I was wrong about oblivion then,
summer mornings we walked the logging roads
north of Laverne, the gypo trucks leaving miles of gravel dust
eddying around us. You were the Queen of Iron
and I, the servant Barcelona. The slash-pile
we tunneled through was the Whale’s Mouth,
our kingdom. Jake-brakes sounded the death-cries
of approaching armies as they screamed over the ridge
where we held our little breaths and each other,
passing the spell of invisibility between us.
Five years later, you brought your father’s
hunting knife to school and stabbed Danielle Carson
in the hip and I never saw you again.
I could say I left town for both of us, that I drove I-5 South
until I reached the aqueducts of California,
and for the first time felt illuminated before the sight
of water as it rushed beneath the massive turbines
spinning on the beige and dusty hills, powering a distant city
that would set me free. I could say
after your father covered the plastic bladder
of his waterbed with baby oil and wrestled you to it,
that in those days after your pregnancy I made plans
to drive a claw hammer into his skull. But I never left,
and when I moved it was only as far as the county line.
If my life has been a series of inadequacies, at least I know
by these great whirls of dust how beauty
and oblivion never ask permission of anyone.
In the book I read before bed, God lowers himself
through the dark and funnels his blueprints into the ear
of a woman who asked for nothing. Tomorrow night
she’ll lead armies, in a few more she’ll burn at the stake
and silver birds will rise from her mouth. This is the book
of the universe, where iron is the last element
of a star’s collapse and the moon retreats each moment
into oblivion. My blood fills with so much iron I’m pulled
to a place in the hard earth where the wind
grinds over the ridge bearing the wheels of tanker trucks
oiling the access roads, where deer ruin the last of the plums,
where the sloughs shrink back to their deepest channels,
and I can turn away from nothing.
Ash and Silt
Another Oregon November and I’m barreling down
Old Wagon Road again, the night waters of Isthmus Slough
winding through the dark. I gear down the three-in-the-tree Chevy
as Tonya’s leg pushes against me. She says, Think you’ll leave this place
when you’re dead? She’s come to believe we’ll return
as the stray dogs at the boat basin, screech owls and dusty moths,
that we’ll be recycled from our wrong and horrible selves
into the lives of flight, flame, and pack.
If you took this road twenty years ago
you’d have found my father and me at mile-marker four
bucking timber at a washed-out logging site,
the bone-picking privilege the companies grant to scavengers
to cut time with slash-piles. That morning I stood
at the back of his room and asked him to sign my Cub Scout handbook
next to the box Does your father believe in the Bible
and the kingdom of God? He was wet with bathwater,
blind without glasses, and told me he never read anything
that wasn’t real—which explained his stack of magazines:
Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, Car and Driver,
J.C. Whitney’s newsprint catalogue
filled with line drawings of knock-off auto parts.
He said, Find your work gloves and get in the truck.
Tonya wants to talk about reincarnation but I go on
about the gravel quarry, the pallets I stole from the marina,
the menthols we snatched from her mother’s purse.
The stars from east to west fail me tonight,
and whatever she believes she can have. She can shed her husk
and soar above everything with the red-shouldered hawks
until all of Coos Bay reveals itself as a grid of service-roads, a net
stretched over thousands of acres of Douglas fir. From that height
it must be clear our days ahead and behind are one,
that everything we touch clings to its own ghost.
When my father kicked two cords of bucked timber
down the gully for me to stack in the truck
he meant, I’m the hands above, you’re the hands below.
There was no mystery: we collected enough wood
to heat the house for months. When we returned
we found our rooms filled with the same air
where God had died for a pair of work gloves
and the smell of orange peels and cinnamon
rose from the iron kettle atop our Fisher stove
burning the ends of last year’s
shed-cured firewood. My father lathering my little head
with shortening to work out the pine pitch,
how he unthreaded a tick from my thigh
under the cold half-light of our pantry.
On nights like this I close my eyes and feel
the Chevy’s radial tires hug the fog-line,
can tell when I drop below sea level
and the dike rises at my side. The slough swells
as the moon pulls salt into water. I hear the creek running
beside the road, the way it pours
under the logging bridge my grandfather built,
the muck emptying into a sinkhole filled with cow bones
and old tires. I feel the unbearable weight
of the log rafts at low tide and think of the boy
who once lived on this corner, how one night he shimmied from
raft to raft, slipped between the logs and never came back.
