LOOKING BACK AT THE ONE WHO LOOKS: JORIE GRAHAM'S ORPHEUS SEQUENCE
Robin A. Morris *
Robin A. Morris *
For T.S. Eliot, the modernist use of myth was a way to structure the "futility and anarchy which is contemporary history" (Eliot, 1923, 177). H.D., on the other hand, used myth to disrupt history still farther. When she published her poem "Eurydice" in 1917, H.D. allowed Eurydice, whose agony of silent shuttling between earth and the underworld had for millennia been treated as incidental to Orpheus’ narrative of loss, to speak out in anger. H.D. imparted subjectivity to the object: the female muse who had previously been seen as existing only to evoke song from the male subject. This slight shift proved to have seismological effects: for later poets like Jorie Graham, the position of subject and object could no longer appear enduringly fixed.
Eighty years after H.D.’s "Eurydice," Jorie Graham takes up the mythologized relationship between the figure of the singer and the object of his song in a number of poems included in her 1987 collection, The End of Beauty. In "Self Portrait As Both Parties," the first poem in the book in which Orpheus appears, he is "trying to fish a drowned woman from a river"; in the poem immediately following, "Orpheus and Eurydice," he’s walking up from the underworld, trying not to look back. I include the next poem, "Expulsion," in this study, though Orpheus is not directly mentioned, because I see it as a modern day version of the Orpheus and Eurydice encounter. The photographer in "Expulsion" speaks the same words to his subject that hissed through Orpheus’ consciousness in the previous poem — "give me that look." This exchange of looks is central for both Orpheus and the photographer and I will be exploring the significance of this encounter. Then, skipping one poem in The End of Beauty’s sequence, I’ll also discuss "What the End is For," a poem set at a military base that concludes with the dismembered Orpheus floating down river, singing.
My examination of Graham’s use of the Orpheus myth in these four poems will reflect on how she complicates the gender dualism of Orpheus as poet and Eurydice as object; in Graham’s ethos, fluid identity boundaries make moments of transcendence possible. Her unpacking of these gendered archetypes also subjects to question the assumption that voice is representative of the self, and challenges the idea that fragmentary experience can be interpreted, made coherent, by a fixed ending. Indeed, these poems’ consciousness of their own process of narrativizing, their awareness of their own making, questions our inheritance from Greek and Hebrew traditions of a teleological interpretative framework.
At first glance, The End of Beauty, a collection which interrogates a number of scenes from classic and Hebrew mythology where male and female are caught in poses prior to a transformation, such as Eve’s offering Adam the apple or Daphne about to become a tree, appear to reinforce simplistic gender dualisms: the male gaze objectifies the female. But these scenes may also demonstrate what Julia Kristeva labeled the thetic break, that stage when awareness of the separation between the self and other gives rise to symbolic language. The symbolic, as Kristeva explains it, "is a social effect of the relation to the other" (Kristeva, 1984, 29). From this splitting of the subject and object arises enunciation, which produces narrative and myth. This symbolic discourse reinforces the social order and must suppress the semiotic — that non-linguistic process expressing preœdipal fusion with the maternal body. To quote again from Kristeva: "in ‘artistic’ practices the semiotic — the precondition of the symbolic — is revealed as that which also destroys the symbolic" (50). But Graham takes us to that place of equilibrium between the two processes, a point of balance that ordinarily passes in an uncapturable fragment of a second, to unpack the implications of what seem inevitable choices.
In "Orpheus and Eurydice" Graham explores one such point: the moment before Orpheus’ look back at Eurydice consigns her to the underworld. An act of looking reinforces the other’s status as object. Thus, to continue applying Kristeva’s theories, the symbolic is working to contain the semiotic. The glance, stirring in Orpheus from the first line of the poem, hisses "Once upon a time," encouraging him to commit to an action which will bring them from stasis into story. This potential glance seals "the edges down" and says, "I know you from somewhere darling, don’t I, / ...You’re the kind of woman who etcetera." Imposing twentieth century idiom on an ancient narrative, these words comment on the apparently timeless male prerogative of categorizing and containing the feminine. This act of containment is also the traditional ploy of the artist who, like the sun’s ray/Orpheus in "Self Portrait as Both Parties," wants to assign form to that which is submerging into the infinite: he is "seeking her edges" (6:6). In the next poem ("Orpheus and Eurydice"), Orpheus’s glance and words "seal the edges down," (26) and then in "Expulsion," a poem whose title suggests both the punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin and a potential release from the body, the photographer wants to capture an image of his female "subject." In all these poems then, the artist’s look imposes form and renders the amorphous solid.
