Homeland Insecurity

Overlord, Jorie Graham
[9.95, Carcanet,]

'Being alive is a crock of shit.'
     (Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut)


The Simpson family are standing on a hilltop, watching shooting stars sweep across the stratosphere. 'Aww,' says Homer, wistfully, 'I wish
God was still alive to see this.'
The Simpsons, last Tuesday)


 'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone... just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had.'
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald)


'So long. Fearlessness of the American. / How you are hated. Everywhere. So long.'
     (from 'Passenger' from
Overlord by Jorie Graham)


America is an introspective, self-loathing country. In much of its art over the previous century, America takes a good, long look in the mirror and accuses itself of having invented capitalism, Puritanism, right-wing crypto-Methodist fundamentalism, Starbucks, labour exploitation, deforestation, Ayn Rand, racism, homophobia, golf, the stock-exchange, war, poverty, boredom, McDonalds, international unrest and terrorism. For a relatively young country, America has a lot on its conscience.


The mirror is a pivotal image in
Overlord. It is the metonym of the collection and everything refers back to it. There are six 'attempts' at praying throughout the collection - and they sting with the lethal introspection of the devout agnostic: What if, when we pray, we are simply talking to ourselves?


There is a Raymond Carver-like sense of isolation and insomnia to some of these which is really quite affecting:

     I don't know where to start. I don't think my face
     in my hands is right. Please don't let us destroy
     Your world. No
the world. I know I know nothing. I know I
     can't use you like this. It feels better if I'm on
     my knees, if my eyes are pressed shut so I can see
     the other things, the tiniest ones.
           (from 'Praying (Attempt of May 9 '03)')

And, in the same poem,  a seemingly casual altercation with the whole Language School 'What are words?' thing:

     it is already being lost here, the channel is filling
     in, these words - ah - these, these -
     how I don't want
them to be the problem too, there are
     so many other obstacles, can't these just be part of
     my body...

Which is thought-provoking, I guess. I might write a paper on
Avant Garde Poetics and Christianity. Gosh, I'd kill for an Ashbery non-sequitur. Overlord is so po-faced.


     but is there such a thing as news,
     or even history? Yes, when you want to go back
     after a while and appraise the accumulation
     of leaves, say, in the sandbox.
     The rest is rented depression,
     available only in season
     and the season is always next month,
     a pure but troubled time.
          (John Ashbery, 'Composition')


That's better. In the margin of the first poem in this collection, the me of a few months ago wrote 'Ashbery without the jokes' - a sentiment I am inclined to agree with. Six of the long poems are entitled 'Praying (Attempt of...)' and are full of distraction and fear and interesting titbits. Some poets keep scrap-books.

     This morning before dawn no stars I try again.
     I want to be saved but from what. Researchers in California have
     discovered a broken heart causes as much distress
     in the pain centre of the brain as physical injury.

This piecemeal information can become stricken and moving, as when the narrator of the same poem exhorts,
     Keep us in the telling I say face to the floor.
     Keep us in the story. Do not force us back into the hell
     of action, we only know how to kill.

Which struck me as good the first time I read it


The world sucks. Life sucks: 'These are givens: / poverty, greed, un- / expectedness. The bubble of the
now being emitted from the / blossoming / then. That's all. Maybe disappearance - as of the moon / to the horror of the men already in dark.'


Remember Juliana Spahr's
This Connection of Everyone with Lungs? That's a pretty good reference-point, I think. And the same criticisms apply: A poet can make a sound, politically right-on point about how much war and suffering sucks. But would I not get the same result if I read a good newspaper or turned on the radio? 'What a Terrible World' poetry is so hot right now, especially in the States. And am I the only one who finds the 'Where's God in all this death and disaster?' somewhat inapt - as if war, famine, greed and corruption are a twenty-first century phenomena that disproves Christianity once and for all? Has anyone read the Book of Judges? We're getting off pretty lightly, I think. Where's God when I stub my toe? Why didn't he stop that?


