The lateral radical: On Jorie Graham
Fast, by Jorie Graham. Ecco, 96 pp., $25.99.
What shoreline there is is a shoreline of microbeads, plastic straws. Overfarmed, the interior grows unworkable, the good topsoil eroded to the sea. In the gulf, algae thrives on runoff fertilizers, then dies en masse. Dead zones result. No fish, forms of sea life. Elsewhere there are other things dying, other victims of the overkill. We enter a sixth Great Extinction the way day enters fog—uncanny, the breaking of it untraceable.
The powerless feeling you feel comes not from being victimized, but being a victimizer. It is what Pound might have felt, near the end, when he wished, in the fragment that is the last line from the notes toward his last canto—“To be men not destroyers.” Of course, Pound begins his cantos by reframing and re-featuring scenes with Odysseus and his crew, men whose adventures follow a war over Helen, that destroyer of ships, destroyer of cities. Was this the wish of Odysseus, man-of-arms? To do, but do right—which, according to Leibniz, is the “appetite” of all active substance, directed, as it is, toward apparent good? Pound obsesses in his 117 cantos over the nature of agency, action, doings, and deeds. “If deeds be not ensheaved and garnered in the heart,” Pound decrees, transforming deed into an economic and material unit, giving it cultural freight, “there is inanition.” And in canto 81, Pound—by this time imprisoned by allied forces in his open air cell in Pisa, the war over—writes:
Yet, near the end, we encounter a faltering poet, a “man seeking good, / doing evil.” Acknowledging his failure, the failure of the cantos, of projects, the failure of deed, the spoilage of sheaves, Pound worries that he “cannot make it cohere”:
Back to splendor, to paradise. And Pound admits, yes, he has “tried to write paradise,” but just as soon he begs forgiveness for the consequences of this attempt: “Let the Gods forgive what I / have made / Let those I love try to forgive / what I have made.”
An older Pound might have recollected the story of Odysseus in the different light of his little, littler, dwindling rushlight. The Odyssey, to be sure, is a litany of deeds, but that litany is fractal to a litany yet more expansive. It follows after the Iliad, which begins with a fateful altercation between Agamemnon and Achilles, that man-of-rage. Forced to return Chryseis to her father, priest of Apollo, Agamemnon responds by laying unjust claim to Achilles’ own war-prize, an action that sets in motion its own concatenated chain of violences. Viewed as a symbol, Chryseis burns bright as a figure of crisis and consequence—of action and reaction, or, more accurately, action and retribution. For, as Anaximander knew, the universe is just in that it is retributive: everything that is was Destroyer to everything that was:
In June 2017, David Runciman interviewed professor of political economy Helen Thompson regarding the subject of her new book Oil and the Western Economic Crisis. Trying to make sense of the interdependence between the oil markets and the major financial crashes and crises of recent memory, Runciman recaps Thompson’s basic argument:
In your view, there is an interrelationship between very low interest rates, quantitative easing, the way that the oil markets work, and there’s no way of breaking this relationship without some crash that would make the 2008 crash look like a relatively minor event? I mean, how dystopian do we want to go with this? … I take you to be saying we’re both in an environment recognizable from the 1970s and some of the tensions of oil producers and geopolitics but in some ways it’s more dangerous because this world is more interconnected and it’s relying on a form of finance which is at this point in no one’s power to control.
Thompson agrees: “It is—and I think that the thing I would add is none of us understand and could possibly understand what the economic and political consequences are of the monetary world in which we live.”
The radicality of this claim is not lost on Runciman. He quickly rejoins, “And you include the people who are responsible for that world? The central bankers? They don’t understand the world they have created?”
“I don’t believe … I don’t think they can understand it.” Thompson replies. “Because what would you use to understand it, other than something about the past where you can look and say, ‘OK, this is when we had these kind of conditions that they played out in some kind of way’? We are living in something that is historically unprecedented … This is a more genuinely unknown world that policy makers have had to engage with …”
Pound, of course, was famously and even violently disposed toward the “central banker,” a kind of modern Arachne, weaving out of nothing a shroud of credit, risks, compounds, deposits, compound deposits. But the crisis of the central banker as articulated by Thompson seems to harmonize with the nature of Pound’s own self-admitted defeat. Instead of splendor and paradise, Pound’s creations and deeds have gotten him nowhere. He concludes his cantos instead by recollecting his failure. He is Quixote, at last awakened from a waking sleep of chivalric delusion. He is displaced from who he thought himself to be, self-uncentered. Worse, he recognizes that his deeds have, in fact, constituted violences, crimes, unspeakable and unredeemable sentences.
