Posthu­man Po­et­ics

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Is­abel Gal­ley­more

Fast, Jorie Gra­ham, Car­canet, June 2017, pp. 96, £12.99 (Pa­per­back)

‘I was very lucky. The end of the world had al­ready oc­curred […] You have to keep liv­ing. You have to make it not be­come wait­ing’. Gra­ham’s Fast oc­cu­pies a dif­fer­ent space – tem­po­rally and emo­tion­ally – to her pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions. Writ­ing nearly a decade ago, in Sea Change, Gra­ham con­sid­ered ‘where we are headed’ and found that this ‘de­sire to imag­ine / the fu­ture’ is anal­o­gous to ‘walk­ing in the dark through a house you know by / heart’. Cer­tain po­ems un­der­lined the ar­ro­gance and ig­no­rance of fear­lessly think­ing we can pre­dict the fu­ture. Fast, on the other hand, does not speak of imag­in­ing the fu­ture. In this col­lec­tion, we seem to have ar­rived.

In ‘Self Por­trait at Three De­grees’, Gra­ham writes:

Teas­ing out the pos­si­ble link­ages I – no you – who no­ticed – if the world – no – the world if – take plank­ton – I feel I can­not love any­more

Syn­tac­ti­cally, it’s dif­fi­cult to keep track of th­ese ‘link­ages’, but the ti­tle sets a semi-recog­nis­able back­drop of con­nec­tion. Evok­ing the ‘three de­grees of in­flu­ence’ (a ver­sion of six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion), it’s im­pos­si­ble not to also think of cli­mate change and the sci­en­tific pred­i­ca­tions of what will hap­pen to a planet that be­comes three de­grees warmer. Idiomat­i­cally, the Ama­zon Rain­for­est might be con­sid­ered as the lungs of the planet, but in this poem plank­tonic or­gan­isms are found to be ‘the most im­por­tant plant on earth – think love – com­poses at least half / the bio­sphere’s en­tire pri­mary pro­duc­tion’. Emerg­ing from the tiny, of­ten un­ac­knowl­edged link­ages that com­prise earth’s sys­tems and sup­port life, there is a cu­ri­ous, al­most hu­mor­ous metaphor­i­cal re­la­tion be­tween love as a re­pro­duc­tive

force, and plank­ton. What ap­pears to be an in­ner di­a­logue ex­pands on the con­nec­tion: love this – love what – I am say­ing you have no choice […] ev­ery­thing liv­ing – take it – here you take it, I can’t hold it any­more – you don’t want it – I don’t care – you carry it for now – I need to catch my breath – Gra­ham’s last col­lec­tion, Place, was, in some part a med­i­ta­tion on the ten­sions of bring­ing a child into this world – take the se­ries of in­ter­con­nected thoughts on cru­elty, in­no­cence and de­ter­mined be­lief in love in ‘Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field)’. Fast, by con­trast, be­gins to sug­gest how love for the planet, and the re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with this love, be­comes a baby-like bur­den the speaker seeks to shift. There is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing move­ment be­tween the do­mes­tic and the global in ‘Self Por­trait at Three De­grees’ that raises ques­tions about our lim­its of con­nec­tion and about the sub­se­quent dif­fi­culty in hold­ing such plan­e­tary scales in mind, let alone in heart.

Eco­log­i­cal themes in Gra­ham’s past col­lec­tions have tended to­wards the is­sues of ex­tinc­tion and cli­mate change. To fo­cus on is­sues less-widely cov­ered by the me­dia – the earth’s de­pen­dence on plank­ton and on prac­tices such as deep wa­ter trawl­ing – is not only ad­mirable, but un­der Gra­ham’s po­etic con­trol, also sur­pris­ingly mov­ing. ‘Deep Wa­ter Trawl­ing’ ex­am­ines a process in which trawl­ing nets raze parts of seabeds, cre­at­ing a ‘mouth the size of a foot­ball field’. It is pos­si­ble that Gra­ham’s oc­ca­sional ex­pli­ca­tion of terms ‘what is by­catch – hit­ting the wrong tar­get – the wrong size – not / eaten’ means that the reader isn’t forced to turn to Google, but it is her skill in lay­er­ing, con­fus­ing and thereby con­nect­ing vo­cab­u­lar­ies that is most en­gag­ing. When po­etry about en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues of­fers ar­gu­ment or crit­i­cism, this polemic an­gle is of­ten met with wari­ness: po­ets are seen to be ser­mon­is­ing. But Gra­ham’s jux­ta­po­si­tion of lines makes any sense of the polemic feel ac­ci­den­tal: her light­ness of touch means that the weight of what she writes about is de­pen­dent upon how the reader re­ceives it. Con­sumerist over­tones emerge in her vi­sion of this de­struc­tion of the ocean

