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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lee Ann Brown, In the Laurels, Caught

Author’s note: This blog is becoming a record of poems that participate in a species of seriality.

A lattice of narratives is interrupted, interwoven, as the French Broad River traces hills and coves between hills. A parallel text flows, miming cursive, in  crossweave at the bottom of each page. A coverlet is a product of sewing; swatches are tacked together to form a crazy quilt or a lacey afghan throw like my grandmother made, joining crotchet and sewing arts. Nanny knew and, as ward boss for a socialist leaning democratic party constituency, understood the economic and social history encoded in this sentence from Lee Ann Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught (Fence 2013), ”I think who owns the loom thought they got to claim the coverlet but the fingers that labor own the pattern once they weave it” (129). Here encoded: elementary Marxism concerning the means of production and a romance perhaps concerning the essential integrity of artisanry. This theme is repeated more than once, “’The boss’s brains are under the worker’s cap’” (139).  I feel this way when I look at the Rockefeller Gardens where I once planted, weeded, cut and trimmed, constructing a pattern of drainage canals and flower beds whose grace and beauty was entirely mine, my heritage. But a quilt or coverlet. unlike a garden, and similar to a song, is transmissible. That is the key to Brown’s engagement with the poetics and social history of place, a study I place in the line of Charles Olson’s Maximus, Tyrone Williams’s Howell, and my own The Cranberry Island Series.

I savor notes I can relate to only subjectively. Lee Ann Brown’s writing has an exquisitely delicate touch. Yellow transparent apples, I recently read, have apparently become orchard favorites again; although in my memory, the last of these varietals were the succulent favorites of deer on November mornings, now disappeared. Language gives song a different nature [from that of the perishable tomato]. “Lattice” is a word crucial to this collection, as is the notion of senses being caught, among laurels also known as rhododendron. The botanizing found on many pages of in this collection (also a “day book”) is redolent of the mountains. I remember the little steel pegs on the drying frames for gossamer curtains that pricked my fingers when I helped my grandmother with the stretching and drying of gossamer curtains. Then harvest afternoons in July, Brown writes:

   After tasting tomatoes picked
            fresh from a hot garden
I once wrote:
   Tomatoes like warm bleeding hearts
and could eat no other after that—
ghostlike grocery store “hot house” varietals
did nothing for me
But songs are made from a rarefied material
Language gives them a different nature (21)

Loss of the real is a result of commercialization, “postcards” Olson wrote. Images of bleeding and ghost, life and death, are the products of Brown’s judicious processes of composition. The object is “a coverlet that will not rot or unravel” (21). Her poetry invites the reader to unpack ancient memories, as I have allowed myself to do. She distinguishes between songs and language as between the product and means of production. Unlike the slave, cited in the vignette of the loom and ownership of the pattern, the worker must come to own the means of production. On one level, this is the project of In the Laurels, Caught, one among differently layered projects. Swatches or medallions of language are to a degree resistant to decay and unravelling, although the written word, especially as found in poetry, is not always exemplary with respect normative usage. The meaning may lie in a ghost presence. Emerson and Duncan taught that. One of the finest poems in the series, “How to Pronounce Appalachia” is very aware of the relation between song and language, weaving and interweaving, “I am sick with love for the poem.” Brown is a very analytical poet, “unraveling … is a good thing” as long as the variations on the old pattern is preserved “don’t lose track  / of the old one  / so you can come back to its lovely form / for another variation” (130). This poem has a secondary title, “Overshot Dictionary of Woven Names Drawn from out the Black Box of History.” It is a collage of titles, names and quotations, allusions to texts on Appalachian weaving and music, a musical anthology of found materials. Lee Ann has a beautiful voice.

Comprehension requires reading back and forth among elements, a weaving on the reader’s part. In In the Laurels, Caught  a river of text in a different hand meanders across the foot of each page, a thread that provides metacommentary, “Sometimes Lee Ann rhymes and sometimes she don’t” (22). It’s a peoples vernacular and peoples’ relation to the riverine landscape that is often reordered here, in grayed-out scrawls. Simulated handwriting provides both gloss and remnants from the notebook material from which the poems are constructed, gloss as to landscape and social history and diaristic note as to the weaving and interweaving of meaning.

