“Something’s filling you with bodiless light”: E.K. Mortenson on Michael McGriff’s Dismantling the Hills


Dismantling the Hills, Michael McGriff, University of Pittsburgh Press

McGriff’s prize-winning volume, Dismantling the Hills, is the type of collection that makes you feel badly about yourself as a poet. It is so deceptively simple that one easily says, “Sure, I could have written something like that. I mean, sure, I live somewhere I could have described. Sure, I know people who work in that place, some of whom even lost their jobs, too. Sure, I can write like McGriff: there’s no real clever work going on here.” One could say that, but of course, one would be heartbreakingly wrong.
The problem is, Dismantling the Hills is actually a deceptively complex volume. It is a collection of poems of place, set almost entirely in a small factory town in Oregon on the Pacific coast. McGriff delivers the sights, sounds, and smells of this coastal area replete with teeming life and the oftentimes dismal weather. But there is majestic beauty in these descriptions, and it is clear that McGriff honors this place as a place—not as mere setting, but as a distinct element of his verse. Take this, from “Ash and Silt”:
On nights like this I close my eyes and feel
the Chevy’s radial tires hug the fog-line

when I drop below sea level
and the dike rises at my side. The slough swells

as the moon pulls salt into water. I hear the creek running
beside the road, the way it pours

under the logging bridge my grandfather built,
the muck emptying into a sinkhole filled with cow bones

and old tires. I feel the weight of log rafts at low tide
and think of the boy who lived on this corner,

how one night he shimmied raft to raft,
slipped between the logs and never came back.

This poem traverses so much ground in its sweep: it begins in the speaker’s present, then casts itself back twenty years earlier with the speaker and his father traveling along the same road. It returns to the section above, replete with the deepest sense imagery I have read in some time, which, itself, returns to the past with the brief history of “the boy who lived on this corner” being lost beneath the log rafts of the bay. That brief story functions to return us to the initial question the speaker’s girlfriend asks: “Think you’ll leave this place // when you’re dead?” Of course, McGriff’s whole volume is a resounding “NO” to this question. As the speaker here reveals in the middle of the piece, “it must be clear our days ahead and behind are one, / that everything we touch clings to its own ghost.” The poem closes with the speaker’s realization that he will join that neighbor boy: “I’ll stay with my own under that filthy water / that sucks the light from all the stars.”
As early on in the volume as “Ash and Silt” appears, it serves as a theme for all of McGriff’s poems in this volume. He presents us with people inextricably tied to this part of the country, unable to leave their wasted homes, unable to make a go of it in this place. In “Buying and Selling” McGriff introduces us to an unconventional family unit:
This father and daughter
sell wood by the cord
in an empty lot
by the nickel plant.
They sell rugs
that hang like cured skins.
Wolves, dream catchers,
rebel flags. They sell
bumper stickers
and used fishing poles.

We meet this pair, living on the margins of a marginal town, selling refuse barely more wretched than they. As this short-lined poem progresses, however, it comes to a powerful conclusion that strikes me as hard as a poem in similar form: William Carlos Williams’ “The Widow’s Lament In Springtime.” In that piece, though the woman’s grief is clear from the outset, we are somehow unprepared for the massive despair of the ending, even given its short lines. Here, McGriff packs the same punch, perhaps even harder. As he describes the father and daughter, living out of their Buick, we learn that the father tells his daughter stories. Therein lies the ultimate heartbreak as McGriff relates:
In the oldest story he tells,
he’s commissioned
by Kublai Khan
to sail one hundred bolts of silk to Jerusalem
and return with a vial of holy water
to the Empire of a Million Horses.
But this is the story
he doesn’t tell: a girl
on her father’s shoulders,
how he trades
a heap of copper wire
for a full bottle of penicillin,
so the girl
eventually drifts back
into the port of her body
on the edge of the charted world.

We feel for this family, both of whom, it strikes me, live “on the edge of the charted world.” Even in such misery, what wouldn’t the father give for the only person he has? But, to McGriff’s impossible credit, there is never a whiff of sentimentality for these folks. We feel for them, to be sure, and we are meant to, but McGriff always honors those who people his verse. There is a grim resignation they have that keeps them just out of the muck that is so often described in the volume. Perhaps it is because the people we meet in Dismantling the Hills never feel sorry for themselves, we never feel the need to feel sorry for them. In “Entering the Kingdom,” we find that
A woman sits in the middle
of her living room
surrounded by stockpots
filling with the ceiling’s
brown rainwater and chunks
of plaster. Her eyes
are the milk of blue granite,
as blind as a salamander’s.
Earlier, a man came with a lawyer
who came with a letter
from the city, a letter
condemning her three and a half acres
for the new pipeline.

