Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Swarm by 
Jorie Graham

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Shaking Off the Ashes

What happens when on of the most celebrated poets of our time abandons the style that has come to characterize her work? After all, “Repetition,” as John Ashbery has archly noted, “is reputation.”

Indeed, Jorie Graham has relinquished her propulsive, hyperextended syntax, the long centripedal line forcing meaning inward, the style that marked her last few books. Those elaborate, sometimes origami-like sentences, that architecture of dashes, of tucked and folded clauses, is scissored away in her new book,
Swarm, to scraps, fragments. From a noted syntax of elaboration, a poetics of copula, she has pared a syntax of implication, the poetics of meanwhile. And yet, these poems are among the most intense, personal, and ardent that she has written.

The first poem of
Swarm,from The Reformation Journal,” keys our reading of the entire book. When we are told “A ‘he’ referring to God may be capitalized or not,” we begin to be prepared to understand “he,” whose presence animates many of the subsequent poems, in a doubled sense. “He” may be God or “he” may be the beloved. Swarm is a book of spiritual and carnal passion, and of the constraints—the laws—governing that passion.

Each line in “
from The Reformation Journal” is followed by an asterisk, emphasizing the line’s independence and deepening its resonance within the white surrounding space. Caesuras sometimes divide lines, over each centered asterisk, into two columns. At the start, the poem is spoken, first person, in syntactically complete sentences—“The wisdom I have heretofore trusted was cowardice, the leaper.” These begin to break down into fragments separated by caesuras and then into commands—

A “he” referring to God may be capitalized
or not.
(is crying now) show me
is crying now (what’s wrong)
in a strange tree of atoms of
too few more no wonder
Give me the glassy ripeness
Give me the glassy ripeness in failure
Give me the atom laying its question at the bottom of nature
Send word Clear fields
Make formal event Walk

Is the speaker giving these last commands the same speaker who asked “what’s wrong”? We are not sure. In the companion poem to this one, Graham will assert that “my first person is hidden,” suggesting that somehow, the poems of Swarm demand, along with splintered syntax, a shattering of the lyric first person voice. They are subject to new demands, a new “law.”

Exactly at its midpoint, “
from The Reformation Journal” turns on the centered words “Turn back” as though the mitotic strands of syntax twisted there and the second half of the poem begins to play out recombinations of key words from the first half. Now commands are matched with responses and with silences as the sentence structures permute into breathless gulps of speech:

Absence is odious to God
I’m asking
Unseen unseen the treasure unperceived

To the mix of repeated phrases are added quoted and parenthetical fragments and brief lists, further complications of what began as simple lyric voice. The poem’s increasing syntactical stress matches the emotional stress carried by so many words concerned with deracination: “I have severely trimmed and cleared,” the poet writes. Emphasizing “Absence,” the “unseen,” the “unperceived,” “infinite smallness,” and “abbreviations,” Graham announces the reformation of her poetic style, now fragmented and broken open by caesuras: “My throat,” she writes, “is an open grave”. At the same time, the speaker(s) insists, like the speaker in Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” that the world must be seen in its bare essence. “Give me,” Graham writes, “the atom laying its question at the bottom of nature.” Her atom, like Stevens’ “bare place,” is the necessarily deconstructed launching pad for a fresh imaginative vision. Only from the absolute zero of a once familiar world might a new “we” be “founded on infinite smallness.” When the poem’s first speaker declares “I hide my face,” we can imagine Masaccio’s “Expulsion from Paradise.” We can see, and all this in the first poem, the artist nakedly entering a broken world, her voice torn into rags of
“fear lamentation shame ruin,” where the possibility of a redemptive vision, of happiness, of explanation even, “remains to be seen.”

Throughout the rest of
Swarm, more a booklength poem than a series of separate poems, Graham struggles, like Antigone, to resolve a conflict between natural law and law imposed by “the ruling class,” “empire,” “tribunal,” or “kingdom.” Natural law, passion, often connected in these poems with the wedding of lovers, clashes with society’s prohibitive “it is written.” Images of a bridal veil alternate with and segue into images of a public burning. The bride, alternately associated with Calypso, Persephone, Daphne, and Eurydice, suffers in a love for which, at first, she asks forgiveness: “You must forgive this veil,” implores the speaker of “Underneath (Calypso)” who goes on to remark “How we walk the aisle: in flames.” In an earlier poem, Graham links the shyness of first love—“Covers her mouth to laugh”—with the burning of a witch “At the stake/ signaling through flames.” In “Desert/Dune,” after imagining “a great bridal veil/ over the body of the dune,” Graham describes the “wind bursting up like flames off dune” as though there were a desert marriage taking place on a funeral pyre. In “2/18/97” the speaker, “told to cast spells,” begs to be left only “the thing that will not burn,” and in still another poem a disembodied Lear-like voice exclaims, “Bloody wedding!”

