Jorie Graham is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won The Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University. Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position previously.
Topic: “Later in Life”
Jorie Graham: The transition that we take for granted between one season and another. And, of course, we don’t want to look back at a era when the difference between seasons disappears. But this is just an attempt to capture something about the way in which summer suddenly is palpable at a certain moment at the very end of spring, and what happens to sound as air changes in that moment. It's also a kind of ars poetica because it is a poem about the utopian dream of perfect communication between one individual and another. Obviously, language is always an obstacle, and no human beings can completely transmit in the way that I was talking about earlier, except, perhaps, silently, in a motion across to another. But the dream of poetry is that someone writing a poem in the 1100s would be, if I read it today, speaking to me directly and as intimately as if I was standing before them. So this is part of what this idea of what the voice is doing in this poem. The poem is titled “Later In Life.”
Summer heat, the first early morning of it. How it lowers the pitch of the cry human cast up as two words by the worker street level positioning the long beam on the chain as he calls up to the one handling the pulley on the seventh floor. One call. They hear each other perfectly.
As the dry heat, the filled out leaves thicken the surround, the warming asphalt, and the lull in growth occurs, and in it the single bird cries now and again are placed and all makes a round from which sound is sturdied up without dissipation or dilation.
Bamboo crisp and up it goes like a thing tossed without warp, of weight, or evidence of overcome gravity as if space were thinned by summer now to a non interference. Up it goes, the cry, all the way up, audible and unchanging. So the man need not even raise his voice to be heard.
The dry, warm air free to let it pass without loss of any of itself along its way.
I step out and suddenly notice this.
Summer arrives, has arrived, is arriving.
Birds grow less than leaves although they cheep, dip, arc, a call across the tall fence from an invisible neighbor to his child is heard right down to the secret mood and the child also hears.
One hears in the silence that follows the great desire for approval and love which summer holds aloft, all damp leeched from it like a thing floating out on a frail but perfect twig end.
Light seeming to darken in it yet glow.
Please, it says, but not with the eager and need of spring.
Come what may, says summer, smack in the middle I will stand and breathe, the future is a super fluidity I do not taste, no, there is no numbering here, it is a gorgeous swelling, no emotion, as in this love is no emotions, no, also no memory. We have it all now and all there ever was is us now. That man holding the beam by the right end and saying, “Go,” on his ground from which the word and the cantilevered metal rise. There is no mistake. The right minute falls harmlessly, intimate, overcrowded, without provenance, perhaps bursting with nostalgia but ripening so fast without growing at all. And what is the structure of freedom but this? And Grace.
And the politics of time looks south, looks north, yes, east, west, compile hope, synthesize, exceed, look, look again, hold fast, attach, speculate, drift, drift, recognize, forget, terrible, gush, gash, of form, of outwardness, and it is your right to be so entertained.
And if you are starting to feel it is hunger, this gorgeousness, feel the heat fluctuate and say my name is day, of day, in day, I want nothing to come back, not ever, and these words are mine, there is no angel to wrestle, there is no intermediary, there is something I must tell you, you do not need existence
These words praise be, they can, for now, be said. That is summer, hear them.
Recorded on April 3, 2008