…you can’t escape history – whatever you do, history informs and shapes you and your concept. Maybe to some degree you can push something somewhere, because all of our brains are unique structures of nature you can’t even play a lick like somebody else did, even if you’re expert at copying somebody what you’re doing is different by the nature of your brain chemistry. So all that’s to say that you can’t escape history because it presses down and weighs on you, the whole history of the universe, and it is also – I don’t want to say it’s moving forward because it’s not going anywhere, it just IS – but it is now.
– Matthew Shipp
Widely engaging, Whit Griffin confronts history as if a parlor trick turned serious. His poems offer counsel which surprises and confounds, conjuring disparate items of new and old lore at will. Griffin mixes together a celestial grab bag of cross cultural myth and magic presenting a head spinning engagement with what’s more or less generally recognizable as occulted literature. The structural supports he relies upon in terms of content are at once both factual and imagined. This poetry both is and is not a guide to esoteric knowledge. In Matthew Shipp’s words, “it’s not going anywhere, it just IS – but it is now.” Griffin reaches out to grab anything and everything speaking to the moment of the poem. He relentlessly spins the wheel of reference, plucking off correspondences as needed in an inspired bit of poetic magicking.
Collaging together lines heavy with symbolic imagery, Griffin tests intuition against imagination. Under Griffin’s care the affair of writing poems turns into an alchemical sleight of hand. The poems are listening to themselves go, line-by-line propelling a state of constant revelation yet refusing to reveal anything. Every set of lines are rungs of a ladder which lead only to further rungs. There’s plenty here for readers, along with the poet, to disappear into again and again. A revisiting ritual gets enacted on every page. Peel back one layer and you find yourself peeling it off again a few pages later.
These poems arrive full of many talismans. “Stone” is one of many words which, appearing throughout in individual lines and titles of poems, comes to take on properties similar to the sigil. For instance, there’s a poem, “Stone Called Jet” opening “As Blake is to yellow…” and in the poem “Bigger than the Material” mid-line we find: “A stone is a swifter.” While in a poem entitled “The River of Milk, the Snake Canoe” we get the following informative and detailed info:
out of stone. The force that formed the
stone can also dissolve it. Bacchus turned
the amethyst red. No god, but the translator,
turned Andromeda into a dromedary.
Tamberlane’s tent turned from white to red.
Red stones do not appeal to idealists. Roman
widows wore white. Rosicrucians believe iron
is the product of dark powers. The sly fox in
sympathy with the wily god. The lame god
is the provider of all good things.
The poem rolls on as one reference folds into the next, in the process unfolding one meaning in order to form another. Each line sparking off the one previous, springing a new set of thoughts reaching yet further afield as the poem runs down the page. Later this same poem tells us “There are seven amulets known / to all seafarers.” Continuing on to mention many specific stones: jade, coral, sapphire, turquoise, malachite, crystal, and the relations of stone-like objects: “Every tree trunk becomes a gnomon. Lost a gnomon, / gained a swearing hole.” The mark left by way of a protruding absence. There’s then a turn towards listing incredible what-if occasions, such as “To stroll with William Blake himself, and hear him speak / of the icelike Yuccas.” Before ending, “When he died his skull became the sky.” Matter of fact truth laid bare, plain as day.
Griffin begins a poem with a disturbance of normality. The unexpected juxtaposition of everyday objects, phrases, and/or scene-sets with an opposing set of oddities, bits of the weird which begin what soon becomes a persistent tweaking of comfortable familiars. Take the opening lines of “Shadow of the Sepulcher”:
of exile you return with a club and
a magic pot. The red-haired dwarf
rides a polar bear named Friend.
The first line is suburban, quite generic enough. You’re in your room. You stick your head out the window. Above is the gutter beneath the sky. Okay, that’s straight forward enough. Of course, we also must recall it is “his skull became the sky” from the previous poem. Then suddenly “a year / of exile” is introduced along with “a club”, “a magic pot”, and “the red-haired dwarf” on a “polar bear named Friend”. What is this? A poem about a round of Dungeons & Dragons played on acid? The next lines don’t help to orient any part of what’s come before:
to steer a balloon. How to find gold
in Australia. Death is the balloon that
takes the soul to heaven.
Here, however, there’s a bit more narrative cohesion from line to line. And it’s a safe bet that “the red-haired dwarf” is bound to have stake in any Australian gold. Every poem of Griffin’s is an encapsulation of unusual adventure. This is transporting kind of stuff, incantatory and deliriously intent on transforming readers. Let the ground shift beneath your feet a bit, look up and see that sky changed just a hair different since last you looked. Griffin isn’t giving out any answers, but he is pushing ahead a little further against the dark.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. Things are expected or appearing in American Book Review, Bookslut, Dusie, Forklift, Jacket2, Moria, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, and The Volta. His books include GUSTONBOOK and Das Gedichtete.