Co-director of the Poetry at Round Top Festival and a senior poetry editor for Tupelo Quarterly, Katherine Durham Oldmixon holds a Ph.D. in English from UT-Austin, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of New Orleans, and an M.A. and B.A. in English from University of Houston. Her poems can be found in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, The Bellevue Review, The Normal School, Improbable Worlds: An Anthology of Texas and Louisiana Poets (Mutabilis Press, 2011) and in her chapbook Water Signs, finalist for the New Women’s Voices Award (Finishing Line Press, 2009). She is professor and chair of English at historic Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, TX.
Jorie Graham is the author of From the New World: Poems 1976-2014 (Ecco, 2015); Place: New Poems (Ecco, 2012); Sea Change (2008); Never (2002); Swarm (2000); The Errancy (1997)
The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994(Ecco, 1995); Materialism (1993); Region of Unlikeness (1991); The End of Beauty (Ecco, 1987); Erosion (1983), Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (Princeton University Press, 1980). She replaced poet Seamus Heaney as Boylston Professor at Harvard, becoming the first woman to be appointed to this position She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1996) for The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994 and was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.
First Books: On Jorie Graham’s Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts
When scholars write about Jorie Graham’s work, they almost always raise questions about “access” and “difficulty.” You know what else is “difficult”? Anything worth learning or doing.
Jorie Graham’s first book, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, was one of the first books of contemporary poetry I read, and certainly the first I read as an aspiring poet. Like many aspiring poets in contemporary America, I had read very little poetry by living poets. I could quote from Chaucer, Donne, Keats, Bishop—but I had little to no idea what was going on in the poetry of my own day. A friend suggested that I might like Jorie Graham’s Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts. Having grappled with texts of the past, I did not find Hybrids “difficult”—but I certainly found it challenging. These poems asked me to read, to read not only analytically, but holistically and creatively. They asked me to read with my alert and dreaming mind.
To be sure, these are poems for serious readers that suggest a seriously beautiful cultivation. Graham takes the title for her book from a passage in Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and, according to the notes, the poem “To Paul Eluard” “is loosely inspired by Robert Motherwell’s book, The Dada Painters and Poets”—but these are only two direct indicators of the complex genealogy of these poems. Surely, an image like “the starlings keep trying/ to thread the eyes / of steeples” (“Strangers”) has an even more complex genealogy.
These hybrids of plants and of ghosts are also reader poems in that they ask for a reader who likes to read, who will slow down and read. I mean read like a slow walk through an art gallery. Read, like a meditation in Rothko Chapel. Poems like “For Mark Rothko”—and even Rothko’s painting Violet, Black, Orange on Red and White that appears on the cover—point to the fluid, contemplative way of reading these poems require.
I will be the first to say that I don’t always know what Jorie Graham “means” in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts. Some of the poems—e.g., “How Morning Glories Could Bloom at Dusk”—play on what we know, while others play with what we know in the realm of the surreal. These poems are not plain spoken. They are not for everyone—but they are worth it for those who truly love to read.
Questions to consider:
How are these poems “hybrids of plants and of ghosts”?
How does ekphrasis work in Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts?
How do these poems access inner states?
Does it matter when we read Graham’s first book of poems now that they were written when she was 26, years and books before she would win the Pulitzer Prize? Do we value or understand them differently if we read them as precursors to the “mature” work?