Notes on a the Poem Covenant by Jorie Graham

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed always has interesting things to say on literature, art, and other fascinating worlds. Came across a post on Jorie Graham’s poetry worth reading. Yet, for him a poem he favors registers as a Beckettian notion of “insufficiency of self” and the lack of expressivity at the heart of her core questioning. Here is the fragment:

Covenant in Never:

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me
passing now.
So as to leave what behind?
. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:
. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

Strange, I come out of reading those fragments from Graham with a difference than your “insufficiency of selfhood”. She’s not concerned with expression or its lack at all. In the poem she is onto the epistemic divide of me, know, it. She’s questioning the notion of substantive form, whether there is anything of substance in “me” or “it”, while the third term “know” dangles between the two, wavering like a white flag in the midst of a battle.

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me

passing now.

The very use of memerisation, to be enthralled to the still point of time, knowing that it is in some sense a ‘self’ “me here, the me passing”, and to acknowledge that that instant is fleeing, always fleeing. This invokes both a sense of being stuck in time, yet knowing that the body that houses the self has moved on, and that the mind that “knows” is retroactively searching not that actual moment but its memoriam, its fleeting traces in memory. Which brings us to:

So as to leave what behind?

Is there every anything that remains? Any substantive trace element registered in time? Does time exist eternally: is each instant like Whitehead cut off from before and after in its own eternal now. Do we go with McTaggart and say “time doesn’t exist”, or as in F.H. Bradley: “Time, like space, has most evidently proved not to be real, but a contradictory appearance….The problem of change defies solution.” A paradox that will never be resolved?

Or Plato: “Time is the moving image of eternity immobile” A time that is both substantive and holds all things in an vessel (form) that nothing escapes: like wandering a gallery of fine art works that seem to repeat every instant of time as one walks along the marble floors?

Or Aristotle: “time is the measure of change”? A mathematical time of change laid out on a flat plane between now and past and future?

Or Descartes notion of res extensa: that a material body has the property of spatial extension but no inherent capacity for temporal endurance, and that God by his continual action sustains (or re-creates) the body at each successive instant. Time is a kind of sustenance or re-creation (“Third Meditation” in Meditations on First Philosophy). Harkening back to Malbranche and the Occasionalists? Is time substantive? Is it like a clay where we deposit memories, emotions, etc.?

Or do we follow Leibniz who offered time as event (those like Badiou and Zizek following), a time that is relational and non-substantive?

Or Kant for whom time is a lens (form) in the mind that forces us to apprehend phenomena in an ordered sequence (birth of the arrow of time notion)?

And, that doesn’t even bring in physical and scientific notions…

Which all leads to:

. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:

But what is it that comes so close? Noumenon? Phenomena? Substance? Formless void? What is knowing that it cannot “know” this thing that “comes so close”? And, of course she implies as Anthony surmises a lack, an insufficiency in the self that cannot know. That  it is not a substance that one can hold, it is non-substantive and is always changing or in metamorphosis. She seems to side with Leibniz and those after that time is a relation, but a relation to what: me, knowing, or it? Event (rupture, movement, change) or vessel (duration, immobile, stasis)?

Which leads on to her movement into Pater and Wilde:

. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot


get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

This is definitely a Paterian expansion of the instant as in The Renaissance: “For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” Which instead of Leibniz brings us back to Plato for whom time was a vessel that held all things. But of course she ends in the irony of the paradox: “what holds the “know”? And, of course, the answer: nothing, nothing at all. For knowing is an event itself, what the Greeks termed kairos, which for Heidegger among others was this movement between Chronos and Kairos of continuity and order: there is the kairos of ‘initiating’ (anfängliche) time, the action-oriented moment of vision (Augenblick) that irrupts into temporal constitution and inspires our expectations and decisions anew. This is the notion of Event that Althusser, Badiou, and Zizek follow in their praxis of rupture and time, etc.

Yet, the paradoxical: what holds the “know” implies the question: God or Self? Or, since she uses the word “holds”, this implies her acceptance of Plato, that time is a vessel that holds all things: even the movement and change of eternity in substantive stasis. Is there a substantive form behind all things that holds what remains or not? Or is – as in Zizek, nothing behind the curtain, no big Other, no substance at all. Only the vastation of the great emptiness: the Void.


Hopefully this sheds some light on the poem from a different perspective.

2 thoughts on “Notes on a the Poem Covenant by Jorie Graham

  1. Your thoughts on that passage are much appreciated. As a reader I am frankly not fond of Graham at all; as a thinker I have more appreciation based on your drawing much from those lines. Those lines now have a gathered meaning that I was not prepared to give them.

    Liked by 1 person

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