Jorie Graham’s The Dream of a Unified Field

Jorie Graham has been honored in just about every way it is possible for America to honor a poet, including the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for The Dream of a Unified Field, a selection of poems from 1974 to 1994. She was born in Rome, the daughter of Bill Pepper, head of the Newsweek Rome bureau, and Beverly Pepper, the sculptor, and was expelled from the Sorbonne for participating in the student protests of 1968; she then transferred to New York University, where she studied film until running across the work of T. S. Eliot. She has been called “a European poet transplanted to America,” and speaks in a manner “that is both lush and hauntingly other.” To enter into this book is to wander into a rich and compelling universe where the boundaries we set up to organize our experience have very little meaning because Graham has broken them down to build new ones.

Graham’s work is a set of resolved contradictions – ecstasy and contemplation, the lofty and the commonplace, the rapture of engagement and the distance of description. Graham juxtaposes small everyday details of life against fearless quests into the most potent meanings, somehow – and this is real artistry – making the bridge undetectable:

A bird re-entering a bush,
like an idea regaining
its intention, seeks
the missed discoveries
before attempting
flight again.

(“One in the Hand,” from Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts.)

This collection is also a journal of ever-increasing formal complexity: Graham takes risks. Ideas, images, phrases teeter on the brink of chaos, and are somehow resolved into clarity, a function of Graham’s intelligence and discipline. It is a given that a good poet will create images that push against the limits of reality; Graham’s images push harder than most, yet retain a clearness of vision that only reinforces their potency. She uses a sense of disjunction to create new unities, as in “The Phase After History,” from Region of Unlikeness, which begins with a “two juncos trapped in the house” and moves on to a suicidal student, “The face on him that he’d tried to cut off./Starting at the edge where the hair is fastened,” and moving on to the narrator’s reflections, which become another event that ties the juncos and student into a larger story, welding connections among various states of reality.

Even though I tend to write about things for which I feel great enthusiasm, I seldom really rave about a book or an author; in Graham’s case, I am prepared to, partly because it was exceptionally difficult for me to be articulate about this work at all. About all I could say (after over a week of trying) was “WOW!” It was not easy getting a handle on these poems: it took work, and it was worth every drop of mental sweat, every aching synapse. Let me just say that there are a very few writers in any form whose work is exciting enough that it strikes sparks, that scant handful of wordsmiths who make me want to pick up a pen and strike out on my own because their work has such energy and their vision such resonance that I can’t sit still any longer. Jorie Graham is firmly in that company.

(Ecco Press,1995)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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