Through the Looking Glass and Beyond: Fast by Jorie Graham
Jorie Graham is a master orchestrator of thought; her poems have always treated thought as a kind of entity. Graham has studied this entity and given it a language that floods, eddies, pivots, and unfolds, and yet that language is elevated beyond thought’s actuality, which is transformed through this mimesis. But what if Jorie Graham’s entity—made up of a single person’s thoughts—met another entity, a bot, full of the encyclopedic knowledge of the internet as well as the user’s voice. The first of four sections in Graham’s most recent collection Fast explores this collision of minds, of art and information, of human and machine. The resulting poems are frenetic as they are thoughtful, their pace perhaps lacks the elegance of Graham’s earlier poems, and yet this is the point. Something here of the self is lost to modernity, to the cacophony of disembodied voices and to the many horrors of information floating around the internet like sand in the ocean.
And yet, something else is found.
A mirror, distorted yes, but the Graham’s bot can delve beneath that first layer of information—purchases, biographical information, searches, etc—and see essential parts of the speaker, her fears, her anxieties, her desires, her limitations:
…I know you can see the purchases, but who is purchasing me→can you please track that→I want to know how much I am worth→riverpebbles how many count them exact number→and the bees that returned to the hive today→those which did not lose their way→and exactly the neural path the neurotoxin took→please track disorientation→count death→each death…
The em dash’s throughout this poem, “Honeycomb” and other poems that engage with the bot are replaced with an arrow when the bot is being more directly spoken to. These arrows remind the reader of a computer keyboard, those arrows on the “enter,” “shift,” and “backspace” keys, it also suggests a continuous flow of energy that is being accessed.
That flow of energy often leads to anxieties over death approaching too quickly, the speaker’s death as well as the death of others. The engagement with the bot leads also to questions of embodiment, what does it mean to have a body that serves as a kind of container for this seemingly endless movement of thought. It is the failure and failing of this container—the body—that is at the heart of Jorie Graham’s collection Fast. As ultimately Graham also wants to know what does it mean to no longer have ownership over that container, either through death, violence, illness, or forced dislocation.
Though the bot still remains present in certain poems, after the first section there is a marked shift in tone, the collection becomes more directly personal than Graham’s previous books, as the speaker confronts her father’s death, her own illness, and later her mother’s declining health. The father’s death throws the universe off balance, time is suspect now that the speaker discovers that the person who helped create her can be removed from time. The moments following the father’s death are re-experienced through the poem:
Last night came on with you still here.
Now I wait here. Feel I can think. Feel there are no minutes in you—
Put my minutes there, on you, as hands—touch, press,
feel the flying-away the leaving-sticks-behind under the skin, then even the skin
abandoned now, no otherwise now, even the otherwise is gone.
The poem, “Reading to My Father” is less of an elegy and more of a capturing of a crucial moment in time, a disorienting moment where the fabric of a person’s existence is being reshaped. For the speaker, the experience is almost out-of-body, her mind wanders the time before her father’s death and anticipates the time after, it even harkens back to childhood and shows how the reverberations of this moment are felt across all experienced time. Though the poem is heart-wrenching, Graham is after something more than the normal confines of grief, she wants to understand what makes her alive, as well as what has become of her father on a cellular level as well as on a spiritual one.
Graham sees the systems of the body as being connected to the larger systems of the world—political, cosmic, scientific. Though these poems are often framed within real moments: at her father’s deathbed, inside an MRI machine, on the telephone with a medium; they open up beyond those moments to encompass larger questions of selfhood and even nationhood. Graham’s restless searching illuminates the illusions of self-possession while exhibiting the processes of being. The problem with being is that othering is a symptom of embodiment; in Graham’s poems the body is recognized as a border we are always struggling with. Graham works to understand the afterlife, disembodiment, the body when cryogenically frozen, the mind as it disintegrates, the end of all life as well as the beginning of all life.
Jorie Graham’s work is always admirably ambitious in its scope, innovation, and its thinking, and Fast is no exception. It is a marvel to have access to a mind unmoored, to a translation of thought more concerned with the unseen than the visible. Like the birds in the collection’s closing poem, Graham knows “what to find in the unmade / undrawn unseen unmarked” and she too has “dragged it into here—that it be / visible." In another poem she commands, “Look at, then through,” it is a tall task for most of us, but Graham has made it her life’s work. And our understanding of consciousness, language, and the subjective reality have been enriched beyond measure. Jorie Graham’s work is unlike any other poet’s, and though I am late to discovering her work, I find myself—completely enthralled.
Brunch: Burrata is one of my favorite foods, every time I see it on a menu, I have to order it. Recently I started buying it and have had fun pairing it with different flavors. Today I did a twist on a classic caprese salad by adding dry-roasted walnuts (I toast them in a skillet, they have a rather distinctive flavor when toasted without oil) and Kalamata olives. The dressing is a balsamic glaze, but often I serve this with fig jam mixed with olive oil, it tastes particularly good with blood oranges and arugula. I decided to try a new flavor of Kombucha for once, this one is blood orange and carrot, I admit it was rather tasty. For dessert, Trader Joe’s speculoos cookie butter ice cream with cocoa nibs sprinkled on top. Ice cream is always better when served in a tea cup!
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester