What Survives: A Review of Jorie Graham’s Runaway

Runaway by Jorie Graham. Ecco Press, 2020. 83 pages. $26.99.

Jorie Graham hears a buzzing we can’t. At the UK launch for her newest collection of poetry, Runaway, the poet walks out of the margins of the Zoom screen, too distracted by the mowers in her yard to continue reading. Please tell Jorie we can’t hear it, someone writes in the chat, while we gaze through the computer into her empty dining room, papers splayed on the table while in the yard a machine goes on inaudibly, humming down the blades of grass.

There is a certain appropriate strangeness in encountering Graham’s newest book in a digital space, only to be interrupted by an instance of human interference with nature. There are many machines in Runaway, many technologies of sound. “[I]t’s not our sound.” Graham writes, in “Whom Are You,” “we hear it & we know it well, it’s not our sound. Not us” (73). Some of these technologies are gifts, they connect us and offer something like companionship. But some are the kind of gifts which you wish you could give back—you didn’t know when you asked, what they would do, what they would cost you.

Graham is well known for her heady epigraphs (see Juleen Johnson’s collection of them, published in Jubilat 37), and here she reaches for Tennyson: “The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.” This line is drawn from the poem “Tithonus,” spoken in the voice of a mythological Greek prince who was granted immortality by the gods, but with one fatal flaw. Tithonus would never stop aging. In one version of the myth, Tithonus ages out of his human body and transforms into a cicada, shriveled & shrieking. With Tithonus, Graham sets us in mind of mortality and immortality, asking us to consider whether we have any ability to understand how our desires might live forever, and turn to horror. With this epigraph, Graham also signals Runaway as kin to The Wasteland, where Eliot’s apocalyptic vision proceeds from the Cumaean Sibyl. The Greek prophetess was similarly doomed to wither for eternity, until she was reduced to nothing but dust and voice, cast out of time and hoarsely begging for death. One wager of Runaway is that this state of half-life might already be our shared condition: “Are we already in the necroscape,” Graham writes in “From the Transience,” “Even as a machine I recall the dust and ash which everyone assured everyone else was just a small digression” (23).

The voice of Runaway is not yet reduced to begging, but Graham’s speaker confronts the gods who have forgotten what they gave us, how they made us—who refuse responsibility for the things we have become, as in “I’m Reading Your Mind”:

                                                          Surely in 2044 we shall be
standing in the field again, tending, waiting to surprise this god who thinks he knows
what he’s made. Well no. He does not know. We might be a small cavity but it
guards a vast hungry—how bad does that hurt you, fancy maker—you have no idea
what we turned our backs on to come be in this field of earth and tend—yes tend—
these flocks of minutes, whispering till the timelessness in us is wrung dry and we
are heavied with endgame. (8)

The gods are hustlers, and they have hustled themselves, too. For if we are near our natural end, shouldn’t the gods be frightened? If the only way to survive this is to turn our back on humanity, what happens to them? Graham has spent a career negotiating between the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen. The question Runaway asks, with a shifting sense of urgency, anger, fear, and expectation, is: what will happen to the invisible, when the visible goes?

“Exchange,” which comes at the center of the collection, imagines the second coming of Christ not as god-made-man, but as god-made-human-remnant, a twenty-first-century savior returning out of our planetary waste:

You. You at the door a crumpled thing when I open
surprised. Sing, you hiss. Prosecute, sentence, waving your thin not-arms like a dollar
bill, your bewilderingly moldy skin—one or two of you are you, are you a god now,
bony, wing-beaten down, smaller than
ever not dead as you should be but not
alive either (33)

The poem goes on to uncannily reenact John 2:13-16, as the Messiah, before his death, casts out the moneylenders and those who have made a mockery of the temple for profit:

                                     Are you newborn now, I
ask. Are you remnant. Why. Why are there moneylenders
you say swatting me away (33)

Graham’s concerns over environmental collapse entangle with global capitalism, with the human greed which has reduced our humanity and hemmed us in on all sides:

here’s where free choice vanished, here rights, here the
real meaning of the word—(you choose)—consequence, capital, commodity, con-
sumption. Community? (33)

There is no coming salvation from climate disaster, no millennial paradise after, and though the “inventors” will “not stop” (9), no technological fix will be able to wash us in the blood to start anew. “Something is preparing to begin again. It is not us” (6), she writes in “Tree,” and in “Exchange”: “Do you really want to / begin again” (35). With no opportunities to start over, there are only consequences, which, being irreversible, have lost their “real meanings”: “That’s the whole story. I will never know / what is there to know. You will not be changed. You must believe” (35).

