The celebrated New York poet Jorie Graham has published numerous collections of verse, including Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Erosion, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness, Materialism, The Errancy, Swarm, and Never. Her first edition of selected poems, The Dream of the Unified Field, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. A sequel to the latter publication, The Taken-Down God brings together just some of the pieces for which she has garnered the strongest praise in recent years. Stuffed into a seemingly meagre 136 pages, the poems – in some cases, shards of larger poems or poem cycles – nevertheless reveal an extraordinary range of experiences and topics. The reveal is all the more remarkable given the increasingly sparse style for which Graham is famed. At times, her Poundian economy of expression can be wearisome, even soulless; at others, that punch-mark diction sears the page. To my mind, many of the pieces culled from Sea Change (2008) are framed unsatisfactorily, perhaps deliberately so. The words have been spilt, neatly enough, on the page:
Summer heat, the first early morning
of it. How it lowers the pitch of the
as two words by the worker street-level
positioning the long beam on
the chain as he calls up to the one handling the pulley on
the seventh floor.
(“Later in Life”)
But, such an arrangement seems gratuitous, even grotesque; the wrenched syntax seems more akin to the quirky intonation of William Shatner or Christopher Walken than a poet’s. The format even seems needlessly analogue in a digital age, as though stubbornly punched on an iPad dressed up as a typewriter. Perhaps, after all, that is Graham’s aim: to look beyond the stifling conveniences of modern life. Certainly the same form is used neatly, and successfully, elsewhere. Consider “Root End”, from the same collection:
The desire to imagine
Walking in the dark through a house you know by
heart. Calm. Knowing no one will be
Plush with sounds and sights, this is a masterful poem in which “any so-called city”, a familiar yet ultimately anonymous place, comes looming into life. It brings forth a tantalising, if understated, vision of parted lovers and worker drones, of routine and mere circumstance. Elsewhere in the collection, “Recovered from the Storm”, from The Errancy (1997), reveals Graham’s enviable gift for filmy, tangible description:
Wide silvery hypotheses of memorizing waters.
In them – so deeply – the incomplete pictures.
Twigs, seeds, nuts, limbs scattered over the streets,
distemper’s trophies gathering round our footfalls.
I looked at them carefully, wide awake in that monologue.
Some branches thrown down in the middle of things.
Cars not yet venturing.
Here the chaotic stillness is at once captivating and unnerving, thereby opening up the poem to many different interpretations: one might read it as an expression of ennui, a dismissive comment on modern living, or even an invitation to keep calm and carry on. The speaker ends starkly: “I pick up and drag one large limb from the path”. For me, it is the standout work of the selection. Another highlight is “Of the Ever-Changing Agitation in the Air”. In this disarming peep beyond the curtain Graham renders banal domestic interiority vivid, even elegant:
The man held his hands to his heart as he danced.
He slacked and swirled.
The doorways of the little city
kindling the doorframes up,
making each entranceway
The Taken-Down God is, in short, a lively new selection of poems by one of New York’s leading writers. The book is a little on the slim side, granted. And, to my mind, the works included here do not sufficiently capture the range of the author’s collections published between 1997 and 2008. Nevertheless, readers unfamiliar with Jorie Graham will surely be enticed by this volume to discover her for themselves.