Hard to disagree much with this from William Logan:
The disparity between what Graham believes she’s doing and what the reader sees on the page is enormous. Perhaps these rambling, doddering, lifeless poems are “crucial,” as she claims; yet it’s as if all their imaginative energy went to “enact the idea of, and sensation of” writing the poem itself. I’m not sure aesthetic choices should be justified in philosophic terms, because it makes matters of taste seem conditioned or inevitable (taste can have philosophical carriage, but perhaps it takes a century or more to discover it). Her language, so slack and unbearable now, doesn’t possess the resources of Williams or Whitman, whose arguments lay in language, not length of line. Graham can chatter in the latest philosopher’s mode but can’t compose a good metaphor.
Readers of Poetry will remember the centrefold-style excitement of the poems that ended up in Sea Change, reclining Odalisque-like on their side, beached and out of proportion to their surroundings, like an Antarctic glacier floating into
Adam Kirsch talked about the algebraic quality of Graham’s work in his recent book of essays, and the defiant fill-it-in-for-yourself quality of the earlier poems he was discussing. Graham books, in a Beckett phrase I like, have always come with ‘missing parts included’. In Sea Change though all too many of these have been filled in, in all the wrong ways, and all I find is Heathcote Williams meets the Discovery Channel meets the nearest piece of late Heidegger to hand. Dipping into ‘Embodies’ at random I find: ‘& there is still /innocence, it is starting up somewhere /even now, and the strange swelling of the so-called Milky Way, and the sound of the /wings of the bird as it lifts off /suddenly, & how it is going somewhere precise, & that precision, & how I no longer /can say for that it /knows nothing, flaming, razory...’ I pause on that insistence on ‘precision’. Bird-flight is a very precise thing, but this writing isn’t. So much of Graham’s work operates on a meta-level these days that it has become enough for her to make a gesture in the direction of precision for her writing (she must think) to take on that quality. If the whole thrust of Sea Change is towards an attention to the natural world (‘Absolute unmixed attention is prayer’, as Simone Weil said), its effect on me is of sublimation – a book-length sublimation of its material into a stance, a style, a tic. The natural world has become so much material, in a strange mimetic echo of the despoliation of the earth that she writes about. Display supercedes meditation and understanding. A rare and showy bird is pluming itself, energetically, on behalf of the lesser species that have not made it into camera-shot. This is not to say I think Jorie Graham has become the Harvard wing of Exxon Mobile, but still.
There is a three-part series on BBC at the moment about the remote Hebridean island of St Kilda, and attempting to recreate an episode in which some St Kildans were marooned on the nearby rocky outpost of Boreray for several months the camera crew ran into storms and winched their man off the rock. The historically respectful thing would have been to leave him there, or better again to have sent the camera crew but left the presenter at home, or best of all just not to have made the programme, perhaps. Because how better to honour
If I want to see rabbits here where I live, I can drive to a dual carriageway roundabout, where a large colony appears to be thriving. That to me is contemporary nature.
On the subject of nature writing, I would also say that if Jorie Graham is a distracting sideshow it’s good to be reminded by an extract from his forthcoming The Last Pool of Darkness in the new Dublin Review that Tim Robinson is, for my money, the best writer on nature writing today, and probably the best prose writer at work in Ireland or Britain too. Always nice to end on a note of hyperbole.
Photo found here.