December 11, 2020KR Reviews

On Runaway by Jorie Graham

New York, NY: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020. 96 pages. $26.99.

We don’t know how to pay attention anymore; so many outside sources compete for it.

This sentiment seems everywhere, even sometimes in the complex arguments made by economists, educators, philosophers, and writers who rightly note the sociohistorical changes in the circumstances in which we receive or make almost anything: meals, books, ideas, decisions, and ultimately ourselves. But if this sentiment about the attention economy has an echo of truth to it, nevertheless we can see what happens when we do put away our devices and look again. An opportunity emerges to have it both ways: a certain moral quality emerges in us when we pay attention to an object that asks us to do so. Jorie Graham’s Runaway makes such requests, frequently and at times frenetically.

In my own reading experience, I often am able to follow the through line of the quick thoughts in Runaway. I experience its chromatic passages like I do in music. “My Skin Is,” for instance, begins by picking up where the title leaves off:

parched, on tight, questioned, invisible, full of so much evolution, now the moment is
gone, begin again, my skin, here, my limit of the visible me, I touch it now, is
spirit-filled, naturally-selected, caught in the storm here under this tree, propped up by
history, which, I don’t know which, be careful, you can’t love everyone—

I isolate this to show you what it looks like on the page; this kind of dense long-lined quatrain emerges as a dominant mode in many of these poems and demands a pause to consider its capacity as a counterintuitive construction. The quatrain, a traditional unit of closure, here contains what is moving too quickly for it, almost.

Some readers might think that it is moving too quickly. Stopping to study it, however, we can see how it holds up under scrutiny. The run-on here is begins with the title, finding its first moment of completion in the first phrases of the first line, pivoting from its immediate physical qualities (“parched, on tight”), then to its sociological status (“questioned, invisible,”), then to its genetic sweep (“full of so much evolution”) then snapping back to an awareness of the medium in which such thoughts occur, i.e. time (“now the moment is / gone,”) then pivoting to address the skin (“begin again, my skin”), then going into relationship with the speaker where what had been the subject, i.e. the skin, becomes the object (“I touch it now”), which then leads to a reversal of its grammatical-ontological position where the speaker’s skin “is / spirit-filled, naturally-selected,” and then the skin is revealed to be in a landscape where we can infer that the speaker is “caught in the storm here under this tree,” which the speaker feels the immediate impulse to interpret allegorically, where it might be said to be “propped up by / history”; the speaker then isolates her impulse to extend the thought, saying “which” history, exactly, she isn’t sure—her invocation of it as a broad category doesn’t hold up to her own scrutiny—and so a rebuke follows: “I don’t know which [history], be careful, you can’t love everyone—.” While the individual phrasings are easy enough to interpret in isolation, their speedy sequencing aims to renew our sense of mental breath.

This speed, then, is the principal way that these poems dramatize their struggle against giving into despair about any number of subjects; the theme seems to be obsolescence. Personal and technological: the two of these become fused. Sometimes, an internalized paradigm that is obsolete: “be careful, you can’t love everyone,” says the speaker, reckoning with a platitude of humanism. In another poem, the speaker tries on the first person plural but this quickly falls away into the doubt of who is present anymore: “we might if gotten right go / on, whom am I speaking to, whom.” What makes this dread rise above itself is the technique: by the time I arrive at the end of one sentence several lines, sometimes several stanzas later, its beginning seems no longer necessary, except by the fact that it got me to where I happened to stop, or where Graham does.

Is this performance of obsolescence, then, what makes these quatrains in Runaway seem counterintuitively constructed? Graham allows the quatrain in, in a way that makes me sense the distance between reaching toward a stable world and the painful distance that jumps and leaps and slips away. One quatrain in “My Skin Is” has its final line as follows: “me—must it always end this way—must I ceaselessly be me, reinvent you, see the.” “See the” indeed. The poems in Runaway each have numerous apt phrases and lines that call to and in the situation of being, so that even an article becomes sensitizing. The clarity gets brighter and brighter when I reread the poems. For instance, I didn’t stop to consider the previous single line I quoted on its own on my first reading—the enjambment made me fly at the speaker’s pace—but when I reread it, I can see how it could almost be a gesture worth considering, fantastic and awkwardly mid-motion, like a freeze frame shot of a horse as it runs.

When the poems slow down, a more immediate gestural singularity occurs. A poem like “Rail,” “Poem,” the title poem, and other poems that have shorter lines and briefer length, and more selectiveness in terms of detail and use of space, give us more overtly what one of the denser poems, the lucid and satisfying ars poetica “Overheard in the Herd,” calls the “one lucid unassailable / thought.” Consider the focused clarity of “Poem”:

The earth said
remember me.
The earth said
don’t let go,

said it one day
when I was
accidentally
listening, I

heard it, I felt it
like temperature,
all said in a
whisper—build to-

morrow, make right be-
fall, you are not
free, other scenes
are not taking

place. . . .

The characteristics and tropes of the quatrain poems like “My Skin Is” occur here in “Poem” but in more immediate form: the extended sentence, the thematic of the earth and the human in tension, the crisis of perception, the elegiac impulse, the folding in of addressing (“build to- // morrow, make right be- / fall, you are not free, other scenes / are not taking // place”). The attention Runaway asks us to pay accrues in the different ways we experience these differently shaped poems; we can calibrate that noticing with what it is we think, each of us, as readers, needs. Given that Graham’s work has been written about extensively for so long, we might find it useful to  pause and consider the careful qualities in attention on which this book insists on—as if insistence were the whole of style, and style were still necessary for facing what in the world is coming next. It is.