to a profile of Graham that can risk making her amazing poetic achievements seem the inevitable result of calculated networking and advantageous alliances.
And that was in 1997! Graham’s presence has only expanded since then with numerous books and a move to Harvard. After leaving Iowa, Graham joined the English department faculty as Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric, teaching alongside her champion Helen Vendler and helping shape the new generation of writers at the alma mater of many of the twentieth century’s most important poets. When Graham was accused by Foetry.com of unfairly helping to award a book publication prize to her future husband, a tenured Harvard professor with three poetry collections under his belt already, her involvement launched the normally esoteric yet contentious affair of poetry book publication contests into a mainstream news story with coverage in the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Given Graham’s enormous presence in the poetry world, it is a worthwhile exercise to go back to the modest beginnings of her first collection, to allow us to see the roots of one of the most celebrated careers in American poetry. This first collection is not modest in the sense of accomplishment. When Graham published Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts in 1980 with the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, she was a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and had placed poems in The Nation, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other top literary venues. Yet the collection is decidedly modest in the presentation of its author, its new poet starting out. From the black and white Rothko painting on the cover to the modest, photo-less back cover, Graham’s first volume arrives to the reader like a well-kept secret. In comparison, Erosion, the more widely celebrated and read second collection from the same publisher, looks remarkably different. Gone is the black-and-white photo of a Rothko and, in its place, comes a black-and-white image of Jorie Graham on the cover, pensive, piercing, and deep in thought. Not so in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, which launches its new poet in a series of comparably unadorned poems.
Most readers probably got their introduction to this volume from the selections from it in the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Dream of the Unified Field. Longtime readers of Graham’s work may follow, with interest, the differing selections of Hybrids in The Dream of the Unified Field and the newly published From the New World. Some surprises and potentially revelatory choices seem to have been made. “The Way Things Work,” “Tennessee June,” “Over and Over Stitch,” “Mind,” and “The Geese” are preserved in both volumes. “Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts,” the seminal “I Was Taught Three,” “Jackpot,” “One in the Hand,” and “A Feather for Voltaire” were in The Dream of the Unified Field but left out of From the New World while “Strangers,” “An Artichoke for Montesquieu,” “Framing,” “Mirrors,” “New Trees,” and “Girl at the Piano” are selected from Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts for the first time in From the New World.
The ongoing importance of the opening poem of Hybrids, “The Way Things Work,” as well as anthology favorite “The Geese” is noticeable (though “The Way Things Work” does not get the opening slot in From the New World as it did in The Dream of the Unified Field). While the exclusion of “I Was Taught Three” is remarkable, as it can serve as a striking window into the polyglot workings of Graham’s poetic imagination. I don’t think any convincingly coherent interpretation of these choices can be offered from the list alone, except to underscore the fact that the new collection invites us to a new vision of Hybrids, one quite different in both the ordering and choice of poems that makes revisiting this early collection seem even more worthwhile.
The volume takes its title from a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “But he who is wisest among you, he also is only a discord and hybrid of plant and of ghost.” This combinatory imagination: always half in nature, half in the spirit realm helps to get at the often-reported “difficulty” of Graham’s work, which does not really come from its intellectualism.
Her poems in this volume, as the initiating poem of the volume “The Way Things Work” makes clear, attempt to bring you to the backroom of human experience, to the fantasies and gear-works of the self. This opening poem plays with universal philosophical declarations:
The way things work
is by solution,
resistance lessened or
increased and taken
Yet the invasion of the subjective first person, full of the authority of individual experience, crashes in to have something close to the last word:
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
Crane lift your small head–
and “I believe / forever in the hooks.” And yet this first person validation gives in again to philosophical declaration. The proposition crashing down in a clear punchline: “The way things work / is that eventually / something catches.” Connection, ultimately in Graham’s universe, is the true nature of work and working.