Yet the woman never mentions this again, except vaguely, after drifting off to sleep to the methodical drips from her leaky ceiling, “in her dream, / where she climbs a rope / into the tree of sadness.” We are left to assume that whatever she is to be paid for the eminent domain appropriation of her land, it will leave her with little if anything. Again, though, not a whimper, barely a sigh. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it matters so much; too much.
So, too, the memory presented in “Seasons Between Night and Day” wherein McGriff gives us the personal connection to the misery that infuses his collection:
My mother sleeps. Somewhere between her and the stars,
my father and hundreds of other men
punch out of Georgia Pacific’s sawmill forever,
the forklifts behind them at half-mast,
other machines chained to barges
with Japanese names
before the workers file out from the alien yard.

My mother’s asleep. My father, on the edge
of the mattress, stoops down to unlace his boots,
unlace the sound his joints, ligaments
and sockets have saved.
When he curses his body for needing to be a body.
For now, my sister and I live a different sleep:
the dandelions outside our window
have petals that cartwheel into the night
on yellow fists.

Perhaps it is these brief moments of youthful beauty at the end of this poem, and throughout Dismantling the Hills, that save McGriff’s characters—and perhaps the reader—from jumping into the bay; that saves us all, imbuing us with the same dogged determinism the father in this poem reveals as he shaves his beard in the morning—exchanging “one face for another.” For what? For nothing more than because it is another day, and this is what McGriff’s people do.
The grim determinism of the people of Coo’s Bay seems to also hide a darkness, a seething hate that threatens to erupt, but, of course, never does. Dampened by rain, or silt, or simply having been in this town for too long, little happens to change circumstances. Notice it here, in what I will confess to be my favorite poem in the volume, “Mercy, Tear It Down”:
We were contracted with the prison crew
to take the ridge. Tear it down.
Trees, Scotch broom, fence posts.
It was too hot to smoke cigarettes.
My chainsaw touched a whole world
of yellow jackets in a beetle-rotten stump
and my skin went tight. I lay facedown
in the duff after the crew boss shot me
full of something he kept in his saw bag.
An inmate carried half a hunting dog
like an armful of cedar bolts
from the last stand of brush.
What was left was swollen with ants.
The vise in my throat bore down,
daylight broke its bones across the ridge.
Tear it down. From there you could see
the whole town. Tear it down, tear it down.

From the very beginning, something sinister is at work here. Being contracted with the prison crew to “take the ridge” as though this were some sort of paramilitary operation. To simply, “tear it down.” Everything must go, stripped. Through the work, the carnage mounts: the speaker riddled with yellow jacket stings, saved only by the grace of the crew boss who, through McGriff’s masterful line end, “shot me / full of something.” Perhaps simply shooting him would have been better. Of course, we would miss the rest of the toll: half a hunting dog (the rest “swollen with ants”), and daylight that “broke its bones across the ridge.” This description is glorious in its grimness. All of this concluding with the simple, but painfully acute observation: “From there you could see / the whole town. Tear it down, tear it down.” Absent from this poem proper, though, is the added word in the title, “mercy.” Perhaps because there is none to be had.
Of course, Coo’s Bay doesn’t get torn down. Its inhabitants struggle on living in Buicks or in homes for as long as they can after Georgia Pacific shuts down and packs up. Soon, I suspect a Michael McGriff will emerge in Detroit, or Indiana, or Illinois. It won’t be McGriff, of course, those areas are far more urban, more known if you will. Coo’s Bay, as presented to the reader in Dismantling the Hills, is like no place on earth—both haunted and home simultaneously. Otherworldly, it seems. The best it can offer comes from the close of another brilliant piece, “Shift Change, 9 A.M.”:
This Must Be Heaven, a brochure
next to the pie case suggests.
My hand slides away from the waitress’s
and though the wind pushes
against the windows of the diner
and says we are nothing,
two strangers have touched in this light.

That is the best one can hope for in Dismantling the Hills, but in the end, it is truly all that any of us can expect. Sad that it takes the people of Coo’s Bay to teach us this lesson.

Quiet Wonder, or Suddenly Seeing Something Again for the First Time: E.K. Mortenson on Dick Allen’s Present Vanishing


Present Vanishing: Poems, Dick Allen, Sarabande Books

You have a duty
to the unchopped liver, the unmade bed, the bookshelves
all out of order—a duty
you must fulfill with grace and courtesy
and great daily attention to the sacredness of things.

This small snippet from a piece in Dick Allen’s seventh collection of poems, Present Vanishing, might serve as the perfect epigram for the volume. Indeed, it might serve as the perfect epigram for all poetry writing and for life. While the poem’s title and Allen himself in interviews speaks to a deep affection for Buddhism, one need not be spiritually inclined to see the wisdom in Allen’s poems. We must, Allen suggests, view “attention to the sacredness of things” as our “duty.” Allen certainly does, and the poems in Present Vanishing remind the reader why Allen is master craftsman.

The subjects of Allen’s poems remind us to “remember there’s nothing but mystery in the world, / although it hides itself behind the fabric of each day, / shining brightly, and we don’t even know it” (American Buddhism, Section VI, ‘Mid-December’). It is sentiments such as this that elevates the poems in Present Vanishing from the mere classification of “Buddhist Poetry.” Not to say that this classification is pejorative by any means, but there is something fundamentally different between an Allen poem and, say, a Jane Hirschfield poem.

