An early poem, “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950”, set in the year of Graham’s birth, explores moments of consciousness, real or imagined, of her own infancy. From the outset the idea of “place” looms large both as a particular location, as the title suggests, and also in the sense of her place in the world: “ I am the only one who ever lived who remembers / my mother’s voice in the particular shadow / cast by the skyfilled Roman archway / which darkens the stones on the down-sloping street”. Into this framework Graham places her own infant self: “I am a small reservoir of blood, twelve pounds of bone and / sinew and other matters—already condemned to this one soul”. Here she fuses the physical and the incorporeal, the real and the metaphorical. The accretion of detail viewed through the infant’s eyes—the mother coming closer, the basket of lemons, the sounds of the market, make sense of the world and culminate in the separateness of the infant—the naming and locating : “there you are, there you are”.
The opening poem of Section II, “End (Nov 21, 2010)”, deals with the end of Autumn—a season popular with poets. The bleakness of this poem places it nearer to Hughes’ “month of the drowned dog” (“November”) than Keats’ “seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (“Ode to Autumn”). In Graham’s poem sound is central. The fog has blanked out the visual: “Deep fog. There are chains in it, and sounds of / hinges. No that was / birds. A bird and a / gate. There are / swingings of the gate that sound like stringed / instruments”. The poem and the world it encompasses has become a soundscape through which we negotiate our way. The journey through the field becomes abstracted from the real by the absence of sight. The sounds turn menacing. The herd of cattle chewing on the feed becomes “the sounds of a crowd / meaning to be silent, all their breathing”, ending in the final image of alienation and extinction: “in / there this / animal / dying slowly / in eternity its / traps”.
This impulse to open out from the personal to the universal—often in terms of suffering—can be seen in other poems in this collection. The poem, “Untitled” describes the aftermath of a car accident which kills one dog and injures another. This incident sparks a chain of associations from the injured dog “dragging hind end of itself on the dirt / road” to the universal guilt of “187 million perished in wars, massacre, persecution, famine”.
Graham’s poems present us with everyday tragedies of ordinary people: the effects of the recession—the “layoffs”, the “for sale signs”, “the woman crying on the second floor as she does not understand what it will be like to / not have a home now” (“Dialogue Of the Imagination’s Fear”); the loss of community—‘they / did away with / the stations / and the jobs / the way of / life / and your number” (“Employment”), and the weariness of life: “death by / wearing out—death by surprise—death by marriage” (“Treadmill”).
Often tough, sometimes tender, but always original and compelling, these poems reward rereading. In the final poem, “Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011”, Graham interweaves several narratives: Irish myth, the “troubles”, a young American soldier maimed in war, the bride to be at her wedding rehearsal. The question at the beginning of the poem: “How will it be told, this evidence, our life, all the clues missing?” is answered in the final line by the bride on the eve of her wedding: “Tomorrow, she says. I can’t wait until tomorrow”.