Jorie Graham’s work is pivotal and remarkably inventive; her poetic voice reverberates through the literary landscape with potent depth. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has accumulated a dynamic body of work, including metaphysically ruminative collections such as Materialism (Ecco, 1993) and The End of Beauty (HarperCollins, 1999), and more recent books like Fast (Ecco, 2017) and Runaway (Ecco, 2020), which relentlessly interrogate the slippage of the self amidst the turmoil of atrophying consciousness and environmental peril.
Graham’s latest collection, To 2040 (Copper Canyon Press, 2023), also grapples with the concerns of digital infiltration and environmental loss, although it is distinctly embroiled in the prophetic impulse of post-calamitous worldbuilding. Graham’s speakers undulate in the stark maelstrom of bodily loss and evasion, awash with disorientation. Graham’s speakers reside amid the detritus of memory and history, embroiled in a ceaseless inquiry that functions as an exposition of time, space, entrapment, and the truncations of emblematic loss.
As Willard Spiegelman notes, Graham, like Whitman, puts “her finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist.” Graham is remarkably keyed into the frequencies of this age. Indeed, Graham’s voice is remarkable in its embodiment of the collective aftermath as it languishes at the shores of the post-spectacular. To 2040 holds history and consciousness to the face of its uncertain future—the erosion of the physical world and the onslaught of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
But To 2040 isn’t just cautionary or prophetic; rather, it’s cavernous, resonant with haunting questions surrounding erasure and aftermath. The epigraph of the collection incorporates a quote by Barry Lopez, which notes, “We are searching for the boats we forgot to build.” This crucial elusion of instrument and carriage is central to the relentless unraveling embodied by Graham’s speakers.
To 2040 is divided into three sections and a coda. In the poem “On the Last Day,” from Section I, the speaker notes: “No sum / in which to strive. No. / general truth.” This suspension of impetus functions as an embodiment of extinction whilst also acting as a rigorous interrogation of nihilistic oblivion and the capitalist machine. And yet, while Graham’s poems walk to the brink of nothingness, they also stir with a recurrent, almost lacquered growth.
In “On the Last Day,” Graham writes, “Where the stems / of the willows / bend when I / step. There is dream in / them I think. There is / desire.” The lineation of this poem lends itself to expressions of a dislocated selfhood that seek to access physicality. The voice in this poem moves through meandering modes of soil, dream, and desire: these quotients of captivated imprisonment are essential to Graham’s work, as are notions of singular, lost flight.
Birds appear repeatedly in To 2040, sometimes as incarnates of the singularity, sometimes as oracles and arbiters of time and knowledge. In the poem “Day,” located in Section II of the book,
a woodpecker arrives from afar: “Lie still it says. / Very still. / Listen. / You loved the light, it says, of day. / You let it touch yr face all yr life & you never apologized, never felt / the distance in it—its howling—its gigantic / memory.”
The speaker of this poem, in seeking to chronologize a disinterred, disremembered past, moves into issues of human hubris, questioning if there is a “right end.” This speaker exists in a spatially devised form of continuity, redolent with music needles, surgical clips that “imitate day,” and the lost tenors of consciousness that had “thousands of hearts, one for each day / which let you slip into its cool new body / for free, / unstopped.”
Ideas of human ingratitude, debt, and exploitation recur in Graham’s work, and while this modality risks being didactic, in Graham’s poems, desolation mingles with inquiry to examine the fundamental mysteries of existence and the mind. As “The Quiet” examines: “What is hell. The / imagination of what is / coming is hell.”
And indeed, these poems are frenetic with imagination and its peripheries, its dimensions and limitations. Graham’s speakers brim with questions and intonations of displaced sensation. The speaker in “The Quiet” is aware of “something small / which was slaughtered, / its screaming / below the threshold of our / hearing, just below. Then maybe I’m not born yet. Maybe I am waiting in / the canal. Can you / hear me I say again. They are putting a drug in.” Graham neutralizes the distinction between birth and vocal atrophy to examine the quiet and the nature of the poem itself:“Are we there yet you ask. I do not know. I am / the poem.”
Graham’s foundling voices approach questions of witnessing and craft. They examine and are marred by unreliabilities of perception and experience. In “Cage,” Graham writes: “It’s even a bit / beautiful—isn’t / it—this dream of being held while the light flows / through us.”
In “The VR,” the persona is strapped into a mask, and a clamp is put on the speaker’s mouth so “I can’t bite off / my own tongue / in amazement.” Graham, in her explorations of virtual reality, often frustrates the transcendental by equating it with a loss of agency, reflecting on the complications of artificial intelligence and chiseled perfection: “The strap tugs. We are still perfecting the desires.”
The speaker encounters trees in this artificial universe and states: “I detect in them a terrible need for power, for action which might / require / judgment, forgiveness / we are not alone says the minister of the mask, / everyone wants to know / suffering, otherwise what is there / to remember & forget.” The notion of judgment seeks a reckoning in this poem, especially as the mask of an authoritative singularity becomes palpable and Graham wields her poem back into collective disparity. The collective “we” is almost contingent on suffering, which becomes a focal point of bifurcated light, acting as the fulcrum of memory.
Because while the impacts of environmental peril and artificial intelligence are palpable, it is our consciousness that daily wrestles with a life impacted by erosion and decline. And hence, the loss of the physical world in Graham’s work is as much predictive (and cautionary) as it is tied to the nimble monolith in which our minds struggle with threatened agency and the pervasive loss of selfhood.
To 2040 is fearless in its metaphysical willingness to examine devastation head-on, particularly its ramifications on the mind and poetic construction itself. The impacts of environmental peril and curated realities are both palpable and imagined, and it is our consciousness that wrestles with these notions, and it is these spaces that To 2040 examines.
Graham’s last collection, Runaway (Ecco, 2020) ends with departure and extinguishment: “The earth / said remember / me. I am the earth / it said. Re- / member me.” However, the Coda of To 2040 is a ceaseless petrichor of atoms and submersion:
“I look at them now / with my eyes full of rain, / and they say hold us up, / you are not dying / yet, we are / alive in the death / of this iteration of / earth…hands which rise now, palms up, shining / say to me, / touch, touch it all, / start with your face, / put your face in us.” This coda is both resurgent and disintegrative, immersing the self in the skeletons of the environment as “the thing which had been a meadow once / releases a stream.”
This coda is both a reclamation and a disintegration, both a resurgence and a dissolution of selfhood. At the very least, it embodies freedom and effervescence as the collective self is returned to the soil, spared of the same titillated, disoriented self-reflexivity that lends Graham’s work its complex, prophetic despair. Indeed, in the return to sensation, Graham contemplates not the perilous domains of hope, but rather, a continued modality of being, which can engulf us in its vast collective realm, though we may be left questioning whether experience is immersive, contrived, manipulated, or remembered.
To 2040 is a collection to be experienced in all its movements and formations. It articulates the collective undercurrents of our consciousness, leading us beyond the brinks of our experience, flooding us with existential concerns and threats. To 2040 further cements the might of Jorie Graham’s poetic work and her immense, oracular vision, which is as astonishing as it is necessary.