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.

Poet Louise Glück Wins Nobel Prize

The extraordinary poet Louise Glück has won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, a very well-deserved honor. The New York Times interviewed her here. The most stunning excerpt from that interview, very telling of the kind of transformative poet she is, is this statement about aging, which she describes as “a new experience” from the point of view of the artist as “an adventurer”:

“You find yourself losing a noun here and there, and your sentences develop these vast lacunae in the middle, and you either have to restructure the sentence or abandon it. But the point is, you see this, and it has never happened before. And though it’s grim and unpleasant and bodes ill, it’s still, from the point of view of the artist, exciting and new.“

Her incredibly prolific body of work is so impressive, it’s hard to choose just one poem, but here is one that was particularly meaningful to me.

The Empty Glass

BY Louise Glück

I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.

And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table.

O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.

But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight.

Was it the sea? Responding, maybe,
to celestial force? To be safe,
I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted,
implying (so I once thought) I was a little sick
to give so much for so little.
Whereas they meant I was good (clasping my hand intensely)—
a good friend and person, not a creature of pathos.

I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint.

Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—

What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—

What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?

And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy.

My Villanelle Now on The Literary Nest


Today my villanelle, “Mare Finale,” which was inspired by a vision I saw in a dream, has been published today on The Literary Nest, a wonderful publication which publishes formal poetry as well as Poetry written in response to current events. Please check it out!!

Remembering Marie Ponsot 1921-2019

Marie Ponsot, who died on July 5, 2019, at the age of 98, left a legacy of elegantly crafted, deeply meaningful and yet entirely unique poetry in five collections, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Robert Frost Medal, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement, among others. From the Washington Post article regarding her death,

Reflecting on Ms. Ponsot’s work, the poet and critic Susan Stewart once wrote: “What she has written of her relation to the night sky — ‘it becomes the infinite / air of imagination that stirs immense / among losses and leaves me less desolate’ — could be claimed by her readers as a description of her own work

Married to the painter Claude Ponsot, she wrote her first poetry collection dedicated to him, and titled it True Minds, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. They had seven children, and when they divorced in 1970, she published her second book of poetry entitled Admit Impediment, also taken from the same sonnet: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments.” This is the sort of imaginative wordplay one can find in her work, not without its subtle humor either.

She retreated from publishing for about 25 years, although she continuously wrote poetry. She said it just “didn’t occur” to her to publish. There’s also an element of deep humility in her life and voice, which also rings confidently and with both gusto and acumen.

This poem I found particularly gorgeous:

This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo

       In a time of dearth bring forth number, weight, & measure.–    William Blake

Describing the wind that drives it, cloud
rides between earth and space. Cloud
shields earth from sun-scorch. Cloud
bursts to cure earth’s thirst.      Cloud
–airy, wet, photogenic–
is a bridge or go-between;
it does as it is done by.
It condenses. It evaporates.
It draws seas up, rains down.
I do love the drift of clouds.
Cloud-love is irresistible,
untypical, uninfinite.

Deep above the linear city this morning
the cloud’s soft bulk is almost unmoving.
The winds it rides are thin;
it makes them visible.
As sun hits it or if sun
quits us it’s blown away
or rains itself or snows itself away.

It is indefinite:
This dawns on me: no cloud is measurable.
Make mine cloud.
Make mind cloud.
The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.
A lucky watcher will catch it
as it makes big moves:
up the line of sight it lifts
until it conjugates or
          dissipates,
its unidentical being    intact
though it admits flyers.
It lets in wings. It lets them go.
It lets them.
It embraces mountains & spires built
to be steadfast; as it goes on
it lets go of them.
                It is not willing.
                 It is not unwilling.
Late at night when my outdoors is
indoors, I picture clouds again:
                  Come to mind, cloud.
                  Come to cloud, mind.

(Note the wordplay here, evident throughout her poetry.)

Writing poems by hand and putting down ideas on scraps of paper or napkins between changing diapers and all the labor-intensive work that goes with raising children, she is a very sympathetic character, a teacher, translator, essayist and critic. Her poetry shows formal dexterity, imagination, and a delightful spirit.

Here is a beautiful sample of her more formal poetry and her depth of understanding:

Among Women

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.

Featured Poet & Artist On Animal Heart Press!!!!