To refer to Orpheus — the emblem of the poet — in the late twentieth century, is necessarily to question the processes of the production of the piece of work which refers to Orpheus. The writer must identify with this emblem of pure poetry, yet the female writer has been told implicitly and explicitly that she can only identify with the female (for instance, in H.D.’s Bid Me to Live, the character based on D.H. Lawrence insisted that the writer limit herself to Eurydice’s point of view). But Graham has moved beyond such strictures. Her poetic narration freely floats between the thoughts of both Orpheus and Eurydice, telling the reader first, "what he dreamed of was..." then, "what she dreamed of was..." ("Orpheus and Eurydice," 16, 19). The problem is no longer merely that of appropriate gender identification but of the role of the artist, any artist. A writer of either sex always takes on the role, previously gendered "masculine," of the one who looks. That which is looked at retains the imprint of the feminine: "this field with / minutes in it / called woman" ("Orpheus and Eurydice," 12).
For Graham, the act of claiming a single point of view and representing another through it is the greatest act of hubris, forbidden by the God of the Hebrew Scriptures in His commandment against graven images. The commandment receives reinforcement in the scene from Exodus, in which God instructs Moses to hide in a rock while He passes by, willing to reveal only His hind parts lest Moses be overwhelmed by the glory. Graham makes reference to this account in three poems in this collection. In "Expulsion" she writes:
now it's almost visible to them, the after wards,
the face of the god who wouldn't be seen except
hand on his piece of rock,
hand pressing down where the young man hides. (51-55)
This ancient taboo against idolatry can be understood in the contemporary context as a warning against the hubris of assuming that one’s point of view, one’s representation of an object, is in any way absolute. The postmodern poet can no longer simply assume the role of subject, objectifying all other — woman, time, earth and flesh — but must problematize the relation between subject and object, observing how it is the tension (the gesture) between them that gives rise to narrative and story: those forms which structure our understanding.
The gesture held in abeyance in "Orpheus and Eurydice" is, of course, the glance. The temptation (in this and in other poems in this collection) is the temptation to story: the glance hisses "Once upon a time..." that opening of our foundational narratives, which captures time and imposes order upon it. In these poems, fragmented pieces of narrative do not serve the same function as fragments from the classics did for Eliot or Pound. These are not the shards of a great past shored against present destruction; rather these fragments resemble primordial elements swirling in chaos before the narrativizing mind of the artist has inflicted an order. We are asked to stay with this chaos, not to fear it.
While Robert Frost noted that the "stay against confusion" (vi) which poems created was only momentary, that is not what worries Graham. Her concern is not with impermanence but with falsity: she entertains a rather old-fashioned interest in "truth," and explores how any ordering project does violence to the object. Part 3 of "Self Portrait as Both Parties" expresses a desire: "Wanting to be true, at the heart of things but true." This truth she seeks can only be achieved by a poetic oath of non-violence, a conscious effort to cease imposing structure on the world. Even Orpheus seeks to be freed from his subjectivity. In "Orpheus and Eurydice," he feels the glance "stirring in him," the "point of view darting in him," and hears it hissing: "Turn now darling give me that look, that perfect shot, give me that place where I’m erased..." (1, 5-7).
The look’s desire for its own erasure is significant in relation to the question of how to represent without destroying the object of representation. In the place where the gaze negates itself, the gazer’s subject position is reversed. For the subject to be released from the burden of its subjectivity, the object must claim its own subjectivity. So Eurydice, the object, becomes an accomplice to this aim of Orpheus the artist, and as the poem nears its climax:
Eurydice, in Graham’s telling, looks back at Orpheus. This detail makes an important shift. The looked at looks back. A state of complementarity between the seer and the seen becomes a solution to the problem of how to represent without violating the integrity of the object of representation.