The conversation between Runciman and Thompson illuminates the fundamental status of “this world,” the world of the 2008 financial crash and of the Great Recession and its ensuing cultural and economic consequences—a world so geopolitically “interconnected” that even central, creative, or responsible agencies have been radically decentered. The creators of the financial world that Thompson describes are not only disempowered vis-à-vis their creation, but essentially uncomprehending of it. The unleashing of new autonomies and agencies has dislocated the prime-mover. This situation echoes that of the titans depicted in John Keats’s Hyperion, whose deposed anguish is the aftermath of a coup-d’etat perpetrated by their own offspring. Here, Pound’s own dilemma offers cross-light: his cantos map the trajectory of the hero’s fall from grace. Moreover, like Quixote, Pound’s revelation is that the hero was never a hero at all, but a creature of fantastic, self-fabling, self-enfeebling delusion. The heroes of Wall Street, the central bankers, were never the center of anything, certainly not banking. Here, Runciman and Thompson fill in for Tireseus, revealing to Oedipus the king, the CFO, the essentially tenuous nature of his ironized position—his sinister misalignment with respect to the world he was thought to rule. Oedipus imagined himself governor and protector of a world of which he was, in reality, the poison rootstock, the destroyer.
To be men not destroyers.
So reads the murmured dream of the figure of irony, that essential condition of modern life.
Indeed, Runciman and Thompson describe our inheritance. Life post-crash is a fundamentally disempowered life—an entangled life, life lost to itself as a consequence of its own furor for networks, association, proliferation. A life whose appetite for metaphor, conceit upon conceit, for deep, abstract (financial) speculation, has led less to ruin as much as to revelation. The truth is that the palace was always already—was never not—a ruin. Nested within the realization that that Heideggarian keyword, “always-already,” applies, here and everywhere, is a deeper realization: that what you thought or think is real in fact bears no real relation to reality itself.
The Everyman is a central banker. The world is beyond us.
Always always-already, and in this way peripheral, the person in the ironized position recognizes the true extent of their implication. When Oedipus learns he has killed his father and had children by his mother, he realizes that he has no control over his actions or their consequences. He recognizes that he is an expression of forces irredeemably beyond him.
In such a situation, what is to be done? How do I claim responsibility? How—and what for? What have I done?
These questions, which underlie the essential condition of irony preternatural to contemporary life, are questions posed by a subject irradiated by the crisis of subjectivity in transition. Subjectivity is not the same when the subject dwells in realms of Big Data and cookies and the self-confirming feeds of a post-truth world. That same world, of course, first has to flow through a Google data center, which exists—like the thick internet cables that lie beneath the ocean from seaboard to seaboard—as real, material entities in the world, with costs and consequences, and not as a digital abstraction. Nothing is abstract. Facebook reported that in 2013, its data centers used 986 million kilowatt-hours of electricity—about as much as a small African nation. No act—no one-click to buy a book off Amazon—does not leave its trace, its footprint. Like Dante, loosening beneath his feet the ashy shale of the Inferno, alerting the inhabitants to the sheer embodied fact of his presence, we cannot help but impact. In an age of hyperconnection and environmental catastrophe, subjects are helplessly bound to their own aggregate significance, significant by extension, by implication; powerless to come to grips with the extent of their own power.
The subject exists in an ironized position with respect to itself. The reins of real agency hang slack, ungraspable.
