In Jorie Graham’s new poetry collection, a search for grace amid the palpable horrors of climate change.
To 2040, by Jorie Graham, Copper Canyon Press, 95 pages, $25
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In a 1997 New Yorker profile of Jorie Graham, author Marilynne Robinson notes her friend’s unusual sense of scale: “If she buys some wretched little plant and it puts out a wretched little blossom, it’s a miracle! When you go shopping with her, the most ordinary thing in the world seems to bulge out at her.” This predisposition to finely gauged awe is a hallmark of Graham’s work. Since her debut in 1980, the writer—one of the most lavishly laureled American poets of her generation—has cultivated a vertiginous kind of double vision. She regularly splices together minute details of the physical world with airy ruminations on cosmic themes, shifting gears at such speed that the reader feels able to behold the macro and the micro within the same visual field.
It’s an impressive trick, one that bears the influence of Soviet montage editing, which Graham absorbed in her film-school days. But, especially earlier in her career, her motivations weren’t quite clear. In the past, it has seemed as if she were bringing us to the edge of comprehensibility not to examine anything particular about the human condition but to keep the banality of existence at bay. If you’re able to turn every observation into an unsolvable metaphysical riddle, then you never have to confront just how mundane life often feels.
Something like a breakthrough occurred several books ago, in the late 2000s, when Graham zeroed in on climate change as her central theme. The warming of the planet and the rising of sea levels, the extinction of immeasurable swaths of plant and animal life, the displacement of hundreds of millions of people: these intersecting disasters overflow the mind and warp consciousness. They make a mockery of the senses, and of time itself. If art is always something of an opportunistic enterprise, then Graham is right to seize upon subject matter that can propel her to new creative horizons. Her style once seemed to be casting around for its purpose, but now all her old tics—the twitchy digressions and weird punctuation, the accordion-like contractions and expansions of her lines—are tools she wields with white-knuckle urgency. They allow her to approximate a metastasizing polycrisis that words alone can’t contain.
The title of her haunting new book, To 2040, refers to the year in which temperatures are projected to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. From the beginning, you can hear exhaustion in the poet’s voice. Graham’s four previous collections on this subject—Sea Change (2008), Place (2012), Fast (2017), and Runaway (2020)—are packed with dauntingly dense blocks of text, evoking the frantic mind of someone trying to process the glut of information climate science has produced in recent decades. In contrast, many of the poems in this volume consist of terse quatrains that leave a lot of blank space on the page. The opener, “Are We,” poses a string of brief questions that end in periods (“Are we / extinct yet. Who owns / the map.”), as if the speaker couldn’t bear to hear the foregone conclusions. Question marks would imply some degree of uncertainty—an inappropriate response to a cataclysm that can no longer be denied.
Graham has always aspired to a kind of X-ray perception, but frequently in To 2040 she professes to have trouble seeing. This difficulty assumes many forms. In certain instances, the poet isn’t sure about the veracity of what she’s witnessing: at one point, she’s visited by a raven but then is told by a pitiless sun that the bird “left a / long time ago.” Elsewhere, she becomes frustrated by her inability to observe things from the right perspective (“From this height / above the ground I see / too much”) or to recall objects she’s just laid eyes on (“I squint them / in—gripping before / this memory / fades”). She seems to ask: If we can’t hold an image in our minds of what we’re losing, how can we hope to save it?
The fear of compromised vision is heightened by the dread of being surveilled and controlled. A nefarious “they” crops up repeatedly (“They tell me the gate to the next-on thing is bloody but warm”), as does a drone, and a woodpecker that promises revelation but first pierces the speaker’s flesh with its beak. As Earth spirals into chaos, Graham’s grasp of her place in the world becomes ever shakier. “Where are you my / tenses,” she cries, unable to distinguish the present from a future whose breath is hot on our necks. At times alienated from her own body, at others bewildered by it, she hears her hands speaking to her as if to a stranger, and feels her face as if it were a cold pane of glass.
Long stretches of To 2040 read like scenes in a horror movie, but the book’s most satisfying effects are those of melodrama. In an echo of Robinson’s assessment of Graham’s excitable personality, the poet confesses to a fragile constitution: “The sight of me / is of a thing with / too much heart.” So much of what’s been written about Graham over the decades has focused on her tendency toward the cerebral, the ostentatiously brainy, but I think we might do better to understand her as a skillful orchestrator of big feelings. The hellscape she conjures in these pages is grim not just because it’s the poet’s political imperative to make it so, but also because these doomful images allow her occasional gestures of tenderness and grace to move us all the more intensely. The final poem beautifully describes the miracle of rain as an “accident of / touch”—a moment when nature’s mangled systems draw near, proving to us they still have meaning. Graham is a master of tension and release, and after all the brutality in this book, it’s a relief to imagine the feeling of water on skin.
If Graham’s approach seems overwrought on occasion, perhaps that’s in part because of how she prizes subjective experience. Driven by the author’s commitment to capture her own mercurial sensations on the page, these poems don’t leave much room to reckon with the fact that the most devastating consequences of climate change have been and will continue to be shouldered by disempowered and disadvantaged communities that have done little to cause this crisis. It would seem that writing so capacious should find a way to accommodate such an essential truth; because it doesn’t, Graham’s work ends up missing something fundamental about a tragedy that requires us to think past the limitations of individual consciousness. At the same time, this fiercely blinkered perspective might actually be necessary in her effort to convey that climate change is not a misfortune scheduled to befall later generations, but one that is already happening to us. In that sense, To 2040 is a powerful attempt to fathom a scale of destruction we don’t yet know how to feel, let alone mourn.
Andrew Chan is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. His first book, Why Mariah Carey Matters, will be published by University of Texas Press in September.