PARODY, (Attempt of November 30, 2005)

Jorie Graham writes in a loose
vers-libre that is riddled with self-
doubt and constantly interrupts itself -
Is it disrespectful? Ill-mannered to write a review as pastiche? -
Which I suppose is a kind of antiphony.
The lines sometimes run on and on and on, occasionally threatening
To turn into prose. Her writing has a shape, certainly, but little sense of
The 'line as unit'. The lines are way too long for that, definitely, I think. And when       most of them are quite repetitive, that's a weakness.
There are lots of introspective (but are they?
Really?) interjections - that is to say,             interjections of a self reflexive attitude;
Oh, and did I mention repetition? Replication?
And some of what Bertrand Russell would probably call 'gratuitous name-dropping.'
Oh gosh, I'm being relentlessly horrible again, aren't I?
Sometimes I meet someone and they say, 'Oh, you're not half so hunched and twisted     as I expected you to be from your reviews.'
I don't mean you to get the impression that Graham's writing is without merit.
There is a tumultuous, breathless cadence to match
The genuine sense of urgency one gets from the poems' content.
[She also uses a lot of square brackets] [they open and close] [at random]
[No, I'm not sure why either] Sometimes she breaks off the rumination to
Deliver a truly startling last line like:

            Don't worry where else I am, I am here. Don't
            worry if I am still alive, you are.

At the end of 'Dawn Day One' - which I love.
(Although I feel sure I've read a similar couplet before somewhere.)


Jorie Graham was recently accused of nepotism and double-dealing in the Foetry debacle - an expose of the corrupt world of American poetry, started by a man whose wife was an aspiring, unpublished poet. Throughout the relatively (in poetry terms) high-profile affair, Graham's name was invoked with malicious frequency. The crux of the matter (for anyone who's less of a poetry nerd than I am - and doesn't have a day job that includes hours of internet time-wasting), was that Graham had granted a major poetry award (in which submissions were accompanied by $20 cheques and the prize included publication) to her husband. I was thinking of not making reference to this at all to show that I am above it, but it must have been playing on her. Must make for troubled sleeping.


I really like
The Dream of the Unified Field - Graham's selected poems from 1974 - 1994. I don't really like Overlord.


There are some WWII poems in
Overlord - a reference to Operation Overlord, the largest sea-born invasion in history (involving three million troops crossing the English Channel to Normandy). On tour around France, Graham has the sense that the past is not really past - not in a contemporary unrest kind of way, but in the metaphysical Henri Bergsson kind of way. See 'Europe (Omaha Beach 2003)':

     ...Boats, surf, cries, miles, pools, bars, war. No
     container, friend. No basic building blocks 'of
     matter.' No constituent particles from which everything
     is made. No made. No human eye. The rules?
     Everything speeding towards 'the observer.' Who is
     that? The other who is me perceives
     the tiny stream of particles, hazy,
     the superimposition of states. Entanglement. Immediacy.
No time has passed from then. No now.

This is somewhat undermined by the poems made of unedited quotations from men who fought in Operation Overlord.

     A convoy ahead of us by a few days was hit, many ships sank.
     I saw the bodies of so many sailors and soldiers floating by us

     with all the other debris and ice on the water...


     The three of us Jake, Joe and I became an entity.
     An entity - never to be relinquished, never to be

     repeated. An entity is where a man literally insists
     on going hungry for another. A man insists on dying for
     an other. Protect. Bail out. No regard to

     consequence. A mystical concoction.' A last piece of bread.
     And gladly. You must understand what is meant by
          (from 'Spoken From the Hedgerows')

This is a great sentiment, well expressed, but it belongs to someone else. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy found poetry as much as the next PhD student, but I think it requires a pretty major recontextualisation of the chosen material. Fridge instructions as a love poem. Cat food ingredients as political protest. Whatever. But here we are to admire Graham
as a poet for interviewing someone about their experiences in Operation Overlord and writing it out, verbatim, in a poem about the experiences of soldiers in Operation Overlord. Well it won't stand. Congratulations on a good interview. It would look fab in an anthology of WWII memoirs.