Connection between mind and object, subjectivity and the objects of contemplation seems to characterize the major goal of Graham’s poetry. Mark Strand praises Graham for poetry that he believes avoids the “Oh, poor me” quality of much of American poetry. This is a correct assessment, especially in terms of Hybrids, even in poems that verge on the intense or unpleasant, the simple astonishment of witnessing the fruits of the contemplative demands of poetic consciousness keep Graham with a tone that is at once authoritative and grateful. In the often anthologized “The Geese” patterns and observation work together to form a revelation that is ultimately startling, disconnected. In the poem, Graham describes her poetic persona hanging laundry and again observing the “code / as urgent as elegant / tapering with goals,” the urgent code of the geese flying overhead. Ultimately finding herself between the patterns of the geese and the imitative but ultimately disconnected pattern of the spiders beneath, a sort of coeval “texture” takes place over the more orderly “history.” Graham’s persona in the poem is challenged by the potential “relevance” of this display all while entering into a kind of heightened consciousness rooted in the body’s presence:
There is a feeling the body gives the mind
Of having missed something, a bedrock poverty, like falling
Without the sense that you are passing through one world,
That you could reach another
anytime. Instead the real
is crossing you,
your body an arrival
you know is false but can’t outrun…
With the kind of compromised and corporeal Platonism that would make John Donne proud, Graham too turns to her body as the conduit and home of contemplative consciousness. Ultimately stuck in place between the geese and the spiders and their incommensurate yet related patterns, Graham concludes that it is in between them that “this astonishing delay, the everyday, takes place.”
For Graham, an immanent liminality is important to her work. Yet, not the simple this and also that hybridity of sophomore English literature papers. Graham means it and seeks for immanence across boundaries within herself. This is the revelation of “I Was Taught Three” the second poem in the collection. Reflecting on the fact that in her trilingual Italian, French, and English upbringing, she has three words for chestnut (castagno, chassagne, and chestnut), Graham’s persona is at once the container of multiple languages and an entity contained by them. She writes:
was all first person, and I
was the stem, holding within myself the whole
bouquet of three,
at once given and received…
The link between given and received becomes important for Graham’s persona which is at once the vessel for the languages and an entity dissolved within them (“…the leaves / silent as suppressed desires, and I // a name among them.”)
These poems allow us to finally reconsider what all this “difficulty” is about. It is not an esoteric or academic difficulty (when Graham takes on Voltaire and Montesquieu, she does so in a way that is personal and provocative, far from dependant on citations), or the difficulty of a volume like Geoffrey Hill’s Triumph of Love. Nor are we in the quasi-surrealist difficulty that at times permeates the work of John Ashbery (another poet often lauded as one of America’s greatest examples of the profession). The difficulty is not even exactly what a recent New York Times review describes as her poems’ ability to “[lead] you to the door of comprehension, only to close it on your ankle.” Rather, as the poems in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts make clear, it is the constant shifting of philosophical and subconscious vocabularies that announces to the reader, over and over again, something like an assertion that these poems are not difficult at all, they just have no interest, despite the philosophical assertions they so often make, of teaching us anything. Rather, they reveal sounds and images and revelations that are built into the experience of living, thinking, and existing in language.
Even in her later work that takes on more directed themes (war and loss in Overlord, environmental change in Sea Change), the emphasis on personal vision and personal music is at the forefront. All of this is detected in Hybrids. Gone unselected in both of Graham’s compendia, the poem, “The Nature of Evidence,” which seems to be about a failing marriage, cannot help but dissolve into the act of listening. At first, we are led into a heartbreaking image of loss:
will take my clasped hands into yours,
wonderful double entry
that does not try to hide
how our two perfect sets of prayers
cannot be joined.
Yet, Graham, like John Donne, is constantly called out to the greater world: “And even though I know how at all times, outside, beneath the still, / the fecund is preparing / its embodiment / its escape.” The poem ends with Graham’s persona wondering how anything can be found or known, what has been real versus what has been felt:
how I would like to catch the world
at pure idea–although, as with my profile, I,
turning to it, find
only myself again,
and, no, it’s not enough to understand
it’s there because it’s gone.
The problem, or opportunity, with understanding the world, in a Platonic sense, as a transcendent idea is, as Graham shrewdly points out, to return to the contemplative self that finds its magic and its uncertainty in its lack of corroboration, it’s unique ability to always return only to its own music. Failed relationships, the past, experience, evidence all are understood in their absence, after the fact, and yet, this is not enough, and yet, as Graham’s closing makes clear, it is all we have.
