Whereas the pleasures of The Errancy and Never are both myriad and readily apparent, this book's charms are a little more slippery. Beginning with its much-discussed form (alternating left-justified long lines with center-justified short ones) making for a sometimes-maddening read, Sea Change makes some very obvious efforts to differentiate itself from previous Graham books. Gone are the endlessly enfolding and pulsing parenthetical musings that exhausted some of Never's longer works. Also gone are any variation in form. The line positions described above are the only form present. That said, the poems themselves cover a typically broad range of movement. I hesitate to say "subjects" because I feel that Graham often operates on the plane of not-knowing, where to posit a singular is to be distracted by nature's awe.
The poems here address the world at crisis. Sometimes, as better readers than I have pointed out, they seem to address directly a future populace, one unaware of the state of emergency that we found ourselves in so many years back (into our present). And so "presence" itself becomes a theme, as it does for most of Graham's post-Erosion work. "I cannot look a the world hard enough," Graham has said in a recent interview. Certainly, there are gorgeous lyrics about nature's susceptibility to pressure, or even observance. Graham seems perfectly content to describe a world that shies at the presence of a viewer. Sight is no longer true enough; thought no longer ample. "Sea Change," "This," "Full Fathom, "Positive Feedback Loop," "Undated Lullaby" and "Root End" all play thrillingly with the state of the natural world at the cusp of irreversible change in the presence of a speaker who can't quite capture it. They feature her signature blend of crisp diction with a humble reluctance to try to pin down descriptions with mere words. The uncertain fascinates Graham beautifully and wrenchingly.
This should be one of Graham's more straightforward works. It is not. My only complaint about it so far is that its theme seems so closely related to Never's, that of the environment on precarious balance against the forces that want to ruin it. That book saw some of Graham's best writing to date ["Prayer," "Gulls," "Philosopher's Stone," "Evolution (How Old Are You?)"], but this one feels less open to outright pleasure. Maybe this is intentional: in one poem, it is brought to our attention that fish are dying along the Great Barrier Reef, and a plum tree in France has blossomed out of season. Where Never was rife with description and reassessment, this book functions strongly on reportage, something Graham has let influence her work following the seminal and difficult Swarm.
I look forward to a move away from the political. I think one of our best writers forcing thoughts of world crisis upon us makes us lose some of the vast cultural commentary that has been such a solid staple of her earlier work. And surely it is not fair to accuse her of repeating herself, but on the whole, the book feels like a rehash of Never's grandest themes. In the end, the book makes constant use of the (in)famous questions regarding whether poetry and politics can be joined (or separated, depending on the argument).
In the meantime I will keep reading (the alternating line lengths practically beg this of the reader) and reading any comments that may appear, so that I can try to get a better grip on this latest by one of my all-time favorites.