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Jorie Graham, Superstar [US]:
In her new collection, OVERLORD: Poems (Ecco/HarperCollins, $22.95), Graham takes a gamble and tackles a straight subject. The book is largely a meditation on the current political atmosphere as filtered through World War II; the poet's general sense is that we're in big trouble. ''Overlord'' has some interesting poems, most notably the handful that closely track the experiences of veterans, and the collection as a whole is comprehensible, lyrical and obviously heartfelt. But it's also sadly diffuse. Consider the beginning of ''Praying (Attempt of April 19 '04)'': ''If I could shout but I must not shout. / The girl standing in my doorway yesterday weeping. / In her right hand an updated report on global warming.'' Well, at least it's an updated report; you'd hate to see her ''weeping'' (instead of plain old ''crying'') over last Tuesday's version. The poem continues in this hopped-up manner until finally plunging into Harvard Yard street preachin': ''Let the dream of contagion / set loose its virus. Don't let her turn away. / I, here, today, am letting her cry out the figures, the scenarios, / am letting her wave her downloaded pages / into this normal office-air between us.'' Putting aside the redundancies (''contagion'' and ''virus''?), the infelicities (''downloaded pages''?) and the cartoon setup (whoever ''the girl'' is, she sure needs to toughen up before she goes to camp), putting all of this aside -- what are these lines about? Generalized angst? Adobe Acrobat?

The point isn't that Graham's a bad poet -- she's not -- but rather that the fogginess that has been a chronic problem in her work becomes especially inhibiting in ''Overlord'' because, well, there's just no leeway for muddling. Graham is trying to write here in response to actual events in a full lyric voice and in a public manner. It's a worthy project. But this isn't the kind of challenge that can be bowled over with rhetoric, analyzed into submission or conquered with good intentions. In the achingly clich├ęd ''Posterity,'' for instance, Graham attempts to feed a homeless man chicken out of an aluminum wrapper while calling on ''Buber, Kafka, Dr. Robinson -- you, hunger specialists'' (but what about Colonel Sanders?) -- and somehow she burns the guy's hands. Unfortunately, that sententious, well-meaning blunder is ''Overlord'' in a nutshell; or rather, some tinfoil. [...]
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