March 25, 2011

Review by Maryann Corbett Grasshopper: The Poetry of M.A. Griffiths

GRASSHOPPER: THE POETRY OF MA GRIFFITHS

Arrowhead Press
70 Clifton Road, Darlington
Co. Durham. DLI 5DX
United Kingdom
ISBN 978-1-904852-28-5
2011, 352 pp., £12.00
www.arrowheadpress.co.uk

The first big thing to get out of the way is this: Yes, Margaret Griffiths published three of my poems in her journal Worm. They were early ones, and the encouragement was important to me. But by the time I began to be a “web-active poet” as the term now goes, her own online activity was slowing, and I met her on poetry boards rarely. My dealings with her were businesslike. My involvement with the publication of her poems was limited to a few e-mails about solicitors, next of kin, and copyright ownership. I claim the ability to review this book dispassionately.

The poets who were her long-time online correspondents called her Maz, and on many online forums her user name was “grasshopper,” which explains the book’s title. And this is the second big thing to understand about Margaret Griffiths: that her online work with other poets established the stellar reputation of her poems. The rarefied world of reviewing might prefer to ignore the world of poetry boards, but as places where poets talk with one another, they have significant influence. Although Maz edited an online poetry journal, she rarely submitted for publication. Yet because of her online activity, the force of her work was widely acknowledged, and her contributions to poetry forums both as a poet and as a critic were valued. Her work was so little published in traditional venues—and so esteemed, by so many poets—that, when she died suddenly in 2009, people on several continents realized that only an intensive effort to recover the poems would prevent them from disappearing. Grasshopper is the fruit of those people’s hard work. For accounts of their process, take a look at issue 13 of The Shit Creek Review.

If Maz had been interested in organizing her work into collections, the poems in this book would probably have come out in three or four of the usual slim volumes. Perhaps she would have grouped the dark, cynical poems on current events with the poems about the chronic stomach ailment that (as her friends suspect) killed her. Or would the political poems go with the brilliantly detailed historical fictions? Or with the magical, myth-derived fantasias? Or the poems that converse with literature in the canon? Perhaps the poems that address the foibles of the online poetry world would have been dropped as bagatelles not worthy of preservation. That would have been a shame; all the wild variety here tells us what an interesting person Maz was, how inventive, how persistently curious about all sorts of subjects.

But how she would have organized the poems we simply don’t know. Grasshopper preserves everything that was found, in a attractive binding and with a preface and introduction by Alan Wickes. This is more than three hundred fifty pages of poetry, in alphabetical order by poem title. That scheme is probably most helpful to the poets who worked with her, who tended to remember specific poems (often saving copies of them), and who are already an eager audience for the book. Still, it neglects many matters that they, and the rest of us, might like to know. How are the poems related chronologically? Which ones did Maz see as being in relationship to one another? How did she develop as a poet, from the time she began posting work in 2001? Were the metrical and free-verse poems always mixed? I can’t help hoping for a second edition that might have such aids as a chronology and an index of first lines. I could also hope for less haste and more attention in the copyediting. But what we have now is the poems, and only the poems, and they deserve the full accounting that will let a wider audience know what they’re like.

A good number are metrical; many of those use full end rhyme. A few use it ironically (“On Philip Larkin” and “Christopher Robin Muses on Religion”) and a few in the spirit of parody of new-poet-faux-antique style (“Casting Pearls”). There are many sonnets, carefully and correctly and variously formed. Quite a few employ tight form and specific timing to spring a killer ending, often including some X-rated element (“The Other Woman”) or to pierce some social armor, in the manner of R. S. Gwynn or Wendy Cope (“Naming of Parties”).

Many, though, are completely straight. “Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud” is one of the best examples, and it earned praise from Richard Wilbur, probably the foremost American practitioner of form. It feels artless and candid in spite of its strictures. Where the sonnets fall short for me, they do so by being too “canned,” too much on the pattern of the historical anecdote packaged in sonnet shape (“Livia’s Eagle” and “Costanza Carved”). This is a pattern I mistrust as superficial, even while I grant that nothing here is ever less than technically fine. There is no sense in these poems that traditional forms, used in contemporary ways, are anything but perfectly current. I suspect Maz’s internal template for such poems is Larkin: cynical, forthright, and dark.