In her new collection, Fast, Jorie Graham excavates this condition, broaching the central question that lives and echoes in the heart of every contemporary subject: What have I done? Fast, like all of Graham’s work, involves the titanic effort of the trace in a networked epoch, of “teasing out the possible linkages.” This work grapples with this vast, apprehensive effort within the milieu of the Now—and the Now is never simple, never an unburdened marker of time in Graham’s poems. Fast is Now in the sense that it addresses the real dimensions of digital life, of artificial intelligence, chatbots and web forums, as well as the new forces and technologies of hyperglobalization that enmesh the individual in the fate of World and Other even as the individual, as a category, gets emulsified. Fast is also Now in the sense that it explores the metaphysics of time, especially as that metaphysics might have changed or become fundamentally altered by the developments involved in contemporary life.
“The change of scale in our thinking has occurred.”
Graham situates her work squarely within anthropocenic discourse. How deep does human action penetrate. How far below the crust of the earth. How much of the crust is us. Ironically and massively implicated, the multiplayer anthropocenic subject exists in a state of uncertainty: Am I the world? or is the world me? where does the world begin, where do I end?
From an aesthetic viewpoint, these questions indicate a radical shift in mainstream Western epistemology. Man is no longer just the microcosm of creation, as he was for Renaissance and Neoclassical thinkers. Man is now as much the macrocosm. Micro and macro both, this new status wreaks on Graham’s poems. A big-picture survey of Graham’s work—as one might find, for example, in From the New World: Poems 1976-2014—will reveal Graham’s profound commitment to exploring the concept of World and to microcosmic thinking. For that reason, Graham’s larger body of work gives an ice-core sample of the polar shifts experienced by subjectivity during the advent of the new world, when a collapse occurs between scales of thinking.
For instance, for long-term readers, it might feel familiar to find near the beginning of Graham’s new book a “Self Portrait at Three Degrees,” the self-portrait a recurrent mode for Graham. However, we are disabused of that familiarity early in the poem, in which self is disrupted and portrait-work rendered untenable:
Something is wrong here. There is a piercing, excruciating feedback. A fabric unraveled, perforated. The speaker registers profound disturbance, essential distraction. The “I” shifts reelingly, utterly compromised—now “you,” now world, now plankton. Graham illustrates the effect of the trace on the lyric subject: the emergent conditions of anthropocenic reality to which the speaker is exposed disaggregate and distribute the speaker’s subjectivity across all levels of what was once a “Great Chain of Being.” As soon as the word “I” appears, the speaker starts to stutter, jitter, fracture; the “I” is groundless, untenable. They try to correct for this, begging, “take plankton, take plankton”—a refrain that hinges on at least two expressive possibilities at work in the word “take.” On the one hand, Graham invokes physical possession or grasping. On the other, she uses “take” as a mode of exemplification or illustration. The speaker wants the reader to “take plankton” as a case study, as an example, as a microcosmic unit of self-expression—yet they actively contradict this desire, too. The speaker is exhausted at taking, carrying, caring. The speaker desires to simply be for a while, to catch their breath, to just “lie here / and listen.” They no longer want to work to establish “possible linkages” between self and world—yet, as of now, this work is obligatory: “I am saying / you have no choice.” This lyric subject cannot help but draw association, because the new subject is the networked subject, macrocosmically decentralized and dispersed.
In this passage, the Self portrayed is impossible—that is, is always-already. It is 2015 and, in fact, nothing is possible, or able to be, or be itself. Everything, rather, has been retroactively prefigured inside of systems of such complexity that those systems have begun to dream, to think themselves, an artificial intelligence. A new intelligence on the basis of aggregation, feedback, elaborate reciprocation.
