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By Jorie Graham
109 pp.; $22
From her first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (Princeton University Press, 1980), to her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dream of a Unified Field: Selected Poems (Ecco, 1996), Jorie Graham has drawn the attention of the poetry establishment's opinion makers. (Her honors include being elected to the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets and directing the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.) A prophetess of postmodernism and a cult figure to thousands of young coffeehouse philosophers, she has also gained a degree of celebrity rarely attained by contemporary poets.
Graham's new book, The Errancy, will not, however, add to the luster of her reputation. What electrified the literary world 17 years ago as an inventive approach to the English language has turned into a dialect all Graham's own. Her poetry draws its form primarily from stuttering, dreamlike speech patterns, which she conveys with heavy use of parenthesis, quotation marks, hyphenated phrasal nouns, and "mysterious" pronouns ("thing," "it," etc.). Graham has always italicized words and phrases the reliability of which she doubted or the mystery of which she wished to enhance. But in The Errancy, her italics are cliches. They refer to the canon of Graham's own poetry more than anything else.
Here's an example of several of these effects at once: "the place of disappearance has disappeared, / it cannot be recovered, his eyes darting over the moving waters, / and how a life cannot be lived therefore, as there is no place, / in which the possibility of shapelessness begins to rave, / and the soldiers awakening, of course, to the blazing not-there."
There's not much story to follow in The Errancy. Judging from the title, one might expect reference to some epic mistake—say, the Fall. But Graham is referring instead to what she perceives as a lack of essence at the heart of our experience of the world, confounding the desire for certainty ...