Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jorie Graham's Passion for the Reel: The Lyric Subject Encounters the Image

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Jorie Graham's Passion for the Reel: The Lyric Subject Encounters the Image

Article excerpt

This essay portrays how Jorie Graham's poetry uses scenes of viewing to dramatize the tenuous historical construction of the lyric subject, arguing that Graham's engagement with photography and film, in particular, provides an original means to understand the relationship between the historical and the lyrical.

In "Fission," the opening poem from Jorie Graham's Region of Unlikeness, a young woman sits in a darkened movie theatre. It is 1963. Suddenly a stranger appears. He stands in front of the screen, waving his arms and "screaming that the President's been shot" (5). When the sound shuts off, and as the film (Stanley Kubrick's Lolita) flickers silently in the background, the distraught poet in the guise of a young girl contemplates what has suddenly been revealed to her. Evoking the title, Graham shows in the lines that follow that this trauma stems from a narrative fission effected by the confluence of image and event, here a gap in lived history itself. The poem suggests that the overlapping of the cinematic experience and the historical event cause the very "idea of history" to be "outmaneuvered" (3), and the young girl watches a gap open between history and representation--between the real of history and real of a self in history.

In "Fission," an encounter with an image provides a means for Graham to contemplate the vexed position of a subject who is caught up in the sweep of history at the same time as she is trying to comprehend it. Taking the above scene as a starting point, this essay portrays how in "Fission," and in the poems from Region of Unlikeness that follow it, Graham uses scenes of viewing to dramatize the tenuous historical construction of the lyric subject. Graham's poetry has long eschewed the notion that the lyric "I" is attached to a unified, authoritative subject. But her ongoing interest in the visual, which arguably reaches its apex in Region of Unlikeness, further destabilizes traditional notions of the lyric speaker: both exploring "the possibilities for a lyric of historical engagement" (Kinnahan 12) and using encounters with photographic and cinematic images to call into question her own historicity. Graham's deep engagements with the ontology of visual objects and with theories of visuality reveal a complex negotiation of the historical and the lyrical. The poems in Region of Unlikeness illuminate how the lyric subject exists in a gap between lived history and representation, enacting a mode of expression that is not Romantic or private but rather mediated by technology and history.

The peculiar ontologies of photographic and cinematic images set up a schematic through which we might rethink Graham's construction of the position of the speaker in history. If, as Sara Blair suggests, "photographs shape the historical narrative and alter the experience of historicity" as well as "make sharply visible the elusive experience of history" (162), then Graham's poems in Region of Unlikeness stage the powerful experience of the subject in history vis-a-vis the experience of an image. Graham's use of the photographic in Region of Unlikeness, especially in the poems "The Hiding Place," "Holy Shroud," and "Fission," recalibrate the political possibilities for the aesthetic by weighing the historical significance of an image against the subject's experience of its wounding effect. In these poems, Graham questions the role of visual artefacts in the creation of public records and personal memory. At the same time, especially in "Holy Shroud" and "Fission," she demonstrates how certain images resist, to use Ulrich Baer's formulation, "the conception of time and history as narrative, as an unfolding sequence of events" (3). For Graham, when the historical event is experienced, or encountered, through the image, the subject's relationship to time radically shifts. (1)

By way of example, we might look briefly at Graham's poem "Expulsion," from her 1987 book The End of Beauty. …

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