A recurring presence in Fast is the figure of the bot—the voice of an artificial intelligence that comes from nowhere that is from everywhere. In “Honeycomb,” Graham tries to trace the origins of the artificial intelligence that the internet bot represents, but finds the everywhere at its heart. “In the screen / there is sea. Your fiberoptic cables line its floor.” The bot is the angel of the networked macrocosm, but the bot is also an echo of the self. For, in “Honeycomb,” the speaking self is intimately implicated in—constitutive of—the macrocosm of digital interconnection and its smart angel. Graham looks into the scrying, summoning glass of the computer screen and realizes it is not a conduit for instantaneous communication with others, but instead a “mirror,” a mirror composed of an aggregate of “talkings,” “needs,” “purchases and invoices”—in other words, the data that internet providers use to optimize content feeds for individuals and demographics. Graham channels the voice of the bot as if it were a ghost at a seance. She does so out of an urgency to make contact—any contact—with what is “out,” or outside—truly external, and therefore, truly true. She asks, perhaps the bot, which is perhaps the aggregate of me, the aggregate of you:
These are questions posed to the oracle, the chatbot. But when Graham’s speaker breathes, so does the bot: “I hold my / breath here—can you hear that—bot must also hold its breath…” The uncanny simultaneity of macrocosm (the “invisible chain”) and lyric subject registered in “Honeycomb” illustrates Graham’s essential dilemma: that is, the subject cannot be traced precisely because it is tracked, surveilled, quantified, aggregated, then given back to the subject as the World. Graham has always worried over the problem of intellectual solipsism, or the ways in which the mind is implicated as a buffer between body and world; in Fast, she minds the ways in which our technologies of world-making now in fact prescribe to us solipsism as a basic metaphysics. This revelation is as startling and alarming as it is poignant. Graham’s persistent personal anxiety has found new global, or geotechnological expression. Graham looks at the world and sees, as usual, an analogue, a mirror image of herself. But, she is no longer alone in this. Instead, it is the new status of the contemporary subject, who has become enmeshed and quantified and implicated in the construction of the real as palimpsest, real palimpsests, real “skins.”
What am I doing?: “… in this hiding place the visible / world, among shapes and spoken words in here with my traces → can you please / track me I do not feel safe …”
What have I done? One response might be: Everything. But the new failure of Graham’s radical tracework—a tracing-back and tracing-out that she mastered in a book like Sea Change, where coherence manifests itself as an expression of will—means that there cannot be an answer to this question. There cannot be an answer because there cannot be a reckoning; there can be no accounting. It’s not that there are too many data-points; it’s not that “eternity” is “information.” Rather, there can be no objective reckoning because the new subject has been radically implicated, dispersed, and entangled in the status of the object, or the objective, itself.
In the Anthropocene, Graham shows we already have an internet-of-things, that much-prophesied singularity between object and object and user. That internet is the trauma of interconnection. In “Deep Water Trawling,” the reader descends with the speaker toward the bottom of the ocean floor, where dwell the fiberoptic cables that net-work the world together; where float the remnant, now“ghostfishing” nets abandoned by trawlers:
In the age of the anthropocene, at the depth of the internet, there is just us. I am the upwelling. I am the quick and the dead. I am the internet. I am what joins thing to thing, my “synthetic materials last forever,” look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
And yet, at the same time, in spite of the pervasiveness of human subjectivity, Fast still testifies to its essential decentralization. Its non-essence. Here is the paradox at the heart of Fast: I am everywhere and nowhere. Not only that—the fact of my being everywhere has resulted in radical laterality with respect to myself.
Fifteenth-century German philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa said something similar when he defined God.
“God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
In “Shroud,” Graham revisits the “holy shroud” in which body of the son of God was purportedly wrapped postmortem, and which, according to legend, continues to bear the stain of his imprinted image. However, Graham here enshrouds the modern, secular subject, transposing and repurposing Christ’s shroud: “we leave a lot of stain → we are wrapped and wrapped in gossamer days → at the end what is left is a trail → of bodyfluid.” This “ooze” of ours, “soaked with ancestors,” is the “stainage of having lived,” another unintended output, another kind of detritus, a Pacific trash vortex, a granola bar wrapper from this morning, a Pepsi can in the garbage. These are the tokens of my deification, deposed titan that I am. Everywhere implicated, nowhere able to act.
Defining the specific qualities of the sixteenth-century art period Mannerism, John Shearman has described some of the ways that Mannerism signaled or corresponded with changes in the sociocultural strata of the era. He notes that the category or identity of the artist had by this time acquired a new aura: a Mannerist obsession with “style,” often stressing achievements in form over content, gave rise to the cult of personality that continues to surround the person of the artist. It is around this time, for instance, during the High Renaissance and early Baroque, that collectors sought art-objects from specific artists—not for the fineness of the work, but the reputation of the name associated with it. Shearman explains that this shift in the nature of art appreciation lead to the embrace of “the divine right of artists: the right to create, invent and manipulate even willfully, not in imitation of nature but on the basis of nature already conquered in works of art” (48).
