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.

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