The poet Jorie Graham isn’t a robotic woman. In fact, as she stood in front of a group of Yale students, she seemed to be the most human, vivid one in the room. Her hair, captured like a wild animal in the black and white photos of her youth, fell into a gold wave behind her ears. A blue shawl rested comfortably on her shoulders. Most natural were the words she offered — those from poems written between 1976 and 2014, selected for her book “From the New World.” She shared pieces from its just-released pages on Monday evening in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.
When she read the poem “Fast,” her right hand moved differently than the rest of her body. It jerked with her syllables, twitched up and down with her intonations like a small machine. The poem is about her experience chatting with an online bot (think of Spike Jonze’s “Her”), and the moving hand broke her organic image for a few minutes.
Like that hand-body divide, Graham’s new collection wrestles with, as she put it, a “dismembered sense of self.” Only four poems out of the book’s 105 are previously-unpublished, but she considers it a new body of work. The way she tells it, the book seems to have had a life of its own. “It’s precisely the book you don’t write, but the one your life writes,” she told us. “It uses you to get written.”
The span of the writing reflects Graham’s impressive track record. Currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, she has won the Pulitzer Prize, taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and been dubbed “one of the most celebrated poets of the American post-war generation” by the Poetry Foundation. Other sources consistently call her “a badass” (for her talent as well as her powerful eyeliner). Her work oozes approachable yet complex philosophy, the kind found in the fibers of quiet, everyday experiences; it gains an iron force when shaped by her voice.
At the reading, Graham recited her poems in the order they were written. She wrote “The Geese” while holding her first teaching position in Kentucky, and in it you can detect the uncertainty of youth and new surroundings: “There is a feeling the body gives the mind / of having missed something, a bedrock poverty, like falling / without the sense that you are passing through one world, / that you could reach another / anytime.” Passing from poem to poem, she seemed to age. “On Difficulty,” a piece about Adam and Eve, uses history to achieve a universal lamentation. The audience hummed in affirmation, the way one often does, after the last lines: “When you look away / who will they be dear god and what?”
As her self evolves in “From the New World,” so do Graham’s priorities. She prefaced the works on Monday by describing her shift in poetic interests and anxieties, which moved from nature, to war, to climate change (a kind of equation). The book’s title poem was written during a violent Iowa rainstorm, but “at this point, we are in perpetual war, perpetual storm,” she said. “Lull” came next, another account of being at the mercy of nature. In it, the speaker prepares for rain that never comes and assumes the identity of a fox. Although written in the first person, the poem feels less centered. It’s a 360-degree view of humans and their greed.
“Fast,” the poem about the online bot, closed the reading. Out of everything Graham read, it was easily the most detached, the most purposefully processed. Short sentences, like “I’m not alone. People come back / again and again. We are less kind than we think” give it at a rapid motion, as if it were information being digested by a computer. Yet it’s somehow still refined, just like her meditations on geese, Eden and weather. Graham made clear the “dismembered sense of self,” this time in a way more insidious and dramatic than before.
“It’s very interesting to grow up,” she said, a few minutes before we all left the room. “None of us are what we thought we were, are we?”