Toxicon and Arachne
(Nightboat Books, 2020)
Seeing the Body: Poems
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2020)
Spring this year came draped in mourning, and no doubt the poets have noticed. The ravages of COVID-19 demand their elegist, a latter-day Whitman mourning his lilacs, or Mark Doty his lover. And now in a coincidence that suggests a cosmic hand, two potent new collections confront grief and loss. Each concerns a personal tragedy, yet each speaks to misery more widespread, pandemic you could say. Together, Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne and Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body go a long way towards providing this dark moment its definitive accompaniment. More astonishing still, the poets bring off triumphs distinctly different. You’d never mistake McSweeney’s heartbroken stammer for Griffiths’s blue wail, yet either outcry will set your back-hairs prickling. Either could wind up a prizewinner—though good luck choosing between them—and in any case the texts will go on providing their unique, adult consolations for whatever sorrows lie in wait.
Toxicon and Arachne was my first; I’d been following McSweeney since her 2002 debut, The Red Bird (a prize-winner, in fact). Her output has included fiction and drama, if of a rare kind, as everything she does tussles with convention. Another author, for instance, might not have published these two texts together. Another would’ve fretted over the differences between them, the most obvious being that the opener, Toxicon, runs more than twice the length of Arachne.
About midway, Toxicon makes room for “Toxic Sonnets:” a “crown” of 14, dedicated to John Keats. The doomed young Romantic wouldn’t know what to make of these, though each runs 14 lines and some bear traces of a rhyme scheme. Another offense to Calliope (Google: muse of poetry) would be the theme, nothing like Love or Spring, but rather the poet’s fatal “tubercle.” Yet the sequence whips sickbed language into a tour de force, boldly facing the moment when “life converts its currency.” Now and again, too, McSweeney speaks of her method:
where radioactive gunsights bleed their toxins
Those weapons poke out everywhere, in Toxicon, and the ground often reeks of poison. The stench includes the festering of slaughtered innocents, in poems such as “Sestina Ayotzinapa” (Google: massacred Mexican schoolchildren), a densely textured arpillera of rage and sympathy. There’s more than one “mass grave” and plenty of scuzz: “like the condom/ passed through the drug mule.” Such material yanks the writing out of the library and bloodies its dapple of literary references. The effect overall is dazzling, Fred and Ginger on a slag-heap, whirling through links both sonic and associative:
rip it up,
a spinning wheel, a hit song, flog it, a
In Arachne, however, the moves are decidedly easier to follow. Reading Toxicon, I needed outside sources to confirm the work had to do with her third pregnancy, its many tests and worries. In Arachne, the poet spells out the core tragedy: “I have two living daughters and a third dead daughter.” That last was Arachne, and in fall of 2017 she lived an “odd allocation of thirteen days,” rendering her mother “the matron-king of hell / in yoga pants and a disused bra for a laurel.” Her infernal year thereafter occupies the rest of the book, shambling but in chronological order. It even relies on a clear recurring image. In Rust Belt Indiana (McSweeney teaches at Notre Dame), pathetic fallacy takes polluted form:
thick as beer and with a sudsy crown
there polyethylene bags drape the banks…
This garbage dump too sees some sophisticated moves. There’s a refrain from Edmund Spenser (see: PoetryFoundation.org), a vicious bit of cheer amid the gloom. There’s this breathtaking spectacle:
like a helicoptera
performing its opera
all above Indiana
bearing the babies away
Yet note how the verbal fireworks drop into anguish. McSweeney remains clever, far cleverer than I, but by the end of this masterful double-text⎯ in which even the unequal parts seem appropriate to staggering grief⎯ any sensitive reader should feel as if they’ve shared in the poet’s singular struggle: that of finding some form, some phrase, that might convey what’s inconceivable.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is also seeking fresh forms, and also rather a Renaissance woman. Seeing the Body is her fifth collection, and besides that she’s done video (a series on poets, in particular) and fine-art photography. The latter appears in this book, all black-and-white, and the opening image expresses the hybrid the artist seeks, a linked pair of self-portraits, one holding a typewriter and the other a camera. Photos also take up the entire central section, “daughter: lyric: landscape,” a dozen pages of shots that obscure Griffiths’s face and heighten figurative contrasts: simple white dress, bent black limbs, flowing Afro. A couple show her discreetly nude, as well, but all convey the effort, the wrangle, of finding a place in the landscape.
A landscape new to the woman, in its loneliness and sorrow. The dissociation first occurs in the first poem, its frank opening, “She died, & I⎯.” Even before that comes the dedication to Griffiths’s mother, including her D.O.D. in 2014, still shy of 60. Thereafter the first section, “mother: mirror: god,” concentrates on the parent and her passing, then comes the photo-chapter, and the book closes with “good death,” a set of poems as long as the first, mulling over our narrator’s arduous re-entry into adult life as an African-American.
The years-long journey turns up no easy remedies. Griffiths insists from the first on her mother’s undying power, “her voice like a horn I never want/ to pull out of my heart,” and asserts that her writing itself could offer “the next life… here & here.” Yet the same poem takes her to the limits of word-work: “How does the elegy believe me?” Much later—for Griffiths, like McSweeney, offers a lot to chew on—the “good death” section opens in a bad mood: “Ordinary days deliver joy easily/ again & I can’t take it.” That piece concludes in a child’s notion of infinity, spot-on in its teetering between fascination and terror, faced with “the loud/ wet rim of the universe.” So too, “Aubade to Langston” brews a marvelous tension between the comforts of Griffiths’s poetic forefather, “the music of brooms in Mexico,” and her own agonies: “all I want is to burn/ my masks.”
“Good,” in the closing section’s title, recurs in many titles of its poems, an ingenious bonding agent. Naturally Griffith tinges the word with irony, in every case, and eventually she puts her own spin on it. The pain of losing Mama starts to merge with the pain of being Black. “Good Questions” concludes:
In my dream I heard her unlock the last
gate. I was
looking out from her unlit eyes, gasping. Black
dogs of welcome. The call of the empty master
Was it your blood or hers?
The dark is possessive. The dark has always
Enlarging her field of discourse, she sets a larger frame around her own hard blows. The powerful “Whipping Tree” concludes, “I am aware that we are living in the middle/ ring of terrorism,” and “Myth” considers an infamous 2014 police murder: “Sleepless,/ I could not stop seeing/ my mother cradling Mike Brown/ in her arms.” Better yet, the rhetoric may be accessible, with a colloquial snap, but the voice remains active (“cradling”) and the analogies dynamic:
of a nightmare with stars, I stitch
& pull my mother’s name
through white stones that do not burn
in the riverbed of blood.
So Seeing the Body never bogs down, and Griffiths likewise keeps things succinct. Most bouts of mourning wrap up in about a page, and when they do go longer, they engage greater material. The outstanding case in point would be the stately centerpiece of the final section, “My Rapes.” Taking a long, sharp-eyed view, this poem neither soft-pedals its bad news, like “walking alone on the street/ in ripped clothes,” nor wallows in it. The narrator encounters violence not just as a victim but also as a counselor, thus allowing for concerns about “the wrong way to go” (similarly, other poems acknowledge that Griffiths could be a handful for her father and husband). On top of that, “My Rapes” makes canny reference to “fairy tales” and literature, working towards a sistership with the suicidal Woolf and Plath.
Small wonder that this full load of a poem provides a light-fingered summary, quite marvelous, of what her mother did for the writer: “She showed me how to follow my heart into hard places.” Rather, what’s truly the wonder is the great company both these artists make, in our current hard place.