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New poetry: Jorie Graham, Jacob Polley and Majed Mujed

Stephen Sexton reviews To 2040, Material Properties and The Book of Trivialities

Of the many questions put throughout Jorie Graham’s stunning new collection, To 2040 (Carcanet, £15.99), the first is the most urgent: “Are we / extinct yet.” The first poem, like many here, is addressed to, or spoken from the other side of ecological disaster. “What was / land // like. Did it move / through us.” Of a raven who strays into the time of the poem’s composition, the poet says, “Is this a real / encounter I ask. Of the old kind. When there were // ravens.”

It is a raven in a flooded world, not a dove with an olive branch: redemption does not appear to be in abundant supply. Climate catastrophe is the subject of many of these poems; it’s an omnipresent groundswell elsewhere, but Graham’s particular achievement here is to find a form to evoke this anxiety and to underscore the scale of the emergency. These poems seem to offer us glimpses of two worlds: one doomed; one just about redeemable.

Graham’s speakers in these poems find themselves on the far side of apocalypse, trying to make sense of it. “We used to speak of future. Speech had a different function / then”, she writes in the title poem, To 2040. This double-voiced quality of the poems, where our old world is being dreamed from a desolate future, or vice versa, might be a kind of optimism, there might still be a chance to avert what’s almost inevitable.

The common shape of poems here is a precisely unbalanced four-line stanza: seldom do lines and phrases match, sentences spill across lines. It is the flow of intellect, the mind at work, but it’s also fractured time: where the line might traditionally measure language, there is no easy symmetry here. Elsewhere, poems justified to the right-hand margin, such as the wonderful Translation Rain impress upon the reader another kind of exigency, a rush towards endings.

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As well as a fixation on global time, personal time features memorably in this book. The title of Dis- runs into its first word: “ease came. Dis- / figurement. Dis- / enfranchisement, dis- / sembling, dis- // grace”. The book’s speaker confronts her own mortality in the face of illness: “In- //hale says the nurse, / holding my hand.” Breath is the fundamental impulse that moves poetry. And yet, finite as it is, Graham’s speaker looks outwards and backwards to the reader: “Are you / still alive there, / reading these words, // in the beautiful air.”

Old English riddles

As its title suggests, Jacob Polley’s gregarious, energetic collection, Material Properties (Picador, £10.99) takes as its focus the material realities of language, its dissemination and preservation. Its erudite and witty first poem riffs on the nature of vellum, and what’s communicated beyond the language written on it, alert to the animal life whose sacrifice and skin gives historical texts their vehicles:

So this skin is telling how its being put through / what is a kinda / torment process, in which it’s cut, / folded and, although already dead, pretty much / martyred all over again / into what turns out to be / vellum for book pages.

The poem introduces a big component of this book: Old English riddles. Ten of Polley’s poems in this book respond to, or translate, or are versions of riddles from the 10th-century Exeter Book. In these, as the poet suggests, “the riddle // tilts any sense of where a voice is / really coming from”.

Polley affirms a kind of joy in the gulf between voice and text, text and material. Who’s speaking and at what cost, they might ask. At its heart it is a book about translation and translatability: “But who isn’t tired of what we do / with the world translated / out of its own music and into ours?” How does the poet, in their approximation of the world of the senses, portray something of its tangibility?

In consecutive poems, I Try to Explain a Flower and Little Things, touch is both discouraged and indispensable: “Don’t / touch. You can feel by looking” says a father to his son, “who would take apart / whatever caught his eye if / I let him”. On the next page, “The world is what you touch / what touches you”. Another poem for a son, Down, is particularly moving, in which a speaker draws a line of affection and association from the North Sea’s breakers “white as the tuft of goose” to the feather in his son’s pillow: “He says he listens / through his pillow to the sea”.

What sustains these playful, wise, gentle lyrics is Polley’s technical skill. Longer poems are activated and maintained by their musicality and by a particular way with syntax that seeks to give texture and topography to the poems. One feels them as one is delighted by them.

Book of wisdom

Part of Skein Press’s Solstice Stories series, The Book of Trivialities (€12) achieves the series’ goal, which is to celebrate “the small, the brilliant, and the beautiful”. This handsome volume, by Iraqi poet Majed Mujed, and translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, brims with brilliant and strange images and profound propositions on love and hope. What elevates these aspirations to something special is Mujed’s imagination and its enviable store of images. These 25 “vignettes”, offered in English on the left page with Mujed’s original Arabic on the right, move from the profound to the surreal, haunted by violence and war. There are, of course, among those poems of suffering, poems of love and intimacy whose humour is the more surprising for their context. Take 20, for example:

The bed’s not big enough for the three of us.

Please now,

tell modesty to sleep somewhere else.

“The more a poem depends on language to make its effect, the harder it is to translate,” said the late Serbian- American poet Charles Simic. One has the sense that Majed’s poems, in Abu-Zeid’s translation, achieve their effects by aphoristic verve, worrying at the edges of selfhood and effacement, desire and destruction. In 13, a playful dialogue, “the rose” tells “the apple” it wishes it could be like it, “Because then I’d be a rose, / and an apple, too”. 12, in its entirety, goes:

“I found an axe head in the woods,” a tree said.

And another replied:

“This slab of steel will do nothing

as long as we don’t give it

any of our wood.”

The Book of Trivialities is also a book of wisdom. Its short scenes (the longest poem is sixteen lines long; the shortest two lines) balance the symbolic with the actual and the corporeal; the idea of conflict with its reality; the idea of love with the gestures and actions that maintain it. Everywhere are transformations: a chirping sound sowed in the earth will “sprout / and grow feathers and a beak”; from a mastected breast, “a river of blue cries, / full of children, flowed out of it”. “I love you becomes a sea, / and when I say it, I become a boat”. These elegant, vibrant poems invite and reward frequent visits.