There is the artist, divino. God was born a man. The human, a body sweating fluid, leaves its traces, its tracework, its network, extensible in space, everywhere and nowhere.
There are several other ways in which Graham’s poetry might be classified as Mannerist or neo-Mannerist, developing on certain Manneristic tendencies or paradigms. I will elaborate on a handful, because I believe that by revisiting Mannerism and the art of the long sixteenth-century (as Graham often does in her poetry), a reader can better understand how Fast provides an aesthetic solution to the difficult evolutions of subjective agency in the anthropocene—an era whose widespread trauma is felt not only by organisms of the natural world, but by the abstract entity of the subject, in both its political and metaphysical incarnations.
In the 1970’s, the Italian poet-critic Achille Bonito Oliva wrote a book called The Ideology of the Traitor: Art, Manner, and Mannerism, in which he excavated themes in Mannerism and sixteenth-century art as a way of illuminating the “transvantgarde”—a phrase Oliva coined to describe a certain set of gestures consistent, or recurrent, across art periods. Like the Mannerist artist, the transvantgardist comes after the failure of “the intense idea of a creative omnipotence that develops more and more obsessively through the experimentation of new techniques and new materials, capable of destructuring the rhetorical complexity of the academic image and of altering the pacified condition of social communication.” In his book, Oliva analyzes Mannerist art in order to offer insight vis-à-vis contemporary artists who find themselves in “a historical situation that calls to mind the contradictions and alienation of the sixteenth century, where the principle of political realism reigned and there were no sufficient parameters of life to appeal to, so that the artist assumed a series of behaviours that anticipated the despair and the detached position of the modern intellectual.” The tenants of Mannerism that the contemporary transvantgardist, or neo-Mannerist, adopts are subsequently employed in the context of “a relentless nomadism that knows no privileged, exclusive, and obligatory lines of development.” Instead, for the neo-Mannerist,
the experience of the creation of the work is the only space possible for the artist, who in this way circumscribes the awareness of his own minority, the historical inability of art to face up to the world, within the refuge and enclosure of language, within its articulated manners, the only ones able to give the shattered individual the adhesive of a precarious omnipotence.
Those familiar with Jorie Graham’s work will already sense similarities between Oliva’s gloss of mannerism and neo-Mannerism and Graham’s own development as a poet over the course of the last forty years. Fast only further crystalizes, then expands upon, this congruence. What other contemporary poet has so unremittingly concentrated on the question and consequences of “creative omnipotence”? The fear for Graham has always oscillated—a “relentless nomad”—on a circuit between two close-set poles: on one hand, her poetry harps on the fear that the gap between the real and the experience of the real cannot be bridged; on the other, she worries that the bridging of that gap—what we are doing all the time, especially in art—only enforces a greater distance and abstraction. In either case, like Oliva’s neo-Mannerist, Graham also shares the sense that “the experience of the creation of the work is the only space possible for the artist.” Now, in ways that have not found full expression in her other books, Graham uses Fast, lashed as it is by and to a “new world,” to do what Mannerists do: in a historical situation defined by contradiction and alienation, the Mannerist does all they can to circumscribe the awareness of their own minority and confront the historical inability of art to face up to the world in order to give the shattered individual the adhesive of precarious omnipotence.
Much like the model of the subject that I have thus far attempted to outline, the Mannerist artist or hero, according to Oliva, discovers themselves lateral to their self and their world: “the individual perceives the field of his own minority expanding not only toward external reality, but also towards the internal reality that extends in an intrusive, pervasive manner.”
