A version (and a better edited version) of this review may appear in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 16, due out in early 2013.
When I read the epigraph to Michael McGriff’s Home Burial (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), “. . . here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaw . . . – Jason Molina,” I knew I was about to enter something I would enjoy. After the first four poems, my neck hurt because I had been jabbed so many times by the rich images. Each time I read an image, my head snapped back in awe and a quiet “wow” escaped my lips. After reading the fourth poem “Catfish,” I had to stop and reflect. This isn’t a book that you can read from beginning to end and then reread. No, this book is a book you have to read a little, stop, recover and reflect, and then go back in for some more rope-a-dope poems.
For instance, in the second stanza of “Catfish,” the speaker describes the river in his youth and at all times:
The dare growing up: to swim down with pliers for the license plates, corpse bones, a little chrome . . . But even on the clearest days, even when the river runs low and clean, you can’t see it, though you can often nearly see the movement of hair.
After I read that, I felt like I was in the corner of an imagistic boxing ring and was about to receive a bunch of body-blow images. And then near the poem’s end came the blow that set up the knock-out punch. At this point in the poem, the speaker describes how the car may have ended up at the bottom of the river after an accident. In the description, the speaker compares the driver’s pocket watch to “the obvious moon / that bobs near the lip of the eddy.” Then the speaker describes the magic of the pocket watch:
Wind the hands in one direction and see into the exact moment of your death. Wind them the other way and see all the tiny ways you’ve already died –
Oh, that was a body blow that lifted me off the canvas, and I was going to go down into two more short stanzas. After that, the bell rang because I put the book down to recover and reflect. When I picked it up again, I was sitting on a stool with the tone of the poems massaging my arms like a cutman limbering me up for the next round of poems. When I returned, I was again overwhelmed with more neck-snapping images. Soon I was again sitting in the corner, and the cutman was cutting open my eyes that were swollen with images of living and dying:
It’s finally late enough that all sounds are the sounds of water If you die tonight I’ll wash your feet I’ll remove the batteries from the clocks And the two moths that drown in the lakes of your eyes will manage the rest. (“Invocation,” ll 64-74)
I’m sure I’ve carried this boxing metaphor too far. It might, in fact, make this collection of poems seem violent or aggressive, when it’s not. It’s quite the opposite. Think of the caring, slow, and perceptive tones of Merwin, and you’ll be part way there. For how the book moves, think of the concluding stanza from “The Residence of the Night”:
The tractor, of course, is filled with it. It won’t start until you summon the lampblack in the river of your blood, where the sturgeon are decimal points moving upstream zero by zero.
Think of the translations of some dead Spanish-writing poet who wasn’t afraid to use “soul” or “love” and you’ll get closer. (These poems often do feel like they are brilliant translations of non-English poems. Other than the language, they don’t feel American to me.) Think of someone who has died and been reborn writing poems about living and dying, and you’ll be almost all the way there. Think of McGriff as being:
reborn as a bird who claws its way from the throat of a man (“Against My Will,” l 2-5)
You’ll be so close. Think of reading Michael McGriff’s Home Burial to fill all the empty spaces of doubt and fear of death in you, and then you’ll be all the way there . . . and whole.
I just read McGriff’s bio in the back of the book. “His books include Dismantling the Hills; To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry and Translations of David Wevill; and co-translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. [. . .] He is the founding editor of Tavern Books, a publishing house devoted to poetry in translation and the reviving of out-of-print books.” No wonder his poems feel translated and feel to transcend language into something more, something cross-cultural, something human.
I just remembered recently reading McGriff’s co-translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. I didn’t realize they were the same person until I looked up the book, which was good, too. So now you have two books to read. //