Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (WW Norton and Co. 2020)
Reviewed by Margaret Anne Kean
“…her body was the only home/I cared about.”
Poet Marilyn Nelson has said “when you go to listen to a poet read, you leave having learned not only about the poet’s reality but also about the reality you are living.” She calls this “communal pondering.” Through Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ exquisite fifth book, Seeing the Body, we are invited into communal pondering about the physicality of grief, silence and absence, as the poet grapples with her mother’s death, its effect on the poet’s body and psyche, and the necessity of living beyond such a monumental loss.
Griffiths explores these themes through a rich blending of poetry and black and white self-portraiture over three sections. The book begins with the photograph on the cover, which shows a solitary female body in a sleeveless white shift standing deep within a narrow rock canyon looking up toward the sky. The right arm grasps the rock above her, tension captured in the tight folds of the cloth and the angle of the neck. Over this image is the title of the book, Seeing the Body. Starting with this first image, Griffiths invites the reader to engage physically as well as intellectually and emotionally with the work that follows.
The first section, titled “mother: mirror: god,” centers around the death of the poet’s mother. The series of poems starts with the starkness of the title poem’s first line:
“She died, & I –“
In that dash, and the white space that follows the line break, lies silence. The pause exposes heartbreak: the two of them separated by death and the speaker left alone with the absence. “I remember/her voice like a horn I never want/to pull out of my heart.” In beautiful imagery, the reader feels the physical impact of the speaker’s grief.
Throughout the book, Griffith uses the specificity of place to draw the reader into her world. In “Belief,” the speaker brings the reader into the hospital room where the mother is dying:
“You stare at the clock, the vomit-hued walls, that
hush dripping in your head until you feel
you have never been elsewhere. Your world
is a sigh from the bed. A moan. Another request
for ice chips….”
Anyone who has sat through a death vigil recognizes that scene and the physical and emotional fatigue it creates.
The speaker continues:
“We never abandoned her. We went out…
looking for the right food to put some
weight on her smile. Her body was the only home
I cared about…”
Again, Griffith purposely uses language that draws attention to the mother’s body. In those references, we see the speaker’s feelings.
In another poem, “Hunger,” Griffiths starts with what seems like an ethereal image.
“Weeks after her death I came to the garden window
to marvel at sudden pale feathers catching, scattering
past the rainy glass. I looked for magic everywhere.
Signs from the afterlife that I was, indeed, distinct.”
The poem then moves directly into a graphic description of a red-tailed hawk killing and eating a pigeon. Griffith uses the metaphor of the hawk killing and eating to communicate the violent separation she has experienced. It takes something as physically profound and visceral as this scene to regain connection with her body and sense of self:
“…I was the prey
& hawk. This was finally myself swallowing
those small, common parts of me
….I saw myself
torn apart, tearing and tearing at the beautiful face,
the throat beneath my claw. My grieving face red
with being exactly what I knew myself to be.”
In the second section of the book titled “daughter: lyric: landscape,” a series of self-portraits show the poet alone in various settings: standing in an ocean, in an orchard, feet sticking out from behind a couch, curled in a fetal position on a shelf of a sideboard, huddled naked at a window. Silence speaks out from each of the photographs. The fact that no words, titles or locations are included gives the reader a chance to engage in the universal language of absence. It invites the reader to see how grief becomes embodied.
Griffith returns to poetry in the final section which is titled “good death.” Here, she branches into other areas of her life where she has experienced loss and sorrow, and also revisits her mother’s death. In this section, she shows us that grief doesn’t always sit quietly in a corner, even months after a death. It howls like a child throwing a tantrum with no restraint or decorum. But it can also be quiet, meditative, reflective, as in “Elegy, Surrounded by Seven Trees,” where the speaker slowly turns toward the future, as there is some distance from the rawness of the moments following the mother’s death. The speaker says: “Ordinary days deliver joy easily/again & I can’t take it.” The time that has passed doesn’t make death easier, but there is room for more nuanced feelings as the speaker remembers: “…The final way wonder itself/opened beneath my mother’s face/at the last moment. As if she was//a small girl kneeling in a puddle/& looking at her face for the first time,/her fingers gripping the loud,/wet rim of the universe.”
Elizabeth Alexander has said that “poetry gets at undergirding truths.” And with Seeing the Body, Griffiths has provided her readers with beautiful art and a profound way to connect to the undergirding truth of death and loss. She invites us to sit in our own bodies as she has in hers, and to see and feel the physical presence of silence, the absences caused by our losses, the tangible expression of grief: “….the ache/in these stanzas, these too-thin veins that still river/our lives in blood.”