Saturday, February 09, 2008

some thoughts on Garrigue's "Grand Canyon"

The poem that came to typify or best represent Jean Garrigue was one that tried to present essences or states of perception and feeling just beyond the reach of language, almost always of a kind that called for exuberant joy. To try to reach beyond language means, paradoxically, that what we finally hold in our minds is not so much a thing in nature as a construct of language or, as we used to call it, thought. "Grand Canyon," for instance, is not a portrait of that geological marvel. Rather, it is a rapture about being in the world, the occasion for which is experiencing this most unusual example of what she calls "the brute Sublime." That state is oxymoronic, brutal but sublime, as the condition of being is both exhilarating and terrifying. Garrigue makes no allusion to herself in the poem except the simple (and repeated) statement, "I am lonely," a bald utterance which looms larger once we know that she had just been diagnosed in California with cancer. Out there on a short teaching assignment, she nevertheless rushed back home to New York City to ready herself for what little life she had left. The poem, of course, turns immediately away from its bald utterance toward an elaborate, operatic performance of astonished joy.

Taking the switchback trail,
slipping and sliding,
forever slantwise descending
into new confrontations of parapets,
chimneys, mantels, segments of angles,
modelings of rock of slacknesses and accidental tensions
combined with the effects of its weight--
the total effect never total for never can you see it all, not even guess
at mazes of the proliferation...

To take an almost random sample which nevertheless conjures up a Dantesque descent into death.

In discussing "Grand Canyon" in her excellent review of SELECTED POEMS [Parnassus, 18/19 (1993)], Lorrie Goldensohn reminds us that in line 11 Garrigue begins a sentence that doesn’t end till 108 lines later. This is one way to push beyond the representational purposes or boundaries of most language, loading it down with detail, qualification, and repetition to the point where we lose touch of what "point" is being made or even what the subject of the current verb might be. Or, we come to believe that the point is less to make a point than to sustain a rhythm, a feeling, a verbal equivalent of the thing which is brutal in being without consciousness or language and perhaps for that reason also sublime.

This is a strategy in several of Garrigue’s best poems and reminds me of an exercise Marguerite Young used to give her students in fiction, namely, to write a sentence that went on for two or three pages. Jean and Marguerite, of course, were old acquaintances from girlhood days in Indianapolis and roomed together for a while as students at the University of Chicago. Pure coincidence, I realize.


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