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(SPAM Cuts) ‘When Overfull of Pain I’ by Jorie Graham


In this week’s SPAM Cut, Maria Sledmere writes about the arts of noticing within a post-pastoral landscape in Jorie Graham’s poem ‘When Overfull of Pain I’, which you can read in the LRB in print or online.

> This is a poem about belonging and loss and I’m trying to find my way into it. The ‘I’ of the title slips directly into the poem’s motion, which is a stirring of memory, which is a bit of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — the autumnal sense of the year in its ancient, Pagan folding — but also The Waste Land: more specifically, ‘feeding / A little life with dried tubers’ (Eliot), the sense of attuning to things rasping and growing and changing (Graham: ‘feel rust / coming, grass going’), the pitiful stirrings of life among loss. Waste overtakes Nature as capitalism’s scrapyard extends into further decay. Graham’s poem feels into loss. Her tense is present, but often conditional, or in transit, willing and asking, almost hesitant:

says the cosmos-laden morning, I will cover you with weeds, I will move towards beginning but I will not begin again, the marsh gleams does it not, the two adolescent girls walking through it now, in the reprieve, they remind you, do they not, a summer frock underneath, a heavy coat over, so ready, the idea of a century

Familiar temporality or epochal divide is reduced to ‘idea’, abstraction. I think of Eliot in ‘Burnt Norton’ trying to piece together time from the lucency of light, trying to parse its affection from a chiaroscuro of distracted human faces, those souls that pass in ‘faded air’ to the ‘darkness’ of a ‘twittering world’. Yes, there is a music to Eliot’s poem, the invitation to internal song; with sonic ornamentation, a pleasing lilt and alliteration. Graham, however, writes from a post-Holocene world deprived of such niceties, the durational assuredness of music, or even birdsong. The seasons are out of sync, as implied by the young girls’ contradictory outfits. For Eliot, ‘the end and the beginning were always there’ but Graham’s speaker can only ‘move towards / beginning’. This isn’t exactly a stifled utopian yearning, so much as the carefully resolute search for enchantment within a damaged landscape. Her frequent caesura and clausal flickers dramatise the workings of an entangled mind, thrumming with the anxieties of climate crisis made default ontology, overfull, literalised in the descriptions of environmental emptiness or squalor that Graham describes: ‘the sun lies oily in the sillion, furrow- / slice, mould’.

> Yet the ‘I’ of this painful world does not quite languish or even elegise. The going and warming and ending are still in process — we can’t get closure on continual grief. Graham’s writing is an exercise in what Anna Tsing calls ‘the arts of noticing’, which here perform a kind of reaching out beyond the self. The speaker notes little processes, gazes shared, creatures discerned (she compares the bleats of goats to Latin); the idea of newness, the quickness of vanishings. This world will not end by apocalypse but rather ‘a small / bomb perhaps’, a humble sink into those ‘speckling’ marshes.

> With uniform line lengths and nine stanzas, this is a poem of some heft, a sprawling painting of a pastoral landscape that is not really a landscape at all, but something oozing and living and weeping and dying in different dimensions. The oil of Graham’s brush is thick with more than pathos. I needn’t have tried to find my way into it, because I am already there, already here. Something Tim Morton says about how in the anthropocene, place is ‘shot through’ with space: with other times, histories, absences, remembered deaths and wars and harvests. Graham writes: ‘I’ll push into the roots that died when place was cleared of place’. In this world, which is a dense rendition of somewhere just beyond, yet embedded in our own, it is perhaps futile to dig into the anachronisms of blood and soil — the detritus of located identity, recalled as litany, ‘here was my zip, my street address’. The weight of that final phrase, the loss of ‘My name’, moves the lyric voice into the anonymous equation of humankind; asks us to look up, look around, look back from the end of the century; seek intimacies and tiny changes and unremarkable beauty. To think about how we are already late; and how this hurt is an echo, but at least not entirely our own.


Text: Maria Sledmere


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