Tomorrow I’ll wake in the back of the Chevy,
in Tonya’s arms, in my father’s bedroom,
to another voice begging for the light to return,
to the wail of a Homelite chainsaw, to my thieving hand.
I’ll wake to the story of my life and enter
this same god-dead town again and again
until I vanish inside my own voice, until my body is ash
and I’m taken away in the rising water-table,
drift into the slough, and enter, as silt, whatever’s left
of that missing boy’s mouth.
I’ll stay with my own under that filthy water
that sucks light from all the stars.
The World’s Largest Lumber Port,
the yellow hulk of Cats winding bayfront chip yards,
betting on high school football
at the Elks Lodge, bargemen,
abandoned Army barracks,
Japanese glass floats, cranberry bogs,
mooring lines, salmon roe,
swing shifts, green chain, millwrights
passing each other like black paper cranes
from one impermanence to the next,
phosphorescent bay water, two tons
of oyster shells, seagulls, beach glass
tumbled smooth in the surf, weigh stations,
off-bearing, front loading, cargo nets,
the Indian casino marquee promising
continental breakfast, star-crowned animals
stitched to blue heavens
behind the fog, log booms,
choker setters, gypo outfits, acetylene sparks
falling from the Coast Guard cutter Citrus,
dredging units, gravel quarries, clear cuts,
scotchbroom taking over the dunes,
smokestacks pocked with peep shows
of flame and soot, the year-round
nativity scene and one-armed Santa
in J.C. Penney’s alley window,
my grandmother dying just over the ridge,
mother-of-pearl, sea lion calls
in the dark, low tide at Charleston Harbor,
the sound of calk boots
in gravel parking lots, salmon sheen hosed
onto the street, the arch
of a big rig’s empty trailer, sand
in all the moving parts,
floodlights, tie-downs, ridge beacons,
great blue herons whispering through
the hollow reeds, Howard Cosell Speaking of Sports;
the anecdotes of Paul Harvey, wishes of good day,
Patsy Cline going to pieces, my father’s arm
almost around me as we drive 101,
the cat piss smell of a charred meth lab
between the V.F.W. hall
and pioneer newspaper museum,
the rusted scrapyard and tank-farm.
At the stoplight before the drawbridge
we laugh at the women from the bank
falling out of their heels
over the truck-grooved crosswalk—
the bridge spans forgotten coal bunkers,
buried fingerprints of Chinese laborers,
rope-riders and mule bones.
Back home we’ll huddle around
the oil drum burn barrel,
a few weeks of newspapers
and wood scrap, trapped angels under the wire mesh
my father and machinist neighbor
dying of cancer warm their hands over.
The great heave of the Southern Pacific,
sturgeon like river cogs,
barnacle wreckage, cattle-guards.
The last of the daylight,
a broken trellis falling into the bay.
-from Dismantling The Hills
BIO: Michael McGriff was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon. He has received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation, and a Michener Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Choke (Traprock Books, 2006) and Dismantling the Hills (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), which won the 2007 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He is also the translator of Tomas Tranströmer's The Sorrow Gondola. His work has appeared in Slate, Field, Agni, Northwest Review, and Poetry, among other publications. He is currently at work translating the collected poems of Tomas Tranströmer and editing To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry, Translations, and Prose of David Wevill.
An Interview with Michael McGriff by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: The first time I read “Iron,” the first poem in your book Dismantling The Hills, I was pretty much just blown away. And it’s not hard to say why. The language is beautiful and intense. The narrative is clear. And it’s a poem of importance; a poem that speaks of childhood, of our dreams, of hatred and cruelty, of mythology, of landscape, of human yearning, of the earth’s landscape (local and cosmic), and of God, and of regret. Before we talk about this poem, would you mind telling us a little bit about your aesthetic in general?
