Friday, April 18, 2008

The sublime and the hurried

Swift narratives that both cover ground and supply both the pace and blitz of rapid, time constrained travel have their appeal; everyone loves a cliffhanger, and it's a sweet thing when the story leaves the expected and begins and ends with qualities that are distinct and opposed, violence and kindness, but which are linked .Michael McGriff’s poem [the line between heaven and earth]is a minor pleasure because he shows that he can give a sense of a cinematic time line as he shows us a journey that begins with a brutal and unflinching slaughter and evisceration of a bear and what processes the removed gall bladder goes through to emerge, at the end, as a cure of a kind, that blandly presented item that eases discomfort and, we assume, exists entire free of violence. It works because McGriff has the wit to show the procession from raw animal guts to a palliative that will sooth a child’s fever. The imagery is concise, telling, and free of editorial conceit or metaphysical conceit. As with a camera lens, this poem observes the determination of a poor man to prepare a folk cure for a child's discomfort, the virtual act of faith , an taken with no evidence nor guarantee that it will have the desired result. The line between heaven and hell begins in the heart of the person willing to soil and foul themselves with bloody work who intends and follows through in their effort to comfort another human being.
The line between heaven and earth
******glows just slightly
when a bear's gallbladder
******is hacked out
and put on ice in California:
******the line between
heaven and earth begins
******with a ginseng root
and ends in an anvil:
******the gallbladder rides
in a foam cooler
******on a bench-seat
in a pickup heading north: the line
******between heaven and earth
carries a crate of dried fish
******on its back:
The man driving the gallbladder
******used to sell Amway
and sand dollars blessed
******by Guatemalan priests
:

This is thinking that believes in the cause and effect relationship between the earthly and the supernatural and fittingly the flow is fluid, serpentine, with the sure slither of a hissing tires coming up a wet street; less that McGriff concerns himself with locations as he instead focuses what is nearby, in suffocating proximity, such as ice , a foam cooler on a bench seat, a man who used to sell Amway and shoreline contraband. The poem is suggestive of place, and this is a style I wish he’d maintained. Unfortunately he saddled himself with a title that promises large significance and revelation, but there is no Blake like metaphors geared to tear apart the thin veil that divides the realms from one another. There is no adequate irony either to make a diminished expectation pleased with the result.

into the mouth of a child
******whose fevers grind
the teeth of rage:
******this is how the stories
of all miracles begin.


Alas, a mere summing up in pedestrian terms, a moral of the tale delivered as if the reader were in third grade, grappling with the simplified versions of Aesop’s Fables. The subtext is not so disguised as to make the poem an inert collection of ossified cleverness, nor is it so obvious that one might yawn upon seeing the resolution telegraphed so far in advance, and McGriff, had he maintained his delicacy, would have had a piece where the reader would be allowed to parse the ambiguity and arrive at conclusions that might surprise them. As happens too often, the poet started looking for the exit before engaging with an ending that fit the surefootedness of his initial images and lean flow. McGriff furnishes his own spoiler and hadn’t the confidence, this time, to let his subject—that acts of kindness and charity are linked intimately with the genuine evil of existence—emerge unexplained but in full context, with resonance and that bit of mystery that makes many a spare lyric linger in mind than would the details of a sermon or a presidential speech. I'd have been more satisfied had McGriff left us with images of striking contrasts, like the animal entrails, the hammered anvil, the child taking the grimly created cure, and allow the reader the chance to discern the line between heaven and earth, the juncture where miracles happen, is in the instance when something caring and noble arises from relentlessly mean circumstances. He needn't have given us the marginalia from his first draft; we would have gotten it after all.

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