Poetry

“Tennessee June,” by Jorie Graham

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This poem caught my eye after I saw Kazim Ali reading it here on YouTube. I ran across that video while nosing around on the Web, but in a reading I recently hosted for Litquake, Ali told the audience that one way he’s been coping with COVID-19 confinement is to rediscover great poems written by others and then reinterpret them in YouTube readings. Our event was supposed to happen at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco this month featuring Ali along with Natalie Diaz, Tongo Eisen Martin, and Jane Hirshfield.

Screenshot of 4/2/20 Litquake Reading featuring, clockwise from top, Jack Boulware, Kazim Ali, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Jane Hirshfield, and Rebecca Foust 

Well, it went the way of all poetry readings this very unusual National Poetry Month—to Zoom—and as Shelley says in his great sonnet, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains.” [“Ozymandias”] Ours was one of the first public readings aired before Zoom instituted new security protocols, and we got Zoombombed with a sewage sludge feed of slurs repeated by a troll bot something like 563 times. It was horrific but edifying, forcing me to imagine (in a very limited and protected way, of course) what it feels like to endure assaults like this day in, day out.

Today’s poem, “Tennessee June,” is free verse in 26 short lines. The poem eschews end rhyme and regular meter, but there is still plenty of music, in various forms: internal rhyme (“Rock out into that dark and back”), assonance (“heat” and “seek”), and strategic word repetition (“flaw,” “heat,” “bare,” “pressure,” “nothing,” and “circle”), including the anaphora of lines 23-4 (“Nothing will catch you. / Nothing will let you go”).

This poem’s relatively short lines are a departure from the very long lines I associate with Graham’s style. For example, see “I Am Reading Your Mind.” Sometimes Graham’s lines are so long that her poems have to be printed in foldout pages or sideways on the page in landscape rather than portrait view.

In a Paris Review interview, Graham talks about her shift from long, sentence-like lines to shorter, more lyrical lines:

I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience—which includes philosophical discursiveness—to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward… It brings the reader in as a listener to a confession. … A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.” [Source here]

In “Tennessee June,” setting is established by the title: We know where we are (Tennessee) and also when (in early summer). The third-person omniscient speaker immediately gets to the heart of things, namely what’s most elemental about summer versus other seasons—its “heat.” Here, heat is personified as a being that is capable of agency and action; it can “seek” things, and it can “love the flaw.” That makes me think of the old adage about master carpet weavers, how they always include a flaw so they cannot be accused of attempting to be perfect, like God. (I’ve often wondered if that’s the reason for the flaws in God’s own carpet of creation, a whole new take on the problem of evil.)

In line 3, “Nothing is heavier than its spirit,” the “its” refers back to the “heat” of the first line. So, heat is capable not only of doing the kinds of things people can do but also, like a person, has its own soul. That sets up the next line, about nothing being “more landlocked” than “the body” during Deep South summers. From my time at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference a few years back, I can attest to the formidable power of this kind of heat—we are talking heat-like-a-wall requiring shade breaks in dorms in order to cross campus. And, having grown up in western Pennsylvania without a/c, this really resonates in my own body-memory.

I found that image so arresting, of the body being landlocked. It could be literally landlocked, a body growing up, as mine did, in the mountains. Or it could be figurative, where what is locking the body down is heat rather than miles of land (or, as now, our own quarantine). On another level, perhaps heat represents something else, such as racial tension or some other simmering social unrest. In any event, the idea made me think of one of those old paintings using mise en abyme, a formal technique that incorporates a copy of an image within itself in a way that suggests a recurring sequence. That is, a painting might include a mini-painting of itself, which in turn contains its own even smaller painting and onward in infinite regression. Here, our souls are imprisoned in our minds imprisoned in our bodies imprisoned in . . . There is a sense of claustrophobia here, of being locked down within a series of ever-smaller spaces.

The landlocked world of the body is not an entirely negative thing. There are, at least, “daylilies” and “lawns.” My best memories of childhood include the tiger lilies thronging roadside ditches in early June and green lawns and meadows that resurrect, like a green miracle, each spring, so those images console me. But, hang on a minute—the lawns are “bare, then falsely gay, then bare again.” That word “falsely” speaks volumes about the state of mind of this speaker, who does not trust spring and its resurrections.

The next lines make it clear that “the body” is not just “landlocked” within the day’s heat; the mind is also landlocked within the body. Were it not for the body, whatever we are besides the body—a soul, say, or maybe just energy—could meld with and become part of the world’s energy and heat the way a landlocked lake could merge with the ocean if the mountains were bulldozed. Were it not for the body, the mind could be free to “wander.”