Michael McGriff: First off, thanks for what you say about “Iron.” My aesthetic? I don’t have an aesthetic agenda, if that’s what you mean. I love images. I’m addicted to film and photography, for the way a simple image—or a sequence of images—can suggest an entire history or a vast emotional landscape. Images appeal to some mysterious, unconscious place in us, and I feel that poetry, at its best, holds a conversation with that place. But you can’t just heap a bunch of images on top of each other and call that a poem. A poem has to come from a voice, and that voice has to grapple with the world it struggles to make sense of. There are things I believe in, and my images come from those beliefs.
AMK: What is it about poetry that most draws you to poetry?
MM: The first poet I fell in love with was Neruda. I literally couldn’t believe what I was reading. Here was this big-hearted, wildly surreal poet telling me that work and workers were important, that every shitty job I had had was as mysterious and lyrical as anything else. Suddenly everything could be art—logging roads, chip trucks, the endless gray rain in Oregon. Wanda Coleman has this great poem where everything she looks at becomes Neruda. Neruda this, Neruda that, my toothbrush Neruda—however it goes. So I guess inclusion draws me to poetry. You can be a kid from a logging town and you can be a poet—you don’t need permission from anyone, you don’t need an institution or a pedigree. You need a notebook and a library card. I love that about poetry.
AMK: What do you look for in a poem?
MM: Anything that comes from a singular place, a voice. I don’t care if it’s overtly political, wildly surreal, or witty and subversive. As long as it comes from some urgent place, and as long as the reader is given some avenue into the work.
AMK: What do you look for in your own poetry?
MM: I’m not sure if I’m explicitly looking for something in my own writing. If I’m being true to some impulse or some obsession, then I’m doing all I can. I’m stunned when poets sign up for some partisan battle and cry out “I’m a neo-Greek-allusionist poet” or “I’m a meter-as-morality poet” or “I’m a new-new-new-New York School poet” or “I’m an experimental-jazz-hands poet” or “I’m an Al Gore’s-nail-clippings eco poet” or whatever. If a narrative impulse guides a poem, then great. If surreal images flood into it, then why not? If you write “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown,” then all the better. Poetry has to be impulsive, not governed. That’s why all of these concept books and so-called project books are often so flat. I can’t imagine making up a rule that says I have to write 600 sestinas in the voice of Pinocchio’s shin bone. What if you woke up one morning and wanted to write a 3-line poem about cottage cheese or World War III? Do you ignore that voice and keep talking out of your shin bone? Don’t get me wrong—there are some stunning books that follow strict structures and self-imposed thematic rules. Maurice Manning is a poet who knocks it out of the park every time, and his books take on these sorts of structures. But you can tell with a book like Bucolics that he’s using structure and theme as a leaping-off point and not as an arriving point.
AMK: Earlier this year, I read “Iron” to a friend and I’ll never forget when she looked up from listening and said “Man, that’s a sexy poem.” We laughed about that and then went through underlining all the wonderful images (the gypo trucks leaving miles of gravel dust / eddying around us”), moments of imagination (“illuminated before the sight / of water as it rushed beneath the massive turbines / spinning on the beige and dusty hills”), metaphors (the plastic bladder / of his waterbed”), and the words themselves (gypo trucks, slash pile, funnels, blueprints, Whale’s Mouth, etc…).
It’s hard for me to imagine this being an easy poem to write. It’s just got too much going on and all with such clarity. Can you tell us about how “Iron” came to be; where you began, how various elements came into the poem, how long it took to put together, etc, etc…?