As discussed above, a lot of the other poems are about God - who stands here, I suppose, as the ultimate Overlord. This strikes me as one of those synthetic analogies a poet might use when they want to place some WWII poems that have been gathering dust in a desk draw since the commission. I'm sorry for being cynical. I have a cold, okay?


'Wartime is business as usual: for hand grenade manufacturers and poets.'
     (Jim Behrle)


There are some wonderful lines among all this - stuff that reminds me why I liked Jorie Graham in the first place:

     Are you an entire system of logic and truth?

Lines that disguise their own weight. And I have no doubt that the pain and frustration expressed are genuine. It is a thoroughly honest collection:

     Are we 'beyond salvation'? Will you not speak?
     Such a large absence - shall it not compel the largest presence?
     Can we not break the wall?
     And can it please
not be a mirror lord?
          (from 'Little Exercise')

It's just that on the whole, it would be more worthwhile talking over these things with someone you knew - they probably have more or less the same fears, and at least then you could put your arm around them. One of the 'Praying' poems is mostly about a cat Graham and her husband found in a hedge. The cat has been diagnosed with AIDS - which, again, is very sad. I love cats. I still have poems I wrote when I was twelve about my cat dying. Stop me if I'm being a complete bastard, but there's something a little tasteless - no, not tasteless, just blinkered - in a poet creating an analogy between all the suffering of the Second World War and the desperate state of the world and their cat dying.


That said, there are some fine moments of clarity and transparency so unremittingly introspective they become universal, whether feverish, as in 'Physician':

     ...The bugle boy
     enters into the room, shyness in him, then the note
     is sounded. A crowd of horses tries to turn around in
     the small room - the bed in their way - the nightlights

Or horror-struck by insignificance, as in 'Disenchantment':

     you are but a little flash, a cloud taking form in my neuron chamber, my brainpan,
     in your
site of my manufacturing of you -
     not to mention all the cultural variables - that I am white, a woman, live in
     x, earn my means via y - in a
     city, on a portion of the globe where empire collects its secrets - where I
     am one of its secrets - prey to the fine dust of its ideology,
     which slips into my very gaze this dawn...

Also, the writing occasionally intensifies - when Graham focuses on something physical or uses a metaphor (Woohoo! Poetry!):

     You have to recover hope, says the moon. Are you
     kidding? I reply. The moon rises further. No,
     you have to think about the whole situation from some
     perspective. Like how? My head is full of blood. So is
     my mouth. The moon is full. Did you already know that
     somehow, before I said it here, I ask...
          (from 'Disenchantment')

     I search for gratitude, as if feeling around in a
     park after nightfall for a lost hat...

This is like finding a twenty pound note in an old jacket, so absent is allegory and image from the rest of the collection.

'This is what is wrong: we, only we, the humans, can retreat from ourselves and / not be / altogether here.' Graham declares in 'Other'. 'That's great,' says the reader. 'Now what the blazes do you mean by it? How about a metaphor? Pretty please?'

'...Zeno reasoned we would / never get there. Reason in fact never gets there. / But we step back onto the path each time.' she says in 'Dawn Day One'. 'Excellent,' says the reader. 'I've read some Zeno. Or at least the Jorge Luis Borges parable where he mentions him. Now do something fun with Zeno! Turn him on his head! If we want Zeno, we'll read Zeno!'

More often than not, the reader is left to do this for herself.


     Something keeps you up at night, though.
     Something must. What is it. What is it keeps you up at night.
     Let no one persuade you you do not exist. Yes yes
     you too are destined to die.
          (Jorie Graham, 'Copy')


               ...If, nevertheless,
     you have to worry, confine your worrying
     to one subject: money is always a good choice.
    Never worry about 'the absurdity of existence,'
     or similar large vaguenesses which are really like
     the memory of a grandmother who died before you were born.
     What good will it do you? And do not become enslaved to anything.
          (John Ash, 'Some Words of Advice: After Hesiod')

                Luke Kennard 2006