This is the final part of Joan’s essay.
When viewing the poems of Jorie Graham in the Sea Change collection, it’s a little harder to pinpoint place. Graham’s poems have narrators that inhabit more of an internalized physiological place. This is a much different approach than Tretheway’s internalization of place. Graham does not rely on characters influenced, defined or trapped by place. There are few external settings in Graham’s poems. There is also not the hierarchal feeling we get from Hull’s poems or the definite characterization in the sense of place we see with Di Piero.
Graham, instead, has a feeling of total embodiment in her poems as if it is both a foundation and a place of diffusion and dispersal. The narrators inhabit the world around them as they inhabit their own psyche. In the title poem of the collection “Sea Change” Graham begins her poem from this viewpoint that everything from wind, to news, to how the body feels is all interconnected:
“One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger than
ever before in the recording
of such. Un-
natural says the news. Also the body says it. Which part of the body—I look
feel it, yes, don’t know
where. Also submerging us,
making of the fields, the trees, a cast of characters in an
drama, ordained, iron-gloom of low light, everything at once undoing
itself. Also sustained, as in a hatred of
a thought, or a vanity that comes upon one out of
nowhere & makes
one feel the mischief in faithfulness to an
There are several key phrases that strike the reader aside from the flow from the distance of wind, the detachment of the news and the ultimate feeling within the body of this impending change or doom: Submerging us, unnegotiable drama, sustained, as in a hatred of a thought, mischief in the faithfulness to an idea. The reader feels as though this “wind” this “feeling within the body” and this “everything at once undoing itself” reaches the physical, psychological, and emotional. But in relation to place, the body is the foundation of meditation. Sensations and feeling become immediate responses and are used here to exact a sense of truth. As if from the grounding of the body comes the wisdom for experiencing sensations that speaks to the body of instantaneous truth. Even though the emotional and physical body appears to be on the same level in this hierarchy, the body and the emotions that speak to truth are all illusive. Place in fact, has no more bearing than a feeling within the body. Everything is interconnected with the same importance.
Graham speaks of the body in the same terms used to describe an eco-system. By doing this, she reminds the reader how powerfully we are connected to nature. She also reminds us how tenuous this connection can be if not nurtured and how, in destruction, the body will feel “everything at once undoing / itself.”
“Like the right to
privacy—how strange a feeling, here, the right—
consider your affliction says the
wind do not plead ignorance, & farther and farther
away leaks the
past, much farther than it used to go, beating against the shutters I
have now fastened again, the huge mis-
understanding round me now so
the center of this room, listening—oh,
these are not split decisions, everything
is in agreement, we set out willingly, & also knew to
play by rules, & if I say to you now
somewhere the thought won’t outlast
the minute, here it is now, carrying its North
Atlantic windfall, hissing Consider
the body of the ocean rises every instant into
me & its
vaporation, & how it delivers itself
to me, how the world is our law, this indrifting of us
into us,” (4)
Graham has given us this place, a room with shutters fastened, and as with the other elements of this poem, the reader is not sure if this is an actual room or a metaphorical room; or for that matter, a metaphorical wind, feeling, impression or dilemma. This intermingling of senses allows the reader to experience this poem in a way that reaches them on an emotional level. Every reader can understand this idea of uncertainty and movement of change: how reverberation and regret in the form of past decisions can feel like a wind that encompasses everything. Graham takes this one step further though, reminding us that “the body of the ocean rises every instant” and that “the world is our law” which takes the reader outside of the narrator and into a state of mind where we must consider the larger, more intricate things around us. Our thoughts are carried out in concussive reverberations, which extend beyond the seemingly simple constraints of rooms and shutters and singular feelings.
In “Root End” Graham has the narrator moving through a well known house:
“The desire to imagine
Walking in the dark through a house you know by
Heart. Calm. Knowing no one will be
how you move among
the walls glide by, the desks, here a mirror sends back an almost unseeable
The movement of the narrator through this familiar house in which things “glide by” nearly unnoticed by the narrator suggests that this is only a placeholder and that, once again, it is the internalization of the familiar, the knowing “how you can move among / the underworld’s / furniture,” that is the more important sense of security for this narrator. The things in this place are only meaningful because the narrator takes comfort in the “knowing that no one will be / out there.” There is a sanctuary that the reader senses here, a feeling of complete control.
knotting of yet greater dark suggests
a door—a hallow feeling is a stair—the difference between
up and down a differential—so slight—of
and shift of provenance of
void—the side of your face
reads it—as if one could almost overhear laughter “down” there, birdcall “up” there—
although this is only an
analogy for different
the mind knows our place so
deeply well—you could run through it—without fear—even in this total dark—“ (48)
This idea of the skin, the brain and the body understanding where you are is so interesting. This place exists as an extension of the mind so intrinsically that the brain and body can sense what is there, what is not there, and what will be there in one thought. This is not a place that: controls, traps, or defines the character or narrator. This is a place defined and controlled by the narrator in a very definite way.
“look hard for where they rise and act, look hard to see
what action was—fine strength—it turns one inside out—
what is this growing inside of me, using me—such that the
wind can no longer blow through me—such that the dream in me grows cellular, then
muscular, my eyes red, my birth a thing I convey
down this spiral staircase
made of words, made of
nothing but words—“ (50)
Graham takes the ending of this poem down to the minuscule structures of cellular and muscular growth of this “fine strength–it turns one inside out.” And then returning to the wind, but this time, “the wind can no longer blow through me” until finally we come to the last line of the poem “made of words, made of / nothing but words.” Graham has taken us through the house, the wind, the body, the mind, until finally we are left with “nothing but words.” This metaphysical interaction of the things around her: the wind, the body, the reverberating aftermath of decisions, and then finally only the words, brings this idea of not only internalized place, but a place controlled that ultimately becomes a lesser influence when pitted against the body, the brain and the physical interaction between these things and the vast world beyond it.
Place is an intricate tool used by all of the poets discussed here. Whether used to refine, delineate by extension, or by enhancing intimate characteristics, place plays an important role in the development of the narrator and other characters within the poem. Place can help chisel out intricacies and emotional relationships the narrator has to other characters. It can also help to broaden their viewpoint and bring them to reconciliation with the world around them. Place can pit the character against his or her past, themselves, entrap him or her within circumstance, or give the poet a springboard to jettison a character up and out of their surroundings and into a transcendent state of mind. Place not only helps guide the reader through the movement of the poem it also weaves in additional threads so the reader can see characters and images through the intimate lens of each poet. When used creatively, place can open up infinite possibilities to aid in the expansion and development of characters in poetry with this sense of concussive reverberations that expand, extend and continue to define how the narrators and characters move within their worlds.