floor where ‘there is noth­ing in / par­tic­u­lar you want – you just want’. Once again, Gra­ham is in the busi­ness of tak­ing us fur­ther if we, as read­ers, are will­ing. Draw­ing no at­ten­tion to her­self, the poet qui­etly and mo­men­tar­ily em­bod­ies the threat­ened sea crea­tures them­selves: ‘we die / of ex­haus­tion or suf­fo­ca­tion’. Like­wise, ‘Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am / hu­man’ re­minds us of our shared oceanic ori­gins.

Split into three sec­tions, ‘Deep Wa­ter Trawl­ing’ plunges to the depths it de­scribes. At the bot­tom, we find ‘there are no→fish→no or­gan­isms→alive→no→no life→so it’s just us→dead zones’. Liken­ing th­ese life­less spa­ces to the moon, Gra­ham takes us far from home. Then: ‘hold on→just a minute please→hold on→there is a call for you’. Re­mind­ing us of the transat­lantic com­mu­ni­ca­tions ca­ble laid un­der the ocean floor, the in­ter­rup­tion also has greater sig­nif­i­cance. Th­ese dead zones, cre­ated by trawl­ing, but also by pol­lu­tion, cre­ate a wilder­ness. Whilst there is no ex­plicit hu­man pres­ence – no flag stuck on this empty land­scape the way it might be on the moon – hu­mans are ev­ery­where im­pli­cated.

Spac­ing, line breaks and the dash re­main in­te­gral to Gra­ham’s project. Pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions have ex­plored not only th­ese, but also paren­the­ses and blank spa­ces that the reader is ex­pected to fill. Fast is the first col­lec­tion to in­tro­duce the ar­row. It might be said that in a poem like ‘Deep Wa­ter Trawl­ing’, the ar­row takes us down to a deeper, darker space. How­ever, given the ar­row’s ap­pear­ance in a num­ber of po­ems through­out the col­lec­tion, it has a range of ef­fects. The most ob­vi­ous and pow­er­ful of th­ese is the way the ar­row forces the reader on­wards. Re­cent de­vel­op­ments in eye-track­ing tech­nol­ogy have led to a num­ber of stud­ies on read­ing and the ex­tent to which the eye jumps be­tween lines of a poem: of how much a reader might dou­ble back, check, con­tinue. With Gra­ham’s ar­row, there is no go­ing back. The dash might si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­nect and sep­a­rate, but with its lit­tle sharp point the ar­row has­tens us for­ward, en­act­ing the ti­tle of the col­lec­tion. Fast might be at once a pe­riod of ab­sti­nence, an im­per­a­tive (to act against eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe?), but per­haps also a reference to The Great Ac­cel­er­a­tion in which our global eco­nomic sys­tem has been con­trol­ling the earth’s nat­u­ral sys­tems since the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion.

Time has al­ways been a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of Gra­ham’s. In writ­ing Never (2002), she aimed to en­act ‘the rate of ex­tinc­tion [that] is es­ti­mated at one every nine min­utes’. In 2017, with no sign of rates such as th­ese slow­ing down, but, rather, an in­crease in speed (and even an ad­dic­tion to tech­no­log­i­cal ac­cel­er­a­tion), the ar­row in­creases the fu­til­ity of Gra­ham’s plea in ‘The Post Hu­man’: ‘I don’t want the time to go in this di­rec­tion’. As ‘The Post Hu­man’ nar­rates the death of Gra­ham’s fa­ther, this plea takes on greater im­me­di­acy. Stand­ing next to you, hold­ing the hand which stiff­ens, am I out­side of it more than be­fore, are you not in­side? The alu­minium shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it. The sun and the bedrail – do they touch each other more than you and I now. As one of the open­ing po­ems of the col­lec­tion’s sec­ond sec­tion, death prompts a med­i­ta­tion on re­la­tion­al­ity, re­sponse and dis­tance. Do inan­i­mate ob­jects have more vi­tal­ity than a body within no one in­side? The ques­tions con­tinue. ‘Am I to think / you now / nat­u­ral?’ Strange para­doxes are made be­tween what is hu­man and what is nat­u­ral, be­tween the stop­ping of time and re­lent­less pro­gres­sion: ‘Have we caught up with / where we just were?’