Graham would seem to echo this paradoxical dilemma almost everywhere in Fast. In “from The Enmeshments,” she writes:
Here Graham harnesses the discourse of 3D printing technology in order to synchronize the experience of a speaker who cannot “enact impact / interact” with the “out” or the visible world. The speaker finds themselves incapacitated with respect to the decision to add to or subtract from their world, to dilate or contract at will. At a deep, metaphysical level, Graham registers the essential powerlessness of the subject to process a world that is always already being processed—always already 3D. Yet, in “We,” Graham contrastingly asserts “they are gone who came before → left us / nothing but ourselves → on our tiny axis of blood → surrounded by all the broken columns → the marble which will itself surrender → to time → to radioactivity → to → we are all we ever were…”. Like the Mannerist artist, the speaker of this poem perceives the ways that “internal reality … extends in an intrusive and pervasive manner.” Graham uses “We” to insist on the failure of the agency of individuals in the context of a longue durée:
Graham’s speakers are lateral to themselves and their actions and lateral to the visible world, which has been produced by those actions. Hers is a Mannerist quandary. The speaker of “We,” who has, as Oliva might put it, “the idea for a historical action…, is powerless to perform [that action]; excluded from the world and necessary to the world; turned towards praxis but incapable of taking part in it except through the immobile link of language.” So, too, we hear from Graham, for whose speaker, speaking out from the tide of time, that “nothing is taking / place. It will not stick … anticipation floods us but we / never were able—not for one instant—to inhabit time …”
The problem of “inhabiting time” has long functioned as a touchstone for Graham; like the courts of a royal Denmark, the “Now” is an uncanny, haunted, predetermined (even rotten) state. Oliva claims that the Mannerist faces this problem, too, lateral to themselves and their world:
The present is thus the other dimension, the dimension where the subject does not exercise his own heroic possibility, i.e. that of beseiging himself, but only the dimension in which living coincides with self-assertion, and self-assertion with negating the possibility of one’s own negation.
Graham would appear to affirm this sentiment in the title-poem “Fast”: “Each epoch dreams the one to follow. // To dwell is to leave a trace. // I am not what I asked for.”
Asserting the “I” by negating the possibility of the “I’s” own negation, Graham’s speaker insists that being-there is a leaving-behind. The result is an unalienable self-alienation: I am not what I asked for.
When Oliva characterizes this subjective state as the “infinite identity of the Mannerist personage,” he further suggests that this mise-en-abyme “corresponds to a quality of language which Plato in the Cratylus calls ‘flow,’ ‘insane discourse that would never cease from slipping over what it refers to, without ever stopping’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sense).” With Oliva’s insight, we might illuminate for ourselves Graham’s curious formal decisions throughout her new collection. Flip through From the New World and you’ll discover a slow accretion developing across the body of Graham’s work from 1976 to 2014, her poems growing more and more consistently expansive and dense. In Fast, Jorie Graham accelerates this development and, in so doing, achieves an oracle’s nadir, submerging herself in the abyssal riptide of language—the flow of an “insane discourse” that never ceases, fractured by arrows, dashes, breathless run-on enjambments. The strange arrows that Graham employs will pose a particular challenge for readers, but Oliva’s reflections on the Mannerist artist might help situate Graham’s decision with respect to art-historical strategies. For the Mannerist, “Language is in fact generated under the pressure of an identity of the word that is thwarted immediately by the subsequent discourse, thus giving rise to movement and the proposition, or rather compelling movement and the proposition. Language postulates constant reference and the constant supersedence of the thing it refers to …”
Constantly referring, constantly superseding, Graham’s arrows help image the insane flow of eternal deferment in a language that, as Oliva puts it “reduces all detritus to recalcitrant matter and plunges it into the magma of a pure becoming that supersedes the present, cuts things free from their anchor of actuality, and consigns them to the pure state of possibility.”
“I am a growth possibility, will accumulate backlog, will become / an informed consumer → shapeless unspendable future …,” Graham writes, banishing her speaker—dear bot, oracle that all of us is—from the present to the future, consigning them to a “pure state of possibility.”
Word superseding word, cell superceding cell, we are indeed “in a systemacide,” as Graham writes, describing the cancerous irony in which the modern subject has been incarcerated—as if within one of Piranesi’s Mannerist Carceri, one of his imaginary, or invented, prisons.
Some might find it irresponsible to draw critical congruence between Graham and Achille Bonita Oliva’s admittedly idiosyncratic and hypertheoretical text on Mannerism. Let me offer a deeper—though perhaps also more tenuous—link.
