Eternal Sentences by Michael McGriff
University of Arkansas Press, 2021
80 pages, $17.95
Review by Merie Kirby
In her book, How to Read Poetry, Molly Peacock asserts that the lines of a poem act as a skeleton for the poem, while the sentences “open up the thoughts of the poem” and act as a circulatory system for meaning within a poem. In Eternal Sentences, winner of the 2021 Miller Williams Poetry Prize, Michael McGriff gives us poems where each line is itself a complete sentence, almost always a sentence that fits on a single line. Don’t worry, though, this book is not dry bones! In McGriff’s poems the space between the lines vibrates with imagistic leaps of thought. These lines and sentences work more subtly and irregularly than Peacock’s image would suggest; the heart of these poems is pumping, but with a bit of arrhythmia. While enjambment creates the potential to twist and surprise us as a sentence wraps to the next line, these line-long sentences open an even greater space for the unexpected. For example, these three lines from “1987”:
We burn trash in the yard.
My grandmother drinks whiskey once a year.
She considers the owls the broken teeth of the dead.
At first, reading a poem without any enjambed lines felt oddly formal. It is like spending time with a laconic friend who does not say much, but often what he says is memorable, frequently beautiful, even when grim or mysterious. McGriff’s poems occupy a territory we might map between aphorism and haiku. Aphorism because the lines often feel like one of those sayings that expresses a general truth: “Light is another word for water looking to find its form.” in“Calm Seas.” Haiku because, although the poems are almost all longer than a haiku, so many of the lines in the book capture brief moments with resonant images. These images expand in the reader’s imagination like rings in a pond after a stone is tossed in, such as “A fistful of gravel as a last defense.” in “Tonight I Am.”
The terse structure of these poems creates the feeling of a solitary speaker throughout the book. This speaker is one whose habits of thought feel consistent and whose language is dependably exact, each image precisely and succinctly communicated. These poems tell stories of a life lived in a rural, working-class environment of factory lines, break rooms, dried up creeks, gravel roads, woods that face development, pipeline surveyors, County paperwork, and, in poems like “Side Work,” the effects of outsiders overwriting the landmarks locals know: “The new signs call it Wolf Creek. / We call it the Devil’s Thumb.” We might not know exactly where these poems take place, and yet, we might recognize it.
People in Eternal Sentences work industrial jobs, have friends in jail for stealing groceries or diapers, are too poor for fences, wait to take out their food stamps until no one can see them do it, or are too proud to accept food stamps. When the speaker tells us in “Solstice” that “There was no turnstile I couldn’t squeeze through without paying,” we are also seeing the child who struggled to spell, who cut the Levi’s tag from another child’s jacket for his mother to sew onto his, as well as the adult who buys lottery tickets. A man in line calls the lottery the “idiot tax,” but the speaker sees it as tickets into the past, into memories of his family of four talking about what they would buy for each other with that money.
In “Upriver Memory and Pinochle” the speaker remembers adults drinking, smoking, and playing cards. He remembers what it sounded like to listen to their stories, like hearing a grandmother’s memory of burning clothes in a field. The adults have “brittle stars in their voices” and their bets as they play cards are compared to “splintered chicken bone.” In the last two lines we are told “Back then the wind on the river was a feather. / A feather dried fast to a butcher’s sleeve.” In one line, we might think of the wind as an impermanent, soft thing, but the next line says, no, this wind stuck as if held by dried blood, an image that melds the softness of a feather and the violence of the butcher’s profession.
The geography of the poems includes natural sites such as lakes, woods, and the ocean – places where we might expect there to be the kind of natural beauty that signals hope or sparks epiphanies in those looking for guidance. While McGriff’s speaker does find beauty, more often the natural landscape is simply there, as much at the mercy of the world as the speaker is. In “Certain Images and Not Others,” the speaker tells us, “I listen to the trees breathe. / I ask the landscape for a sign. / Nothing folds into nothing.”
These poems contain ghosts: mysterious lights in neighbor’s houses, handprints appearing on freezer doors at grocery stores, dead crows that speak, dead cousins, dying friends, and childhood memories all haunt McGriff’s poems. There are others present here, too. The poets Bei Dao, Richard Brautigan, and Antonio Porchia are mentioned by name, but it also feels like the ghost of Philip Levine, as well as the living poets Gary Snyder and Mark Nowak, could comfortably visit these poems as well.
While the poems in Eternal Sentences all tell stories, most tell their stories obliquely, through the language of images, whether familiar: “As dimensionless as a shadow streaked across the lake,” in “First Meditation in the New Year,” or startling: “The flowers begin to open like drowned kings,” in “Five Translations of Morning Light,” or surreal: “I hear the pattern for a burial dress move through the sky,” in “Waiting for the Heat to Break into Rain.” But in poem after poem and image after image, McGriff asks the reader to think about the nature of a sentence – as a unit of language, as a measure of time, as something with a subject and predicate, as something we serve out in punishment – and to contemplate which of our own sentences might be eternal ones.
Merie Kirby teaches at the University of North Dakota. She is the author of two chapbooks, The Dog Runs On and The Thumbelina Poems. Her poems have been published in Mom Egg Review, Whale Road Review, SWWIM, FERAL, Strange Horizons, and other journals. You can find her online at www.meriekirby.com.