A Dizzying Beauty: Complex Lineation in Jorie Graham’s “Vertigo”

        In a 1987 essay on Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty, Thomas Gardner described an interview in which Graham made clear “her interest, in that volume, in the moment when the mind realizes it's not yet able to shape, and thus is forcibly awakened to, the larger world surrounding it.” [1] Thirty-five years later, the collection yet impresses not only in its vast ontological landscape (selfhood, thought as process, representation, revelation, creativity), but in how, through complex lineation, the poems enact their very concerns.

I would argue that “Vertigo” is one of the book’s most sophisticated examples of how lineation gives expression to Graham’s specific interest in enacting the awakening mind. [2] The poem opens:

Then they came to the very edge of the cliff and looked down.
Below a real world glowed in its parts, green, green.
The two elements touched—rock, air.

Notice how each line ends with two stresses and is end-stopped by a period. The punctuation insists on a complete stop before we move on to each subsequent line, as if to say steady yourself—as if the poet were ensuring that the reader remains steady on the precipice of both cliff and line. Although “they” are at a cliff’s edge, three strongly end-accented and end-stopped opening lines create a stable departure point from which to experience the rest of the poem, which is arguably precarious, if not disorienting (as the title would suggest).

Our sense of stability is reinforced by the use of the long opening line (fourteen syllables). As it reads currently, the line gives us one continuous, integrated action in the arriving and stopping and looking (like a cinematic single shot). What would happen to that sense of stability if, for example, the line were enjambed: “Then they came / to the very edge / of the cliff and looked down.”? The anticipation after “came” and “edge” creates more disruption in our experience of the scene, more psychic tension.

Having established this stable launch point, we encounter our first enjambment:

She thought of where the mind opened out
into the sheer drop of its intelligence,

As “the mind opened out” to its intelligent boundary, so does the line (and the poem) through this enjambment, unencumbered by punctuation. There is even a sense of liberation from the pattern established by the three preceding end-stopped lines. We are entering the expansiveness which allows for meditative space.          
            Meditators commonly describe the initial period of a meditation practice session as one of discursive thinking, intermittently frenetic in its pace. We see this phenomenon enacted in the subsequent lines. Specifically, we see the poem accelerate in pace largely through a combination of long and/or enjambed lines coupled with alliteration and repetition, and that accelerated pace is intermittently regulated (but not completely stopped) by commas. Picking up from the previous lines:

the updrafting pastures of the vertical in which a bird now rose,
blue body the blue wind was knifing upward
faster than it could naturally rise,
up into the downdraft until it was frozen until she could see them
                                                                                          at last
the stages of flight, broken down, broken free,
each wingflap folding, each splay of the feather-sets flattening
for entry….

In addition to using lineation to reify certain concepts of interest to the poem and control pace, we see lineation used as a way to focus our attention on language and create space for interrogating our relationship to it:

How close can the two worlds get, the movement from one to the other
being death? She tried to remember from the other life
the passage of the rising notes off the violin
into the air, thin air, chopping their way in,
wanting to live forever—marrying, marrying—yet still free of the
                                                                             orchestral swelling
which would at any moment pick them up, in-

There is much to be said about this passage. By virtue of the enjambed first line (which can be read as a complete sentence), we are surprised by the appearance of “death,” as we often are in Western cultures that tend to be death-phobic. Furthermore, “death” begins this second line and, perhaps more surprisingly, “life” ends it. The lineation creates an opportunity for contemplating temporality as an artificial construct in thinking about experience, mortality, and what it means to have “lived.”

            Further in the stanza, Graham hyphenates “incorporate.” To what end? Breaking the line at the hyphenated “in-” draws added attention to the concept of what it means to be “in;” that is, surrounded by something or included. Moreover, “corporate” now takes on special significance, making more visible the Latin origin (corpus, body or corporate, form into a body). This is one of many voltas in the poem and presages its end (“…the mind crawling out to the edge of the cliff / and feeling the body as if for the first time—…”)

The isolation of “in-” at the end of the line also focuses our attention upward in the poem as we recognize new significance to the line breaks “violin /into” and “way in,” as well as “thin air” and various “ing” endings incorporated into the lines. The “-in”s become typographically metaphorical of the metaphysical question Graham is raising in this section of the poem.

At this point in the poem, we have also encountered three ultra-short lines of one to two words (see “at last” and “orchestral swelling” above) set near the poem’s rightmost edge. We will encounter two more of no more than three words. These are not dropped lines. Therefore, the reader not only reads the poem across but down the page. Additionally, these ultra-short lines come at the end of exceedingly long white spaces. Graham’s intent here might be to focus us on the white space, the text, or both simultaneously. At minimum, this approach has the effect of unsettling us as we encounter it. It may also remind us we are neither in control of our reading experience nor the poet’s intentions, and confronts the mind’s need for control—“the mind trying to fasten / and fasten”.

            In a review of The End of Beauty, Helen Vendler refers to the “long, irresolute line” Graham employs. [3] I wouldn’t necessarily consider Graham’s line irresolute. In fact, the lineation of “Vertigo,” and the collection as a whole, strikes me as very confident in its ability to modulate tone, distribute and redistribute our attention to language, set up and disrupt our rhythmic and syntactical expectations. Going well beyond the pentameter has also created an energy that “suggests a greater-than-human-power” to borrow from Mary Oliver. [4] I once heard Jorie Graham say of her teacher Donald Justice “he hated the term ‘line breaks’”—the point being, I think, that each line has its own integrity that makes them inherently not broken. I believe she brings that intentionality to the line throughout all the poems of The End of Beauty. I agree with a different assertion Vendler makes—that these poems are about the mind’s “perplexities,” and that Graham’s lineation is the “formal equivalent of perplexity.”


[1] Thomas Gardner. “Jorie Graham's ‘The End of Beauty’ and a Fresh Look at Modernism.” Southwest Review, vol. 88, no. 2/3, 2003, 355–349.
[2] Jorie Graham. The End of Beauty. The Ecco Press, 1987.
[3] Helen Vendler. “The End of Beauty [Review].” The Harvard Book Review, no. 5/6, 1987, 3.
[4] Mary Oliver. “The Line.” Poetry Handbook, Harcourt, New York, NY, 1994, 35–57.

Issam Zineh is author of the poetry collection Unceded Land (Trio House Press, 2022). His poems appear or are forthcoming in AGNI, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.issamzineh.com or on Twitter @izineh.