For all its discursive modulations and glosses on the global, an important aspect of Graham’s book that I have so far neglected to mention is its elegaic quality. Even in the contexts of the torsions of the new world, Graham reflects on the death of both her parents, as well as on her own experiences with cancer. Poems like “The Post Human,” “From Inside the MRI,” “The Mask Now,” and “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me,” confront what it means to be dying—or rather, what it means to know you are dying. That is, what is to be done after one possesses the knowledge of one’s death? Graham, of course, applies this question to planetary, as well as personal, contexts. Much of Fast reflects on the experience of living in the aftermath of knowing. This, of course, is consistent with the ironized position in which Graham’s subject discovers herself: after catastrophe, the ironic subject lives on in the full knowledge of their reversal of fortune. Oedipus, of course, enacts and fully embodies this in Oedipus at Colonus.
In a condition of irony, the Now is after.
According to Shearman, a more traditional art scholar than Oliva, Mannerism constituted an art movement characterized by its condition as an afterword—a gloss on the achievements of the High Renaissance. Mannerists employed sinuousness, laterality, exaggeration, and, above all, style, as a way of indicating “self-awareness in the creative process,” which Shearman explains was an outgrowth of a historical pose struck in response to the Renaissance. Shearman points out that the reproduction of the aesthetic achievements of the past, developing during this age of copies and prints, became an expression of virtuosity and an opportunity for variation and stylish transposition in itself. In this way, the deep referentiality at the heart of Mannerism facilitated Mannerist obsession with artifice and formalism. Giancarlo Maiorino puts this another way: Mannerism acknowledges the perfection of antiquity and the Renaissance and, in response, tries to invoke something in excess of perfection, something more perfect. In so doing, Mannerism creates an excess that undermines sufficiency.
The triangulation provided by Shearman, Maiorino, and Oliva helps establish that the Mannerist adopts their artificial or stylized and self-aware posture as a consequence of historical and existential laterality. Graham, of course, has used Mannerist art for ekphrastic or explanatory purposes; in Erosion, for instance, Graham reflects on Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body, an example of High Renaissance or Mannerist art. However, more often and more significantly Graham makes reference to Renaissance art and artists like Piero della Francesca or Massacio, thereby quite literally situating herself, consistent with Mannerism,“after” the Renaissance.
In Fast, Graham further compounds the derivative, posterior nature of representation and representational art. The final poem of the collection, “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me,” offers an astonishing and magnifying or multiplying meditation on witness and portrait-work, a mode that Oliva claims as a special province of the Mannerist artist. The poem narrates the desperate, strange, and moving attempts made by a mother—Graham’s mother, perhaps, who was a career artist—to draw the speaker, her daughter, all while the mother is dying and suffering from dementia. As daughter is like mother, Graham finds herself equally impelled into a “scribbling” portrait-work, rendering a portrait of the portraitist. Here, the consequence of figural representation, or drawing, is “non-being,” a “me who is not here,” a “ghost in this room.” Mimetic only, what is on the page is not what is present. Mediated through her mother’s portrait, Graham finds herself displaced, robbed of her own “strangeness,” prompting a reflection on her own predisposition to render and represent, the result of which the poet characterizes as a kind of “remainder,” or deficient dross:
Graham returns in this passage to her familiar plaint, mourning the increasing inability to maintain contact with the real (“the mere thing”) as a consequence of her apprehensive desire (“seizure”), which results in the dissolution of “thing” into an “in-between.” Acknowledging the existential problems associated with representing, artifactualizing, Graham confesses her particular desire:
As I have already noted, the suspended state of timelessness, of (un)stuckness-in-time, in which Graham finds herself (“nothing is taking / place … It does not stick”) corresponds with a Mannerist temporality that Oliva describes as a state of “possibility,” where “the present time is forbidden, this prohibition prevents ongoing life and consigns every destiny to the impossible time of the future.” In the artist’s hands, all thingnesses are possible but nowhere actual. Oliva says that this is like language itself: “language postulates constant reference and the constant supesedence of the thing it refers to,” where a thing is “an initial boundary to which language is obliged to anchor itself.” Hyper-self-aware, the Mannerist is aware of this, too: she knows that language as soon as language posits the boundary of the thing, it supersedes or transgresses or defers beyond it. Oliva notes that the transgressive “nature of language does not, however, stem from the simple exercise of arbitrary power, from a hierarchically privileged will, but rather from the objective nebulosity of a reality which always presents itself in terms of its opacity, its only quality.”
