All posts by The High Window Review

Kathleen Graber: Catching Your Luck

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Kathleen Graber was raised on small barrier island off the coast of New Jersey. Her latest collection of poetry, The River Twice (Princeton University Press, 2019) was the winner of the Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas. She is the author of two previous books of poetry, Correspondence and The Eternal City, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Amy Lowell Trust, Princeton University, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She is a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Catching Your Luck: A review of Kathleen Graber’s The River Twice by Omar Sabbagh

The River Twice by Kathleen Graber.  £14.99. Princeton University Press.
ISBN: 978-0691193212

‘I kept thinking of the Chinese proverb: You have to catch
your own luck.’
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘America [train]’

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘…Heraclitus, whom the crash of time has left
in fragments, saw in the cosmos a harmony of tensions.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxImagine…’
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘The River Twice’

Kathleen Graber’s 2019 The River Twice is not just a deeply intelligent and highly enjoyable book, but is that rare thing as well: a book that can change your life as a writer because you recognize in its wisdom many of the facets of your own, perhaps more budding, wisdom. As Graber notes at the end of her book, just before the copious and helpful notes to individual entries across the work, Heraclitus (source of the titular, The River Twice), was perhaps one of if not the first metaphysician to highlight the priority of ‘becoming’ over ‘being.’ At the close of one of the later poems in her book, ‘Greetings from Richmond (or Thinking of Elizabeth Bishop & Everything Else in the World)’, Graber writes in this vein:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxAnd because

the trees are, he guesses, thirty years old, even if young ones
were planted here tomorrow, I would not live long enough to see them

grow this tall.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxWhen we say wisdom, perhaps this is what we mean.

Keeping with endings, farthest limits, there are many other similar sentiments closing what are reflective not determinant poems, in which wisdom is a deeply Socratic thing. At the end of the first of a series of epistolatory poems to ‘America’ peppered throughout the book, ‘America [peaches]’, Graber addresses America thus:

… I am sorry that there is more
& more of you lately I don’t understand.
Sometimes I want simply to sit alone a long time
in silence. America, you must want this too.

Or closing ‘New Year’, we read in a final, only seemingly chancy juxtaposition, addled as it is in signal ways to those foregone:

Yesterday, a friend called to ask how long I think our grief continues.

He’s lost his gloves, the last gift his wife will ever give him.
And though I said Forever, I meant, of course, something less.

At the end of the first part of an ekphrastic poem, itself closing the book’s part Two, ‘Impasto for the Parietal’, again, Graber speaks of her delimitations: ‘I have rarely known with any real depth or precision what it is I felt.’

Or take the book’s overall ending. At the close of the whole book, we read of ‘The rhetoric of rescue, of longing & belonging, / the lover, the beloved. A rhetoric of oneness or none-ness. / A rhetoric of everyone simply wanting everyone to stay.’ And it’s as if the Heraclitean notion of a ‘harmony of tensions’ is being purposely enacted between some of the endings just cited and the more wistful ending here of the whole volume – which last ending is ironized thereby, dialectically. Indeed, the book works like a kind of force-field of sense and form, both within individual poems, and between them too.

And then, as a kind of equally metaphysical combination of or dialectic between these two senses of being (present) and of becoming, of being and of being delimited, the opening of the nicely, significantly titled ‘Here, After,’ runs:

When she was walking this morning, a pair of martins
darted from a tree & swept past her ears, one on each side,
so that she thought maybe the marriage had been like that,
two sets of wings, the color of twilight, on either side
of an idea no more substantial than the picture of the sky
the lake gives back – mesmerizing, changing, abiding,
but also unreal, even though the lake has somehow held
the sky within it for as long as it can remember
in the only way it knows how….

This kind of analogizing story-telling, which is deeply metaphysical, is also put to use throughout the collection in other, signifying ways. The idea, broached in the first epigraph above, of catching your luck, actually proves to be an image of Graber’s aesthetic in this book. There are indeed some mildly Hegelian echoes in some of the poems, from ‘The Zeitgeist Bird’ onwards. And the presiding notion, as well as being the chief way or mode of the story-telling in this verse, is precisely the way experience is built from contingencies that only later, retrospectively, are justified or necessitated, after, as it were, the Owl of Minerva has flown. I think that when in ‘America [October]’, Graber writes, ‘The view from the porch is the view from the porch’, she is indicating this idea that experience just is what it is, and only then: becomes meaningful, looking-on. Similarly, Graber’s variegated way of relaying experience and reflection creeps up on one, as though to indicate that meaning is not innate, but forged, built, always in the process of becoming what it is.

Throughout the book, from the opening poem ‘Self-Portrait with No Internal Navigation’, the harmony of tensions happens by the way Graber builds up tapestries of experience, past and present, almost always using what are most like lists or litanies in an analogizing stop-start motion that is also recursive most of the time. And she does this, we gather, in order to then pause, periodically, questioning or concluding in a more inferential and reflective manner. There is a sense of Elizabeth Bishop’s paradoxical ‘One Art’ to many of Graber’s formal intentions, a harmony of tensions which only harmonize in the midst of the writing, and then, finished, the writing’s looking-back over its shoulder, posthumously righting. And the realizations aren’t always conclusive, bearing only the shape of conclusions. In ‘America [October]’ we read America being addressed as follows:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxYou were
conceived in a genocidal, colonial violence,
& yet, like the universe, you & I are here today,
going on & on, discovering that we were naïve,
or simply wrong, about almost everything we thought
we knew. Truth, an envelope with nothing inside.

