The Risks of Simplicity: McGriff's New Poems

By Adam PlunkettAugust 24, 2012

The Risks of Simplicity: McGriff's New Poems

Home Burial by Michael McGriff

“O! I DO LOVE THEE, meek Simplicity!” So says the simpleton voice in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s satirical ode to plainspoken rhetoric, “To Simplicity.” Simpleton is guilty of a lot — his idea of chiasmus is “So sad I am… O! I am very sad!” — but what makes him simplistic rather than simple is that simplicity characterizes how he perceives the world rather than how he presents it. He’s thrilled by the simplicity of things: “But whether sad or fierce, 'tis simple all, / All very simple, meek Simplicity.” This is the risk of a style whose aim is to present its material without interference. A pane of clear glass becomes a light gray swatch.

Coleridge’s satire stuck in my anxious head when I read Home Burial, Michael McGriff’s second book, and a sparer, more direct work than his first. My hopes were high. Dismantling the Hills was a masterpiece of American lyricism, clear and varied, rich and strange, every shift in syntax a window into both McGriff’s world and his sense of it. They were the poems Robert Hass would have written in his first book if Field Guide had walked us through the deep hills and abandoned sawmills of the Oregon Coast. So why had McGriff changed his way of writing? Had he honed his style or blunted it?

The best of McGriff’s work has a complex emotional counterpoint between natural flourishing and industrial decay. He treats them evenly in “Coos Bay,” a list poem named for his hometown, from Hills:

     great blue herons whispering
through the hollow reeds, the cat piss smell
     of a charred meth lab between the VFW hall
and pioneer newspaper museum,
      the rusted scrapyard and tank farm.
The drawbridge spans forgotten coal bunkers,

     buried fingerprints of Chinese laborers,
rope-riders and mule bones.
     Then there’s the rain that never sleeps…

The whispers in the reeds are archetypal poetic inspiration, and here the winds of inspiration smell like cat urine. The lyric poet, whose work is as historically blue-collar as dressage, grew up the son of a father who seems to have held every working-class job the region could offer — millworker, cabdriver, Amway salesman, soldier. Accordingly, McGriff invented a lyricism that shows in the lives of people like his father the beauty Wordsworth saw in rainbows and daffodils. This is not especially common in American poetry: unsentimental working-class lyricism.

McGriff writes traditional lyrics. This is unlike much modern American poetry concerned with the working class, poetry that tends to reject conventions of lyricism or form for the self-conscious difficulty of language poetry or the anti-formalism of a Ginsberg or the anti-lyricism of a Reznikoff. But McGriff avoids many of lyricism’s pitfalls. He writes without irony about beauty and the spirit (the usual stuff of Romanticism), but doesn’t look for beauty or spiritual richness elsewhere, in a world unsullied by modernity or industry or the collapse of industry. This collapse is mourned by a great deal of regionalist poetry and folk music, as if a region’s lost glory would return with its lost means of production. Such poetry depends on ideals of the past, but McGriff’s honestly accepts the lack of clear hope for the community he grew up in.

It’s hard to overstate or explain what McGriff achieves by avoiding that kind of nostalgia, a habit of mind that can really limit the work of even deeply gifted poets. Take James Wright, who is deeply gifted if anyone is, and obsessed by the troubled beauty of a struggling region. Wright’s Middle West shares a common ground with McGriff’s Pacific Northwest of natural beauty and industrial decay and a sense of redemption directed toward both in a spiritual lyricism. But the limits of Wright’s hope are the limits of his emotional depth, even in his best work, such as “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” The spectacle of high-school football assuages the collective pain of underemployment:

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

The spectators feel a brutal version of the dream of physical labor — that by being all body you could be all spirit. This is Shop Class as Soulcraft before bourgeois appropriation and is, as an image, simply lovely, the sons a kind of self-reaping harvest, horses bursting into souls. (The loveliness even partly conceals the triteness of the rest of the poem: the signpost that the sons are “beautiful,” the melodrama of “Dying for love.”) The lines pile on tension until the climax releases it and explains it — but that’s it. You learn the sources of the conflict but not the nuanced emotions of taking part in it, because Wright’s lyrical embellishment shows no moral or emotional conflict or sense of the characters’ self-determination. His pathos is just pity.

