The 21 poems in John A. Griffin’s chapbook Absences: A Sequence appear very orderly.
Each is 20 lines long. Within each poem, the number of syllables per line is roughly the same.
So, even though some have longer lines than others, the appearance of these handsomely printed poems is very similar, like nearly rectangular blocks of type, sort of brick-like, building blocks, if you will.
Yet, that appearance deceives. These are mournful — mourn-filled — poems, fevered with grief. Grief for the death of a father and grief for the death that is coming for each of us. Grief for absences.
Indeed, the first poem in this collection, just published by The Esthetic Apostle and available at amazon.com, is titled “Caoineadh,” the Irish word for keening.
More visually expressive of what’s in the poems are the four illustrations by Dutch collage artist Martine Mooijenkind. Her illustration for the cover is titled “Lost,” while the three that accompany the poems are “Water on the moon,” “Gentle,” and “Angst.”
They are jagged, harsh and deliberately crude.
“What ebbs withdraws”
And, once you get into the poems themselves, you won’t be confused.
In fact, it seems that Griffin, an Irish-born poet who now lives in Saudi Arabia, has employed this 20-line, near-rectangular format as a way of keeping sharp emotions contained, corralled, boxed-in like a casket.
“Caoineadh” begins with the lines “You have suffered through the fluted bones/of the white shells and the horns of hunger,” and spends its first half with that suffering.
In the middle, it appears, the pain is deadened: “Here is a grey, pedestrian morn and a well/that flushes out the past of all that is past.”
But that respite is short-lived:
and what ebbs withdraws what mercy sows
in the caged heart, peace, and joy and love
and the sad remembrance of remembered things.
In this first poem, Griffin sets the tone for the other 20 in the book — life as a place of grief in which such things as mercy, peace, joy and love are fleeting, always conquered by “what ebbs.”
“Icarus Complex,” another early poem in the collection, starts with the words “You have been falling out of life all your life.”
The “you” here may mean the speaker, and the line may be another way of saying “I have been falling out of life all my life.” Several of the poems are spoken to a “you,” and it’s often not clear if there is another person being addressed or if it’s the speaker.
Complicating things, the “you” in some poems at the end of the book is the speaker’s dead father, so could the father be the one addressed here?
The poem’s final three lines deal with fleetingness:
You’ve been falling out of life all your life,
and now only know this euphoria without epiphany,
this featherless, wingless flight without end.
Icarus, of course, is the figure from Greek mythology who, wearing wings of feathers and wax, was able with his father Daedalus to fly. However, the son ignored the father’s warning and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted; he fell to his death.
These three lines might mean the speaker (or the person addressed) has attempted too much and is falling to ruin.
“Falling out of life”
I take them in a more universal way. We are all born “falling out of life.” We spend all our life leaving it. We are all heading for death.
So, perhaps, you and I may find a “euphoria,” but it is “without epiphany.”
But is it “without end?”
Obviously, Icarus was on his way down to crash in his death. His fall had an end. My reading of Griffin’s line is that we “know” this fall, and, as long as we know, i.e., as long as we are alive, this “flight” (which is a fall) is “without end.”
Then, of course, it ends. And we no longer know.
That interpretation is buttressed, it seems to me, by Griffin’s poem “Mad Medusa’s Lament.”
Here, the speaker may be the mythological figure, but, really, isn’t what she’s saying something we all face?
The Autumn finds you alone with your grief.
You will endure it till the final fall of the withered leaves
plays its Death Fugue in the echo-chambers of your heart.
You can hear your funeral faintly passing above.
Whether we pay attention or not, each of us, with every breath we take, hears our “funeral faintly passing.”
Griffin’s Absences is unrelenting. It’s not so much that the poems are dark. More, they’re cold, in the sense of facing the facts of life (and death) unflinchingly.
For instance, “Leaf Storm” begins with a first line that equates birth and death:
A child died the moment another child was born —
Two screams, one for grief and one for labour’s end.
The grief of mourning is an echo of the grief of birthing, and also, I think, the grief of being born and living. The end of the poem seems to reinforce this:
Everywhere the phantom harvest is ended and ruin
stares from the bare ceiba trees in the graveyard.
There is much ruin and rot and decrepitude in these poems.
In “Aurora,” an iceberg dies:
drone through luminescent organs of ice,
gothic walls quake and crack, towers topple
and a white city thaws into the electric ocean.
In “The Subtract,” Griffin writes:
Here is the calculus of memory and forgetting,
loving and begetting — shells and moulted skins
strewn like scraps of time, poppies weighted
with rain, the bees absent, and the pollen amuck
amidst the balms of musk and murder and manky ruin.
Love and begetting lead to strewn trash and the disappearance of bees. “Manky” is a British term for “rotten.”
“This is not the life we wanted,” Griffin writes in “Beyond the Plateau,” and he goes on to add:
Nothing turned out as planned, even the turning out
was dammed with broken shells, and rot, and blue ruin.
In “Portents,” he writes:
There is a rat dead on a black bank,
where polyps of mushrooms bloom
like tiny skulls out of the darkness
and a moth shuts a delphinium’s eye.
Each of Griffin’s poems is a meditation on “blue ruin.” Each is a keening for what has been lost and what will be lost. How to live with such disintegration?
“Climb the air to reach you”
One of the last poems may give a glimpse of hope — not in this life, but beyond. In “Lessness,” the speaker addresses his dead father in a meditation on his own death:
it will soon be time to climb the air to reach you over there:
the light I have you have already lost, and the night you had
will soon enough be mine, so let us go and meet then
between the crescent moon and the already absent sun.
The father has already lost “the light,” and, soon, the speaker will join him in “the night.”
Is there an “over there” where the speaker will “reach” his father? Is this a vain hope, as vain as all the hopes of human life that end in ruin?
Absences is a book of such questions, jagged and harsh.
Patrick T. Reardon