The emotional theme of the volume, the nostalgia and death that is announced in the book’s title and reaffirmed in almost every poem to some extent, is what I know I will carry with me for a long time.
Michael McGriff begins his second collection of poetry, Home Burial, with what will be the strongest virtue of the collection: his imagery. It seems to me at times that lyricism and strong, emotionally evocative images are no longer valued in contemporary poetry, but then I stumble on a book like Home Burial to restore my faith in images that are used to elicit something other than banal, stock shock over sex and violence.
“Kissing Hitler,” the first poem in Home Burial, offers a series of scenes that tell of growing up in Oregon without any of the sentimentality that usually accompany scenes that tell of growing up somewhere. Instead, we have nostalgia and death entwined, which will become a theme throughout the collection. This nostalgia/death can be seen in the lines, “The last time I saw him / he sat on the edge / of his father’s girlfriend’s bathtub, / bleeding and laughing hard into a pink towel.” The most interesting stanza comes immediately after those lines:
I can’t remember—
maybe it was a birthday party.
Maybe we’d climbed in
through the living room window,
looking for a bottle or some pills,
at the same moment the adults stumbled in
from the Silver Dollar, hardwired
to liquor and crystal.
The image of a birthday party, the ultimate childhood experience when everything for an entire day was about the child, to adolescence when stealing some verboten beverage or pill was paramount, to the often unfortunate reality of adults stumbling in. Instead of “kissing Hitler” with huffing gas rags, the examples of maturity were “hardwired” to alcohol and meth.
The tension between fondness for a specific landscape, Oregon, while acknowledging the pain of place haunts the book in the most gorgeous, elegiac ways. McGriff’s lyricism, his metaphoric flourishes, convey exactly the emotions he needs them to. In “In February,” he writes:
Her son’s been dead
nearly a year, and yesterday
while driving to the feed store
she braked suddenly
and threw her arm
across the rib cage
of his absence.
What could easily be bald sentimentality in lesser hands works here, and the last two lines are, for me, what lift the image above cringe-inducing sap. The lines say what by now we know is coming, buy McGriff phrases the act in an unexpected way, which makes the image all the more satisfying. And again we see this idea of nostalgia mixed with death.
Not all of the nostalgia and death are so obvious as that image; most are much more subtle, and most only imply death. Even without specific claims to it, the mournfulness and remorse are present in each poem, even the small poems that in lesser collections would be filler, the baby’s breath in the roses. “Note to My Former Self,” one such poems, is here in its entirety:
I’ve seen a group of farm kids
hypnotize a rabbit
by pinning it on its back
then stroking its neck.
This is what I think of
when I see you in the night—
not the tick,
but the distress call
we manage to send out
while we are pinned
to our stillness.
McGriff manages to sustain these entwined themes while also juggling motifs of other images, but the referent in his metaphor changes. He uses horse images in every possible way, from mentioning the horse skull over the home door to describing something so intricate that it could only be painted with a single stroke of a horsehair brush to describing being thrown “from your uncle’s horse” to mentioning Saint Luis, Protector of Horse Thieves. He similarly makes multiple crow references work to his full advantage. The frequency and necessity that the images appear and reappear, though never twice in the same capacity, feels masterful every time it occurs.
Despite some poems’ lines being shorter than my particular aesthetic, McGriff’s collection strikes me as an almost perfect volume. The images are concise, surprising, and effective. These are images that linger long after reading. My favorite, though it won’t seem as impactful out of context, comes from a poem called “Drinking at the Rusted Oyster”: I’m terrified of old acquaintances. / I’m eating Angels on Horseback. / I’m drinking a glass of light.” The emotional theme of the volume, the nostalgia and death that is announced in the book’s title and reaffirmed in almost every poem to some extent, is what I know I will carry with me for a long time.