Here’s the problem: if lyrical effects make sense only about things that are somehow exciting or beautiful, then how could you lyrically describe football at Shreve High without somehow pretending that it’s neither sad nor ugly? Could lyricism not depend on ideals? Wright’s does: the climax is really a reassurance about the reader’s sentimental aestheticism, that she can feel okay about feeling all these intense and lovely feelings about Martins Ferry, Ohio, because she understands the source of their conflict. I don’t mean to suggest that Wright exploits his subjects or anything like that, but even heartfelt and thoughtful pity is a cheaper emotion than empathy or sympathy, emotions that make you feel the problems of someone’s prospects instead of the complacent poignancy of their having none. Wright’s pity is inconsiderate — simplistic — but his lyricism makes it unavoidable. It’s in contrast to this that you can truly appreciate the unsentimental lyricism of McGriff’s first book.

McGriff talks to his father in the start of “When the Spirit Comes to Him as the Voice of Morning Light”:

You held your head in the Millicoma River,
opened your eyes before the spawning kings,

beheld the chuff of their rotting heads,
and said, Is this the milk of Paradise? to no one.
And when no one and nothing
was exactly what you wanted
I was and will be all-that-is-absence, all blue light
whistling over the farthest ridge.

When men dismantled the mills…

What his words make beautiful is not just the space but his father’s relationship with it, that and his relationship with his father and with his father’s conflicts, all eventually overlain with an image of the place: “all blue light / whistling over the farthest ridge.” The descriptions are a Mobius strip — the tensions don’t relent, but their surface is smooth and continuous.

Take a line like “I was and will be all-that-is-absence.” It seems reassuring, but it has no clear sense. It seems to draw on scriptural language familiar to much of the white working class — God as all past and all future, that which was and that which shall be — but its compound noun is more common to the sort of highbrow translation McGriff could’ve seen in Religious Studies. (“I-WILL-BE-THERE sends me to you” is Everett Fox’s translation of “I AM hath sent me unto you.”) He wants to speak his father’s language but also to talk down to him, to come home again and to assuage his guilt for having left. The line is both certain and hopeless, assured of being literally nothing. Perhaps he means to criticize his father’s withdrawal on grounds of inconsistently wanting personal reassurance from no one. Perhaps he wants to become that kind of impossible speaker, the voice of morning light. Perhaps he expresses a son’s sense of abandonment because his father wanted consolation from “no one and nothing,” not even from his family.

The layers of tension keep the lyricism from floating off into ideals, but the earnest beauty of the lines lends his father dignity and grace. The poem overlays cultural particulars onto the universal drama of father and son:

                                    I bring my hands
together and join the dust in your room

with the dust of stars, the grain of timber,
the burls in the hearts of men.

(“The grain of timber” is the sort of rhetorical stone no critic could leave unturned. The “timber” is quite clearly the wood his father cut and a sign of uniqueness, but it is also the unique timbre of McGriff’s voice, which throughout the poem provides an ambivalent consolation for the dismantling of his father’s millpond. This timbre clearly falters at the end of that line because of the emotional trochee ending the line after nearly two lines of tough monosyllables, hacked at like male reservedness at the sound of the lumberjack’s warning: “timber.”)

McGriff returns to the themes of “Spirit” in “Symphony,” from Home Burial:

It rained all night, hard,
the constant hum
like an orchestra tuning up,
its members taking purposeful,
deep breaths.

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.

