RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS’S beautiful fifth book, Seeing the Body (W. W. Norton), stuns with its unwavering gaze. Compiled in the aftermath of her mother’s death, Griffiths’s hybrid collection pairs poetry with photography, exploring memory, Black womanhood, the American landscape, and rebirth. The result is a radiant and soulful collection.
Griffiths, a New York City–based poet and visual artist, bravely lets us into the visceral realities of her personal loss. “Bale of grief on my back, opening / into something black I wear. A life of flesh / like a petal or fruit or burning. / I’ve carried everything & I’m tired.” Through meditative movements of text and image, Griffiths tracks emptiness and the exquisite wholeness of love. “Of words placed in their best black clothes. Of that darkness full.” Going through this journey with her, we see to mourn is also to praise.
I first met Griffiths in 2011 when we both took part in the first poetry issue of Oprah’s O Magazine. Hovering in a cavernous studio space in the East Village, we immediately fell into an exchange about favorites poets, New York, and yoga. She struck me as a comrade in inquiry, and a voice I wanted to follow. I caught up with her over a series of emails to talk of loss, language, and what endures.
SARAH HERRINGTON: I love that the book begins with “She died” and ends with “newborn skull.” Can you speak about your placement of poems as an entire body?
RACHEL ELIZA GRIFFITHS: The title poem, “Seeing the Body,” and the final poem of the collection, “Good Death,” are probably more closely aligned to an archetypal beginning — a daughter’s rebirth and awakening inside of her own body, her power and her claiming of her lineage, both as a daughter but also as an artist. Transformation happens by my direct claiming of forms (language, imagery, art, flesh).
There’s a painting by Frida Kahlo called My Birth, 1932. I feel as though my two poems are kinetically speaking to the image of a woman laboring to birth a grown woman rather than a child even though the associative labor of “newborn” is in play. What might it mean for an adult woman to perceive herself as “newborn” while coming into her own life? There’s a deliberate braiding of the use and meaning of flowers in both poems. There’s my necessary acknowledgment I am/was born through the body of another woman. With the death of my mother, the woman (myself) can’t go back out of the world until she mothers herself. I must go forward to my own beginning and to consider my own death. When I leave this world, I, too, will leave an opening for another.
Yes! A beginning in an ending. How did this project start for you?
Several of the self-portrait photographs included in the collection were made before I’d written anything that resembled poetry. When those photographs were made, my mother was still alive. So, in some ways in this book the lyric arrived in image before the language appeared. After her death, I made photographs and began to write fragments or memories I worried I would forget. It took a long time for me to feel that language was an adequate space that could hold how I was feeling because it was all so fluid. New and familiar wounds were at stake. When I finally did begin to write, I tried to let go of “framing” the poems or portraits as a book. The poems allowed me to hold space with my mother’s absence, to celebrate at eye-level, with nuance and care, the special woman she was.
I love that idea of celebrating at eye-level. What did your mother think about your writing? I feel I know her here, and am curious.
Over the years, I think her feeling about my writing was complicated. By the time she could see that my compulsion to write was not going to disappear, that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or doctor, but also that I would be able to feed myself, and not die, I think she accepted that it was my dream. When I was growing up at some point, I remember her shaking her head and saying, “Girl, you’ve picked a hard [fucking] dream” and I think maybe there was a little respect and admiration in that. I remember I wrote that down because the way she said it to me made me feel that she was going to be next to me and that she wanted me to go for it.
Sometimes — and I think many writers endure this — our loved ones can cheer us on and also challenge us because they don’t want anything to hurt us. My mother veered between don’t-go-and-write-about-me-and-my-business and I’m-proud-of-my-baby. After her death, while cleaning out her office I found a shelf where she had kept everything I’d ever given her about my writing and photography.
Wow, that’s incredible.
There were even clippings of things she must have discovered, collected, and saved herself. I needed to see that shelf. I visualize it whenever I think maybe I’m insane to keep trying to write or to make art at all. So I’m very clear that she mostly understood the daughter she had raised. She celebrated me all the time even when she worried.
How was the act of writing for you in the throes of grief? What was writing like once grief/the moment had shifted? I know for me I sometimes find an alchemy or spiritual shift simply in writing and completing a project, which is probably why I keep coming back to writing though it can be so challenging. Did you find this here?
