blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
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Review | Home Burial, by Michael McGriff
Copper Canyon, 2012

spacer Home Burial

In a scene from The Sacrifice, by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, a possible nuclear war descends upon Europe: the camera zooms in on a pitcher of milk teetering on its shelf as loud jets approach overhead, and the jar finally spills, shattering across the floor as the viewer hears the planes roar right over the rooftop. “I want Tarkovsky / to show them the apocalypse / in a pitcher of milk,” Michael McGriff writes of land surveyors scoping out his property in “Pipeline,” a poem from his austere yet lyric second collection, Home Burial.

His bold declaration embodies one of Home Burial’s aims—to depict the toll of some apocalypse on the smallest and seemingly most mundane domestic objects. We don’t see the precise cause of this destruction, but rather its effects, which McGriff illustrates with eerie and spectacular imagery

The poems here portray a rural Oregonian landscape riddled with barbed wire, burned-down farmhouses, footlockers of dynamite, dark bodies of water, and twisting smoke. An old Ford wastes away at the bottom of the river. A group of men gathers around a fire, “discussing what they’ll buy / with the checkbook they found / in an abandoned tract house.” The speaker’s father buys a bear’s gallbladder—“hacked out and put on ice / in California”—and “lets it warm on a tin sheet / above his Buick’s engine block” before crushing it into powder and “spoon[ing] it / into the mouth of a child.”

An entire collection of such poems could easily come to feel overwhelming or monotonous in tone or content, but Home Burial subtly demonstrates how strength and hope endure in the face of desolation. To this end, McGriff portrays the environment with remarkable balance and nuance: his subjects, as well as his carefully controlled language, successfully navigate the competing impulses of nostalgia for his community and despair over its neglect and slow ruin.

“I’ve tried to keep the landscape / buried in my chest, in its teak box,” begins the opening poem, “Kissing Hitler”; and with these lines, McGriff immediately evokes the implications of the collection’s title, not least those found in Robert Frost’s poem of the same name. He also sets the stage for the dueling desires to suppress one’s own history and to constantly revisit it; to keep it close, if only to dig it up again and again.

Indeed, this careful dance also echoes the tensions in Frost’s own “Home Burial”: After the wife has watched from a window as her husband buries their child, the couple argue precariously on the stairwell while their marriage threatens to collapse. In his essay on this poem, Randall Jarrell writes that the wife “tries to keep death and grief alive in the middle of a world intent on its own forgetful life”; one might maintain that McGriff’s collection strives to accomplish just that, if only to preserve the beauty of this world concurrently with such grief. The poems here play out these conflicts compellingly.

McGriff often instills his imagery with, if not exactly optimism, at least a sense of quiet possibility. “Symphony,” for instance, compares the sound of rain to an “orchestra tuning up, / its members taking purposeful, deep breaths,” and overlays this image with one of the speaker’s father:

When I closed my eyes
I saw my father
unstacking and restacking
an empire of baled hay,

heaving his days
into the vagaries
of chaff-light.

The conductor raises his arms,
whispers a quick prayer
in a foreign tongue,
then begins.

By juxtaposing these images—two kinds of work performing very different functions—“Symphony” highlights the differences and similarities between these realms. McGriff finds great beauty and humanity in manual labor—the speaker’s father, after all, reigns over an “empire” of hay. More than that, though, the poem encompasses the speaker’s intense yearning to find the connecting thread between results of hard physical labor and the production, through hard creative labor, of something lovely.

In the adjacent poems, “New Season” and “Sunday,” McGriff similarly exalts the land, while also gesturing toward its defects. His economical control of language in these sparse poems, combined with his strong imagery, introduces powerful ambiguities by allowing the reader to consider a variety of interpretations and implications. In “New Season,” McGriff’s speaker concedes that

         the water
collecting in the ashtray on the porch
isn’t a lake, but it’s big enough for God
to stick his thumb in.

This passage acknowledges that holiness—or at least the possibility of holiness—graces even the most forsaken of places. However, it may also imply an absent or diminished God whose thumb would fit into an ashtray. The poem ends:

I admire the rats in the wall.
They rejoice in the night.
They call to each other
as they work.

Here, the speaker looks beyond the revulsion of hearing rats creep in the wall to praise them for their joyful industry. But because of the restraint of the poem, the implications haunt and perplex the reader— does he admire the rats for what the human inhabitants of his world cannot do themselves?

In the following poem, “Sunday,” the speaker wishes

[he] were the proud worms
twisting out of nowhere
to writhe and thrash
as if their god had fulfilled
his promise.

The reader receives few hints as to why the speaker desires to be the worms, plural, which, here, carry more pride than humans—perhaps because, like the rats, the worms so clearly belong, as the humans do not. And, like the rats, the worms have adapted and found salvation in their surroundings, when the speaker has not. As in many poems in this book, the environment is clearly breaking down: “something horselike” stands “in the flooded pasture” along with “the smell of fence posts and barn-rot.” McGriff employs his short lines and syntax to quietly brutal effect: “My mother and her illness. / My father and his patience,” the speaker states bluntly and sufficiently. Instead of unpacking these cryptic assertions, McGriff allows their ambiguity to texture the poems, leaving his readers free to do their own heavy lifting.