The lovely publisher and online venue Animal Heart Press is featuring my poetry and photography on on their site starting today, June 10, for one week!!! Today’s featured poem is “In the Interim.” Check the site daily for more poetry, photography, poetry readings from my new book To Love the River, an interview, and for a finale, a short film!! Huge thanks to Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Horan, Assistant Editor Amanda McLeod, and the whole AP team. A dream to work with!!!

Updates: Friday, June 14, I read selections from my book, To Love the River!

Thursday, June 13 (as well as Tuesday June 11), poetry and photography posted.

Wednesday, June 12, interview with Amanda posted. Please check it out!

My Book To Love the River Now Available!!

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My first full-length poetry collection, To Love the River, is now on sale at the publisher Kelsay Books’ website! This is much sooner than I had imagined, months earlier than its projected publishing date, so this is a huge and happy surprise. The book is the culmination of many years’ work, the subject matter spanning a river’s worth of emotions and experience condensed into the craft of both formal and free verse poetry.

The cover art is by the Swedish artist — a pioneer of abstract art pre-Kandinsky! — and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) whose séance-inspired (and later simply inspired) paintings are finally getting recognition in her first solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Like her work, my poetry also reflects a subtly spiritual perspective on life.

Here is one sample poem from the book, which echoes the “dawn” theme woven through some of these poems, “The Word for Dawn,” first published in Sukoon journal.

The Word for Dawn

Fajr: the j a mere mirage, light on the tongue,
just melting into r, no vowel between,
bluing into nothing but a turning of the lips.
I hear it like a distant motorcycle,
its street lost in a cricket’s heartbeat,
and I find it leaking tiny drumbeats from
my son’s earbuds fallen from his ear,
buzzing in his sleep. Newborn wasps,
tinny, revving j’s straight through the r’s
that rise and thread their little lights
where teeth touch lips and feel the furry f’s
a darkness, void, a space of hairy night.
A single hair-edge turning from the deep.

Alicia Ostriker’s “The History of America” for 4th of July


On this 4th of July, aka Independence Day, we think — hopefully — about freedom, which should mean, on this of all holidays, freedom from oppression, tyranny, freedom of speech, religion, and the press, freedom which comes from the rule of law, which does NOT mean “law and order” or “police state,” as Trump would have it, but rather means NO ONE is above the law, certainly not the president or any of his cabinet, certainly not members of Congress or the judiciary, all of whom are public servants. With a president who has never acknowledged publicly that he too is subject to the law, who taunts the freedoms made part of the Constitution in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, promoting only the second amendment, which he thinks means everyone must be armed with assault weapons, or at least be able to exercise their “right” to wield such weapons. But then, the history of America has always had its overbearing side.

And no one has expressed this more eloquently than Alicia Ostriker in her breathtaking poem “The History of America.” If America has national treasures, Ms. Ostriker is certainly one of them, having written a lifetime of enduring poetry on the most vital subjects of our time.

The History of America

—for Paul Metcalf

A linear projection: a route. It crosses
The ocean in many ships. Arriving in the new
Land, it cuts through and down forests and it
Keeps moving. Terrain: Rock, weaponry.
Dark trees, mastery. Grass, to yield. Earth,
Reproachful. Fox, bear, coon, wildcat
Prowl gloomily, it kills them, it skins them,
Its language alters, no account varmint, its
Teeth set, nothing defeats its obsession, it becomes
A snake in the reedy river. Spits and prays,
Keeps moving. Behind it, a steel track. Cold,
Permanent. Not permanent. It will decay. This
Does not matter, it does not actually care,
Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments,
The caring was a necessary myth, an eagle like
A speck in heaven dives. The line believes
That the entire wrinkled mountain range is the
Eagle’s nest, and everything tumbles in place.
It buries its balls at Wounded Knee, it rushes
Gold, it gambles. It buys plastics. Another
Ocean stops it. Soon, soon, up by its roots,
Severed, irrecoverably torn, that does not matter,
It decides, perpendicular from here: escape.

A prior circle: a mouth. It is nowhere,
Everywhere, swollen, warm. Expanding and contracting
It absorbs and projects children, jungles,
Black shoes, pennies, blood. It speaks
Too many dark, suffering languages. Reaching a hand
Toward its throat, you disappear entirely. No
Wonder you fear this bleeding pulse, no wonder.

