Rachel Eliza Griffiths: A Striking Personal Language

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Rachel Eliza Griffith’s poetry has this satisfyingly startling quality at every turn, both highly communicative yet nothing is ever predictable. Her use of language hits on a very personal level and yet we can all feel it, nothing is opaque, her words convey their meaning in devastating clarity. Her most recent book, Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton, 2020), is a hybrid of her own photography with her poetry. An award-winning author of several books, this recent book deals with the death of her mother in 2013.

In an interview with Four-Way Books, her relationship with photography and how that helped her express and come to terms with her grief, and how she ultimately decided this book had to combine both photography and poetry, reminded me of my own turn towards photography in dealing with my own grief. As she put it in the interview, prior to her mother’s death, she had been working with photography and came back to it as a necessity.

“I had to go back and consider what I was ‘making’ when I was unmade by her death. Then I also remembered the deliberate focus I gave photography immediately after her death. I clung to the machine, my camera, like a life raft.”

She also describes her experiences as a black woman artist in stark eloquence: “There isn’t enough canvas, enough pigment, enough bones in this country for black artists to address the violence and harm done to our bodies, our communities, by the imaginations or institutions that can’t bear for us to live. It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?”

So without further ado, a selection of her poetry.

ELEGY, SURROUNDED BY SEVEN TREES

for Michelle Antoinette Pray-Griffiths

Ordinary days deliver joy easily
again & I can’t take it. If I could tell you
how her eyes laughed or describe
the rage of her suffering, I must
admit that lately my memories
are sometimes like a color
warping in my blue mind.
Metal abandoned in rain.

My mother will not move.

Which is to say that
sometimes the true color of
her casket jumps from my head
like something burnt down
in the genesis of a struck flame.
Which is to say that I miss
the mind I had when I had
my mother. I own what is yet.
Which means I am already
holding my own absence
in faith. I still carry a faded slip of paper
where she once wrote a word
with a pencil & crossed it out.

From tree to tree, around her grave
I have walked, & turned back
if only to remind myself
that there are some kinds of
peace, which will not be
moved. How awful to have such
wonder. The final way wonder itself
opened beneath my mother’s face
at the last moment. As if she was
a small girl kneeling in a puddle
& looking at her face for the first time,
her fingers gripping the loud,
wet rim of the universe.

Three Poems in Society of Classical Poetry

Three of my poems were published on the Society of Classical Poets site here. “The Inca Kings,” “The Swimming Lesson,” and “Elegy for Mary” (my sister), were all published last month, but unfortunately I was in a difficult state of mind, thus am late to publish this. Do check them out!

Major Jackson: Bard of Many Worlds

Major Jackson is a major poet, a major player with language, a voice which conjures many worlds, and through all of these, he brings vision, perspective, validation to the rest of us. One see in his work that he is well-traveled and has experienced many different perspectives, which gives his poetry resonance with a wide audience. Awarded many prizes, even his first book, Leaving Saturn (2002), won a prize, the Cave Canem First Book Prize. A more comprehensive list of his many achievements is here. The poem below reminds us of the ways people of color are so often erased, to which this poem is a brilliant retort and of course so much more. To-wit:

On Disappearing 

I have not disappeared.
The boulevard is full of my steps. The sky is
full of my thinking. An archbishop
prays for my soul, even though
we only met once, and even then, he was
busy waving at a congregation.
The ticking clocks in Vermont sway

back and forth as though sweeping
up my eyes and my tattoos and my metaphors,
and what comes up are the great paragraphs
of dust, which also carry motes
of my existence. I have not disappeared.
My wife quivers inside a kiss.
My pulse was given to her many times,

in many countries. The chunks of bread we dip
in olive oil is communion with our ancestors,
who also have not disappeared. Their delicate songs
I wear on my eyelids. Their smiles have
given me freedom which is a crater
I keep falling in. When I bite into the two halves
of an orange whose cross-section resembles my lungs,

a delta of juices burst down my chin, and like magic,
makes me appear to those who think I’ve
disappeared. It’s too bad war makes people
disappear like chess pieces, and that prisons
turn prisoners into movie endings. When I fade
into the mountains on a forest trail,
I still have not disappeared, even though its green facade
turns my arms and legs into branches of oak.
It is then I belong to a southerly wind,
which by now you have mistaken as me nodding back
and forth like a Hasid in prayer or a mother who has just
lost her son to gunfire in Detroit. I have not disappeared.