Home Burial likewise obfuscates the lines between human, machine, and landscape. “I get shuffled / from one day to the next / like a tin bucket,” he writes in “Pipeline,” “passed along a fire line, / the water slopping out, / never quite reaching the barn.” Openings and exits occur often in these poems, and characters are commonly in the process of either being swallowed by the landscape or escaping their surroundings. Apple trees turn into “rows of people / standing in line for something . . . waiting patiently to enter / the open doorway / of the earth.” In “Midwinter,” a woman “walks through the pasture / and out of her body.” These porous textures contribute to the intense and conflicting desires to escape and to stay; they project both hope and lack of hope (the characters must either give themselves up to the landscape or run away) creating an illusory sense of resilience and agency.

McGriff’s longer poems especially demonstrate this need to break free, as his blurring of boundaries instills in his poems a cinematic and associative process, rife with possibility and embodying movement and flight. McGriff’s lyricism, rich in imagery and syntax, yet downplayed in line and diction, provides harmony and dissonance with the rugged environment, lending his work a necessary duality. His poems often start in one place and end in another; and, though he tends to spread one sentence over several lines or even stanzas, he keeps his line lengths short, so that the ensuing interplay between line and sentence slows the momentum, simultaneously allowing the reader to linger in this distressed place and to explore somewhere new and unexpected.

Consider “The Cow,” a long, sprawling poem in the center of the book, which begins with the poet’s persona musing, “I used to think of this creek as a river / springing from mineral caverns / of moonmilk and slime / but really it’s just a slow thread of water.” We then move to a toolshed—once “an outbuilding for a watermill”—recently cleaned out by the speaker’s grandfather right before his death. “This shed should have the smell / of seed packets and mousetraps,” the speaker laments:

The sounds of usefulness and nostalgia
should creak from its hinges,
but instead there’s nothing
but a painting the size of a dinner plate
that hangs from an eightpenny nail.

The poem then moves cinematically, much like Tarkovksy’s camera, zooming in on the painting, flushing out details, each line imbuing these features with increasingly imaginative and outlandish qualities. Though McGriff never indulges in sentimentality, he also never distances himself from the world of Home Burial: his extremely close attention to inanimate details instead encapsulates the “nostalgia” that he has just denied a few lines before:

A certain style of painting
where the wall of a building
has been lifted away
to reveal the goings-on of each room,
which, in this case, is a farmhouse
where some men and women
sit around the geometry
of a kitchen table playing pinochle,
a few of the women laughing
a feast-day kind of laughter
and one of the men, a fat one
in overalls with a quick brushstroke
for a mouth, points up
as if to say something
about death or the rain
or the reliable Nordic construction
of the rafters.

A few of the children
gathered in a room off to one side
have vaguely religious faces—
they’re sitting on the floor around their weak
but dependable uncle
who plays something festive
on the piano.

Before too long, McGriff’s eye settles on a cow standing in the pasture outside the farmhouse in the painting, and makes it the pivotal image for the rest of the poem, eventually conflating the speaker’s notion of himself with the cow:

         This is the cow
that dies in me every night,
the one that doesn’t sleep
standing up, or sleep at all
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
The cow in me has long admired
the story the night tells itself,
the one with rifle shots and laughter,
gravel roads crunching under pickups
with their engines and lights cut
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
The cow in me never makes it past
the edge of the painting—

By the end, the speaker has so merged into the painting that we almost forget there was a painting at all, with boxed-in borders and four corners. The effect of this associative movement surprises—acting as an escape, it momentarily jolts the reader out of the poem’s literal setting and into an imaginative mindscape. McGriff’s lyric riffs suggest limitless possibilities for the inhabitants of this land.

Home Burial’s permeable atmosphere occasionally mythologizes the land or the characters in these poems. In “My Family History as Explained by the South Fork of the River,” McGriff writes:

My grandfather says
he stepped out of his dream
the same day my grandmother did.
In this way they entered the world.

If you put your ear to his chest
you’d hear something so absolute
that you’d leave for the river
enter the salmon run
and disappear through the keyhole
at the river bottom.

Beyond the voice or content, such mythmaking touches the reader with its tender impulse to account for an already diminished homeland. By making his characters more than merely mortal, McGriff’s poems restore and breathe new life into this lost land.

But above all, the repeated merging of landscape, human, and machine drives home the poet’s implication that we cannot separate ourselves from the places and things that shaped us. Home Burial, thankfully, refrains from predictable and simplistic commentary on the decline of this way of life—but the poet’s subtle evocation of the underlying questions of cause and cure create a poetic atmosphere that, however grim, makes the reader reluctant to leave.  end

Michael McGriff is the author of two books of poetry, Home Burial (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Levis Reading Prize, and Dismantling the Hills (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008). McGriff is a founding editor of Tavern Books, a publishing house devoted to poetry in translation and the revival of out-of-print books.

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