Individual poems by Jorie Graham can force readers to take a few steps back to fully accommodate their scope. She’s got an uncanny facility with scale — glorifying the stars for their dust, discovering new universes within ancient molecules, following the light of streetlamps as it courses through galaxies.
So a selected Graham — especially “From the New World,” a new volume which pulls from the spectrum of her 40-year-career — could present an especially daunting endeavor for a first-timer.
Instead, “From the New World” holds together with a sure (if diffuse) grace, elegantly pulling Graham’s best works into each other’s light. As such, there’s a gem-like play of reflection and refraction between the poems in this tidied context, and the collection comes off less like a scrapbook than a collage of the night sky — its continuity contiguous, but unaffected.
Thus, early poems like the stirring “Mirrors,” from her 1980 debut, “Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts,” feel fresh in the company of recent works like “Dialogue (Of The Imagination’s Fear),” from her most recent collection, 2012’s “Place” — as do Graham’s enduring reflections on reflections (on display in both).
To this grand assembly, the collection adds four new poems that reinforce Graham’s engagement with the now alongside her fascination with the always. Chatbots and corporate speak invade the lines of “Fast” and “Honeycomb,” but Graham’s attentive touch can charge the most inert particulars with significance, like the dust of stars. Graham’s poetry over the decades hasn’t followed a single line of inquiry; rather, like a universe unto itself, it has expanded, broadened, and deepened its questioning, as though total inclusion were the only way to attempt to apprehend the unfathomable.
And a poem like 1987’s “Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them” (“them” being Adam and Eve) suggests that one reason Graham’s poetry manages to stay so revelatory is because of its proximity to her notions of the sacred and the secret.
“But a secret grows, a secret wants to be given away,” she writes. “For a long time it swells and stains its bearer with beauty./ It is what we see swelling forth making the shape we know a thing by./ The thing inside, the critique of the given.”
Ansel Elkins also takes a detour through Eden in her debut collection, “Blue Yodel,” selected by Carl Phillips to win 2014’s Yale Younger Poets prize. But Elkins’s Eden feels more like a place to be fled — equal parts paradise and precipice. Before her Eve can set upon a “radical road out of that old kingdom/ toward a new unknown,” she stands “in terror at the threshold” at its “great flaming gates/ of burning gold.”
Though they balance a sharp focus with a broad scope, Elkins’s poems could not easily be mistaken for Graham’s — they’re more densely forged and neatly stacked — but she does find a similar path toward a similar freedom. Where Graham imagines her original sinners “loving that error, loving that filial form, that break from perfection,” Elkins lets Eve assure us directly: “Let it be known: I did not fall from grace./ I leapt/ to freedom.”
Many of the 31 powerhouse poems of “Blue Yodel” take on the transition from one state to another, as well as history’s insistence that the past has somehow passed. The historical blur of “Blue Yodel” suggests an old that hasn’t succumbed to the new, but rather dissolves into it like a dye, imbuing each moment with a deeper, darker hue, like a sunset — or the death of the sun, about which Elkins wonders: “Is it punishment? the newspapers ask. We thought God was dead.”
Elkins sequences her poems like the links of a chain, repeating images and themes so that one poem seems pulled along by the one before it; but the book also feels like a length of barbed wire, cold and coiling, blooming into spurs that cut more deeply the less mind you pay them. And though chains and wire are used to restrain or contain, Elkins’s poems erase one divide after the next, but leaves their tensions intact: light and dark, past and present, and our civil and feral natures all become one. “Unleash/ the wild animal that you are,” she writes in “Hunter’s Moon,” “Unbury yourself.”
Even death, that border we suppose most thickly drawn, is rendered by Elkins as exquisitely indistinct: “Somewhere at the crossroads of night,” she writes in “Hour of the Wolf,” “A man will come to the vanishing line/ Of his life. All the world he’s known/ Closes into a clock of smoke.”
FROM THE NEW WORLD: POEMS 1976 - 2014
By Jorie Graham
Ecco, 384 pp., $29.99
By Ansel Elkins
Yale University, 88 pp., paperback, $18
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com.