Recent developments in physics tell us that watching may, in fact, be crucial. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggests that the act of observing can alter the results of an experiment. Thus, representation may be all there is: the viewed face, the photo, the painting, is reality. So Graham’s Eurydice dreams of "disappearing into the seen / not of disappearing, lord, into the real" ("Orpheus and Eurydice," 20-22). She dismisses "the real" as if it were a ludicrous notion. By entering "the seen" Eurydice would disentangle herself from definitions that cannot reach her interior and she would claim herself, not just as "other," but as synthetic.
As Graham suggests in "Expulsion" it is possible that "being seen will activate that soul," providing the opportunity for a liberation from the immutable sign of the self, the face. Acknowledging that there is no authentic self clears the way for the individual to act in any number of ways. One is no longer limited to a prescribed role. Thus, the poem "Orpheus and Eurydice" doesn’t end with Eurydice’s death, but with "what is possible" taking hold.
The meaning of the all-important Orphic glance can be further opened up by considering the problem of self-portraiture evoked by the titling of many of the poems in this collection as "self portraits." To paint a self-portrait is no longer to simply engage in a act of self-examination (that act so expected of the poet since Wordsworth) but to make explicit the problems involved in representation: capturing and presenting one’s own self, the subject, as object. The moral struggle involved in this act preoccupies Graham as much as do the implications of representing the other.
She wonders, in "Expulsion" about "the Hopi injunction against the photograph" considering that perhaps it is
Rather that being-seen will activate that soul
until the flesh is something that can be risen through,
until the face you offer up is the one that can’t be
The one who offers the face cannot control what use the viewer makes of it: it becomes something else, something other, a simulacrum of the self.
The Orpheus self-portraits examine then not merely the various faces of a self, but the implications of transforming discrete moments of personal experience into the coherent form we call self. The interrelations between art-making and its object have become infinitely difficult, primarily because the subject itself — the self — has become an unstable entity, consisting of multiple existences in unrelated moments of time. For example, the drowned woman in "Self-Portrait as Both Parties" seems a "garment of particles which would become her body" (5:6). Orpheus seeks "her edges, seeking to make her palpable again" (6:6). Edges and outlines preoccupy Graham: they are what must contain the unrepresentable mystery of self. One body only knows another body by its skin — its edges. The center of meaning, the body’s own awareness, is unknowable.
Another illusion which maintains our belief in teleologically based narrative is called, in the study of film, "persistence of vision." When you look directly at a strip of motion picture film without the aid of a projector you see that the illusion of motion is created by a series of still photographs. Similarly, Graham, the former film student, examines familiar narratives in such refracted slow motion that the stories are stripped of their inevitable, linear progression. Her strategy of freezing a moment in a narrative, of reducing it to its language acts, subverts the narrative with all its weight of inevitability and result. It restores power to the semiotic realm. This intervention in the narrative gives Eurydice power — the freedom to define herself.
H. D.’s Eurydice had no choice in her positioning. She was submerged in the narrative. In Graham’s ironically labeled "Self Portraits," Graham plays with the reader’s expectations of self-disclosure and presence by positioning an "I" outside the poem, so that the speaker is not one of the story’s characters but a self-conscious narrator. The "you" then becomes the reader. Parenthetically, she speaks in "Orpheus and Eurydice" of "(somewhere you holding this piece of paper)" (35) and in "Expulsion" she asks, "What can you find looking up from this white page now, / what can you find across the room? Or is it a store?" (56-57). Drawing the reader back into an awareness of herself reading a poem (perhaps in a book she has not even bought but is browsing through) foregrounds the material process of narrative transmission. Drawing our attention to the means of transmission reminds us that we can no longer be enmeshed in the symbolic but must now look directly at the leap by which we render individual experience archetypal.
