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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

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