I was in the mood today to read something English (I lived in England for a little while in college and sometimes miss it) and had a copy of ICARUS ON EARTH, a second book by young English poet Jane Griffiths. She was born in 1970 and did England’s version of fancy school in literature (she didn’t do anything like an MFA, it seems, at least from my cursory view) who published her second book with Bloodaxe (I love Bloodaxe books—they publish all kinds of things from translations of major poets like Thomas Transtromer to critical looks at contemporary masters like Paul Muldoon to huge multi-volume collecteds by major English and European writers who are not well known here to books by very young English poets). So I thought I might take a look at some of Griffiths’ work (though understand I’m still in the middle of the book, so some of my thinking my be a bit half-baked).
While England has its share of fragmentary poets (many published by Salt Publishing, and I’m sure by other presses I don’t know about), my tastes, in general, tend toward intensity and narrative. Griffiths’ poems are fairly dense narrative poems that loop around and fold in on themselves. One can certainly hear a love of Frost and maybe Plath. Here’s a poem I like very much, which is part of a series near the beginning of the book called “Origami,” based on the painting that graces the cover of Griffiths’ first book:
FOX AND ROOSTER
Go back, a long way, snout
to beak, barking up a tree
or pacing a short space
of riverbank. Looking to lay
to rest their differences. Led
astray by their own shadows.
As once the fox, thinking to put
a stop to this vaunting parodist
made off with the rooster across
his back—but when the cock crew
and the woman ran out with a torch
what he saw in silhouette against
the barn wall was the rooster
bearing a fox like a cowl. He knew
then there’d be no clean end to it.
At the root of this is an interest in parable and cliché or figures of speech. Note how many of the sentences rely on figures of speech, recast them or find them a new home in a new mythic landscape: “barking up a tree,” “lay/ to rest their differences.” The two animals themselves come right out of fables (this is a preoccupation throughout the collection, which is titled for a sequence that recasts the Icarus myth in contemporary England).
The poem has a strange way of unfolding: it begins with a command (“Go back” into an archetypal vision of history) then proceeds through a list (Griffiths has a penchant for lists, of metaphors, adjectives, etc.) of archetypal situations for these two animals. Then, cued by yet another cliché (“Led/ astray by their own shadows” from “afraid of his own shadow”), the poem tells a little parable about the fox kidnapping (presumably to kill) the rooster to end the rivalry.
What happens next seems ambiguous to me, but interestingly so. It seems that, in the act of making off with the rooster, the rooster crows, waking the woman, who runs out to see what would make the rooster crow in the middle of the night. In the light of the woman’s torch, the shadow the fox (with the rooster on his back) casts appears reversed, with the rooster “bearing a fox like a cowl.” To me, this transfers the action of the poem to the imagination, where fear and guilt take hold. We have to assume, as one must in all fables, that these animals stand in for people—that their sins figure ours. So the poem concludes with a kind of veiled moral: “there’s be no clean end to it.” Meaning that what we do does not end after it’s been done but lives in shadows and fears, in our own imaginings and reimaginings of what’s happened, which are always colored by our fears and needs.
This poem takes a much-trodden yet refreshing path to this moral. I’m glad to know that this sort of work is actively being explored by young poets, who have in their arsenal all the interiority and intensity that has come to characterize contemporary poetry. There’s much more of this in Griffiths’ book. For a good read, I recommend it highly.