MM: This poem comes out of a time when I was exceptionally frustrated. I was hammering on this long, uncooperative poem—I think it was about 10 pages or so—and my dinosaur of a laptop died. My hard drive gave up on life, and it took this really long poem with it. I was feeling all self-important: “My masterpiece is dead!...” and so on. I just sat around feeling bad for myself and watched a bunch of movies. I can see now that this long poem I was working on wasn’t really worth a damn—I was writing about something I didn’t really care about; now I can’t even remember what that poem was about! I watched all of these great documentaries on astrophysics. As soon as you learn that we first determined the elemental composition of space by mere observation, losing a poem to a box full of circuits doesn’t seem so significant. I was also watching every film version of Joan of Arc that I could get my hands on during this time. I was sitting around one night and this memory of a woman I knew from my past came back to me. She had a horrible family—an evil family—and she was a victim of terrible abuse. I started writing about her and came up with a sort of composite character comprising a few women I had known in the past. In the end, the “you” in my poem is really quite imagined, though my feelings for her are 100% real. The celestial imagery in “Iron,” and the image of Joan of Arc, obviously came from the films I was watching. Getting that long poem erased from my laptop was a blessing. I was getting precious about my poetry, and I needed to be reminded that there are pressing things to think and write about. I needed to be reminded that self-importance and apathy are always lurking in the wings. And, like all the poems in Dismantling the Hills, this poem draws the core of its images from the rural Oregon logging town where I grew up. But this is pretty much the process of writing a poem, isn’t it? You get an idea and then all of these seemingly disparate images and emotions start swimming in your head and talking to each other.
AMK: There are some wonderful leaps in this poem. Some are literal, such as when we leap five years from the speaker’s early childhood to high school. But then there are leaps in the tone/meaning of the poem that occur that are a bit more drastic, such as “If my life has been a series of inadequacies” and “In the book I read before bed…”
I’m always terrified that readers won’t be able to follow such leaps unless I make it extremely clear why or how I’ve made them. How is it, do you think, that these leaps are so dramatic and, yet, not only clear but perfectly believable?
MM: I’m glad you’re so convinced! Generally speaking, I don’t like my hand held in a poem. I recently watchedRevolutionary Road. When I left the theater I felt absolutely insulted—the director didn’t trust me enough to let me reach my own conclusions, so he piled up all of these obvious images of suburbia and conformity and bashed me over the head with them. I wasn’t a participant in that film, I was the recipient of a lecture. I don’t want to be told how to feel, I want to feel. If a work of art needs to explode out on some tangent, whether narrative or imagistic, then why not just go there? Larry Levis is the obvious contemporary example of how this works. Levis puts a lot of faith in the reader. He respects the reader enough to let the reader take the same gigantic leaps that he’s taking. There’s nothing worse than a work of art that doesn’t trust its viewer, reader, or listener. I love poets like Popa, Tranströmer, and Lorca for these very reasons. They go where they please, and they do so to create meaning. Nelly Sachs is another poet who puts a lot of faith in the image and in leaping. She’ll go anywhere, and when you follow her you’re bound to get crushed by the meaning and the sense of urgency she creates out of her imagistic leaping and her disjointedness.
AMK: You make use of an unidentified “you” in this poem. This seems a little risky simply because there are those out there who will find this a distraction. But I think it just adds to the mysterious nature of the poem. And I’m not sure it really matters who she is…it’s perfectly clear she’s someone the speaker felt deeply for; someone he grew up with and loved.
Were there drafts of this poem in which you identified this character in the poem more directly? Were you ever concerned that this poem might encounter such criticism?
MM: I never really though about it, actually. Like I was saying, this character, though based on one individual, became a composite character as soon as I started writing “Iron.” Plus, I would never name someone like that, nor would I air a private tragedy for the sake of dramatic effect. All the characters in this book are composites to some degree. Even my own father becomes an imagined character, and I write about him at length and with factual details.
AMK: “Ash and Silt” is a poem about the convergence of our past, present, and future selves, moving back and forth in time from the drive with Tonya, to the memories of the speaker’s father, and, in the final section, to the future.
You do all of this with the use of section breaks, which not only emulates the quick work of the mind but also allows you to avoid narrating these shifts, which would have worked as well but would have slowed the poem down and would have made for a totally different poem that, most likely, has been done before.
How did you come up with this form?
MM: Like you were saying, this piece jumps around in time. I used the section breaks to signal that a change was taking place and hoped that the reader could follow. Originally the poem was one long piece. I liked it that way, but found that it could get pretty confusing. So I threw it into sections, and that seemed to ground the poem, and to give the reader a little breathing room.
AMK: Do you worry much about writing something new or writing in a way that hasn’t been done before?
MM: Not really. I think that if you follow your impulses you’re bound to write something new. There’s only one me. And if I write like me, then I’m writing something unique. That’s not to say that what I’m writing is any good—but I try to stick to my impulses, regardless of what happens.
