With Swarm, her first new collection since The Errancy, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jorie Graham has given us a book-length sequence of poems stunning in its sober encounter with destiny, eros, and law.The narrator, at times almost vertigo-ridden by the problem of who is addressed-whom there still is to address-negotiates passionately with those powers human beings feel themselves to be "underneath": God, matter, law, custom, the force of love.
To "swarm" is to leave an originating organism'a hive, a home country, a stable sense of one's body, a stable hierarchy of values -- in an attempt, by coming apart, to found a new form that will hold. The Roman Empire, its distillation in the Forum's remains, the Romantic imagination of that buried past ("underneath"), as well as the collapse of the erotic border between lovers' bodies, are persistent metaphors for the destabilization and reformation of the idea and sensation of personhood.
The "first" person and "enjambment" are characters in this book, as are the fragment, the gap, the sentence. And everywhere lovers seek to find the borders that must break as well as those that must at all cost hold. Clytemnestra await-ing Agamemnon, Calypso veiling Ulysses, Daphne accepting Apollo -- a variety of mythological characters reappear here, ea-ger to plead their stories into sense, desper-ate for some insight into the buried justice of natural law.
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