“These poems breathe an uneasy luminescence into the language of poetry.”
Michael McGriff’s latest collection, Early Hour, is a series of first-person lyrics responding in part to German artist Karl Hofer’s Expressionist painting, “Frühe Stunde,” a stunning depiction of a man and woman in bed, the woman sleeping, the man regarding her nude body bathed in early light, a reclining dog between them.
The painting is moody, angular, and stark—the private psychology of shape and form for which Hofer remains famous.
A secondary subset of McGriff’s poems is inspired by Tomas Tranströmer’s piece, “Black Postcard.” McGriff is a distinguished translator of Tranströmer, and he skillfully incorporates the “Black Postcard” themes of darkness and death into Early Hour.
The third thematic in this complex collection is a lyric weave of the northwestern rural landscape where McGriff lives and writes—a country of horses and rivers, barns and fishermen, solitary mines and diesel-fueled highways on their way to who knows where.
Where there is love in these poems, there is beauty. Where there is beauty, there is sometimes violence or violence implied.
In the title poem, “Early Hour,” McGriff, addressing the beloved, introduces his triple thematic early on: “The edge of the floodplain/is a red crescent/and you shimmer/like an ax-head lost in the creek./” Here, of course, the floodplain of the landscape conjoins with the light-drenched figure of the woman which is then metaphorically linked to the gleaming (and potentially deadly) ax-head submerged in the creek.
In “Inventory,” the poet has driven “beyond the sheet ice/with its death-tongue crawling up/from the jeweled throat/of the river./,” beauty, death, and love continuing their inextricable dance through McGriff’s lyrics.
By definition, the expressionist experiment presupposes metaphoric openness on the part of the viewer (in the case of visual art) and the reader (in the case of literature). Sometimes in these poems, expressionist connectivity can stretch a little thin. McGriff, however, has a genius for bringing us back. With his singular gift for concrete narrative, he rarely gives way to solipsism.
Notwithstanding the somewhat abstract themes in Early Hours—love and violence, death and desire, landscape and light—McGriff does not pontificate. His lyrics are filled with specifics.
“Under the blood-drunk moon,/” he writes in “Your Name Is a Country,” “under Corvus/and his cup of thirst,/the clock strikes the same hour/every hour/.” And that hour is an early one, filled with light and angular shadows.
These poems are first and last about love. In the poem, “Letter Sewn into the Hem of a Dress Made of Smoke,” the poet writes, “When I say you have the beauty/of a dirt road/I mean you have thin shoulders/that twist in me/like the fault lines/in a minor planet’s moon./”
And these poems are also about death: “Soon, I will be the barn-dark space/between the trees./” (“Skipping a Funeral”).
McGriff conflates love and death in a world of coal smoke and barrel fires, immigrants and baling wire, distant hills and “. . . certain corpses/whose eyes never close . . .” (“Black Postcard”).
McGriff continues to reintroduce the image of Hofer’s “Frühe Stunde” into the poems: the light-drenched woman sleeping beside the angular, gazing man, awake and leaning on one elbow above her.
In another of the “Black Postcard” poems, McGriff writes: “Before you undressed,/a thread lowered itself/from the cuff of your sleeve/.” With the introduction of the image of the naked lover, we are transported back to Hofer’s scene, if indeed we ever really left it.
The poems in Early Hour are erotic but rarely tender. They are undercut throughout with a masculine strain of tough rural realism and an insistent current of resigned foreboding.
“I’ve translated your name into the languages/of salt— . . .” writes McGriff in “Overlook, Cape Arago.” In Early Hour’s world, love is fueled by whiskey, blood, and salt, by darkness and long winds out of nowhere.
And there is always the presence of finality: “I scrape at a truck’s corroded battery terminals/with a screwdriver, and a small pile of bones/makes a nest in my shadow./” (“Near Dingle Creek”).
Not even shadows are safe in the uncanny winter of these poems.
In the final poem of the collection (“I Am an Ox in the Year of the Horse”) McGriff writes, “. . . we are two wet shades of black/swimming into the first evening of the universe./”
These poems breathe an uneasy luminescence into the language of poetry. To experience that fully, they must be read and reread.