Taking to Heart Unbearable Reality: The Rumpus Interview with Jorie Graham

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[To] The Last [Be] Human by Jorie Graham is the culmination of a tetralogy that follows the poet’s awakening in the early ‘00s to the devastation facing humanity and the planet. This collection of Graham’s books Sea Change (2008), Place (2012), Fast (2018), and Runaway (2020), track Graham’s increasing awareness of the escalating planetary crisis, and the immense and underappreciated changes technology inflicts upon humanity. In the same eleven-year period, she experienced the death of both of her parents, the birth of her granddaughter, and a cancer diagnosis. This collection gives the reader the sensation of everything happening at once, an acceleration so complete that it feels like the apocalyptic end has already arrived.

Where I live in Alaska, the shrinking of glaciers is visible to the naked eye. To go about daily life, I am suspended between resignation and activism, and engage in too little of the latter. Graham’s tetralogy gives the reader a different possibility: adaptation and radical witness. Her language and poetic structure adapt to her changing world and reality, and never succumb to denial. Words themselves shift—letters fall off of common words, in the familiar way that texting has reduced much language. Further, the orientation of the poem is frequently disrupted and justified right, bringing tension to the structure and giving the reader a visual and impending cliff.

Jorie Graham has won numerous awards, including the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for The Dream of the Unified Field, Collected Poems 1974-1994. She was raised in Rome and studied philosophy at Sorbonne, before studying filmmaking at New York University. Her study of film influences her poetry decades later. She has published fourteen collections of poetry, and is the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.

I spoke with her over a series of emails.

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The Rumpus: The title is both directive and assertion. The planet is dying, but we must strive until the very end to do better by the planet and by each other. And the title asserts there will be a last human…

Jorie Graham: At first, I thought the brackets a little tricky. But people were moved by the distinctions they drew so I decided they might work. Yes it’s an instruction—but as much to myself as to others. An admonition. It distinguishes the gulf between “to be” and “to be human.” A spiritual distinction, I think. Also an important ecological divide.

Rumpus: Can you draw out that distinction?

Graham: In this tipping point, it’s hard to know how to even live one’s life as a human among the rest of creation, of which, in this sixth extinction, we are so very small a part. What is our responsibility as a species among all those species? How to keep fighting to keep one’s humanity awake—how not turn instinctively, or accidentally, out of distraction, inattention, habit, towards destruction, greed, denial, the arrogant looking-away-from the face of the rest of creation? Then there’s the separate question of what it is to be at all. To have consciousness among all the other consciousness, from the deep sea, to forests, to every creature in this world. Do we still know how to have being among Being. How to recognize and leave its dignity and autonomy to the wild? (Which I know many believe no longer exists. Though it does.)

Rumpus: But you are also imagining a last human?

Graham: The poems began to be summoned by bringing into view someone in the deep—or not so deep—future to whom I felt we need to explain who we were, what we attempted, what we could have been. Maybe if something begins again, a record, a trace, of what we attempted and how we failed will matter. Who knows? It’s one illusion among many. For me it became, for a while, an operative illusion. Though I was also feeling the arrival of a “last” of our kind of human, before we morph into some bio- or electronically-engineered version of what was once meant by “human.”

Rumpus: I also grieve our planet. Alaskans have a front-row seat to global climate change (but even so, too many are in denial). We witness first-hand the shrinking of our glaciers and yet, we celebrate the good, warm weather.

Graham: As I say to myself, living under the reality of this new, second cancer, I am rich in minutes. Maybe not in years, or, who knows, even months. But minutes, yes. So, I try not to squander them. I had days this spring, in treatment, when I tried to see every leaf grow on a tree. To love this world is perhaps the most essential tool we need in order to undertake this fight, to inhabit fully the “good, warm weather” as you put it.

It’s not a contradiction to do both—to hold your soul between those two realities, each making you look deeper into the other. Because we are certainly heading heedlessly into extinction, taking a lot of life with us. Is there a way to remain “human”— accountable—without tipping inadvertently into being responsible for the suffering of so many others? If there’s a goodness to humanity, how to hang onto it, how to resist its seductive addiction to power? These poems, written over decades, slowly learn—step by step—to look in all these directions. In hindsight it looks inevitable, here, in a tetralogy. But book by book I was flying blind, trying to locate my gaze. It involved taking to heart a lot of unbearable reality—about outcomes of our actions, about our nature.

Rumpus: Can you talk about the mind of the lines, the shape they take on the page, and the shift —an acceleration— in the latter half of the book? The lines become longer, and some stanzas become more formal again. I get the sense that in this volume you are employing a lifetime’s worth of strategies to push the poems forward (and inward)?

