University of Idaho professor (and heralded poet) Michael McGriff possesses top-tier credentials.
His previous collections — which include “Choke” and “Dismantling the Hills” — gained the respect of critics nationwide. His poetry collection “Home Burial” was bestowed with a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice honor. In addition, McGriff (with co-author J.M. Tyree) garnered a Best Books of 2014 nod from NPR for the story collection “Our Secret Life in the Movies.”
His latest collection, “Black Postcards,” Vol. 7 of the ACME Poem Company Surrealist Poetry Series, may secure the author even more national attention because its poems derive from the author’s subconscious and focus on the natural world, relationships, death and mourning, and obsessive love.
One title, the short 5-line, free-verse poem “Facts,” is an elegy in which the speaker, a son (perhaps McGriff), communicates with his father through a painful dream-like sequence: “Scorpions the color of dried blood / gather at the woodpile, the woodpile / tilts towards the creek, the creek has no name, / my father cannot swim, and the creek / has no name my father cannot swim.”
Here, readers infer that a scorpion climbs out of a woodpile near a creek and stings the father, who struggles in the creek, symbolizing a fragile relationship between father and son. The repetition of the same phrasing in the same line provides a vigorous tempo allowing the reader to be placed on the creek bed witnessing the narrator’s subconscious working overdrive as he reconciles his relationship with his father.
In another free-verse poem, “Black Postcards From White River,” the speaker records feelings of abandonment: “Gravel roads like an idea for the map / of a drunk’s broken hand. / The ferns in their gowns of dust / and the glaciers off to the west / telling their usual lies about beauty.”
McGriff postulates that the lovers featured in this creation are in the natural world, as one is slipping away from the other—emotionally and physically. The pain of this relationship continues in the final four lines: “Rat in the ditch of my heart gnawing / of a plastic bag, your crown / of long vowels titled to one side, gleaming, / funereal, certain, and with music.”
The key line in this quatrain is “rat in the ditch of my heart gnawing,” in which the author uses consonance (repetition of consonant sounds; here the “t” in rat and ditch) to record the distress of a heart being broken. Throughout this entire meditation, the author provides scenes of heartbreak and a dirge — the coda to this piece.
The ardent “Inventory” was written, most likely, prior to “Black Postcards From White River” because the speaker provides an aesthetic and passionate experience in which two lovers display unquenchable fervor for each other: “We have driven beyond the night / into the new year / and you have thrown your leg across me / and you are giving me / the torque and tremor / of your animal waist / and I am wearing your pinion hips / like a crown of kerosene.”
Other impactful titles from this collection include “Property” and “Our Water,” an homage to the author’s childhood home in Coos Bay, Ore.
Wayne Catan has written book reviews for The New York Times, The Hemingway Review, Idaho Mountain Express and the Idaho Statesman. He teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.