I’ve worn a black suit
my entire life. It suits the war
my eyes ignite.
In a veritable torrent of poems in her new collection, Lighting the Shadow, Rachel Eliza Griffiths ignites much and leaves us to pick over the wreckage. Griffiths is very much at home among the violence and chaos of modern consciousness, the kind that a generation who grew up on television and then internet news, offering up carnage and conflagration on a regular basis, can readily identify. Griffiths, who is a filmmaker and visual artist as well, excels at vivid portrayals of just this type of media image:
alone in the background
folded like an ear. Trapped
in the leathery smoke of bodies
weeping as they cool.
Most frequently, her poetic object is herself, her mind, her body, which in turn represents the American female, and particularly the African-American female: the primary shadow (or, as Frances Beal might put it, shadow of a shadow) in the text. “Memory is a burnt child / I carry on my back,” she writes in “Elegy” (the first one). And, in “My Dress Hangs There”: “History stalks my body, examines my teeth, my scalp, & thighs. What can I bear for the narrative?”
Griffiths speaks frankly of personal violation and the use of the body for all sorts of raw imagery and metaphor. Bodies are both blessed and oppressive. As much violence is done to them as beauty extracted from them. A series of prose poems in the first section all speak to the desires of women to break free of the bonds that hold them, the violence done to them by men and by society.
The poems are very personal in this way, and the language, which can be difficult to follow at times (you might say she writes in the John Ashbery vein of contemporary verse), is spoken on a rather personal level as well, as if we’re overhearing Griffiths’ laments and worries and triumphs, voiced in the privacy of personal mood. Like Rita Dove, Griffiths’ poems can have a mysterious and oracular quality. They do not yearn to be revealed. Her language doesn’t clarify with metaphor, it deepens.
the unmarked sky
where a plague of blackbirds
fell across my back
like an unlit cross.
The shadow/light dichotomy is used as a forceful charge for the book as a whole. There are few symbols, in fact, that fall outside of the dark/light contrast. Repeating images of fire and lightning, char and ash, as well as lots (and lots) of blood, serve to underscore this. Occasionally, so many of the images and metaphors point to the light/shadow rubric that the individual poems lose a sense of themselves. The best ones do not, like “Disarming of Shadow, Arming of Light” (quoted above), and “Another Woman’s Coat”, a poem about literally stepping into another’s skin for a night, and the joyful release found there. “These seams do not belong / to me,” Griffiths writes. It’s a beautiful line that, in a collection about image and the assumptions we make based upon external presentation, is also a forceful pun.
Similar to Dove and another precursor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Griffiths’ language is bold and challenging, if not always inviting. Griffiths is both more enigmatic and more shy than these two, and she hides behind her language, tending to convolute instead of starkly state. Both Dove and Brooks lent their poetry more easily to universal themes, though Griffiths too sometimes hits this mark:
Our mothers sit inside, listening
to the radio, ironing all the armor
they have always prepared. Empty
glass bowls wait for our screams.
The silence shatters each day.
Our mothers watch, their eyes
mutely matching the world’s work.
Griffiths tackles many of the prominent issues of the present day, particularly those dealing with violence. A string of poems early in the collection reads like a litany of distress: gun violence in America (against blacks and whites), rapes in India, ritual murder of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies. In “The Year in Pictures” (one of the best poems in the book), Griffiths writes a wonderful contemporary account of what it’s like to be inundated with worldwide news every hour of the day—much of it through noncontextual pictures and video:
The lovers must have shared meals
under a buzzing bulb. Peeling fruit
& hope, they clung to their wheels
& steaming windows. They had to
The poem revels in its collage-like interplay:
The clock never settles its hands
in the image. The hands never raise an alarm
for the workers. All of us
strain to get the life
finished, revised, the flesh
in proper fit to soul. Never
enough silk or needle.
When the poems cohere like this, they work well. Too often, however, the verse is invigorated but desultory, strung up piecemeal without the cohesion to pull each poem taut. Griffiths has a stutter-step cadence in much of her verse (I personally think her prose poems are the strongest), using short sentences or phrases, each with their own subject and object, one after the other like cuttings on a chaotic floor. She also loves the interrogatory, a particular crutch that’s grating after a while. Mixed in to the muddle, she gets a lot right: “You don’t feel anything / in the middle of the night,” she concludes in “dear America”. And, in “gun minor, or the inconsolable constellation”, she describes our collective past “begging us / to promise her skin / anything / but amnesia.”
In her film work, Griffiths has produced and curated a wonderful, and rather sensuous, short film project, “Poets on Poetry”, showcasing contemporary poets reading and talking about their work and others’. It’s a unique and refreshing portrayal of the art form today, a form that, in all its varied power, Griffiths loves to speak:
& now you must believe me,
because I am telling you first,
because I am floating this giddy anti-iambic line
out to you, to the deep
& the marrow
of my unquiet water where I dive
with my dark joy