Graham: While writing Sea Change, I was living in France. We had weather-events, as we called them then, which were “unexpected.” A hundred-year drought. A summer of extreme heat utterly out of the norm. I began to read about climate change, to follow the science. I read about the thermohaline current—the conveyor belt—how it might slow down in a few hundred years, totally breaking down climate in the northern hemisphere. I lived in Normandy, where they had dozens of names for rain, and it stopped raining. Winds came off the Atlantic which were “unprecedented.” My form—especially my alternation of the accelerating long line and the dilating short line—moved to take on board temporalities, which were not yet, to my mind, “lyric” emotions. Over the course of the next books, I became seriously ill for the first time. I lost my father, and then, in the next book, my mother. My daughter had a child. Technology made its huge foray into our existence. Information was benign and useful, then it was a form of war. AI began to enter every corner of our lives—“smart” devices began to act “smart.” I began to understand death, surveillance, tipping points, collapse of facticity, and watched the predictions and the numbers change drastically.

By the time I was seeking those quatrains in Runaway I was not only seeking some kind of a foothold—in time, in a tradition—but I was also trying to find a brake. Something which would still allow the lyric to operate in the reaches my experience of time was being forced to morph into and inhabit. Bots, 3D printing, VR, cryogenics and misinformation crept in alongside elegies for loved ones in which there was no time expansive enough in which to mourn. And the numbers changed again. My first cancer posited a demise way off in the future. My new cancer brings that horizon line, and its potential cut-off, right up close. As the loss of the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves do. Right up close. Tomorrow. Not after tomorrow. Not in someone else’s lifetime. And the conveyor belt started to actually shut down. The storms “of our grandchildren” materialized now. We blew past 350 ppm. We kept on going. The book is more than the sum of its parts, because it tracks this journey—one which most of my fellow humans have undergone. And it tries to make poems which can contain that kind of terrifying change and still manage to keep wonder—and hopefully mystery—alive.

Rumpus: Can you speak more about what other forces come into reality over the four books?

Graham: Sure. If you consider the early years of the tetralogy, the forces of the internet were not yet part of our daily lives. Social media platforms as well as searching began to be widely used after I wrote Sea Change. The tetralogy can be seen as a record of what the advent of tipping-point climate provoked in the human soul, its sense of time, and what it did to the poem. But it is also an exploration of the inroads artificial kinds of “intelligence” made into our lives, changing us irrevocably. New speeds of “processing” experience (and then the possible disappearance of “experience” as such) penetrate the poems at the level of “subject matter,” form and even diction. Anxieties regarding the status of “nature”—living or dead—arrive in PLACE, as well as new desires to open up channels into what I first began to experience as “deep future.” At the time I thought of it along the lines of the Iroquois’ seven generations; then it unfurled into dizzying futurities which threaten one’s sense of immediate time, as well as how to take action on the page.

The endings of poems got activated—the sense of what it is to end “naturally” as opposed to ending by interruption, or just stopping. The Imagination is said to feel fear. In Fast arrows arrive, along with my father’s death, the start of my mother’s decline, my illness, and all manner of “non-human” forces and speakers. The use of the ampersand, and then eventually, the abbreviations of words penetrate the voice—“u” or “yr” for example—as well as an anxiety, which permeates Runaway, regarding who the reader might be, now, in the future, ever—and where they might be present—if presence is even possible—in what virtual or actual realm. The nature of identity became urgent. We move, in the tetralogy from “Embodies” to “To Tell Of Bodies Changed To Different Forms” to “[To] The Last [Be] Human” to “Who Are You.” My mother’s death I witness on the screen of the app “Nest,” across the Atlantic, many time zones away—though I am still “in” her bedroom “with her”…an unidentifiable surveillance consciousness.

Rumpus: Your collection brings together different layers of loss. Your poems about your mother and father made me wonder if personal grief is our practice ground for the bigger, more complex mourning waiting before us.

Graham: Well, the scale of losses we face can, indeed, overwhelm our ability to feel personal loss, and practice the rituals of mourning—however idiosyncratic, personal, or communal. Not being able to hold in mind the scale of “extinction” tends to make us turn away. Timothy Morton famously coined the term “hyperobject” for a concept of such magnitude that it cannot he “held in mind.” What cannot be held in mind can, though, be apprehended by other means. The imagination is built for this.

Rumpus: So you find a way to feel hope? I know everyone asks that question now—of artists as well as activists.

Graham: Maybe there’s a place to set the dial that’s not just between the binaries of fearful and fearless, or hopeful and hopeless. Maybe hope isn’t part of the issue. Maybe fear isn’t a real emotion—or not a deep enough one. Maybe there’s something else altogether. Like an extra eye opening when one gets to be an active witness. One gets to report to the future. One gets to account to one’s ancestors. There has to be a medium for this. Ultimately what I believe in is music. A very complex understanding of music which involves the human instrument. Which can sing when it screams.

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Author photo by Jeannette Montgomery Barron

 


Mercedes O’Leary is a poet, essayist, and grant writer living in Homer, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Calyx, Great River Review, The Anchorage Daily News, and other places. She was the winner of the 2013 Lois Cranston Prize in poetry. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. You can find her on Twitter @Mercedes_OLeary or on Medium @mercedesoleary. More from this author →