The poem To the Last [be] Human by Jorie Graham is a poem that needs to be given attention in its analysis. The poem has diversified language as well as possessing contrasting ideologies about different aspects of human life. Jorie Graham is known for her impeccable and rationalized thinking in writing her poems. Her poetry calls for close examination for one to get a glimpse of what she is saying, while at the same time, the poet uses a language so simple direct that it would be hard for one to miss the superficial and literal meaning of the poem. Therefore, this poem is a typical piece of poetry that any literature student should find interest in and analyze to sharpen his or her practical criticism.
Having stated the poet’s style, it would be an erroneous undertaking to go about this analysis paper without having a clear objective in writing this paper. In this paper, I will analyze the aspect of religion and morality that Jorie Graham attempts to address in her poem. How do human beings relate to supernatural beings? How do they perceive God? Is it a personal undertaking, or is it a societal undertaking that one has to conform to? Does religion answer all the questions that humanity has over life? If it does, are the answers satisfactory? How does religion shape man? All these are questions that I am going to try to attempt in this analysis paper. I will lay my emphasis and points of argument from the poem To the Last [Be] Human by Jorie Graham and use it as the main reference text. I am also going to engage other literature materials and peer-reviewed journals and articles to support my argumentation.
The poet starts off the poem by introducing the aspect of the presence of a higher and absolute power. The poet says, “Today I am getting my instructions, I am getting them from something holy. A tall thing in a nest in a clearing.” (line 1-4). The poet clearly outlines that whatever instructions or doctrines she obtains on that day were from “something” perceived as holy. It is enormous, standing tall, giving the imagery of looking up. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘holy’ as “something set apart”. Also, by stating “a tall thing in a nest in a clearing”, the poem suggests that the deity is already enthroned and clear to everyone. The question of religious numbness to reality is raised as little can be said from the “high” powers. What this means is that we cannot question the supreme power. No one can question its existence or the validity of the power. As the poet continues to say in her poem in the following lines of the stanza, it is unclear to decide on the authenticity of the “instructions” given, which in this case the term is used to mean ‘doctrine’. The poet says, “there is little dread, no memory and everything’s looking for signs. We don’t know if this is the way forward or the way back”. This means that the poet and her society or the audience identifies with life under the mercies of the instructions given. These statements and assertions give us a deeper understanding of what the poet intended and help us fathom the circumstances under which the poet wrote the poem and the audience.
The assurance of a better life and future is the fuel that keeps the desire to continue holding on to the religion. Religion subjects man to a hopeful future by making him ignore whatever is happening to him now at the very moment and shifting his focus to the coming future, which he has no control over. In the poem, the poet states, “listen up it says. Loosen up. It is all going to be ok. Going to be fine. Give me your hand”. In this, the poem tries to show us, as the readers, the illusion of assurance of comfort and support that religion gifts to man instead of helping man deal with his immediate problem. As stated above, you can infer that man is deluded from doing what he ought to do to change his immediate life. He is reminded that he is answerable to his Maker, and his Maker is there to him get through if only he is willing to abide by his laws and regulations meant to dictate what he does in his day-to-day life. While at times, a man may feel hopeless due to misfortunes that happen to him, he is reminded not to despair as someone is looking out for him. Here, religion serves as a fulcrum between hopelessness and reason. This is the reason most people find themselves doing away with religion as they see it as being selfish; for example, in the poem, the poet says, “over here famine over here switchbacks over here to the best of my recollection haunted by faces of those on the road. The road itself moving as if in a molten fury.” It is, therefore, hard for the poet to be at peace while being a witness to the vile world that surrounds her.
Another aspect of religious imagination is the quest for moral reformation and morality questioning. As one goes deeper into religious doctrines, he reaches a point where they start to question the morality of what they perceive and believe in. At some point, the person is overcrowded by many questions that demand immediate answers and those answers are hard to find. For example, in this poem, the persona gives an ordeal she is in after a father dies in Alaska in rage. She says, “we’re so full of the dead the burnt fronds hum, getting going each day again into too much sun to no avail. I was human. I would have liked to speak of that. But not now. Now is more complicated.” Here, the persona is at that point where she questions the morality of what she perceives as a right according to the religious obligations and beliefs. She is not sure of whether or not whatever she does is humane or not. That is the reason she says that she was human, but as for now, she is complicated. She feels ‘dead’ inside, explaining the denial of reality that is happening right now in her conscience. This is the moment of self-actualization, deciding what is right and what is wrong. It is also the point at which the believer evaluates the effectiveness of religion in shaping their lives and all the aspects surrounding them.
Another aspect that plays a key role in religious imagination is the forgiveness of sins. God is perceived as the ultimate power. He has the power to forgive and condemn a person depending on what that person has done (Milosz, 2004). This means that the believers live at the mercies of God (deity), and when they derail or break the laws stated in the doctrine, there is a way of reinstatement. In this poem, the persona, after her eyes open and sees what is going on around her. She sees the vile world where humanity is cruel, and one is after his own accord. She tries to question the validity of the holy and “then the voice says it’s not good news. From now on you are alone. Whatever before had meant before now there is a blister over time”. She is denounced. In this context, the deity is perceived to take the form of man since He can communicate with humankind, but He is perfect and doesn’t tolerate mistakes (sin). Also, the deity easily forgets all the good things done over time because of a wrong done. He is looking for absolute obedience from individual people, and one suffers for his or her misdoings. Although she feels empty inside, as depicted in the imagery of an empty riverbed, there is hope that ‘it will rain again’ even though it is not clear.
Religion serves as a tool to bring and maintain social order. As the poet says, religion brings in “protocols, accords, timeframes, tipping points, markers. Each has a prognosis. Rach has odds.” In this context, the term ‘prognosis’ means ‘a forecast of a likely outcome of a particular situation’. Religion lays down protocols through which one is to conduct himself or herself. These protocols are central in laying down the social norms of a particular group of people, such as a community with the same religious beliefs and ethnicity. In so doing, religious beliefs and activities become a social undertaking requiring personal commitment and obligations.
Finally, religion is a product of social imagination that brings value to the short time in this world as human beings (Milosz, 2004). As one of its by-products, religion gives the believers the hope of a better life if they strictly follow the doctrines given by the ‘holy’ one. Although religion is seen as a social undertaking, it involves a personal commitment that shapes how people think, live, and perceive life. In the end, perfect morality is seen as the ultimate salvation, and more answers are given to the very many questions that arise from religious practices. They all come to one inference that each person is responsible for what happens around him or her, and it is his responsibility to make life better.
Graham, Jorie. To the Last [Be] Human. PDF file.
Miłosz, Czeslaw. The Fate of the Religious Imagination. New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall 2004. Accessed April 16, 2021. digitalnpq.org/archive/2004_fall/28_milosz.htm