A contrary poet friend once opined: there are people who don't get Jorie Graham, and then there are people who pretend that they do. Swarm finds the Pulitzer Prize winner operating at more than her usual level of opacity. Bumps and jumps, bizarre spacing, a certain fascination with center justification--this is poetry that sits as uneasily on the page as it does in the reader's mind. Not that there aren't moments of arresting lyricism in her eighth volume--notably, the title poem, in which a transatlantic phone call becomes a stirring (if oblique) meditation on separation and identity: "listen to / the long ocean between us / --the plastic cooling now--this tiny geometric swarm of / openings sending to you / no parts of me you've touched, no places where you've / gone--"
But all too often, the reader finds little that's this concrete to catch hold of: Graham seems to specialize in making the abstract more so. As in past volumes, the poet holds her gorgeous phrasing sternly in check. Here, however, Graham goes further, stripping away all of her art's usual trappings: image, music, the sensory world. "I have severely trimmed and cleared," she informs us, in "From the Reformation Journal," and indeed she has. "Uncertain readings are inserted silently," she adds, traveling away from the problematic first person even as an editor/interrogator both cross-examines and defends the result. In other poems, both God and the beloved figure as "radiant absence," and even a glance in the mirror--"that exit wound"--leads us away from rather toward ourselves.
A swarm, as Graham's notes rather immodestly inform us, is "a body of bees which ... leave the hive or main stock, gather in a compact mass or cluster, and fly off together in search of a new dwelling-place, under the guidance of a queen." Accordingly, these poems find her in the process of abandoning the tropes of mythology and religion, busily destabilizing the old forms in search of the new. Does Graham discover her new dwelling-place? "Explain," the imperative voice in Swarm repeatedly begs, and it's an entreaty worth heeding. Read these poems once, read them again, and you still may be no closer to an answer than you were before. --Mary Park