But besides formal poems, the book also contains every other sort: loose meter, free verse, prose poetry. Or at least it contains every other sort of poetry that uses the ordinary coherence of language to do what poems do. There is no crypticism, no Language poetry. In fact, “Manifesto” makes ironically clear her dim view of cryptic poetry. These are accessible poems, but not at all in the bland, plainspoken, real-life-only way one might associate with Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. They’re both clear and imagination-drenched. They believe in vibrant detail and arresting word choice. Take as an example the opening of “The Alchemist’s Omelette”—

If he traces three more arcs, he will make a cat—
not a common striped creature like Arnolfini’s
ginger tom—but an incandescent beast
with onyx eyes. Nim pauses, his horn-nib suspended
over the page, then inscribes two arcs
at the propert declension. The third curve tries

to draw itself….

The poem piles detail on detail, but what it draws us toward is the sharpness of Idea:

….Once you are, he whispers,
you will die. Time has stronger magic than mine.
Without the last stroke, you have Forever.

Other poems on this magic-making pattern are “The Civet Instructs Her Kits,” “The Mushroom Effect,” and “Shedding a Little Light on Light.”

What simplicity there is in these poems is often an adopted simplicity, a voice put on for its desired effect, a character. “Fer Blossom” puts on a homespun, nonstandard, rural British dialect. “five fingers” is a child’s prayer. “Snakehead” is written in American Outlaw, “Death Abroad” in short-sentence phonecallese. Maz created innumerable characters, and I suspect this contributed much to her popularity on poetry boards. No fellow poet ever said, as one often comes to say of longtime po-board colleagues, “Oh no, not another poem about [this or that personal obsession]!” She wrote through the minds and mouths of so many other people that one can’t be sure of knowing the real Maz through the poems at all. (The critiques are another matter, but they are not in this book.) The often-used reviewer’s tactic of judging the poet to be a bad person because of some stance in the poems would be risky here.

Yet the adopted voices feel authentic. Rarely, a persona feels forced or off: a prose poem in the voice of a girl who has undergone forced female genital cutting strikes me as issue driven. It’s the sort of poem I back away from writing, feeling that it’s exploitative of other people’s suffering. (Would it have been included in a Maz-compiled book? We can’t say.) But the character of the oppressed girl or woman appears over and over, and the abiding need of that character to mask emotion is a recurring ache that seems to reflect Maz’s real thinking: “The Concubine’s Charm,” “Curves,” “Spanish Fleas,” and the prose poem “Before,” about an unwanted pregnancy. Deep resistance to conventional religion is another constant. So are illness and death and the love of animals, sometimes all at once, as in “Listening to the Dog,” sometimes separately:

Gut Reaction

Red in the bowl again, bright shocking spots,
beads strung with spittle, ruby mixed with jet.
Say it’s tomato, peppers—there are lots
of explanations for those blobs. Don’t sweat.
Just wipe your mouth and fill a steady glass.
The cold tap foams. The water chills your tongue
and shocks your teeth. Grip this new day. Hold fast.
Remember how you felt once, fit and young
before this aged you, greyed your face and bowed
you down, an acolyte of pain, to retch
and spew. For now, no grumbling is allowed.
Stiff upper lip. Don’t wimp or whinge. Don’t kvetch.
Wait till the angels lift you up, then yell,
“Please drop my bloody stomach off in hell.”

The plain, colloquial, undazzling poems are among the ones I find most moving. “Party Piece” is one; it recites conversation at a New Year’s Eve party, using its ordinary aimlessness to show how moments almost become meaningful but can’t be seized, so that “our tears were lost in the opening year.” Others, like “Holes in the News” turn their very plainness surreal:

They put me in a hole and left me
there. You know the hole I mean.
You scour it out each day until
your armpits leak and blood smears
plum across your nose. When I try
to sleep, they megaphone me, pelt
me with pellets of news. You know
the news I mean.

The variety here, the huge inventiveness, the range from the staid to the fantastic, is a frustration only to the reviewer. The reviewer keeps looking for patterns in order to create the individual books that Maz never did, but to the reader, what looks like disorder will pose no problem. The reader, after all, would probably have marked those shorter books, noting his or her own favorites, returning to them with pleasure and without regard for the imposed scheme. That’s generally how we read and return to the poems we love. And that will still be true for Grasshopper.

___________

Maryann Corbett is the author of two chapbooks, Dissonance (Scienter Press, 2009) and Gardening in a Time of War (Pudding House, 2007). She is a past winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Morton Marr prize. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in many journals in print and online, including River Styx, Atlanta Review, The Evansville Review, Literary Imagination, Subtropics, and The Dark Horse, as well as The Able Muse Anthology and the forthcoming Hot Sonnets. She lives in St. Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature. She can be contacted at Maryann.Corbett@revisor.mn.gov.