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History, by Jorie Graham

The poet in question and history. Or, more precisely, “History.”


Into whose ear the deeds are spoken. The only
listener. So I believed
he would remember everything, the murmuring trees,
the sunshine’s zealotry, its deep
unevenness. For history
is the opposite
of the eye
for whom, for instance, six million bodies in portions
of hundreds and
the flowerpots broken by a sudden wind stand as
equivalent. What more
is there
than fact? I’ll give ten thousand dollars to the man
who proves the holocaust really
occurred said the exhausted solitude
in San Francisco
in 1980. Far in the woods
in a faded photograph
in 1942 the man with his own
genitalia in his mouth and hundreds of
slow holes
a pitchfork has opened
over his face
grows beautiful. The ferns and deepwood
lilies catch
the eye. Three men in ragged uniforms
with guns keep laughing
nervously. They share the day
with him. A bluebird
sings. The feathers of the shade touch every inch
of skin—the hand holding down the delicate gun,
the hands holding down the delicate
hips. And the sky
is visible between the men, between
the trees, a blue spirit
anything. Late in the story, in northern Italy,
a man cuts down some trees for winter
fuel. We read this in the evening
news. Watching the fire burn late
one night, watching it change and change, a hand grenade,
lodged in the pulp the young tree
grew around, explodes, blinding the man, killing
his wife. Now who
will tell the children fairytales? The ones where simple
crumbs over the forest
floor endure
to help us home?

(“History,” by Jorie Graham, in The Dream of the Unified Field.)

Here, the banal point is that history is something told, not something seen; however, she juxtaposes that banality with the poignant scene, a lynched man hanging from a tree, a photograph. With photography, history means something else—an image on relationless paper, not a story passed relationally from one generation to the next. Does photography create the doubts of fact such as that cast by Mel Gibson the holocaust denier? She doesn’t say, exactly, but she does lament story’s supplanting, anyway.

One thing I really like about her poetry from the early 80s (here, from Erosion) are the short, jarring line breaks. “What more / is there / than fact?” Such a short question, enjambed across three lines, seems to mean more—the enjambment makes one consider the sentence itself as a unit of meaning. Of that order, my favorite by far, from another poem, is “There is / no deep / enough.” The line breaks not only at the slash, but each line has less space to the left than the previous. By the time you get to “enough,” you’ve read the sentence not only across 3 lines, but also backwards, from right to left; “no deep” is left to descend like stairs one more line, and thus she’s inscribed in the line itself the declaration “There is no deep enough.”

After Erosion, though, for twenty years she went all Whitman and drew her lines across the page. Those poems I’ve not read but a few so far.



this is not the jorie i know. see, i haven’t the dream of a unified field. i have the end of beauty, (1998) swarm, and now overlord (2006)

and, these collections, well, i can’t speak of overlord yet, are much more inaccessible

DotUF is a good collection, and its end is before any of the books you list (poems dating from 1974 to 1994).

Also from Erosion, “Salmon.”

Stories, photographs, recordings, documents: all merely signs that one human with one perspective left. One historian, later, imposes her perspective on disparate signs, constructs telos, a cause and effect. To what extent is history meaningful? How different is the novelist from the historian? More stories one should or should not repeat, more narratives to help us feel like we know our place in the story.

(I’m being completely unoriginal here, just thought I’d throw in some Linda Hutcheon for kicks)

Stories are more than “merely signs that one human with one perspective left.” Borrowing from the poem, true, it’s fundamentally about interpretation (The first two lines, though sans question mark, are a question and answer; the answer, “the only listener,” is shown to be both true and fleeting in the rest of the poem) but she recognizes that the photograph inscribes time where story utilizes it.

Perhaps I overstate… in which case, “Straight up now tell me is it gonna be you and me together (Oh, oh, oh), or are you just havin’ fun?”

Now I’m not so haunted by Paula, I can ask: This Linda Hutcheon?

I read this poem and I keep coming back to the phrase, “For history / is the opposite / of the eye,” which doesn’t mean much until it is turned on head by the brazen assertion of equivalence (Holocaust = broken flowerpots) To be honest, I don’t think I get it.

Also, a conscious act of storytelling (making sights and sounds of the photograph, for example) juxtaposed with the unhappy accident of a hand grenade exploding in a fireplace. (Wood pops when burned, but not like that.)

So I believed.

For history
is the oposite
of the eye

What more
is there
than fact?

Now who
will tell the children fairytales?

to help us home?

history and fairytale are juxtaposed… one as the record of facts, one as the collection of stories that help us home.

the question seems to be how to make sense of the madness, cruelty and arbitrariness of violence and the human heart.

That’s too simple. Yes, to the juxtaposition; yes, to the arbitrary. However, There’s no suggestion that she actually believed or continues to believe that definitions of history and story are as simple as fact and fiction. Since the “so I believed” is attached to memory, specifically a person’s memory, rather than the poet’s understanding of cultural transmission.

(For the sake of argument I’m discounting the notion that the simple defs are only a rhetorical strategy on JG’s part… although practically, that’s likely the real case.)

There’s a combining of the two—the question “What more / is there / than fact?” is a begged one. Fact isn’t enough; however, neither is fairy tale enough, because neither really gathers in the arbitrary sufficiently.

Thus the juxtaposition via poetry?

what’s too simple? the final paragraph? since you agree that there is a juxtaposition…

who is the he of history remembering… and not remembering everything?

and what he specifically is incapable of remembering is the more subjective, poetic experience of things such as the impression left by sunshine, zealotry, and trees, murmuring

sorry, i get it, it’s my implication that they are distinct.

in an earlier version of the response, i was going to mention that the image remembers more but needs ekphrasis to bring history alive.

I tend to read the he as the man blown up by the grenade, but the antecedent’s all-around ambiguous.

also, it seems that the holocaust and the lynching both anticipate and deny any reading of this poem that would imply that history is necessarily subjective. these are facts, but at the same time, these are things, that when recounted, are given an aura of authenticity by the eyewitness who can remember subjective experiences such as the murmuring of the trees.

fact and experience
image and word
history and fable

are all deeply implicated with one another, but not in ways that negate the power of the other but seem to strengthen it.

though, if anything, history, and its arbitrary violence, has a way of blowing fables to smithereens.

So, too, fables: Hansel’s and Gretel’s crumbs, as I recall, did not in fact endure, which is why they were lost and almost eaten by the witch. But perhaps I remember the Little Golden Book version moreso than the Hans Christian Anderson? I’ll look, in a bit.

in the original, i believe them to have been eaten by the witch, much like the crubms they left were eaten by the birds… but you check into it :)

I didn’t think so—but then, I didn’t check as I said I would, either…. (work called).