With the terrain as varied as it presently is, readers for Loren Graham’s book Mose should multiply. It was published by Wesleyan in 1994 without much of it appearing elsewhere: one sustained narrative poem, it is not a book of another genre in verse lines. Instead, Mose works–in the voices of the newspaper and television, of God, of the narrator, and the Oklahoma prisoner/figure, Mose, writing to his unheard Gracie–wholly as foregrounded language, as a poem. If Faulkner had gone the whole nine yards with As I Lay Dying–tipped it fully into the condensed, varying line of a book-length poem–we would have something else kin to Mose.
Since then, Loren Graham has been writing a long series of sonnets taking the scrambling of identities as a given. Their occasion the break-up of a marriage, these poems too have a narrative arc. The pronouns destabilize; the premise tilts and then rights itself; the diction moves from fragmented to decorous to ranting to choppy. Selecting only a handful from the twenty to date cannot adequately convey the enterprise, but the few here provide a sense of the narrative and a small slice of Loren Graham’s range.
This page is sponsored by Utah State University Press and the May Swenson Poetry Award Series.
He names his days in descending order,
days left in a five-year sentence, calls them
by number as though they were years:
Dear Gracie I been
here a hundred years and still can’t tell
you why I He reflects a moment, pulls
the page loose, and proceeds.
Gracie anything I might say after these
hundred days would be just like He bends
unconvinced to retrieve the dropped pencil
when my old man would make me read
the Bible, Adam begat Cain and Cain
Abel and so forth He shakes
his head slowly, tells himself again
that words are hopeless, stretches
his fingers, writes
Dear Gracie it’s
hard to start this letter so I’ll begin
with now and circle back to explanations
Mose looks up as the gray- and purple-uniformed
turnkey locks him in for the night, half
an hour before lights out.
Standing on a barrel
Or stool in one position shall not extend
for more than two hours at any one
Gracie watches over
the turnkey’s shoulder. Mose
can see the bricks of the opposite wall
through her cheekbones.
No dark cell
hereafter constructed shall be of dimensions
less than four by eight feet, not less than seven
feet high, with proper ventilation
Gracie, sometimes you’re
like a ghost to me or someone who’s gone,
only their perfume is still there somehow
and the smell can make you see them
unless things are right in their places
not be occupied by more than one prisoner
at a time
Mose closes his eyes
The sky falls all night, it is nothing new
She gets hoarse earlier on you could never understand, don’t say that you
He slumps on the couch, hand on his head, he wonders if there is beer
The cat stolid by the radiator
She turns to the kitchen to make words out of dirty dishes
Moments line up in rows, silent as eggs
He says I don’t want you to think I wouldn’t if
She says why can’t you just go ahead and if
He thinks she is passing over, as though his voice had expired
He says I can’t when I’ve
A shadow moving like a mouse
She goes out rattling glass
He sits quiet in the counsel of rain
She turns the engine over again and again in the cold driveway
In the tenth month of their eleventh year,
he drove over the ridge to a strange city
to file his suit against her.
It was clear
enough he had no choice: even the gritty
hope he could still muster was not hope per se,
but merely the urge to hold out a little
longer, a fool’s desire to delay.
And if he should succumb to that desire
what then? Say her new man should vanish; say
she begged to reconcile; say there was fire
in her appeal, and say her trembling voice
blotted out disbelief. Could he retire
now from the numbing pain and make repairs?
No. Nothing could happen. There was no choice.