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.
Listen the voice is American it would reach you it has wiring in its swan’s neck
where it is
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
the pupils have firelight in them where the man a surveyor or a tracker still has
no idea what
the wall-to-wall cars on the 405 for the ride home from the cubicle or the corner
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
did away with
and the jobs
the way of
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
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
They are getting very large now.
The thing to do right
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
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.
You wanted to
but the gods
You wanted to feel
the fraction of the
water, feel the
minute leave the
Why not be
happy. What are
to the minutes.
Each one takes
that minute of you
away. Takes away
hope. We stand
around, we have the
dreamed the whole
thing up, we
didn’t, & all
around us how alive
rot is, & damp that
never ceases kissing
hands, yr skin fixed to
fit everywhere tight,
yr lids holding yr
gaze, the rubble, the
the layers of cello-
phane, the rare &
delivered up to us
as if spectacular, as if
an emergency of the
& new data-sets showing
more new hours days debt melt
faster rising than
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
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
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
The Hiding Place
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
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
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—
All poems: From the New World: Poems 1976-2014