Poems, by virtue of the extra significance we accord to their words – the extra attention they demand and receive – are about everything they include. Everything they contain or consist in they speak about. Or good poems do, at least. Good angry poems are, at least a bit, about anger. Good sad poems are about sadness. Poems are rhythmic, so they’re about dividing time up into segments, so they’re a bit about time. Good formal poems are about the shape things take, and the rules which govern formation. And so on.
‘Honeycomb’ is a good difficult poem about difficulty. Difficulty in general, and about the difficulty of communication between people in particular. It presents the challenge of pure communication on several levels: the coherence of the communicating subject, the fallibility of the medium of communication, and the multiple and shifting contexts within which information is produced and received. It’s about the consolations and the dangers of the desire to be understood. To what questionable processes do we submit ourselves, that we may be visible to others? And what processes do we submit the natural world to so that it may be comprehensible to us?
There’s a nagging sense throughout of the inability to make one’s self known: ‘I offer myself up. For you to see. Can you not see? Why do you only see these / deeds?’ Earlier, ‘Can you see my room. Inside my room. Inside me where there is room / for what I miss. I am missing all of it. It is all invisible to me. Is it invisible / to you’, so that it seems communicating something of one’s self is a necessary element in knowing that self. The need to be known is understood as crucial: a person’s being known creates that person, as in the clever line break here: ‘can you make me / out?’, and the following, ‘Make me out. All other exits have been sealed. See me or we will both vanish.’
But it’s difficult. Like the poem itself, the attempt is fractured, ambiguous, variously ironic, alinear, opaque. Humans, though, are very good at disregarding certain bits of information in the interests of finding workable frames of reference. Reading ‘Honeycomb’ for the second or third time, I find myself doing just that: excluding certain parts of the poem in the effort to explain what’s really going on. In this way, it’s possible to read it as about a woman sitting at a computer on a summer’s day, communicating via Skype or email with other people (and bots) over the internet: ‘Here at my screen, / can you make me / out?’ she asks during her ‘tiny visit to the other’. Fibreoptic cables line the seafloor, so that no passport is needed to talk to people untraversable distances away; sometimes those people are signed off or are busy. Her search history includes, as all of ours do, searches inspired by late-night medical panic alongside other miscellaneous and mundane issues: ‘my late night / queries. Re chemo re the travel pass re where to send the photo the side effects…’. At the same time, the world goes on around the screen: somebody is walking to enter the room – we and our interlocutor hold our breath – but they walk past. On the desk there are roses and a copy of To the Lighthouse, and an unfinished glass of milk.
Once we’ve started building this interpretation, other of its elements begin to work as comments on this internet communication: it’s an ‘Ode to Prism’, the refraction of ourselves into a bouquet of wavelengths. ‘Untitled’ might be a Word document opened but not yet saved, and so on. But throwing all of our weight behind this kind of reading is to do a disservice to the poem, is to bend and force it into shape. There seems to be too much extraneous material we can’t, or can’t quite, fit into this pattern. It would require us to believe that Graham is complicating a simple poem unnecessarily. Fascinating phrases like ‘We need emblematic subjectivities’ would get steamrollered into referring only to the avatars we use on online forums, say.
A better way of reading the poem, I’d suggest, is to acknowledge that Graham is intentionally playing on the basic human drive to make narratives from scraps and fragments. ‘Honeycomb’, in its sad analysis of the potential for inaccuracies inherent in human communication, tricks us into falling into the traps it’s describing. It draws our attention to the fact that understanding comes as much from excluding material deemed irrelevant as it does from dwelling on what is relevant.
This is classic Jorie Graham. Graham’s poetic project has long been one of finding a way to shrink the distance between a poem and a reader’s experience of the poem: she wants to write about what her writing does; what its reader feels, or thinks, as they read. That reaction, in a Graham poem, is part of the subject of the poem.
We can, and probably should, interpret the long lines, the use of the ‘→’ character and the variable line spacing here as an effort to modulate density. That is, all three are a way of constricting white space and, with it, the time to separate the phrases from one another, to flatten out their elements. At the same time though, it’d be naive to suppose that their very unfamiliarity as formal devices is not part of their significance. That is, our experience of reading the poem is going to be one of at least slight uncertainty, a wariness of attributing final meaning. This calling-into-question of the purity of communication is precisely the subject of the poem.