AMK: Do you find the writing of poetry an emotionally painful or disturbing act? I ask this because of the following couplets which seem to indicate that, no matter what you do, you are drawn back to and haunted by the past; your voice:
Tomorrow I’ll wake in the back of the Chevy,
In Tonya’s arms, in my father’s bedroom,
to another voice begging for the light to return
I’ll wake to the story of my life and enter
this same God-dead town again and again until I vanish
inside my own voice…
MM: Not at all—I love to write. Writing a check to the US Department of Education each month is a painful and disturbing! But to answer you seriously—I find that not writing is painful. When I stop writing or get stuck it feels like I’ll never be able to do it again, that I’m wasting oxygen, and that what I’ve written in the past is a lie. But then I read a poet like Don Domanski, and then I make a few notes, and then the world comes back into focus. Regarding those lines you quote—I do feel like everyone is hard-wired to their past. How can’t we be? Sometimes the past is good, sometimes it’s painful. That’s life.
AMK: “Coos Bay” might be my favorite poem in this book. I just love how it describes your hometown with a list of local images (The World’s Largest Lumber Port, / the yellow hulk of Cats and winding bayfront chip yards) seamlessly interrupted with sudden bits of story (“my grandmother dying over the ridge,” “my father and the machinist neighbor / dying of cancer huddle around / an oil drum burn barrel and smoke cigarettes”). First you draw un in with this constant influx of images, smells, landscapes, and sounds. Then you keep us reading with these small pieces of narrative that remind us why all these beautiful and ugly things are worth reading about.
Do you think it’s important to compose a poem in such a way that it keeps the reader reading? While this may seem like a really obvious question, I’m not sure poets think about this as much as they should: how to make sure the reader not only starts reading our poems but keeps on reading once the luster of those first lines (or of the narrative itself) has worn off.
MM: Yeah, I know what you’re saying, and I think that those problems are especially true for a poem like “CoosBay.” “Coos Bay” is very simple, structurally—it’s a list. The decisions are: In what order do I put the objects? Where do I start? How do I end? and How do I compile things in a way that adds up to meaning while at the same time keeping the reader’s interest? The problem with the list poem is that it always works, so therefore becomes a type of pyrotechnic. Pyrotechnics are great, but they’re also an obvious and transparent strategy. I worked on this poem for 2 years, arranging and rearranging, adding and subtracting. It’s as good as I can get it. My favorite list poem is Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” It’s so deceptively simple. Reading that poem is what inspired me to write “Coos Bay.”
AMK: I notice that, particularly in this poem, you seem very much intrigued by hard work; with the toil associated with it and with the sort of personal and social values that come with it. Is “CoosBay” a sort of eulogy to hard work?
MM: I never really thought about “Coos Bay” as a eulogy, though I can see why you’d ask. Coos Bay—the town—is a place where people work. I grew up in a blue-collar household, so manual labor was just a part of life—it was never an idea. You get up, you go to work, you get two weeks off once a year. This may sound naïve, but I never realized I was from the working class until I attended a four-year college. In college I met people who had never had jobs and who would probably never get jobs. The singular memory I have of my first day of college is thinking to myself, “These fuckers drive nicer cars than my parents drive!” But hey, what can you do? I’m not complaining. Work and the images of work are who I am. Work has never been a literary theme park for me—It’s what I know and have known, so it inevitably takes center stage in my writing. If I belonged to a different class I’d probably write about my vacation home and my decadent Ouiji board parties.
AMK: What are you working on now?
MM: I’m at work on three different things. I’m hammering on some new poems that I hope to shape into a book at some point. I’m continuing to translate the poems of Tomas Tranströmer, which has been a remarkably transformative experience. And I just finished editing a book of David Wevill’s essential work titled To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry, Translations, and Prose of David Wevill. I’m a real believer in Wevill’s work. He’s one of these poetry giants who has somehow managed to fly under the radar here in the US. Getting Wevill’s work into the hands of others is one of my missions in life. I won’t rest until it happens.
AMK: Thank you.
MM: No problemo.