In my children, I see my bulging face
pressing further into the mysteries.

In a library in Tucson, on a plane above
Buenos Aires, on a field where nearby burns
a controlled fire, I am held by a professor,
a General, and a photographer.
One burns a finely wrapped cigar, then sniffs
the scented pages of my books, scouring
for the bitter smell of control.
I hold him in my mind like a chalice.
I have not disappeared. I swish the amber
hue of lager on my tongue and ponder the drilling
rigs in the Gulf of Alaska and all the oil-painted plovers.

When we talk about limits, we disappear.
In Jasper, TX you can disappear on a strip of gravel.

I am a shrug of a life in sacred language.
Right now: termites toil over a grave.
My mind is a ravine of yesterdays.
At a glance from across the room, I wear
September on my face,
which is eternal, and does not disappear
even if you close your eyes once and for all
simultaneously like two coffins. 

Marilyn Nelson: The Devastating Power of Words

Being busy with various projects, and coping with grief at the death of my husband, have kept me away from this blog for awhile, but today I glanced the name “Marilyn Nelson” while checking my email, and discovered the murderously powerful poem below which stopped me in my tracks. Here and now, forget the whole world, this poem needs to be read by everyone now!! And so this poem by the inimitable Marilyn Nelson dug so deep in my soul I can never really extricate it. What a perfect poem for Black History Month, the shortest month of the year, so let’s bring it all on and make it also the most intense month, the month that matters most, the most alive month, the month we can’t really let go of all year long, the month that brings us face-to-face with our inhumanity, our bloodless, heartless, soulless coup against our own claimed humanity, embodied in this poem entitled “Realization.” May it go viral and infect us all with its burdens loaded with devastating truth. Go, Marilyn, an some truth-bomb us all!!! Here it is, to be followed by all the appropriate kudos and bios and awards. She earned so much, this doesn’t come easily, this kind of poetry. But first, read this and weep while you still can:

Realization

By Marilyn Nelson

Three-quarter size. Full size would break the heart.
She, still bare-breasted from the auction block,
sits staring, perhaps realizing what
will happen to them next. There is no child,
though there must be a child who will be left
behind, or who was auctioned separately.
Her arms are limp, defeated, her thin hands
lie still in surrender.
He cowers at her side,
his head under her arm,
his body pressed to hers
like a boy hiding behind his mother.
He should protect his woman. He is strong,
his shoulder and arm muscled from hard work,
his hand, thickened by labor, on her thigh
as if to comfort, though he can’t protect.
His brow is furrowed, his eyes blank, unfocused.
What words are there to describe hopelessness?
A word that means both bull-whipped and spat on?
Is there a name for mute, depthless abyss?
A word that means Where the hell are you, God?
What would they ask God, if they could believe?
But how can they believe, while the blue sky
smiles innocently, pretends nothing is wrong.
They stood stripped up there, as they were described
like animals who couldn’t understand
how cheap a life can be made.
Their naked feet. Her collarbone. The vein
traveling his bicep. Gussie’s answer
to presidents on Mount Rushmore,
to monumental generals whose stars
and sabers say black pain
did not then and still does not matter.

(Copyright 2021)

She is the author of A Wreath for Emmett Till, winner of the Coretta Scott KIng Award, which she Hadi previously won for another riveting book, and in case you don’t recognize Till’s household name, “In 1955 people all over the United States knew that Emmett Louis Till was a fourteen-year-old African American boy lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The brutality of his murder, the open-casket funeral held by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and the acquittal of the men tried for the crime drew wide media attention. In a profound and chilling poem, award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the boy whose fate helped spark the civil rights movement.” It’s worth reminding those who may have forgotten. This book alone is a magnificent and devastating achievement. Let those who perpetuate injustice, and oh are they vociferous and full of themselves these days, when DeSantis of Florida wants to lock up protestors against systematic racism and protect white supremacists who would mow them down with pickups. Nelson’s words, her voice against oppression, speaks more of her than her many impressive awards and kudos for her many books including poetry, memoir, and children’s books, not to mention translations, summed up upon winning the coveted Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry, as “noted for being a renowned poet, author, and translator who has worked steadily throughout her career to highlight topics that aren’t often talked about in poetry. Her literary work, spanning more than four decades, examines complex issues around race, feminism, and the ongoing trauma of slavery in American life in narratives poised between song and speech.”

For one so open-hearted, with such humility and grace. All her books, highly recommended, are unforgettable. I rest my case.