This is one effect of the ‘→’ character, which does good work in ironising the idea of neat progression: unrelated fragments point to each other, imply one another, lead from and to another, bewilderingly. Think of the proliferation of data, hyperlinks spinning outward from any one point on the internet to the incomprehensible flood of information available to us. Think of the failure of communication to work like this: [idea inside person one]→[idea inside person two].
The mysterious or disjunctive way one thing arises out of another is suggested throughout Fast too in the way its rhyming works, with strings of close rhymes too clunky for more conventional music, and yet too strikingly rhymey for their sense to come to the fore. The effect is more pronounced elsewhere in the book – ‘But what if I only want to subtract. It’s too abstract. I have no contract. Cannot enact impact / interact’ (‘from The Enmeshments’) – but its shadow is here in ‘to die / too fast. The die is cast’, among other places in ‘Honeycomb’. We’re led to question how much of the poem is a result of its author’s ideas, and how much is enforced by the form through which she communicates. How do we weigh the agency of a subject against the agency of the medium by which that subject makes itself known?
And with that question comes the issue of which statements here to read as ironic. Can I really trust myself when I suppose that the forlorn expression of the desire for communication is an honest one, embedded as it is in such a narrative? Is the voice which says ‘We need emblematic subjectivities’ the same as the voice we sympathise with elsewhere, or is Graham holding up to ridicule that desire for a kind of hierarchicalising of subjectivity? This line of enquiry is brought to the fore by a supremely sinister passage: ‘we would not want you to miss the women kicked in order to abort the / rape—those screams—make sure you bank them you will need them—to prove / who you were when they ask’. These lines cast a long shadow over the rest of the poem. The utter horror of the situation they describe seems to make a mockery of the anxiety expressed elsewhere. And even so, even in the face of atrocity, the concern arises: how ‘to prove […] who you were’ – how to demonstrate that vital proof? One effect of the internet’s barrage of information, the poem suggests, is to reduce the unimaginable instances of suffering in others to a little strut in the constant desperate construction of our selves.
As well as the disconcerting shifting between levels of apparent sincerity and emotional freight – ‘What is your theory of transmission. The center holds, it holds, don’t worry about that’ – there’s the shifting between metrical patterns; think of the rug-pulling shift from the staccato sentences of the poem’s opening to the untrammeled if glitchy flow from line 16. All told, ‘Honeycomb’ has a pretty thick playbook of strategies for unsettling its reader; the effect is something like a systematic derangement of the sense-making faculties.
As above, then, the poem is about what it does, just as much as what it says. There’s a convergence of what’s inside and outside of the text. In fact, ‘Honeycomb’ includes a little picture of this process:
…There is a page on my desk in which first love is taking place, there is a
page on my desk in which first love is taking place again—neither of the characters
yet knows they are in love—a few inches from there Mrs Ramsay speaks again…
Note that the first love (and not a depiction of first love) is happening not on but in the page. The plane of reality in which the characters in the book live is eerily confused with the plane of reality in which the reader of the book lives. The sense of doubleness created by the repeated phrase leaps out in a poem otherwise barely maintaining continuity one word to the next.
Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe are from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which is a book deeply concerned with the struggle to communicate, and filled with characters failing to say what they mean. Mrs Ramsay can’t bring herself to tell her husband she loves him; Lily Briscoe is unable to offer Mr Ramsay the sympathy she feels for him; his children can’t bring themselves to voice their resentment of him. ‘Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing,’ thinks Lily at one stage: ‘one could say nothing to nobody.’
Woolf also repeatedly uses beehives as a metaphor for people, introducing the motif here:
How, then, [Lily] had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people.
This passage is almost destructively relevant to ‘Honeycomb’, so that it’s tempting to see it as a cipher, good for solving Graham’s poem in its entirety. But it isn’t.