In ‘The Zeitgeist Bird’, Graber finds herself ‘Stopped at the light behind license plate XNG 1066’, and goes on, in a smallish parody of her more serious method throughout the book, to read-into it, using what ‘Psychologists call…apophenia, / an abundance of meaning, the symptom of finding / in everything the message everything lacks’; in particular, there’s an associative narrative to do with the re-imagining of the ‘Battle of Hastings’ – when of course, what she is actually doing is ‘catching her luck.’ Which is to say, taking a deeply contingent and happenstance detail, and going with it, creating a narrative of insight from it; or, perhaps, a narrative of insight about the failure of that narrative of insight. However, this small paranoiac tendency is also true to experience in time. In ‘America [April]’:

xxxxxxxxxAt twenty-three, I was
already married. In another year my husband’s
only sister would finally be killed by the tumor
she was carrying in her brain. She lay deaf & blind
& mute in bed for months & because the light
of understanding must travel immeasurable distances,
it has taken her desolation decades to find me here
this morning, suddenly real & past imagining.

In a final analogical move at the end of ‘The Year of the Horse’ this notion of the retroaction of the retrodictive, runs:

xxxxxxxxxxxxAs for sorrow: in other states, the mothers
& fathers of everyone you love are dying, but yours
Are already dead. Some things only happen once. Above,
the perfectly credible stars. Below, a downhill road.
Last week’s snow melting before the next storm arrives.

At the close here, we seem to be anticipating the way the future will look-back at the present, as past, and so on, and so on. The ending of ‘“The Weight”’ is a small prayer, echoing similar small prayers ending other poems in the book: ‘Lord, / these days it is as though I am returned again at every moment / from so far away. The worn palm of the world is heavy with time.’

Graber is undoubtedly a modernist. Whether we mean by this the notion, central to Ford Madox Ford’s impressionism (see his essay, ‘On Impressionism’), of a so-called ‘homo duplex’, where one’s body is one place and one’s mind is roaming elsewhere (Proust, too); or, whether we mean by this her rigorous use of what Edward W. Said in his 1975 Beginnings spoke of as a kind of structure of feeling evinced via ‘adjacency’ rather than a ‘dynastic relation.’   Indeed, the opening two epigraphs of the whole book are, as we might expect, fragments from Heraclitus. The one speaks famously of the river ever-flowing past (as much as, equally, the rivers of our own selves, also bodily in time); but the other indicates, in harmonious tension, Heraclitus and thus Graber’s reverence for the oneness that is the searching for the divine. The ultimate wisdom of recognizing a oneness-in-many-ness, a body-and-mind, would seem to be both Graber’s emergent worldview, but more compellingly, would seem to inform the aesthetic of her poetry in this book. Often, it seems Graber’s method and manner of telling her stories is very close to constellatory. Theodor W. Adorno writes of this method in his Negative Dialectics as follows:

The unifying moment survives without a negation of the negation…. It survives because there is no step-by-step progression from the concepts to a more general cover concept. Instead, the concept enters into a constellation. [1]

And what Adorno, as a modernist philosopher means here, is that any unity achieved makes up what he elsewhere calls an ‘antagonistic entirety’; which is to say, a unity that is still not fully resolved, that in Keats’s terms, can countenance ‘negative capability.’ Positive dialectics, as in the biographical Hegel, tried to map mind at the last, fully, absolutely, onto the real. The ‘negative’ kind proffered by Adorno, by turns, indicates the inadequacy of mind to body, primarily because the gaze of the mind is too rigorously demanding to actually meet-with the flowing, passing body of the world of experience. So, the methodological conception of constellation is rooted in a recognition of historicity, of temporal flux and mutability; such that, no clear and distinct names will touch on the passing reality of the real. Instead, for Adorno, as much as for his modernist mentor, Walter Benjamin, the truer manner of representing reality was irretrievably poetic, configurative. Each broached aspect or facet of a reality is like a star, lighting up the next star in the constellation, but never finding absolute or rounding closure. Graber does honor to the flux and mutability of the real, of experience, by holding her analogizing bits and pieces in each poem together, with an at times ironic, at times eviscerating and serious voice, but never resolving them into some finished conclusion. And we learn as much as experience by the arts of her indirection.

In an ‘Introduction’ to his posthumously published One-Way Street and other Writings, Susan Sontag writes of Walter Benjamin in a way that illuminates some of the foregone discussion of the aesthetics of Graber’s work in The River Twice:

The self is a text – it has to be deciphered…. The self is a project, something to be built…. And the process of building a self and its works is always too slow. One is always in arrears to oneself. [2]

Graber writes poems of deep wisdom, which are also deeply enjoyable to read. She analogizes or juxtaposes different but at times dovetailing facets of experience and memory, and always with a recursiveness (and fluency) that suggests that if and when she has inferred or arrived at any conclusion, it is looking-on, still tentative thus, still imminent, not preplanned in some determinant agenda. And she does all this, we must assume, because she recognizes, eponymously, that we simply don’t and can’t step in the same river twice.

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1] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton, London: Routledge, 1996, 162.

2] Susan Sontag, ‘Introduction’ in Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott & Kingsley Shorter, London & New York: Verso Books, 1998, 14.

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Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. His latest books are Reading Fiona Sampson: A Study in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Anthem Press, 2020), and To My Mind Or Kinbotes: Essays on Literature (Whisk(e)y Tit, 2021). His Morning Lit: Portals After Alia is forthcoming in early 2022 with Cinnamon Press. He is Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD).

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Although it has not been possible to reprint work from The River Twice, you will find poems by Kathleen Graber here and here