As in the earlier poem, there is mediated frustration and simple loveliness, but it’s hard to shake the sense that nearly everything in this poem is far less complex. Instead of images that fulfill but qualify promises, here is a sort of dream sequence. Instead of deep ambivalence, here is an image of his father’s futility (“unstacking and restacking”) and possible grandiloquence or resentment (that his father sees what he builds as an “empire” or resents that it isn’t one). McGriff in this poem seems to subsume emotions under images, like Wright, instead of overlaying the two as he did in the earlier poem. For example, “heaving his days / into the vagaries / of chaff-light” seems just a way to say that his father threw himself into futile labor he had no choice but to engage in. There’s no depth of tension and ambivalence, and the words stand out as both oddly idiomatic and oddly poetical compared with the simple diction of the rest of the poem. Some line-breaks are too simple to be striking (“When I closed my eyes / I saw my father”); likewise some images (“purposeful, / deep breaths”). Why does McGriff, with his brilliance, tend toward this sentimental simplism in his new book?

One answer is that McGriff has appropriated, or is influenced by, the style of his friends. His acknowledgements credit Michael Dickman — one of the “ever faithful” — whose Flies is full of short dramatic lines and surreal images that often repeat throughout the book with different connotations to the same word, as McGriff does in Home Burial: name, burial, face. Bird, rain, silt. Blood, cows, crows. Rats. But his friendship does not explain why McGriff borrowed that stylistic tendency rather than another, or what he thought he could gain from it.

Perhaps McGriff repeats single words to see their implications in different contexts. Each use is a kind of test for the persona McGriff self-consciously builds, and each test slightly changes how we read the words by the end of the book – not least because we’ve seen the ways McGriff has tested the words. “I am reborn as a bird” means something different in the end of the book than it would have earlier. But we saw in “When the Spirit Comes to Him as the Voice of Morning Light” that McGriff can express intricate self-consciousness with just one use of a word when the line is complex enough, a use that does not require poring through earlier uses or run the risk of uninterestingly differentiated repetitions, such as “I am reborn as a bird” and “I am reborn / as a bird who flies.”

Suppose instead that McGriff simplified his style to invert the emotions his readers expect. “Symphony” ends with the mention of lucid music, music McGriff leaves us to imagine, perhaps because he is suspicious of his lyricism and finds a bitter irony or even reaction-formation in his associating rain both with beauty and with his father’s troubles. McGriff wants to write a kind of virtual poem, a poem in which the experience of reading doesn’t clearly follow from any sense you can make of the words. A virtual poem can be ineffable; think of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” It’s images thrown onto the wall of your mind by your reading of the photonegative, the actual poem. The problem for McGriff is that virtual poems are only as intricate as the actual poems that evoke them. And good virtual poems sound more like Ashbery’s best contractions and contradictions than like “an orchestra tuning up.”

It is possible that McGriff simply wanted to be more clear. I often find him less so: his earlier long, twisty lines often express ambivalence and emotional nuance much more clearly than short, direct lines. Of course short lines can express all this too, but not when they consist mostly of vague abstractions relating vaguely to each other:

            I am reborn as a bird

who claws its way
from the throat
of a man
who wears my name
for a face

The lines would be much clearer if the words were more complicated.

None of this is to say that Home Burial is a bad book. About a fifth of it reads with the complexity and balance of Dismantling the Hills (such as “In February” and “Dead Man’s Bells, Witches Gloves” and nearly all of “Kissing Hitler”). McGriff’s humor is often even better than Hills (“I pray to what you are not. / / You are the opposite of a horse.”). But I fail to see what McGriff’s simplifications add to his style and can see a number of ways they hurt it.

One of the best pieces of simple poetry in the book is its title, Home Burial. Pitched between home burial, being buried at home, or home-burial, burying his home, McGriff could either lose himself or lose where he came from. These are the risks, and they’re personal — enough to tempt any writer to seem open while remaining opaque. We should all hope that this temptation doesn’t obscure McGriff’s genius in work to come.


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LARB Contributor

Adam Plunkett's essays and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, n+1, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.


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