Stanzas: Jorie Graham

Carl Phillips

Spring 2019

For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of poetic lines. This week, Carl PhillipspoetAiken Taylor award winner, and judge of our upcoming poetry contestexamines a stanza from "San Sepolcroby Jorie Graham. 


        


I’ve always favored open stanzas that allow their open-endedness to resonate with a meaning that remains unstated, but understood. Yes, the resonances may be misleading, out of context; how, then, to make them meaningfully misleading? Here’s the fourth stanza of Graham’s eight-stanza poem: 

holy grave. It is this girl
            by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
            her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
            to go into

The girl exists in a painting by della Francesca; she’s depicted undressing. But where are we? Who is she? The opening line of the stanza suggests an equivalency: holy grave = this girl. How is a girl a grave, and in what way holy? Is the body itself what’s meanta kind of grave, in that it holds us as we die steadily inside it? Meanwhile, she undresses, “to go into”into what? And what does it mean, to remove the weather from oneself? What lies beneath? 

Here, a single stanza creates and sustains mystery, part of the poem’s weather. The stanza before this one tells us it’s the mind that’s a holy grave. The stanza after will tell us the girl is going into labor. Later we’ll learn that this is a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary. Within the stanza itself, though, we reside in mystery, in possibilitywithout which, what is art?  

Carl Phillips’s new book, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, will be out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2020. Sibling Rivalry Press will publish his chapbook, Star Map with Action Figures, this fall.

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