The poems in Michael McGriff’s Home Burial (Copper Canyon, 2012) inhabit a landscape of county roads, fence posts, rotting barns, and junked Studebakers, where the dead stay close, interposing themselves into constellations and muddy creeks. McGriff, who is the author of one other full-length collection and a chapbook, gives almost every thought an image rooted in rural Oregon.
McGriff has translated the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, and many of the poems have a Tranströmer-like quality in the way they connect seemingly disparate ideas and images. In “Alone in Hell’s Canyon,” the first stanza is grounded in campfires and wildflowers, as the speaker smells smoke and knows someone else is in the canyon. But the second stanza leaps to the driving image of the poem:
Perhaps he too awakened last night
to the noise of a grand floating hall
where an entire people
The image grows and culminates in the sound of a person tending to the candles in the floating hall. It’s the kind of leap Robert Bly described – or prescribed – in Leaping Poetry, where he claims that when forced to find the relationship between two very different images, we access unused parts of our brain. Bly’s neuroscience may have been off, but McGriff’s leaps are still intensely satisfying.
So is the patience he takes in building images, particularly in long poems where he lingers on a scene, building through a series of short lines that run down the page. My favorite of these is “The Cow,” a five-page poem that describes a shed left behind by the speaker’s grandfather, who likely committed suicide. Like a camera moving from a wide-angle shot to close in on a tiny detail, the poem travels into a painting “the size of a dinner plate” left on the wall of the shed. McGriff’s facility with verbs drives the poem. A note of music ripples, wobbles, and collapses, drawing us from the family in the painting to the cow:
What passes for middle C
ripples away from the uncle, the children,
the pinochle game—
the wobbling note finally collapsing
in the ear of the cow
standing in perfect profile
at the far right of the painting.
Elsewhere in the book, fog tumbles, light staggers and the night undresses. Everything in the landscape is alive, even though many of those who inhabit it are not. The long poems also offer another pleasure: while free verse is ostensibly free of structure, many contemporary free verse poems follow the same arc from image/story to epiphany. Read (or write) too many and it starts to feel like repeatedly listening to remixes of the same song. Instead, McGriff’s long poems follow an arc that is longer, more pained, and more expansive. We enter a land haunted by the dead, where “the night’s coarse tongue/scrapes your name/against the trees.” Here, a dying rural infrastructure has abandoned people, but land speaks to those same people in a way that is terrible and vital.
In the final poem, McGriff shows how dislocation from that landscape undoes the speaker’s sense of self:
Against my will,
I am reborn as a bird
who claws its way
from the throat
of a man
who never cared
for the moth-light of August . . .
The man wears “the heavy jewels/of compliance/around his wrist,” and is a “denier/of barn dust,”– along with everything else that has rooted the other poems in the book. The bird’s job (and presumably the poet’s) is to continually tear itself away from this dislocated man and back toward the Oregon landscape, toward his original grief.