Writing’s source in dreams takes the form of words discovered upon waking, “Bibliomantic,”  for instance, is the seed from which sprouts the line “The mist hasn’t burnt off the river yet” (89). I quote from “The Elemental Year,” a poem that involves a May Day-like ceremonial dance around a Vitex or Chaste Tree, whose medicinal properties both promotes estrogen production and restrains male sexual urges. The poet’s daughter participates. The rhythms are local to both place and family; they are cosmogonic: “My daughter stood across the circle from me.” A poem retrieved from the seed of a dream offers a compelling reading of human agency as nested within environmental registers.

The last poem in the collection, “Coverlet,” returns the reader to the garden as sacred place. Like much important American literature, there’s an edenic toponymy. There’s a privacy that excludes much of the shouting that characterizes this world in its current form, “While no one is looking / In my own dimension // Find each her own motif / A shady place” (143). Consider the values here as we learn to live in a world without either privacy or empowerment.
Donald Wellman, December 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014

Whit Griffin, A Far-Shining Crystal

Whit Griffin, A Far-Shining Crystal, The Cultural Society, 2013

I’ll begin with perceptions that lead through bizarre concatenations of thoughts and images to sentiments I share, “a war-mongering patriarchal people /destroy a goddess-honoring agrarian / society” (1). This sounds familiar to me. Was it Karen Armstrong who persuaded me or was it my mother? The project of modern poetry has been to discover that “the galley slave is too busy rowing / to contemplate redemption.” So “Venus in Mesopotamia,” the first poem in Whit Griffin’s A Far-Shining Crystal, suggests. The goddess theme metamorphoses into  the masculinist, war-mongering theme of “manifest destiny” before the hapless galley slave is introduced. Has not the reality of the exiled oarsman been the theme of my work? My attraction to the seafaring elegies of the Anglo Saxons? In A Far-Shining Crystal, the meticulous Whit Griffin discovers the cynical truth, “Actions / that go unnoticed were not committed in vain” (10). What cast of mind finds springs of enchantment in conundrums like those suggested so frequently, so compactly in these poems? “The River of Milk, The Snake Canoe” includes in italics higher order wisdom, let us call it, a blend of myth and history, collapsing the difference,  “A griffin, imaged in a crystal, / produces abundance of milk” (11). Is this a self-reflection? Possibly, apotheosis, maternal instinct! Thanks to Google I find the sentence in George Frederick Kunz’s The Curious Lore of Precious Stones: Being a Description of Their Sentiments (1913). I believe that I’m in terrain similar to that trod by Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson. I am drawn to the knowledge that “Every tree trunk becomes a gnomon” and I’m willing to suspend my pragmatics and embed them with archaic or shamanic crystalline perceptions. That was my mode before I began these reflections.


“Sorcery” and “wizardry” are the most frequently used terms in the 70 numbered poems of A Far-Shining Crystal. They register a degree of hopefulness amidst the prevailing cynicism. Subjective elements appear randomly, “Existing on cocoa, / the father of a sister. When it’s damp / these wires hum” from a poem entitled “Beaumont’s Egg.” The humming telegraph wires were Thoreau’s celestial harp. I note the overlay of syntax and measure, sentences that begin midline, the rhythm of thought leads to a new or renewed perception, “I’ll trade my suitcase in for a / case of Gilbey’s gin” (13). Does the subjective add meaning to the line that concludes the same poem, “How / weak our rituals have become’ (13).In nineteenth century cast-iron bridge construction, beams of an inferior grade of cast iron were sometimes disguised by using Beaumont’s Egg, a mixture of beeswax, fiddler’s rosin, finest iron borings and lamp black.  


