The new volume of poems by my Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, in its US edition, bears on its jacket a detail from Vermeer's The Astronomer, showing the hand of the astronomer as it touches, almost affectionately, the zodiacal globe it is about to spin. Although the star-gazer cannot make physical contact with his remote field of vision, the caressing way his finger lies on the surface of the globe suggests his intense intimacy with the sky. The window that sheds light on the globe, enabling the astronomer to see it, presents the light of earth meeting the light of mind. We might take the astronomer as a figure for the poet, reaching forever towards a contour of sense-experience deeply known in the body, but unavailable in language except through the mind's mediation. Even the most intellectual poets begin as children enthralled by the senses through which the world is made known to them. The subsequent obsessive adult drive towards representation, entangling sense and mind in a Gordian knot, poses the problem underlying poetic composition: how to make a third thing, a linguistic one, in which the senses represent mind, and mind re-creates the senses. Every achieved poem is built on the paradox by which an object (the poem) reproduces, on the virtual plane of language, sense and mind moving inextricably together, as they do in every act of consciousness.
LRB 23 January 2003 | PDF Download