Karen An-Hwei Lee: Poet of the Intelligent Soul

Finding a balanced approach to matters of the soul, or spirituality, is no easy task, but one of vital importance for poets so inclined, and certainly Karen An-Hwei Lee is such a poet. Cole Swensen referred to Lee’s collection In Media Res as her “dictionary of faith,” noting

It slowly pieces together the life of a woman moving toward God, a god that accrues, just as language does, by adding bits meaningful in themselves into ever larger, though unprecedented, structures.

And she describes Lee’s language as “always a bit out of place, in the way that a grand piano would be out of place in parking lot—it’s a sheer delight, and it enriches everything for miles around.“

So we’ll let the poems speak for themselves.

Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy

In prayer:
quiet opening,
my artery is a thin
shadow on paper—
margin of long grass,
ruderal hair, sister to this
not yet part of our bodies
your lyric corpus of seed
in rough drafts of pine ash,
chaogao or grass calligraphy
in rough drafts of pine ash—
your lyric corpus of seed
not yet part of our bodies:
ruderal hair, sister to this
margin of long grass,
shadow on paper,
my artery is a thin
quiet opening
in prayer.

The poem above reminded me of when I wanted to learn calligraphy — inkbrush calligraphy no less — and took two years of Chinese in college, bought special brushes and read all about it, in the search of something like the moment, the ideal of a t’ai chi of meditation so powerful and encapsulating that I could memorize a mountain or a flower and encrypt their images on paper in a few fluid strokes. Or write Chinese characters of ineffable beauty. She sums what was behind this desire with “your lyric corpus of seed/ not yet part of our bodies…”

And this prayer, one of many she’s penned:

Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine

Every half century, the synchronous flowering of bamboo causes famine in parts of India.

May we blossom every fifty years
without afflicting the people.

May our seedpods nourish rodents
who roam our groves

without rebuking lands with famine.
May sweet potatoes and rice save us.

May ginger and turmeric flourish
to the bitter distaste of rats

while tresses of bamboo flowers
changeling white wasps

load the groves with seed
in rare perennial synchrony.

May our sisters flower en masse
hundreds of square miles apart

in the pale night. May our shoots
pray a silent vision of healing,

our rhizome-laden memories:
Yes, we share our hunger

only once on this earth, my love.
Let us bless our fruit and multiply.

Jane Hirshfield: Incomparable, Uplifting


Jane Hirshfield, whose work often addresses the spiritual side of poetry, brings that transcendent theme to us in beautifully wrought epiphanies, never in-your-face, yet never clouded with their ambiguity. Undoubtedly it is her attitude that gives her poetry that fine edge, as indicated in this quote from her Poetry Foundation’s author description:

Hirshfield once said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”

This was exactly my feeling long ago when I began writing poetry; I wanted to write and loved writing poetry, but felt I didn’t have the life experience behind me to give my words what I thought of as poetry’s most essential quality: wisdom and that delicate balance between the expressed and the inexpressible. This is what I unfailingly find in Hirshfield’s work. In pursuit of “what it means to live,” she studied at San Francisco Zen center and received a lay ordination in Soto Zen in 1979. This gave her, one might say, mindfulness training, and a way of looking at what it means to be alive, but she never liked it to define her, expressed in various interviews, such as this quote:

“I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all.”

Of course; a poet with a true voice is not confined by their courses of study or even their experiences. And in addition to writing poetry, Hirshfield brought to the attention of the poetry world many overlooked women poets, including traditional Japanese women poets. So without further ado I shall let two of my favorites of hers speak for themselves.

Heat

My mare, when she was in heat,
would travel the fenceline for hours,
wearing the impatience
in her feet into the ground.

Not a stallion for miles, I’d assure her,
give it up.

She’d widen her nostrils,
sieve the wind for news, be moving again,
her underbelly darkening with sweat,
then stop at the gate a moment, wait
to see what I might do.
Oh, I knew
how it was for her, easily
recognized myself in that wide lust:
came to stand in the pasture
just to see it played.
Offered a hand, a bucket of grain—
a minute’s distraction from passion
the most I gave.

Then she’d return to what burned her:
the fence, the fence,
so hoping I might see, might let her free.
I’d envy her then,
to be so restlessly sure
of heat, and need, and what it takes
to feed the wanting that we are—

only a gap to open
the width of a mare,
the rest would take care of itself.
Surely, surely I knew that,
who had the power of bucket
and bridle—
she would beseech me, sidle up,
be gone, as life is short.
But desire, desire is long.

And this one, very different but the same voice.

For What Binds Us

By Jane Hirshfield

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.