And, in a crucial distinction, to wander “without its logic.” This is telling, for it suggests that logic is a product of the physical body but not of its soul. Some part of the mind exists as more than the anatomical brain and is free from the brain’s learned logic, of human-imposed strictures on ways of thinking about things. One writer who took Graham for his thesis subject notes that her poems differentiate “intuition” from “logic,” a distinction that seems to apply here. In the speaker’s dream of what it would be like to possess a free-range mind, one that is all intuition and no intellect, boundaries give way all at once like the banks of a riverbed. (Read “Where Intellect and Intuition Converge: Epistemological Errancies in the Poetry of Jorie Graham,” by Terry O’Brien Pettinger, here.)

In the speaker’s dream of what it would be like to be pure intuition, the body and its limitations also gives way all at once, like the riverbanks. What is described is a dissolution, a falling-apart, and a return to entropy, to atoms.

But then, the poem returns to the fixed, closed system that we-the-living are currently stuck with: our minds in our bodies and our bodies landlocked—not just geographically but also within existing political and socioeconomic systems, which create a kind of zero-sum game. If there are people who have more than they need, the poem implies, there must also be people who don’t have enough. Graham’s dissolving-riverbank image posits a reality where this is no longer true, a reality where

no world can survive
having more than its neighbors;

in it, the pressure to become forever less is the pressure
to take forevermore [lines 9-14]

For a powerful short story/parable that captures a similar idea, read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Guin, here.

The poem makes its political point lightly, touching on it and then moving immediately into a lyricism that steers the poem back into more personal—and universal—concerns: “Oh / let it touch you . . .” Up to this point, the speaker has been somewhat impersonal and omniscient, talking about “the body” in third person and in a sense standing above and looking down at the images she creates. But here, she turns to address the reader directly, beginning with “oh”—the classic signal of a highly personal lyrical outcry.

“Oh / let it touch you,” the speaker begs us. At first, she seems to imply an actual sensory touch, something we access through the body, such as the sight of a porch lit up against the night. That’s another enclosure, of course, and one explicitly equated (in an appositive set off by em dashes) with “little box of the body.” Enclosures within enclosures again—the soul within the mind, the mind within the brain, the brain within the body, the body within social and political systems, and also physically within other enclosures like houses, porches, towns, states, countries, and the world.

The poem stays on that porch for a while, taking note of a “hammock” and the early-summer evening tableau unfolding all around it: fireflies, fern beds, and in an especially wonderful image, crickets “boring” then filling “holes” in the night’s hot silence. The crickets seem somewhat mechanical, and what they are doing sounds like programmed work. Then comes the image of those hapless “blind moths.” Like us, they are trapped in bodies that, even though they can fly, fly without real volition or direction. These creatures are “landlocked” in their bodies, hardwired to immolate themselves in the nearest artificial light source.

I don’t know if it was the references to a hammock and moths or the poem’s last two lines, but I thought about James Wright while reading today’s poem. Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (read here) features not just a hammock but also a “bronze butterfly,” and its move—from particulars observed in nature to a larger reflection (“I have wasted my life”)—is the movement of today’s poem. In Wright’s watershed book, The Branch Will Not Break (Wesleyan 2011), you’ll find one of his best-loved poems, “A Blessing,” whose last lines read:

That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Compare those two lines with the ones that conclude “Tennessee June:”

We call it blossoming —
the spirit breaks from you and you remain.

As with all deftly executed allusions, this one is handled with subtlety and sensitivity so that readers who think of Wright will find their experience of Graham’s poem enlarged, and those who don’t “get it” will not feel ignorant and excluded. The poem works beautifully either way.

I experienced a nice connection with that “blossoming” when my War and Peace read-a-thon group finished Volume II with this sentence by Tolstoy, referring to the comet said to presage Napoleon’s invasion of Russia: “It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into new life.” The word reminds me of other poems I love: “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee, which closes with “from blossom to blossom to / impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom,” and  “Blossom” by Dorianne Laux, which opens stunningly with “What is a wound but a flower.” And here is a brand new poem by Lee Herrick, written explicitly about COVID-19 confinement, which includes an image of a similar “breaking.”

I find the ending of “Tennessee June” gut-wrenchingly beautiful, a feeling Ali captures visually and sonically in his YouTube performance. It does something that a teacher, Heather McHugh, once told me that all good poem endings do—feels like the inevitable result of the lines that preceded it and is surprising at the same time. These lines function as a portal, a doorway rather than a closed door, that opens up into a larger space at the same time it effectively concludes the poem. That “breaking” at the end is a real jailbreak, letting the spirit out of its confinement and letting the poem burst out of the container it has constructed.

These enclosures within enclosures are nested like Russian dolls, and all are closed within this lovely poem—but with a ripcord at the end. Ah, a ripcord! An escape hatch! Sometimes these days it seems like every poem ever written was made with COVID-19 confinement in mind. I don’t know if that’s what drew me to “Tennessee Heat” or if it was seeing and hearing Ali’s passionate performance of it, but in any event, I am glad for the chance to read and talk about an extraordinary poem that reminds us that confinement is ever the human condition and that there are ways to break free even without actually going outside.

 

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