In an age where the charge of pretension is launched at contemporary poetry, Graham might at first seem like an ideal target. Certainly, following my early rapturous love of Graham’s poetry as a very young reader stumbling unprepared onto her “big” poems, I spent some years doubting the sincerity of Graham’s poetic project. Wasn’t this abstraction, this “difficulty” exactly what has been taking poetry out of the mainstream for decades? Didn’t these poems wear their learning a bit too obviously on their shirtsleeves? And don’t they at times, in filtering the big subjects of history through the everyday experience of their maker, risk minimizing history to something always trapped within the poetic ego?
I don’t think so anymore. I think Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, right at the beginning of Graham’s career and modest and fecund, tells us what Graham has been doing for the forty or so years of her writing life. In an interview given a few years ago on her composition process, Graham says that she starts with music and after a book is out she finds herself nervously waiting for more music. This emphasis on the musicality of what she discovers and her relating her work to advice from Donald Justice that she let the subject of her work destroy her intentions makes clear that Graham is not airing pretension in her work.
Revisiting Hybrids makes clear that Graham is a poet who hears things, a vates of the twentieth-century cultured observer in extremis, feeling an intensity in the everyday that she wants desperately to make us hear. Language is not something to relish in a self-congratulatory way, rather the semiotic signs or our life are energized, electric, and hard to pin down. “The bird is an alphabet, it flies, above us, catch / as catch can” she writes in the closing poem of the collection.
Graham rejects outright the boundaries of different art forms. Poems are music, they come from music, their completion or abandonment leaves the poet waiting for more music. This is her narrative of composition. Yet even in Hybrids it is clear she is in love with language’s ability to take on all of the visual and musical elements of representation in a way that is playfully rebellious. “I use no colors, just number threes,” she writes in “Drawing Wildflowers” before ultimately admitting:
But these in our fields, the real, the sheet of paper, the bouquet,
will not negotiate, and how I love
my black and white and the gray war they make.
This is how the world is represented, in the gap between decided ink and the white emptiness of possibility.
This is what Hybrids teaches us, that in that space between plant and ghost, earth and spirit, creation and awaiting, there is always a place for the emptiness of waiting. One feels in Graham’s poems, no matter the subject, that the reader enters in the middle of a conversation that has already been going on, already come to a frantic point, only to then be left to feel and to hope.
Graham’s poems, for their appreciation of the space in between, still never fear bold proclamations, but these proclamations come with an elusive quality that lets us know we are not receiving a lecture but a transcript of another’s experience. Words are appreciated but not romanticized, not pressed into sentimental usefulness, but rather come to be understood as the elusive and troublesome tools they are (“A man full of words // is a garden of weeds”). Existence itself, embodied as it is, grounds these observations like the hybrid of plant and ghost that comes as the wisest. To be unrooted, to be gone, to be dead. These are real things and they, Graham is always sure to remind, change the game completely. Here are the last lines of Hybrids in “A Feather for Voltaire”:
pulled from the body or found on the snow
can be dipped into ink
to make one or more words: possessive, the sun. A pen
can get drunk,
having come so far, having so far to go–meadow
in vain, imagine
And when he was gone then there was none
And this is the key to the kingdom.
Writing as a condition of living, of pain, of possession, of the simple existence of illumination and failure, these are some of the great revelations of this collection where Graham herself “having come so far, having so far to go” laid claim to a career that has lasted for thirty-five distinguished years. Turning to Graham’s first collection, readers find themselves in a world recognizable across those thirty-five years but made special by the unapologetic exuberance of this modest collection. There is no wealth, no luxuriousness, no profound or inaccessible liaisons here, just a sustained presentation of the need to connect, to hear, and to report it to the rest of us. Her style is instantly recognizable, unique, and rare. There is even, in the tradition of Dickinson, a rapturous ear to the tensions and explosions of the everyday making these early poems, particularly, a valuable asset to readers looking to see how poetry can maintain its allegiance to personal vision and experience while never quite giving into the narrowness of self-involvement. To quote one of Graham’s own poems in summarizing the value of these now vintage poems: “because they are wild / they are useful.”