Knowing salvation is impossible, Graham worries less about extinction and more about survival, what alternative forms of survival might look like, and what they might cost. Several of the book’s poems implicitly or explicitly address Graham’s grandchild, attempting to imagine what it might be to survive and remain human on this rapidly changing planet. In “Carnation/Re-In,” Graham imagines a Sibylean future for humanity, one where we might live forever in a reduced state, uploaded to a mainframe our consciousness struggles to understand: “What skin am I I ask. You have no skin / they say” (26). The poem continues, as the speaker attempts to probe the humanity of this new condition:

                                                Am I

alive. Of course you are. You are always going to be alive. If I could just turn and look at my self. Do I have a self where are my hands but then feel fingers and they are tucked in. We Used to have skins. Do I have other parts. Am I

on my knees. I must be pretty normal I think. Am I normal I ask. Human? (26)

On first reading, these poems might seem technophobic, and sometimes they are. Reading, “Carnation/Re-In,” I cannot help but recall the apocalyptic teachings of my Evangelical childhood, the certainty of some church elders that the mark of the beast would be a microchip implanted in my forehead. But more often, Graham subtly engages in a kind of collaboration with the digital space she is forced to occupy. These poems are typed, not written by hand, which we know in part because of moments like this one from “Overheard in the Herd”: “Who is they. That autocorrected to thy. Why.” In another poem, “Prayer Found Under Floorboard,” a moment of deletion—“delete there delete possess” (25)—highlights the computer as a container for our language, our inescapable digital companion. In “Siri U,” Graham earnestly addresses the virtual assistant, asking Siri, in a barely punctuated rush, “do you / see me” (74). The question repeats, desperate in its longing: “I am now clothed with my uselessness at your screen begging you to see me” (74). The witness Graham asks for in Runaway is often a maternal one (see also, “It Cannot Be” 70-71), a desire to be a child again, in a time when the activity of humans on earth was not rushing headlong through irreversible disaster.

The poems of Runaway careen, titles blurring into first lines, grammar compressing to text-speech, as if the poet is typing too fast to finish whole words. Sentences are short and punctuated abruptly, or not at all. The arrows from her collection Fast are here occasionally, though most of the poems seem to have no patience for the time it would take to make the extra effort, and make due with a dashed-off em-dash. Graham is characteristically experimental with her style, but one of the most striking features of this collection is in the several right-justified poems, which appear as if they are trying to run off the page, push their way into our hands. “I Won’t Live Long” begins:

enough to see any of the new
dreams the hundreds of new kinds of suffering and weeds birds animals shouldering their
demise without possibility of re-
generation the heart in your tiny chest opening its new unimaginable ways of opening and to what might it still
open. Will there still be
such opening. Will you dare. I will not be there
to surround you w/the past w/my ways of
knowing—to save
you—shall you be saved—from what— (50)

This speed is and is not an illusion, the product of years of careful, slow, meticulous reading and writing and teaching. In Runaway there is no time, and there is nothing but time.

Reading and rereading Runaway I find I cannot remember where to find a certain line, or which poem yielded which image. Even with careful notes I cannot locate what I wanted to find when I turn the pages back. The words move too quickly past my eyes. In part this is a product of the density of Graham’s stanzas, their speed attempts to match the impossible pace of change, “Here in the / silver-end of the interglacial / lull. Human time” (20). But this distraction is also a product of my environment. I live above a daycare center. When the children are in the yard, their noises distract me, delighted shrieks and calls from their keeper to be safe, to pull up the masks that dangle around their noses, to stop trying to hurt one another. In the summer their sound mixed with the cicadas’ sound, a dull roar in every window. But when they’re gone I can’t work, either. When, as Graham imagines, “all the children / are returned home” (35), it is both a comfort and a disturbance. It is too quiet. Something is missing and it will not come back.

I would like to end where we began, since we cannot begin again, with Tithonus, the insect who retreats “underneath history” (54) and sod to emerge in the late season and sing. Cicadas make sound by stridulation, which means they rub parts of their body together to make noise. “Everything wants em / bodiment” (14) Graham tells us, leaving us to wonder: what noise will we make when the body is gone? How will we come together when there are no limbs left to eke out our screaming song?

Runaway is not a hopeful book, but these are not hopeful times. “This is the way it is something murmurs” at the end of “Scarcely There” (55), as the poetry offers a voice, a mouth, a suspension—however temporary—in which we might stay human for a little longer.

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