All the characters in these poems seek freedom from destiny, destination, ending. Graham focuses on that moment of irresolution — Orpheus about to turn back, the glance starting to stir in him as they walk up towards earth — because it is there that any ending, or no ending, can happen. The poem ends, not with Eurydice descending into Hades but with "the possible" taking hold and the possible, with its sense of multiple potentiality is, in Graham’s system, good: as she has said in an interview, the best narrative poems "postpone closure" and dare to exist in the scary openness of a "real gap" (Gardner, 1992, 84-85).
That this is truly scary is evident in "What the End Is For," a poem which explores a darker side of accepting the death of the individual. The narrator of the poem notes that she speaks from a place where "watching is an anachronism." She feels the uselessness of this quintessential enactment of subjectivity while contemplating a military base. Looking at "five hundred B-52s’s" in North Dakota she experiences "a dark I have not seen before" (22). Then the speaker recalls a scene in which she and the man to whom the poem is addressed stared at each other,
Until we were what we must have wanted to be:
shapes the shapelessness was taking back. (91-92)
This movement towards annihilation, into nothingness, culminates in the figure of Orpheus, torn "limb from limb." Floating down river to the ocean, his head continues singing,
until the sound of the cataracts grows,
until the sound of the open ocean grows and the voice. (101-102)
The very thing that had enabled Orpheus to challenge the gods and death — his music, his voice — must dissolve in the oceanic sound of vast emptiness, white noise that swallows all discrete sounds. Ultimately, Orpheus cannot escape the semiotic. The image of his floating head insists that undoing, dismemberment and engulfment are necessary aspects of the process of creation.
The image of the floating head also conveys that voice no longer qualifies as an unmediated representative of the self. Decapitated Orpheus reminds us that the contemporary poet’s task is a contradictory one: the poet must be aware of the readers’ demand for confession, honesty and presence in the lyric poem, yet must also know that enlightenment notions of the self have been effectively shattered in a world where implements of mass destruction stand
alert on the runway,
fully loaded fully manned pointed in all the directions
running every minute
of every day. (2-5)
In this concluding poem of the Orpheus sequence the stasis that takes hold of the figures no longer suggests the potential for movement in any or all directions. The speaker of the poem can find no reason to move. The man whom darkness renders invisible refuses to embrace her as they dissolve into shapelessness. Connection has become, if not irrelevant, then impossible. Returning to the semiotic cannot recreate a state of fusion with the (m)other.
For Jorie Graham, the morality of her own act of writing is constantly being called into question: she struggles with the knowledge that reality is diminished by the artist’s attempt to render it understandable through the symbolic; nevertheless, the poet, whose tool is language, must attempt this. Orpheus stands as an example of a noble failure: the attempt to fuse the semiotic and symbolic must be taken up yet again. The artist continues to try not to destroy the other in celebrating it.
The contemporary poet, Graham’s poems insist, must find a way to render experience knowable without imposing a falsifying order. We live and create in an age when total annihilation is as likely as a single death. Boundaries of gender and individual identity, which once seemed immutable, now fluctuate with greater and greater frequency.
By showing gender roles encoded and enacted in these mythic narratives, Graham deprives them of authority. In their place, she offers a shape-shifting poetic which seeks not the point of view, but a space of creation, as valid as any other. By rendering the image as image, rather than as that which conveys presence, the sacred center of meaning within the Other is safe from harm, free from destiny, destination and ending. This new poetic embraces the disembodied image as a space where subject and object can take turns, giving new meaning to one another in a playful give and take. It rejoices in semiotic disruption of the symbolic.
H.D. Collected Poems: 1912-1944. Louis L. Martz (ed.). N.Y.: New Directions, 1983.
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Eliot, T.S. "Ulysses, Order and Myth." The Dial Nov. 1923. Reprinted in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Frank Kermode (ed.). N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1975.
Gardner, Thomas. "An Interview with Jorie Graham." Denver Quarterly 26.4 (1992): 79-91.
Graham, Jorie. The End of Beauty. N.Y.: Ecco, 1987.
Frost, Robert. The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Tr. Margaret Waller. N.Y.: Columbia U.P., 1984.