Gra­ham’s ti­tle of the poem refers quite lit­er­ally to the post-hu­man – to the end of a hu­man life – but a more the­o­ret­i­cal re­flec­tion might also be present here. Her­alded as the new ‘ism’ in phi­los­o­phy and crit­i­cal the­ory, posthu­man­ism aims to de­part from an­thro­pocen­tric dis­course. Posthu­man­ist schol­ars have fo­cused on ideas of ob­ject­hood, an­i­mal on­tol­ogy and tech­no­log­i­cal en­tan­gle­ments with the hu­man. Whether or not Gra­ham is ex­actly a posthu­man­ist, it is ex­cit­ing to see emer­gent the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions and con­cerns cre­atively de­vel­oped in Fast. In the ti­tle poem of the col­lec­tion, Gra­ham asks ‘Will we sur­vive I ask the bot. No’. Here, the lack of a ques­tion mark seems to pre­sup­pose the an­swer. Gra­ham blurs nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Where is the di­vide be­tween cy­borg and hu­man in ‘We are not alone. We are look­ing to im­prove’? Is this ‘we’ us, or them? Un­re­lent­ing in the way it shifts the ground we stand upon, Fast also shakes the ‘the tiny na­tion state which is / you, your you’ (‘To Tell of Bod­ies

Changed to Dif­fer­ent Forms’). To be swept off one’s feet might be a clichéd phrase we re­serve for ro­mance, but the pas­sion­ate and over­whelm­ing na­ture of Gra­ham’s un­der­tak­ing has not dis­sim­i­lar ef­fect. ‘Have you failed to / make your / self?’ might con­jure our ob­ses­sive cre­at­ing of vir­tual selves on so­cial me­dia, but a (re)con­struc­tion of the phys­i­cal self oc­curs too. Small de­tails such as ‘watch breasts grow as the but­ton­wood grows’ brings into re­la­tion The New York Stock Exchange, be­gun with an agree­ment signed un­der a but­ton­wood tree in 1792, and sur­gi­cal breast en­large­ment. Nat­u­ral, fi­nan­cial and phys­i­cal (mis)con­cep­tions of progress are con­densed into one sur­pris­ingly lyri­cal line that is all the more un­set­tling for its quiet na­ture.

Gra­ham’s de­par­tures in pro­noun, idea and punc­tu­a­tion are matched by new ex­plo­rations in sound and im­age. Writ­ing about her own ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing can­cer, ‘From In­side the MRI’ be­gins with a grip­ping re­vi­sion of Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kin’s ‘The Wind­hover’

– my sub­trop­i­cal dancer, part­ner, or is it bird­chat­ter I’m hear­ing now, vein in, con­trast-drip be­gun, ev­ery­thing be­ing sung in the mag­netic field’s no-up­ward-rung Through­out the col­lec­tion there are a num­ber of in­stances in which bird­song is con­fused with a cell­phone’s ring­tone. Such mis­per­cep­tions are height­ened in this hos­pi­tal set­ting as Gra­ham’s in­ter­nal rhymes and rep­e­ti­tions – ‘high high not not not not high­not high­not’ – skip on Hop­kins’s poem as if it were a scratched record to re­pro­duce the weird sound­scape of the MRI scan. The rhythm of a line has al­ways been im­por­tant to Gra­ham. In in­ter­views she has spo­ken of the time spent re­vis­ing the po­ems she writes; at­tend­ing to the mu­sic of each line. With its oc­ca­sion­ally in­tense in­ter­nal rhymes, we are in­tro­duced to new mu­si­cal tex­tures. The 3D printer and 3D glasses that fea­ture in ‘from The En­mesh­ments’ are an­tic­i­pated in the vi­bra­tions within par­tic­u­lar lines: ‘It’s too ab­stract. I have no con­tract. Can­not en­act im­pact / in­ter­act. Look: the mir­rored eye of the fly, so mat­ter of fact.’ At times th­ese sounds seem strong enough to break from the page into phys­i­cal di­men­sions.