I wish I could say that I’ve shifted in a way that feels definitive. I get really choked up reading these poems during “virtual” events. When I turn off my computer, I’m shaking badly and have trouble sleeping. When I first realized that the poems could be a book, I felt sick. Pushing past that, I then thought that I could show my mother’s joy. I could celebrate her vibrant character, her humor, her kindness, and her love for her family. In a way, I could make a portrait of her that could be as distinct as a photograph. I could offer my love for her to others. I hope that this book offers love to those who find something relatable in it. What I hadn’t expected, and it is wonderful, are the letters and notes I receive from so many different people about the poems. They share their mother stories with me. We cry and celebrate together. I hadn’t expected to be so connected to others through something that still remains so utterly raw and painful for me. It’s wild — inside the hurt there are flowers.
Did you feel putting the book together to be an engagement with a kind of completion, like a closing ritual? Or more a movement of continuing, enshrining? (I am thinking here of your lines: “Of it being over, again & again. Of it beginning” in “Good Death” and “How can I avoid embalming her twice by alphabet?” in “Work.”)
My relationship with my mother will never be closed or completed for me. I believe in rituals. There are spaces in our lives that must be closed to heal us, to prevent us from capsizing.
Toni Morrison spoke of letting go of the shit that weighs us down so we can fly (paraphrasing). I really had to follow that verbatim. After my mother’s death, it didn’t even feel like a choice to begin letting go. But your question for me is also about how memory is recurrence, reiterations, reinventions, and remembering. Even if I don’t ever write explicitly about my mother’s life after Seeing the Body, I know she’s with me. She’s in my language. She taught me how to read, to love books, to love my own handwriting. We share our hands — the actual shape!
I love that.
I know that she continues in my own life and in the life of my art. I see that as another gift from her in the rituals that mothers and daughters can create, even unconsciously or posthumously, for each other.
In your author’s note, you speak about yourself as a “woman in the perpetuity of language, and woman in the sanctity of intuition.” What is the relationship between words and silence in your work?
This relationship is fluid. I don’t think silence is monolithic. The silence in my work is attuned to what the work of language both celebrates and confronts. Silence in this book is often active rather than passive. I’m deliberate about how it’s happening. When I choose silence, or when my grief or rage chooses silence, I feel it’s something the reader will also experience. Because these poems are intense as hell, silence also works inside the gears and genre of the lyric to amplify the map of this book. There are certain poems where silence, or restraint, emphasizes the psychic chords of absence. Too, there are certain poems where silence is a direct call to the reader to enter those raw places in each of us where space is anti-lingual, where the tongue is attached to words none of us can pronounce but are able to recognize in the ache of stillness and attention.
What is the relationship between photography and poetry for you in general and in this project?
The space of the lyric in my photography and poetry allows me to move around. It can be expansive and narrow simultaneously. It’s never static for me. Whenever it feels risky or compelling to put language and imagery together, I do it. The internal process is where the leap happens. I think it’s involuntary for me at this point. I’m working on my first novel and don’t find myself inviting photography into my prose at all. It would be too much.
What has it been like releasing a collection during this time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter? Has that shifted your relationship to the project at all?
I don’t have any other experience publishing a collection during a time when so much is happening outside of me while so much is also happening inside of me. Being so personal in public spaces is unlike any other book. So, publicly, like everyone else — I’m searching for language, for stories, for songs that are trying to make sense of what some of us had accepted, and even often unconsciously endorsed, for far too long. It is time for reckoning, for collecting.
Seven days after my family buried my mother in August 2014, Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson. It was his death that broke whatever had already been breaking down in me. My personal grief melted into the public grief and fury we all experienced.
Mostly, in terms of the book, I feel fortunate that I belong to such a generous and powerful community of readers. It’s surreal. It’s all part of a bigger story that we’re (re)claiming. Action is what interests me. I finished Seeing the Body some time ago, yet it contains a substantial thread of poems that speaks exactly to the fires and the burning we are marching and protesting for. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book, except for maybe The Requited Distance, that didn’t contain an obituary of murdered Black people.
Somehow, in the ugly synchronicity of brutality, my book is timely in its protesting of the attitudes, imaginations, and policies in this country that require Black and Brown people to be dead or incarcerated so other Americans can claim an identity of supremacy.
Do you believe writing can heal?
I don’t know. Writing this book didn’t and doesn’t heal my grief. It’s armed me with tools, sure, and shown me so much about who I am and who I am becoming. I’d throw every copy of this book into the trash if I could pick up the phone and hear my mother ask me what I’m cooking for dinner.
I hear you.
Because of the way that other writers and readers have responded to the work, I do believe its existence is a positive thing. Let it give itself to others who need it. I needed to write it, and I did. It was necessary for me to go directly through it — that intimacy and that process of writing, which was like crawling and clawing — to reflect on my life and how I perceive my art. Writing makes me feel embodied and empowered because of the listening that it requires.
I do believe listening can be healing.