Griffin’s art refuses to resolve chains of concatenation. The tactic is not original but the production does involve a delicious stream of uncanny observations. ”Wizardry is when they shoot a dead man’s tooth or a quartz crystal in you” (14). The sources may be Galen or Calches. I can’t tell. The image may derive from a time when ritual had more force than today. I know that among the Ndembu of Zambia, sickness is often associated with a wooden splinter or tooth that has penetrated an artery of the heart. To become an adept one must first suffer from the disease and thereby learn the processes of its cure. Griffin puts it this way “healing starts with breakdown” (15). I register a protest, healing is communal, ritual tribal, the detached individual may do no more than spin within his or her privately constructed gyres. Sacred and secret ritual is looked to for illumination in several of these poems, “Acts never intended for profane viewing” (15). The story is told about the Yaqui Deer Dance by Jerome Rothenberg, others tell similar stories about ritual. Perhaps, Griffin’s purpose is encyclopedic. I can respect that. Catalog art without endless chains of parataxis. Counsel for the poet-sorcerer: “The best provision is piety” (19).


Pages abound with images drawn from contemplation of stars and birds and vegetation. A Far-Shining Crystal shares a range of poetic and epistemological values with Ronald Johnson’s work. It is a less structured Ark, a bricoleur’s wobbly gundalow on the rivers of my marshlands. I recognize the terrain and the values that honor human life. “People who don’t / care about the world’s changing climate / fret powerfully over the country’s changing / complexion” (21). Words written before Ferguson. Words thy have always lurked in the shadows of our ghetto groves. “What forms inside the earth will be / exposed on the surface in time” (25). It could be a naturist moral philosophy. “How quickly we forget the fungal eucharist” (26). It could be the teachings of the Yaqui Don Juan. A great synthesis of useful lore is being stitched together by this bricoleur. “So happy when the hellebores came / back” (29). In the marshes of my island true hellebore grow. I showed these to Ted Enslin, when we botanized the region. Ted’s spirit I also detect in these pages.


You may understand from my pace as I work through these pagesthat demands and rewards posed by A Far-Shining Crystal are often difficult. Patrick James  Dunagan has written, “Widely engaging, Whit Griffin confronts history as if a parlor trick turned serious. His poems offer counsel which surprises and confounds, conjuring disparate items of new and old lore at will” HTML Giant, I’ll offer a close reading of one poem. “Diogenes’Lantern.”


Cursory research reveals that “dust is the No. 1 environmental problem on the moon,” or so Harrison Schmitt reported in 1972 after sneezing into his astronaut’s helmet. Who could expect to find this fact recorded or remembered anywhere except in a poem like this. My source is an old issue of Wired Magazine. It provides a degree of meaning to the opening line of “Diogenes Lantern.” Are there any honest men? Are these poems only  cynical jests? There is birding lore: Chuck Wills’ Widow and to the culver and the pelican, astronomical fact and Chinese moon lore. All prophetically foreboding. The most trenchant shadow of frail and insecure humanity also appears in this poem, phrased as metaphor rather than the generally flat tone of most observations, “Like death licking / my hair.” The tone is foreboding. Calpurnia from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is quoted, “When beggars die there are no comets / seen.” And the poem may resolve, returning to the bird theme with a multidimensional pun on “lark.” “For larks in port, whalers flayed the natives.” Inverse cannibalisms. Another trenchant observation of duplicitous norms of behavior. My reading of “larks,” I’m sure, sees madness where none is intended. I respect the ways in which Griffin hews to social history. The conclusion of “Diogenes’ Lantern” mentions a famous banking family with a serendipitous connection to the lore of early birds, if one cares to imagine a fable about birds and banking or some other connection, “On our way west we meet, the Grandfather of Worms.’ (49). Three generations of the Worms intermarried with the Rothschilds.


Griffin’s project is both brash and erudite. It produces reading pleasure of an unexpected order. His line breaks reinforce the energy needed to sustain attention. There may be no underlying purpose other than to tease.  … The finl word might well be the poet’s own, “There was never talk of wizardry / before Fort Sumner” or as I understand it, the need for the occult is specious on the face of it in itself and yet, “Purity is / temporary, therefore ritual is essential.” So there is a need to engage. I will not parse every line that catches my attention. I do not feel invited to do so. “Words that erect a wall / of arcana. Words we say over food to keep from dying” (57). The stress falls on “wall.” But there is comfort to the language, something like prayers in a language only partly apprehended. That experience of sound verging on a lesson of some value is available to all readers of, A Far-Shining Crystal.


Donald Wellman

December 2014