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two poems diverged . . .


By Robert Stewart


The Montréal Review, January 2023


Mira Schendel
Untitled (Disks) (1972) Tate. © mira schendel estate


In the poem “I Catch Sight of the Now,” Pulitzer Prize recipient Jorie Graham weaves a series of images that relate to her hair coming out in the shower, certainly from chemo treatments.  Despite the built-in power of the poem’s subject, she continues throughout the two-page poem to reconsider and reinvigorate those images—the clumps of hair, a morning shower, her cold fingers, daylight “pouring itself” upon her, and the darkness, she says, inside of her. 

A friend of mine, a physician and a poet, also had read the poem in the same journal and, in a comment to me, focused on the history of hair, itself, of which, he said, “The hair must have recorded the presence of the tumor in every millimeter of growth,” offering me an insight, which the poem alludes to so subtly, I had not noticed in my own reading.  Isn’t that what discussions are for?  That science must be part of the poem’s molecular structure, and part of the thought structure of the poet, as she speculates on the possibility of warming herself at a fire and finding no fire at all, but nothing.  “It’s a very depressing poem,” my friend added, “with no hope anywhere in it—which of course is common.”

What the hell is wrong with me? I wondered.  I thought the poem was uplifting, invigorating.  As an editor for decades, I had said that a poem must have at least some scant element of hope to be worth anything.  I went back and reread the Graham poem; I returned to the speaker’s skinny neck, and the handfuls of clumps.  I saw more clearly the insinuation of science, where the speaker stares at her filaments of hair and observes of herself—“your years of having and not knowing”—the poet’s insight that comes near the end of the poem, which easily, in my way of thinking, could induce despair.

I happen to once have known Jorie Graham, casually, at least.  I sat with her for several hours in her kitchen one morning in Iowa City, many years ago, talking about poetry.  We corresponded and talked on the phone now and then.  I admired and continue to admire her force of intellect and brightness, and this poem, by all logic, should induce in me the same kind of depression my friend felt.  How, then, could the poem prompt in me something like jubilation? 

The late poet Michelle Boisseau often said to anyone who cared to know, “Poems are not about about.”  She said this, as well, to poets who relied too much or entirely on the drama of a poem’s subject.  Poems, she would say, succeed or fail by their own behaviors, structural and linguistic choices, interractions of light and dark.  Here is why this discussion matters.  While the topic, or subject, of the poem should not be dismissed—it provides context and engages our empathy, if clear and urgent, as is the Graham poem—the actual effect of the poem, our love for it, belongs to the operation of the language, itself.

“They say that ‘love is blind,’” writes the late Anthony de Mello in his book Awareness.  “Believe me,” he continues, “there’s nothing so clear sighted as true love, nothing.”  I could spend my time discussing the vivid, tentatively hopeful imagery at the start of Graham’s poem, which draws the reader in—“the window- / pane up there letting anything in and out that / wishes to pass.”  I could bow in approbation to the alliterative lyric, “I can feel / the years, the fissure in them, / these fractions here inside.”  Might that all have been a distraction, perpetrated to undermine reason for appreciation, if not for love in this poem?

Then, in a turn near the end of the poem, Graham rejects the handy, poetic image of daylight “pouring itself” in, and she says, “though it is not pouring anything at all, or into / anything at all because it is just the planet / turning again and again...”  Imagine.  Here, she asserts poetry’s unwillingness to settle for language that would distract from the truth, no matter how tough.  The consciousness of the poem, in other words, does not remain static.  Graham doesn’t forget but reimagines her own imagery, and confronts what is actually happening to her, and around her.

It is just the planet turning . . .  This act of simultaneous consistency and transcendence reveals, in part, why literature matters to people.  Why we love it.  After dutifully weaving a series of images throughout the poem, Graham seems to turn and face the reader.  Her hard-bitten refusal to deny what is actually present represents, to me, the heart of a successful poem and what a poem means by celebration.  I, at least, witness such language and become uplifted.  