There can be an inherent danger to presenting the “thingness” of things in verse. Simply put, finding the transcendence of things can become a difficult task for there can be a lapse into a touchy-feely, new-age sort of verse in which the poet needs to stretch to “find” transcendence. That is, while the argument could be made that all things are worthy of poetic discussion and by extension the honor of attention, some things when it comes to poetry are “more worthy” than other things. Present Vanishing succeeds, perhaps, because for Allen, “the mystery of the world” is not necessarily always pleasant; there are not always chants, chimes, and orange-robed monks helping turtles across the road. The mysteries of this world can be dark and frightening as well as sobering.

To wit, there is a poem like The Blind. I would venture that this is about as good a poem as one is likely to find in the volume or anywhere else for that matter. Every line is a poem unto itself, and as the poem progresses, there is the initially unexpected but later unavoidable conclusion. “Over days, we carefully made our blind out of old branches / slightly woven together and covered with fallen leaves,” from these initial two lines our frame of reference on the poem is clarified. The Blind is not a poem about a subset of sightless humans, but rather, the description of a hunting blind—a description of an everyday “object.” What happens as Allen allows this poem to progress, however, is marvelous.

After the building of the blind, we get the first inkling of the darkness the world of this poem might contain. Those who man this hunting blind “sat holding thermoses / filled with coffee brewed in dark kitchens, / no cream, no sugar, simply bitterness—”. These “dark kitchens” take on an even darker connotation with the idea that these thermoses are filled with “simply bitterness.” Eventually, a passing bird entices the men to fire their guns and retrieve their prize. But, it is the conclusion of this piece that leaves the reader with his mouth open:

There, we kept our silence, not looking at each other,
or if we did, seeing no more than our young man faces,
tired and grim, so filled with misunderstandings,
doubt and guilt, no one would have believed
we’d come here by choice, and would return
year after year as long as the wretched blind
prevailed and the guns fit into our shoulders.

It is this idea, that the young men, “so filled with misunderstandings” are in some ways forced to return “year after year” to the site of this “wretched blind,” that is so moving. To look back on this short poem, it seems hard to remember how we got here as readers. It is hard to remember this poem began with the simplest attention to the building of this blind, so removed from a feeling about it like “wretched” or that it was built by young men with “tired and grim” faces. It is the sentiment that as long as the blind “prevailed” these men would have to come to it. This sense of fate is what transcends Allen’s verse. The very question life asks of us: how did it come to this?

Similarly, in the sonnet-like piece Hornets’ Nests. The poem is brief enough to present in its entirety, for it must be taken this way:

Hundreds of them, accursed, their papery gray masses
hidden in eaves, in the junctures of two-by-fours,
or hanging in shrubs or behind olive branch foliage,
wait to be opened. Even long-abandoned nests,
those which turn immediately to ash at the poke of a broomstick,
threaten revenge. Inside their hexagram cells,
everything seems quivering, thrumming, as if the workers know
death will come at first frost—each worker’s venom gone to waste
unless he can attack, protecting his basketball-sized empire.
And at the heart of everything, the larger body of sorrow
that will not die unless, from far away in the shadows,
we fill her nest with poison spray, or knock it down,
battering it, torching it when it falls, so that in some holy tomorrow
we may walk, unmolested, over the great green pastures.

This is a short poem filled with violence—natural and contrived. It is the finality of the destroyed hive knocked down, battered, and torched and the ultimate goal of that destruction that “we may walk, unmolested, over great green pastures,” that is so startling. This is, indeed, no typical Buddhist poem. Indeed, one cannot help but think that Allen has more in mind here with this piece. The euphemism of “stirring up a hornet’s nest” to describe, say, a sticky military conflict, seems apropos of American work in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly as we try to “burn out” various terrorist and insurgent “cells.” Aren’t we instructed to see these “workers” and their networks as “accursed”? Is it so hard to imagine a suicide bomber feeling his “venom gone to waste / unless he can attack”? Indeed, it is only after total destruction that we might feel safe enough “in some holy tomorrow” to walk through the “great green pastures” that seem all-too reminiscent of some patriotic song. Of course, it is just a hornets’ nest, though.

Verse like this clears space for what might otherwise seem like easy Buddhist platitudes by a lesser poet. This sort of poem “entitles” Allen to write about “that something going wrong that you can change to right / with acceptance and calm” (Plum), since he presents us with things actually going wrong—fundamentally wrong—with ourselves. Yet for all of that, Allen is also able to offer us hope. This darkness, while a part of life, is not all of life. This, too, Allen tells us, will pass. There is no better close to Present Vanishing than the final lines of the final poem: “And despite insult and spittle and disfiguring and bruising and lingering pain, / all shall be well; / and all manner of things shall be well.” After Allen’s meticulous attention to detail throughout the volume, I certainly believe him.