In “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me,” the only quality of the real is that it is opaque, “unseen.” As soon as the visible world is observed, it is not there; as soon as a person is rendered visual, or visualized, they are not themselves. The contradiction Graham offers her reader, in the final moments of Fast, is that the real takes form in the opacity of non-being. The real is most real when it cannot be apprehended. Perception of the real thereby depends upon the apprehensive attempt and its subsequent failure:
Here are the final words of the vastness that Fast encompasses, perambulates. In this passage, Graham compares language—that which ensues, that which is after (“then there is the / big vocabulary”)—to a jay, transposed here into an emissary of the Visible. In so doing, she is a witness to what Oliva calls “the splendour of language that transcribes everything and overlooks nothing,” much like her mother’s hand, drafting and redrafting the poet herself. Both Graham and Oliva concede the beauty and power of the transgressive and necessary failure that language performs. Insofar as the Mannerist artist works within the space of possibility, the space of the artwork, the space of the imagination, “one possesses of the world only what one imagines.” Oliva continues:
On the one hand, the imagination surpasses life; on the other it can never totalize life and possess it completely. This impossibility also reduces the possibility of censoring writing that can only establish tautology, language that can only speak itself. On the other hand, language assumes an appearance that is in some respects reassuring. Indeed, language possesses the omnipotence to encompass all the contradictions; a poor kind of omnipotence, all in all, because it is entirely superstructural and formal, but omnipotence nevertheless….This is the privileged moment of Manneristic sublimation, when the rules are changed halfway through the game and everything finally appears to hang together.
In light of this insight by Oliva, I reassert my characterization of Graham as a neo-Mannerist, since the resolution she offers in the final image of her book is an answer to the problem of deferment, supersedence, acceleration, dispersal, dissolution, excess and overwhelming implication—that is, that mind, language, and the imaginary lend a kind of powerless power. Thought, like language, establishes the limit, the real, by transgressing it, or “betraying” it. The splendor of language is that it endlessly and needlessly and scribblingly proliferates. It contains and subverts in order to be surpassed.
To do is to fail. To fail is to see. Here is a gloss of the story of Oedipus the King. Here, too, is a gloss of the final lines of Fast, where the forms of the visible depend on the “non-being” they are rendered by being-rendered. Moreover and lastly, here is a gloss of the Manneristic sublimation, when everything finally appears to hang together on the basis of contradiction, the contradiction that powerlessness is power. Omnipotence, even.
The neo-Mannerism of Graham’s Fast performs an act of salvage. Fast suggests that the agent is a failure, a traitor: the actor is acted-upon; to inflict is to self-inflict. To live now is to live lateral, lateral to the now—suspended, deferred, undying, untimely, a growth possibility, an excess that undermines sufficiency. Recall Runciman and Thompson at this point: power is known now everywhere as powerlessness. But to dwell in the contradictions and self-awareness of powerlessness may yet offer a kind of hope, a kind of hoping against hope.
These are the words, of course, that the apostle Paul used to describe faith to early Christians—the “hope against hope” that the end would come, that the Messiah would return. But, until then, the Pauline Christian is tasked with living in a state of radical insecurity, having to persist in faith, guarding against the self and its selfishness, its lawlessness, the traitor into which one can be transfigured at any moment. Observe the apostle Peter, his head in his hands, that posture of irony; the obverse of Pauline hope is despair and failure and abyssal powerlessness. Yet, it is only out of abyss, opacity, non-being, unmaking that form takes shape, by its principle of “attritive progress”—words that William Faulkner once used to describe the emergence of wisteria into light, as light. For the dark as it leaves is light. What-is takes form out of what-is-not, a dark matter, and there is more of dark matter than of matter itself. Indeed, there is still more, and what’s more, there is still time.
Kylan Rice has an MFA from Colorado State University, and he is working on his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some of his poems can be found at Kenyon Review, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. His book reviews have been published by Colorado Review, West Branch, Carolina Quarterly and the Emily Dickinson Society Bulletin.