April 23, 2021KR Reviews

Our Final Words: A Review of Eternal Sentences by Michael McGriff

Fayetteville, AK. University of Arkansas Press. 2021. 80 pages. $17.95.

Michael McGriff’s latest collection of poetry, Eternal Sentences, summons a range of notable poets to the reader’s mind—Frank Stanford, Mark Strand, Allison Benis White, just to name a few. But the most salient, poignant, and tangible influence is Robert Bly: not only Bly’s own poems but his critical work as well, specifically his idea of “leaping poetry.” The concept is best explained through Bly’s analogy: if poets fly on dragons from one world to another, they leave behind them a tail of dragon smoke. As Bly states in his 1972 book, Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations: “the dragon smoke means a leap has taken place in a poem . . . from the conscious, to the unconscious, then back again.” If there were ever a paradigmatic example of the leap, of dragon smoke, it exists in McGriff’s unique blend of time and language, of existence and the way we describe it, of eternity and what happens after eternity has ended.

Consider the first two lines of the book, in its titular poem: “A motion beneath the pond scum. / I know how the moon got its black eye.” Fittingly, a book full of leaps begins with motion. But it is hidden—perhaps even forbidden—from sight. Then, we jump to the speaker in a mode of confession reminiscent of Frank Stanford, suddenly and without warning.This is no simple observation, but rather, an invitation, an investigation into the secrets in the speaker’s memory. These two opening lines (both sentences) are separate yet entirely related. One can sense the smoke between them. In this way, Eternal Sentences sets an expectation from the very start, one that is fulfilled on every page of McGriff’s book.

Eternal Sentences is the poetry of deep image and profound insight, deftly balancing the weight of the natural world with the destruction of the man-made one. Poems in forests and riverbeds are laced with gasoline, cigarettes, political speeches . . . things that burn. McGriff’s speaker occasionally leaves but never fully abandons us. The book’s speakers leap from witness to actor, memory to imagination, all while keeping focus on the matter at hand. Simply put, no matter where McGriff takes us, we always return.

One potential drawback of this style is the lack of backbone, an absence of things holding together. McGriff assuages these concerns in several ways. Sometimes, it is through a title, such as in the poem “1987.” Like many of the poems in this collection, it is short, only nine lines. Here are the final three:

We burn trash in the yard.
My grandmother drinks whiskey once a year.
She considers the owls the broken teeth of the dead.

These lines, all end-stopped, all complete sentences, seem only vaguely related. Yet within the context of something finite, a year in the life of the speaker, relation is no longer the point. The title connotes an atmosphere, whatever we as readers remember or have heard about the late twentieth century, as well as what McGriff displays. Each line contains the integrity of the individual image and yet also a conversation with the poem at large, grounded by the title. In other words, McGriff is more interested in showing than telling, intertwining the nuances of the social, the political, and the personal. The stakes here are very real, growing more and more imminent as we move down the page.

A consistent voice in a poetry collection can be admirable, but it can also be mistaken as monotonous or formulaic. However, when a consistent voice (such as the one McGriff manifests) combines with the leap, it creates poetry that is so fresh, one must resist the urge to smell the pages. Consider the opening lines of “Inventing the Cyclops”:

We drove to town and idled in parking lots.
I took several face punches at the 7-Eleven.
We got on the CB to chase down what was next.

These seem, on their surface, like easy lines: all set up. Even the sentence structure is the same—subject, verb, object. Yet they possess an indelible rhythm, something that keeps the reader wanting more, not merely of the story but also of the speaker, the voice. There is a vigor to his tone, as if each line is meant to punch us with its forceful veracity. That propensity is motivated by the leap, how casually and unapologetically McGriff moves within a scene. What’s most impressive is how these poems are able to create motion without the need for artificial poetic tropes—enjambment, stanza breaks, commas. Nearly every line in the whole work is end-stopped. Each poem is a single strophe. No other form of punctuation exists other than periods. Yet, almost paradoxically, these poems are chaotic. The range of imagery and the depth of each image produces a surreality, an atmosphere that blends the light of stars in the winter sky with the blare of highway traffic. It happens on its own accord, as if the poems were discovered rather than manufactured.

It’s fitting, then, how much disdain McGriff’s speaker portends for, as Wordsworth put it, “what man has made of man.” It is not uncommon for poetry to critique capitalism, but for McGriff, these poems strive to exist beyond their contemporary situation. McGriff’s imagery is so internalized by his speaker, so self-contained, that any appeal to a broader focus is purely conjecture, something for us, as readers, to communicate with each other, and pass down to those that follow. After all, as the title Eternal Sentences suggests, even language outlasts those who speak it. For a work predominantly interested in the confines of cities and the decimation of what lies beyond them, the construct of time will surely be another domino to fall. McGriff directly addresses this point in the final poem of the collection, “Decreation.” McGriff’s speaker observes the natural elements around him:

The sun moves east.
A mare reunites with her shadow.
I’ve yet to describe this life as a crate of oily rags.

The last line shows another leap—though in this case, it also says something much larger. It harkens back to previous lines about the oil-soaked world. It is another declaration, the last of McGriff’s work. In fact, it is the last time the speaker is directly invoked. As McGriff reminds us, there is so much more to observe, to reconcile, to confess. Or, as McGriff ends this poem, and the book as a whole: “There’s no need yet to summon our final words.”