I stand by that, in intense sympathy, yes, but equally in admiration.  Such capacity to be direct—call it courage—alludes many poets, no doubt all of us at one time or another.  Another poem in the same magazine, offers a suitable contrast, as it concludes with the metaphor of a bird with one wing, if you can imagine, to represent the speaker’s life after the illness and death of one parent.  The problem—problem being the accurate term; it is not an issue—is that no allusion previously in the poem has anything to do with a bird, or flight; the poem cites windows, light, eyes, laughter, a mask, memory, sun rays, and sunlight.  The final sweep of this poem, then, inadvertently provides an illustration, in contrast to the Graham poem, of poetic insufficiency.  The poet seems to have forgotten entirely about the poem he had been writing up to that point.  It’s as if the one-winged bird suddenly occurred to him, so he stuck it there at the end, a new poeticism, to represent his awareness. 

I don’t fault that poet for placing the one-winged bird, incongruously, arbitrarily, melodramatically, at the end his poem.  Good try, but it fails.  The conditions of serious illness, of loss or death, require honesty of poets greater than a mere poeticism or non sequitur.  I fault the editors for publishing a failed poem.  The job of an editor is to discriminate, to stand as the last line of defense between the public and bad art. 

I am forced, also, to ask that you accept my representation, bare as it is, of the second poem, because I don’t want to discourage the poet by identifying him.  I otherwise know nothing about him and don’t so much as remember his name, but I cannot forget reading that poem and coming to its disheartening—let’s say depressing—final two lines. Such disappointment, I assert, exists as a fact of the poem, objectively and valuably for those who want to understand poetic aesthetics; it cannot be qualified by claims that it’s just opinion

“Relationships in art,” wrote the abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, “are not necessarily ones of outward form, but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning.”  Objectively, the one-winged bird has no relationship, inner or outer, with anything else in the poem and does not, therefore, participate in the poem’s meaning, sympathetic or not.  Sloppiness of that kind exists in many poems I read in literary magazines and, in my view, needs to be addressed. 

While I’m at it, the phrase in my view is meant simply to keep me out of trouble.  I use it, but I don’t mean it.  It’s there to appease readers who might expect a critic to qualify his or her opinions, as to hollow out the notion of opinion, itself.  Kandinsky goes on to say that in art, theory does not precede practice but follows it.  I base my principles on the poem, itself.  In practice, these two poems of contrasting styles and aesthetics reveal that good art, exclusive of its occasion or subject, elevates us.  “Bad art,” says fiction writer and critic John Gardner, “is always basically creepy.  That is its first and most identifying sign.” 

“To see at last with a vision that is clear and unclouded by fear or desire,” writes Anthony de Mello, “you will know what it means to love.”  Graham sets out to represent the speaker’s state of being with her illness but ultimately embraces us readers in a more human and hopeful perplexity, as she says in her conclusion, “the / dark which is not itself actually dark / at all.”  It might be precious of me to say that Graham has written a love poem to her readers, but I think I know something now I did not know before about love. 

The one-winged bird in the other poem serves mainly as a tactic of evasion. Perhaps he thought the image to be clever, even profound.  Yet there is no hope in it anywhere.  The Graham poem seems to care about nothing but being as fully aware as possible. 

The distinction between my physician friend’s reaction to the Graham poem and my reaction seems to lie between structure and empathy.  I realize that my perspective on poetry as art has come to rest heavily on the notion of form, itself.  “I have always felt that the soul has two movements primarily,” wrote Yeats, “one to transcend forms and the other to create forms.”  I think Graham does both.  In that way, I find hope for the resurrection of the human spirit in poetry’s ability to transform even what appears at first like despair.  Poems don’t just forget about themselves in the course of composition, offering arbitrary and private conclusions; they gather themselves up and grow.

I am afraid, however, that my response replaces human empathy with a kind of technical gratification—Graham’s shift from mostly figurative word play to direct acceptance.  Sure, the one-winged bird poem suffers from willfulness, perhaps, but my reaction to the Graham poem suffers, as well, from too much hope that formal insight, call it structure, can save us.  Let’s say, the answer to my question, What the hell is wrong with me? seems to be that I have institutionalized my reverence for craft.  My physician friend understood Graham’s poem as an expression of suffering on a level poems were meant to be understood.  His experiences with such suffering, in combat and civilian practice, allow him, no doubt, responses I not only fail to understand but seem unable to imagine. 

I am stuck with it.  Because the Graham poem makes its crucial shift, near the end, toward utter and bitter clarity, the poem for me is an act of love.  I have to live with that.


 Robert Stewart is the former editor of New Letters magazine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  His books of essays include Outside Language (finalist for a PEN America award) and The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values.  His forthcoming book of poems, Higher, won the 2022 Prize Americana.


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