It isn’t a cipher because, in the very act of comparing human thought to bees returning to a hive – as she does by setting side by side ‘the neural path the neurotoxin took’ with the paths the bees found or didn’t to their hive – Graham complicates the image. By evoking the bees which lost their way, she’s evoking by extension the ecologically disruptive pesticides humanity inflicts upon the natural world. By comparing that to the neurotoxins in a brain, then, Graham is drawing a parallel between this ailing human body (the book from which the poem is taken is largely about the death of her father) and our ailing, climate-change stricken planet.
But again, it won’t be as simple as that. The poem won’t flatten down to the formula [trapped human unable to communicate properly] = [mute planet being misunderstood by its blundering population]. At the same time, knowledge is put on a spectrum whose extremes extend beyond the realm of the human, with robotic acting-like-knowledge at one end (‘bot does not know, bot knows, what is it to know here’) and a kind of deep universal knowledge at the other (‘The sea now does not emit sound. It carries eternity as information’).
For Graham, the way of talking about one type of thing is always available for talking about another: animals like they’re ideas, sex like it’s philosophy, human death like it’s planet death. And this isn’t merely a stylistic device: it’s a struggle to find the (non-reductive) common ground between things; a world which doesn’t require a schizoid splitting apart to include violence and beauty, or the physical and mental. It is, as the title of her first selected poems put it, the ‘dream of a unified field’.
One implication of this unified field is that humanity merges with the natural world: the two spheres can’t be kept apart. In this way, ‘Honeycomb’ finds a way to speak eloquently, because with difficulty, about human understanding of and on the planet earth.
|Ode to Prism. Aria. Untitled. Wait. I wait. Have you found me yet. Here at my screen,
can you make me
out? Make me out. All other exits have been sealed. See me or we will both vanish.
We need emblematic subjectivities. Need targeted acquiescence. Time zones. This is
the order of the day. To be visited secretly. To be circled and canceled. I cover my
face. Total war: why am I still so invisible to you. No passport needed. If you look in,
the mirror chokes you off. No exit try again. Build bonfire. Light up screen. What are
you eating there. Can you survive on light. What is your theory of transmission. The
center holds, it holds, don’t worry about that. These talkings here are not truths.
They are needs. They are purchases and invoices. They are not what shattered the
silence. Not revolutions clocks navigational tools. Have beginnings and ends.
Therefore not true. Have sign-offs. I set out again now with a new missive. Feel this:
my broken seduction. My tiny visit to the other. Busy. Temporary. In the screen
there is sea. Your fiberoptic cables line its floor. Entire. Ghost juice. The sea now
does not emit sound. It carries eternity as information. All its long floor. Clothed as
I am→in circumstance→see cell-depth→sound its atom→look into here
further→past the grains of light→the remains of the ships→ starlight→what cannot
go or come back→what has mass and does not traverse distance→is all here→look
here. Near the screen there are roses. Outside a new daymoon.
Can you see my room. Inside my room. Inside me where there is room
|page on my desk in which first love is taking place again—neither of the characters
yet knows they are in love—a few inches from there Mrs Ramsay speaks again—she
always speaks—and Lily Briscoe moves the salt—the sky passes by rounding us—
the houses have their occupants—some have women locked-in deep—see them—
someone has left them in the dark—he stands next to the fridge and drinks his
beer—he turns the volume up so no one hears—that is the republic—are you
surveilling—we would not want you to miss the women kicked in order to abort the
rape—those screams—make sure you bank them you will need them—to prove
who you were when they ask—I am eating—can you taste this—it is nut butter and
a mockingbird just cut short a song to fly—I tap this screen with my fork—I dream a
little dream in which the fork is king—a fly lands on the screen because it is summer
afternoon—locusts start up—the river here are you keeping track—I know you can
see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me→can you please track that→I want
to know how much I am worth→riverpebbles how many count them exact
number→and the bees that did return to the hive today→those which did not lose
their way→and exactly what neural path the neurotoxin took→please track
disorientation→count death→each death→very small→see it from there→count it
and store→I am the temporary→but there is also the permanent→have you looked
to it→for now→
First published by the London Review of Books. Forthcoming in Fast (Ecco/Carcanet, Spring 2017).