Whilst sen­su­al­ity has al­ways been present in Gra­ham’s work, the pal­pa­ble, tan­gi­ble qual­ity of Fast dis­tin­guishes it, es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to Gra­ham’s early col­lec­tions. Al­though it is im­prac­ti­cal to sum­marise her pre­vi­ous work, to some de­gree this po­etry has been marked by its fraught, sel­f­re­flex­ive re­la­tion­ship be­tween self and world. In many in­stances this has con­cerned the sub­jec­tive, lyri­cal ‘I’ and its per­ceiv­ing of the ex­ter­nal world. In her de­but, Hy­brids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), the speaker is, for ex­am­ple, self-con­sciously ab­sorbed in her ap­pro­pria­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of wild­flow­ers: ‘Yes should I draw it chang­ing, mak­ing of the flower a kind of mind’ (‘Draw­ing Wild­flow­ers’). Whether it’s be­cause Gra­ham’s sub­jects have ranged be­tween art, phi­los­o­phy, his­tory, and re­li­gion, or be­cause, at times, her writ­ing has been con­cerned about writ­ing in (what is of­ten re­duc­tively la­beled as) a post­mod­ern aes­thetic, crit­ics have of­ten sug­gested that Gra­ham’s po­etry is dif­fi­cult po­etry. Some­times this dif­fi­culty has led crit­ics to ac­cuse Gra­ham of ne­glect­ing her reader and of cre­at­ing in­tro­spec­tive work. Ex­am­in­ing her writ­ing in re­la­tion to ecopo­etry, Leonard Sci­gaj once said that it ‘di­vorces us too far from the prac­ti­cal world’. Fast does much to put th­ese crit­i­cisms to rest.

Should po­ems about eco­log­i­cal de­struc­tion, po­lit­i­cal geno­cide and ques­tion­able so­cial con­cepts of progress fail to con­vince the reader of this, then surely those po­ems about the ill­nesses and deaths of Gra­ham’s fa­ther and her mother will. In the last sec­tion of the book, ‘The Mask Now’ de­scribes her fa­ther’s pro­longed death: In last weeks wore red sleep­mask over eyes day and night. Would ride it up onto his fore­head for brief in­ter­vals, then down, pulled by hand that still worked. A bit. Some­times shak­ing too much so just cried eyes. Cried now now. Once cried out light – more like a hiss – was there for that. The pro­tracted hor­ror of the scene feels Beck­et­tian and is pur­sued in ‘Mother’s Hands Draw­ing Me’:

dy­ing – mother not want­ing to die – mother scared awak­en­ing each night think­ing she’s dead – […] now say­ing I dreamt I have to get this dress on, if I get this dress on I will not die – mother who can­not get the dress on be­cause of bro­ken hip and bro­ken arm and tubes and coils and pan

Th­ese in­ti­mate por­tray­als of death are deeply painful and af­fect­ing ele­gies in which both mother and fa­ther ap­pear des­per­ate to keep their hold on life. Af­ter Gra­ham writes of her fa­ther who ‘Wants trans-/ fu­sions which we with­hold […] Would buy no // time’, anec­dote be­comes metaphor: ‘ “I’ve wrapped stumps in / black plas­tic when they’ve re­fused to die” says Leila, lo­ca­tion Welling­ton, / posted 4 years ago on per­ma­gar­den­ing’. Whilst such lines are dis­tress­ing to read, cu­ri­ously, a cer­tain tenac­ity comes to the fore that evokes, per­haps in a more poignantly quo­tid­ian man­ner, Dy­lan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night’. As a way of con­clud­ing the book, th­ese po­ems bring a slight glim­mer of hope. Fast might im­merse us in mon­strous acts of en­vi­ron­men­tal and po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, our ob­ses­sion with progress, money, and our own in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, vir­tual worlds, but what still suc­ceeds is the wish to live on. Per­haps if we were to lis­ten to that wish we might, amongst all the ac­cel­er­a­tion, stop and think again as if it weren’t, in the words of ‘Cryo’, ‘too late’.

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