‘after it all went’

Jorie Graham, To 2040

Carcanet Press, 108pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781800173163

reviewed by Jack Barron

Samuel Beckett was something of a fortune-teller. That is, so much of his textual surface takes place on the pages and stages of uncertain futurity: think, for example, of Endgame’s possible apocalypse occurring without; of the brightening terror of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’; or of Krapp’s Last Tape, our eponymous clown flitting about his den, enveloped by some ‘late evening in the future’. Beckett will never properly disclose these subjunctive zones, which is their power: their forms and figures are only ever possible, projected indefinitely forwards, held abeyantly in a grammar (just) beyond our reach.

Jorie Graham’s latest collection — her last tape, as it were — is an apocalyptic lyric with Beckett ringing in its ears. The detection of these allusive affinities is not, I admit, a virtuosic piece of critical detective work on my part: Krapp’s Last Tape is there from the beginning, as one of three epigraphs (the other two are Shakespeare and Barry Lopez): ‘Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited’. This earth, beset with silence and potentially human-less, forms the ground for Graham’s struggling verse-figures, lit with the modality of ‘might’ and frequently arriving in questioning shapes:

    Are you
still alive there,
reading these words,

is the beautiful air

still shoving its
into my

Like much of Beckett’s late work, Graham’s prosody stutters with embattled life; lines and forms radiate bleakly in ‘the beautiful air’; inquisition gutters out in pieces. In this particular passage, that ‘beautiful air’ is both a name for poetry and the stuff we use to voice it: an atmosphere now thick with a breathless violence and pressurised by expansive, recalcitrant page-space.

Herein lies one of the important differences between Beckett and Graham: for the former, the linguistic and paginated blanknesses creates a complex, systemic ambiguity — one that does not, in my opinion, always benefit from the philosophical polyfilla so often applied to it (Beckett-as-existentialist, -phenomenologist, -environmentalist, -etc); for Graham, the uncertainty that might be generated by such grammatical disintegration is less important that the overt political urgency that it performs. That is: hers is a verse blistered by a massive sun, set in an all-too-possible future of environmental collapse.

This leads to a series of glitches in our reading, double-takes in the lines’ semantic register. Take for instance, the opening of ‘Dusk in Drought’: ‘Tongues in dusk / air are bats but I try’, in which the plural-disagreement disrupts my own attempt (‘I try’) to make meaning. Or else, later in the same poem,‘I wish I knew / whom to address / this time’. This time, the deictic uncertainty of ‘this time’ buckles our sense of place within the sentence. Indeed, throughout the four parts of To 2040, our world and the words that form it fall apart together, as though the sheer force of looming destruction is enough to un-grammar the first-person experience. It is a case of [sic] transit gloria mundi.

Much of the landscape in To 2040 is left bare: the book is larger and squarer than usual, and many of the poems, as noted, are reticent in their lineation. We are asked, therefore, not only to read the poems, but also their material — and environmental — reproduction, and wonder whether so much empty space can avoid irony in a sequence so explicitly concerned with ecological exploitation.

But the swathes of would-be waste are, by turns, quite literally justified by typographical switches to the right-hand margin. This subset of poems, spooling out across the page and against our customary reading habits (at least in the West), offers a second vocal texture, a counter-rhythm to the thinly fragmenting forms we otherwise encounter. This is not to say they alleviate our sense of disorientation, but that their movements are governed more by line than phonemic unit:

or are they just the bits & pieces of shadow
the pre-dawn world tosses
flagrantly around,
wasting nothing but making it feel
as if there were plenty, overmuch, endless—oh way more than enough to be
wildly wasted.

Clearly, the politics of waste and plenty are pressing concerns, and Graham’s poems often take these moments to perform acts of self-description through lines that unravel with syntactic delay, as though always in search of another thought, another possibility, so as to make the most of their time on the page. It is, in fact, rather difficult to quote the right-justified poems for this very reason: adverbs and verbs are held hoveringly at clause-ends (‘tosses / flagrantly around’; ‘to be / wildly wasted’), making it difficult to quote enough to retain the fullest sense of things. In this way Graham’s lyrics shimmer from parsimony to over-abundance, mimicking the effect and affect of overwhelming catastrophe.

This risky and ironic play is made through three sections proper, followed a coda. It is only in the last sequence that we are offered some mute hope: placed as it is in the prepositional zone of afterwards-ness, it functions as a version of what Freud called Nachträglichkeit, the recuperation of the past through delayed or deferred understanding — the dawn felt in the evening, as it may be. So we have:

after it all went, then,
one day,
out of in-
terference & dis-



    the rain


The past tense is both a kind of optimism and a possible tragedy: because, unlike Krapp’s Last Tape, Graham has given herself a time-limit, a countdown; it is a lyric sequence with a curious built-in obsolescence, dependent, for its final aspect, upon the future’s arrival. These poems are, that is, getting ahead of themselves.

‘Graham exposes’, the blurb tells us, ‘a potentially inevitable future’. At first glance, our brows may furrow at this mysterious oxymoron, given its impossible position as both ‘[potential]’ and ‘inevitable’. But perhaps its irreconcilability describes well our own resistance to the truth—a logical glitch that only too clearly reveals a capacity for self-deception (‘Don’t worry, it’s only potentially inevitable!’). ‘Potentially inevitable’, through its non-sense, describes the tension at the heart of To 2040 with painful success: it is, simultaneously, a title of future-ward lyric address and something akin to a toast, as though to a passing year. Once more in tune with Krapp’s Last Tape, in which ‘last’ is both his most recent and final recording, Graham’s timescape is warped from the get-go: both play and poems will always be out of time, but they offer us, in that flash of ambiguity, a moment of endless grace.

Jack Barron grew up in the North East of England and now lives in London. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge on managing (and/or failing to manage) the poet W. S. Graham. His work has appeared in Cambridge Quarterly, Critical Quarterly, PN Review, The Arts Desk, and elsewhere.