There are various metaphorical altars before which the lovers in Swarm come to be married and/or judged. In “Underneath (Upland),” however, the altar is clearly the one of the Sistene Chapel. There, “still in the Lord’s Hall,” standing literally underneath Michelangelo’s fresco of “The Last Judgement,” the speaker sees that stern Christ, “the prince mistakenly hunted,” who releases thieves and apostates from their “unbelief.” In the painting, Christ crouches over the writhing mass of sinners, all desperate to rise past Satan’s “unkenneld creatures howling” and all utterly dependent upon his choosing or “unchoosing.” It seems to be to this incarnation of law that the speaker of the next poem, “The Veil,” whispers: “open up, forgive us.” But over the course of the book, the supplicant becomes more sure of herself and of her choice, so that in “Probity,” the longest and one of the last poems, Graham acknowledges that the lovers are at last “free of a dying god” and “a dying empire,” as they “push against your law without regret.”

Accustomed to the dashing clause-to-clause romp and swerve of sentences in her previous work, readers of
Swarm may disregard the considerable prosody of these starker poems. But for the little scars the caesuras inflict, do these few representative lines from the middle of “The Spectators” appear ordinary as a knee?

Has friends. Has acquaintances.
Let us proceed
to the loss of independence.
To the peculiar unfinished look of the place,
the plausibility of the glory of god,
the small town where the hero was born,
us shooing young hens off the monument.
Yes she loved him very much.
Yes she knows what the two things are.
Oh drowsiness.
Crackle of pages turning.
The stench is lovely, everywhere.
And continuance itself, implacable.

Hardly. Anaphora keeps pairing off words, and if Keats equated kisses with rhyme, these anaphoric pairs, so hand in hand, are clearly metaphors for the lovers: Has, Has; to, To; the, the; yes, yes. And look how the “en” of “friends” echoes through “acquaintances,” “independence,” “hens,” “monument,” “stench,” and “continuance” even as we read through splashes of alliterative p’s and g’s and the assonance of loss, plaus, and small. Meanwhile, “hens” bends our ear backward to the alliterative h of “hero” and forward into the warp of “him” and so connects Christ, the hero, to him, the beloved. “Crackle” of course contains the hen’s cackle. And in eight lines, Graham has leaped from understated humor—Bethlehem is of course “the small town where the hero was born”—to a narrative image—“shooing hens off the monument”—to a declaration, an apostrophe, a sound, a smell, and finally an abstraction. How about them apples, my mother would say. But this is not to mention the strongest musical element, rhythm, the lapping forward of the comma-measured sentence into the sequence of sudden concise ones, as though the speaker could only relax briefly, speaking a whole sentence or two, before her throat muscles clenched and her wind came short.

Swarm is a startling departure for Graham, and an incredibly complex and surprising one. The agonized and ecstatic cries of Swarm’s lover-protagonists mix with echoes from Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Silesius, and Ovid, and bounce between the canyon walls of law and judgement. Their voices are shattered there, but remade “because,” she writes,
“this syllable is still intact.”
This syllable—to what else does “this” point but to the blank space that follows “syllable,” the syllable of silence, the decisive moment where virtuosity of feeling abrupts into the unarticulable! That caesura—the physical sign of a breach, the abandoned syntax longing for fulfillment—marks the place where reader, writer, and language must come together to create meaning. It is the sign of the unknown and it is the leap of faith. Its resonant gap prompts our own involvement in the poem’s revisioning.

Meanwhile, the lovers of
Swarm ache into themselves and into each other:

Full moon; lays his hand
onto her throat, into his mouth
takes her whole ear

They ache into being like Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures of escaping slaves. And while Emily Dickinson (especially her poem 640, “I cannot live with You—”) clearly animates the collection,
Michelangelo too seems to midwife many poems. It is Michelangelo’s Last Judgement self-portrait as the flayed St. Jerome—his skin dangling inside-out—that we think of when the speaker in “Upland (Sibylline)” asks:
But what would you like?
To stay in your skin?
You’ve got all of us turning inside-out for you

And it may be the experience of seeing Michelangelo’s sketch of “The Archers,” their bows invisible as their hurtling arrows, which Graham invokes in the book’s last poem, when she cites “The heart fused with the target/ as the eye draws the bow back.” Like Michelangelo’s figures,
Swarm is giant in its passion. It aims to carry its readers along with its emancipated lovers all the way “to the edge of empire.” There to begin. There to begin again.