Place, By Jorie Graham. Carcanet, £9.95

 

Jorie Graham's Forward Prize-winning collection of poems marks a radical shift in style. Long the leading exponent of line-of-thought poetry, she habitually "scores" each phrase or idea on the page: much in the way that a musical score shows the sound of a piece. All poets do this; but Graham's use of long, often stepped lines within free verse has been distinctive. These produce an impression of movement, of thought caught in the very moment of going on; and also a generous musicality.

Place's 21 poems, however, include only four not laid out in a formal pattern. Graham's new style has long lines, which reach back to the left-hand margin, alternating with short lines deeply indented to form a central column of text. This pairing or knotting works, like Celtic decoration or a parterre, to intensify the verse.

Perhaps, in some ways it contains the verse, for in this book death becomes personal. It is no longer simply a trigger for grief, something that happened to other people in the Second World War, as in Graham's famous poem "History", or her collection Overlord. Now, death comes close and involves poet and reader. It wants to deny life, although "I still will have/ lived this day and the preceding ones of my/ person, mine". It is a wrong turn in the state of affairs: "duration which is slipping, slipping". This is in part a book about ecological disaster, about how "there will be no more: no more: not enough to go round: no more". The earth is "dying slowly/ in eternity/ its trap".

As befits ecological writing, Place is shot through with intensely lyric celebrations of the natural world: "It is October once again/ as it must be. The new brightness/ and again gold lays down on them/ the tight roles of hay/ the long rows the cut fields." This is from "Treadmill", a poem of "harvest" in which death the harvester is "your dance partner". Perhaps this dance macabre is key to Graham's new form. The long lines and the short, with different music, do seem like a duet. And if the long lines are the principle of life and the short ones that of entropy: well, this is poetry that uses both sound and sense, as poetry should, to show us how sweet life is, and how inevitable death.

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