Jorie Graham

the poet

Jorie Graham is among America's most celebrated poets of the post-war generation. She's the author of numerous collections, including Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, The End of Beauty, Region of Unlikeness and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1992 , for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Later came Place – winner of the 2012 Forward Prize for Best Collection – From the New World, and in September 2020, new collection Runaway. Jorie has taught for many years at Harvard University as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory – the first woman to hold this position.

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the poems

Employment

00:00 / 02:34

Listen the voice is American it would reach you it has wiring in its swan’s neck
                                                           where  it is
                                                           always turning
round to see behind itself as it has no past to speak of except some nocturnal
journals written in woods where the fight has just taken place or is about to
                                                           take place
                                                           for place
the pupils have firelight in them where the man a surveyor or a tracker still has
                                                           no idea what 
                                                           is coming
the wall-to-wall cars on the 405 for the ride home from the cubicle or the corner
                                                           office—how big
the difference—or the waiting all day again in line till your number is
                                                           called it will be
                                                           called which means
exactly nothing as no one will say to you as was promised by all eternity “ah son, do you
know where you came from, tell me, tell me your story as you have come to this
                                                           Station”—no, they
                                                           did away with
                                                           the stations
                                                           and the jobs
                                                           the way of
                                                           life
and your number, how you hold it, its promise on its paper,
if numbers could breathe each one of these would be an
                                                           exhalation, the last breath of something
and then there you have it: stilled: the exactness: the number: your
                                                           number.  That is why they
                                                           can use it. Because it was living
                                                           and now is 
                                                           stilled.  The transition from one state to the
                                                           other—they
                                                           give, you
                                                           receive—provides its shape.
A number is always hovering over something beneath it.  It is
                                                           invisible, but you can feel it.  To make a sum
you summon a crowd.  A large number is a form
                                                           of mob.  The larger the number the more
                                                           terrifying.
They are getting very large now.
                                                           The thing to do right
                                                           away
is to start counting, to say it is my
                                                           turn, mine to step into
                                                           the stream of blood
                                                           for the interview,
                                                           to say I
                                                           can do it, to say I
                                                           am not
one, and then say two, three, four and feel
                                                           the blood take you in from above, a legion
single file heading out in formation
                                                           across a desert that will not count.

Runaway

00:00 / 03:58

You wanted to 
have vision
but the gods

changed.
You wanted to feel 
the fraction of the

degree of
temperature 
enter the
 
water, feel the
minute leave the 
minutes

behind. 
Why not be
happy. What are

they doing
to the minutes.
Each one takes

that minute of you 
away. Takes away 
hope. We stand

around, we have the 
sensation we
dreamed the whole

thing up, we
didn’t, & all
around us how alive

rot is, & damp that
never ceases kissing
everything in-

discriminately—yr 
hands, yr skin fixed to
fit everywhere tight,

yr lids holding yr 
gaze, the rubble, the
anti-microbial skins,

the layers of cello-
phane, the rare &
treasured paper

sack, everything
delivered up to us
as if spectacular, as if

an emergency of the
spectacular,
& new data-sets showing


more new hours days debt melt 
faster rising than 
ever anticipated,

also those fleeing 
told no no, not you, you
are not allowed, where
 
are yr papers—oh 
those—we know we 
gave them to u but
 
here u see we
change our mind—look, 
here is a changed
 
mind, a mind whose house 
burned, here is 
melted chromium & ash

where yr life was—stay
calm, listen to 
authorities, re-

build, imitate, believe, 
wait, b/c it will come again, 
over the ridge, the
 
licking flare, as if 
pure hunger, or
curling all over u now

the fire of the 
flashlight, don't move, 
I beg u, never
 
move, figure out 
what the they is, 
what the they wants—

pretend it's laughter, it's a
refrain—pay up—as for the 
recent past
 
it's got too much history
a mind can
set the match to—but see, the fire

prefers not to die, no,
& we oblige, we feed it, we 
keep it

unpayable. 

The Hiding Place

00:00 / 05:21

     The last time I saw it was 1968.
Paris France.  The time of the disturbances.
     We had claims.  Schools shut down.
A million workers and students on strike.

    Marches, sit-ins, helicopters, gas.
They stopped you at gunpoint asking for papers.

    I spent 11 nights sleeping in the halls.  Arguments.  Negotiations.
Hurrying in the dawn looking for a certain leader
    I found his face above an open streetfire.
No he said, tell them no concessions.
    His voice above the fire as if there were no fire—

language floating everywhere above the sleeping bodies;
    and crates of fruit donated in secret;
and torn sheets (for tear gas) tossed down from shuttered windows;
    and bread; and blankets; stolen from the firehouse.

The CRS (the government police) would swarm in around dawn
    in small blue vans and round us up.
Once I watched the searchlights play on some flames.
    The flames push up into the corridor of light.

In the cell we were so crowded no one could sit or lean.
    People peed on each other.  I felt a girl
vomiting gently onto my back.
    I found two Americans rounded up by chance,
their charter left that morning they screamed, what were they going do?

    Later a man in a uniform came in with a stick.
Started beating here and there, found the girl in her eighth month.
    He beat her frantically over and over.
He pummeled her belly.  Screaming aren’t you ashamed?

    I remember the cell vividly
but is it from a photograph?  I think the shadows as I
    see them still—the slatted brilliant bits
against the wall—I think they’re true—but are they from a photograph?
    Do I see it from inside now—his hands, her face—or

    
is it from the news account?
    The strangest part of getting out again was streets.
The light running down them.
    Everything spilling whenever the wall breaks.
And the air—thick with dwellings—the air filled—doubled—
    as if the open

had been made to render—
    The open squeezed for space until the hollows spill out,
story upon story of them
    starting to light up as I walked out.
How thick was the empty meant to be?
    What were we finding in the air?

What were we meant to find?
    I went home slowly sat in my rented room.
Sat for a long time the window open,
    watched the white gauze curtain sluff this way then that
a bit—
    watched the air suck it out, push it back in.  Lung

of the room with streetcries in it.  Watched until the lights
    outside made it gold, pumping gently.
Was I meant to get up again?  I was inside.  The century clicked by.
    The woman below called down not to forget the

    loaf.  Crackle of helicopters.  Voice on a loudspeaker issuing
warnings.
    They made agreements we all returned to work.
The government fell then it was all right again.
    The man above the fire, listening to my question,

the red wool shirt he wore: where is it? who has it?
    He looked straight back into the century: no concessions.
I took the message back.
    The look in his eye—shoving out—into the open—
                                   expressionless with thought:

no—tell them no

Publishing credits

All poems: From the New World: Poems 1976-2014

  (HarperCollins)

© original authors 2020

inspired by

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