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Beyond the Plateau: Absences, A Sequence by John A. Griffin

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Poetry

By Emilia Russell

Absences is a poem that doesn’t readily surrender its meaning, but then it is not entirely inscrutable either. There are obvious even certain clues when interrogated reveal an extraordinary and sustained panoply of references, as well as intensely lyrical treatments of those universal themes – loss, death, homesickness, exile, unrequited love, time, oppression, and … yes … absence.

The first thing to note about the poem is its structure – there are 2o titled sections of 20 lines each, plus an epilogue. What is the significance of 20? Is it the natural life-span perhaps of some unstated and lost happiness? The reference-laden titles of the sections themselves should elucidate as they resonate with motifs throughout the poem. Clearly, some great sundering has occurred, and the poet examines this from numerous vantages, 20 in fact, as he looks to literary and cultural precedents for poetic, nuanced guidance.

‘Caoineadh’, which is the Irish for keening or lamenting, and is associated with waking the dead, sets the elegiac mood and tone of the poem – the “past [is being] flushed … of all that is past,” as the poet rises “with the cries from apocalyptic skies”, and then ends with “the sad remembrance of remembered things”. The very next section is titled ‘Relic’, which could either be an allusion to Volney’s ruins [there are clear references to historical relics and ruins], the smelting of brass roofs into bullets and blades, a people fighting and fleeing, and the “illegitimate patrimony” of the victors, or relic could be construed in the religious sense, where the entire countryside is figured as a reliquary housing the venerated bones of the vanquished, and through which the grubs now “worm their way back … to this sunken river bank”. Where exactly is unclear, but evidently the water itself is Stygian or apocalyptic in nature.

Perhaps the shores of the Icarian Sea, where Icarus drowned, are intended since the next section ‘Icarus Complex’ addresses the hubris and tragedy of Icarus’ fated fall, especially when compounded by the tragedy of his never having learned or awoken. Here too are plentiful allusions to Joyce, even Freud: Daedalus, the father of Icarus, and Joyce’s alter-ego in Ulysses is prefigured in the lines ….

You’ve been falling out of life all your life,

and now only know this euphoria without epiphany,

this featherless, wingless flight without end.

Epiphany was a touchstone for Joyce, just as Ovid was a source he returned to again and again in The Portrait, in Exiles, in Stephen Hero, and of course in Ulysses, where Stephen’s surname is Daedalus, and Leopold Bloom gives a lecture on Perseus, the slayer of Medusa. The many faces of absence and exile are painted in the poem, as indeed are the labyrinthine complexities of loss. The reference to Ovid continues in the next section, ‘Aurora’, which presents a stark contrast to Icarus: unlike Icarus, Aurora renews herself through continual self-awakening, and unlike Icarus who was brought to perdition by the sun Aurora is harbinger of the sun. Griffin’s Aurora however comes with a sinister twist – yoked to the Northern Lights, she oversees a kind of Icarian defeat, she is “woven back into [her] element … [and is] condensed and then vaporized and now snowed anew / over the grey fields where our names are buried”.

The reference to Medusa and her lament links us back to the opening section but also to both Ovidian sections above, as well as forward to the section titled ‘Perseus’ Complaint’ … we recall that Perseus slew Medusa [whose look could turn men to stone], decapitated her, and subsequently used her head as a weapon against his enemies … and further again to the Ovidian referenced section ‘Ex Ponto’, a long poem about exile. The reference to Paul Celan’s classic poem ‘Death Fugue’ is clearly intended, as the words are capitalized. Medusa is represented as living out her final days in an asylum, where Dickinson-like she imagines her death and funeral. The poet warns, “nothing remains / but the peripatetic valedictions of [her] homesick heart”. Even Medusa can feel the loss of exile.

The section titled ‘The Subtract’ is a sustained lyrical and explicitly elegiac treatment of those losses that endure and remain as pernicious presences:

There’s a stain so shadowed with itself

It’s not abstruse enough to stay gone forever,

And the bloated, drunken fleas cannot fathom

The unctuous tares of our blood …

Here is the calculus of memory and forgetting,

Loving and begetting – shells and moulted skins

Strewn like the scraps of time …

The next section, ‘Monk’s Elm’, refers to the home of Virginia Woolf and alludes to her ‘voyages out’ into the seas of imagination as well as her death [like Ophelia] by suicide, by drowning. This section despairs of the imagination and finds little solace “in the inky well[s] of [ourselves]”. In ‘Asylum’ that follows we return to Medusa’s hospice, but now we find the speaker searching for that Ariadne golden thread of escape … “I bleed darkness, / but I know there’s a golden thread spun by the sun / that I can belay back to perfumed greenery.” ‘Leaf Storm’, one of the most beautiful sections in the poem, is an homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his treatment of death, solitude, loss, and time itself. The beautiful line, “Until something moves time is eternal,” is a direct quote from Section V of Marquez’ eponymous story. This section has a stream of consciousness feel as the images accumulate to reach their lyrical crescendo.

The poem continues to weave classical myth with cultural and literary references. There is a section dedicated to Julio Cortazar’s story, ‘Axolotl’, itself an uncanny retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Another figures Franz Kafka’s short story, ‘in the Penal Colony’, where the stylus inscribing the crime on the narrator’s flesh (“grief’s calligraphy”) is now the past itself, and what is being written is “the Black Book of the night”. This leads us to Johann Georg Hamann, ‘The Magus of the North’, Immanuel Kant’s intrepid contemporary, whose effusive works of poetic exegesis inscribe the irrational in the book of The Enlightenment. And thus, the poem continues, adding allusion to allusion, resonance to nuance, as it unravels its themes and motifs and like the Graiai sisters shares back and forth the same eye and tooth to see and cut themes differently. The poem ends fittingly with a requiem that elaborates the preceding themes, and unifies them, but also connects with the beautiful and haunting graphics by Martine Mooijenkind. Like Mooijenkind, Griffin has selected his relics and ruins judiciously, has cut them to suit his theme, and pasted them into a new fabric or collage that resonates with new and reinvigorated energy. In this sense, the graphics and lyrics perfectly compliment and mirror of one another to create an ensemble that is quite novel and sublime.

(c) Emilia Russell

About Absences: A Sequence:

Absences addresses the themes of loss of youth, loss of innocence, isolation, separation, exile, death, the absence of familiarity, affection, and above all the loss or absence of love. The sequence meditates on the natural world but finds little comfort there. There are no idyllic, romantic refuges from the self, and pathetic fallacies remain just that: instead of providing a balm to the sick heart, the dales of Arcady merely accentuate its angst. The poems find fitting motifs in poetic echoes and these are channeled into the poems’ movement to harmonize their rhythms and oscillations and to achieve a kind of unsettling but restorative equipoise. The sequence resonates with allusions to classical mythology, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Franz Kafka, Johann Georg Hamann, Paul Celan, and Bruno Schulz, and tries to weave its patchwork aesthetic by drawing on their disparate but unified themes. Ultimately, the sequence is a celebration of life, even if life’s great peroration is death, and even if we all die the same death over and over again.

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