Grasshopper: The Poetry of M.A. Griffiths Review

M. A. Griffiths
Grasshopper:  The Poetry of M. A. Griffiths
Arrowhead Press, 2011
ISBN:  1-904852-28-5
Pages:  352
Reviewed by:  Marybeth Rua-Larsen

As poets, very few of us impact the world of poetry in a long-lasting and significant way. We write our poems, revise them, maybe workshop them with poet-friends or on online poetry boards, and if we research current journals and markets carefully, we may even be fortunate enough to publish them in respectable journals and raise a glass of champagne or oatmeal stout in celebration. But the next day, it’s another poet getting published in a better journal with more fanfare, and our work and effort fade into the distance. Most of the time. So, when dozens of poets around the globe admire and respect a poet’s work so much they spend countless hours finding, collecting and cataloguing her poems from various online sites and then publishing them in an extensive collection after her untimely death, we know this is a poet who made a significant impact. Very few poets command this kind of respect, and the resulting book of poems, Grasshopper:  The Poetry of M A Griffiths, proves the full range of Maz’s talent and accomplishments.

I did not know Maz personally, but I certainly knew her by reputation when she frequented the poetry boards at Eratosphere where I began workshopping my own poems in 2007. It quickly became clear that if you could catch Maz’s eye with one of your poems and prompt her to comment, it was a coup, even if she found the poem lacking. She was clear-eyed and succinct in her criticism, almost always on-target with her advice, and if you followed it, your poem would improve. I was lucky enough to attract her attention only once, and when she noted that my poem had improved significantly with revision, I had a smile on my face for days. This poet’s approval, even though she was essentially a stranger, meant that much, and when I had the opportunity to read and study her work in this posthumous collection, much of it previously unpublished, I was eager to learn from her example.

In some ways, this is an unwieldy book. Unlike most books of poetry these days, which organize the poems into manageable sections and group them by theme or narrative flow, these poems are presented in alphabetical order, all 300-plus of them. There is little context provided, other than Alan Wickes’ informative introduction, and the poems are undated and include few notes, which occasionally make it difficult to pin down the historical context. There were moments when I wished the book had been organized by theme or some other structure, but given the fact that Maz was a private person and many of her personal notes and drafts had been lost in various computer crashes over the years, other ways of organizing would not have been possible or accurate. After reading the book, I understood why the editors made this choice, and truth be told, I learned much from this arrangement, which allowed me to group poems by theme organically rather than be influenced by someone else’s interpretation.

With a book this size and considering that every poem Maz was known to have written is included, several key themes emerge, including elegies to pets and animals in the wild, poems on the process of writing and commentary on poets and scholars, poems about illness and aging, poems about God and spirituality, and poems about the effects and consequences of war. One of the most varied and compelling themes, however, centers on women and sexuality. In his thoughtful introduction, Alan Wickes states that there’s conflicting evidence on whether or not Maz was a feminist.  I find that her poems overwhelmingly confirm her as a feminist. Yes, Maz criticized women, and she sometimes criticized feminists in particular, such as in this sonnet, “The Women’s Circle,” included here in its entirety:

Faith takes the chair, and switches off her phone,
“First, gifts for our poor sisters overseas:
Joy has donated three warm wraps, and Joan,
a book entitled, Women:  Off Your Knees!”
Amanda checks her hair, Sue clears her plate
and Caitlin thrums her throat to signal hush:
‘Anent last month’s pornography debate
I’ll show a tape to illustrate this trash.’

Faith views the tilting pricks and shaven groins,
tuts with the others at the sordid scene,
the squalid pumping of the actors’ loins.
Stern-faced she watches like a widowed queen
and feels with pique, as personal affront,
the creeping liquefaction of her cunt.

The criticism here, though, is for a particular kind of feminist, one who is judgmental and holier-than-thou, for whom any kind of pornography is automatically a “sordid scene” and “squalid.” Maz’s poems imagine women capable of being more and doing more, and some poems nudge women in the direction of asking questions about their own behavior, such as in the sonnet, “Ding Dong Bell,” where a cat watches and offers commentary on how its owner cleans the house for company:

Great Bast, today she pulled out all the stops,
all faff and fussle to impress her friends;
the bedrooms were a whirl of cloths and mops,
much bathroom bleach sploshed all around the bends,”

The owner continues to “Hoover” and make the furniture “gleam,” while the cat watches in disgust and eventually pees on the rug just as the guests arrive, suggesting that its owner has much better uses for her time and energy than impressing her friends with a clean house and an elaborate meal.

Maz is often at her best when offering her insights couched in wit and sly humor, but she can also take a much more serious tone, such as in the prose poem “Traditions,” which explores the horrific effects of cliterodectomies, a form of female genital mutilation performed on young girls in some African cultures:

 Outside was a big dusty black car, and waiting inside were Nurse Hani, the midwifeand some other women.  They drove me to a place I did not know.  They stripped me and held me down and Nurse did it with a razor blade.  I screamed and screamed with pain till the screaming nearly made me sick, but they did not stop.

It is the women in the poem – the mother, the grandmother and the nurse – who conspire and ensure young Amele, the speaker, has the procedure. They secretly go against Amele’s father, who said, “No, I will not agree to it.” In this instance, it is not men enforcing and perpetuating this cultural tradition but the women themselves, believing that abandoning the tradition will result in disgrace and that Amele will lose her opportunity for marriage. Through her critique of the women in these poems, Maz encourages women to make different choices, choices that empower, and suggests that we have power over our own destinies if we choose to exercise it.

There are, of course, poems that focus on the suffering of women at the hands of men, such as in the historically accurate sonnet “Constanza Carved,” in which the sculptor Bernini suffers no consequence for having his former lover’s face slashed:  “Did God forgive the razor that you sent/to slice her perfect, faithless face to shreds.”  Despite the harshness of this example, Maz casts a wider net as a feminist. Numerous poems challenge the status quo by presenting, through history and myth, women who are powerful or make choices that allow them to live more meaningful lives, such as in the free verse poem “Emily abandons her breasts.” The subject of the poem, Emily, is an 18th or 19th century young woman who chooses to bind her breasts and live as a man:

Emily feared she would be rolled up
like bills in a man’s pocket
amongst the must and fust
and fingered things.

Emily chooses to take control of her own life rather than have her options limited by others. Maz also portrays women who wield power successfully, such as in the sonnet “Hippolyta on a Field of Linen.” In mythology, Hippolyta was an Amazon queen descended from Ares, and the poem depicts her sexual conquest of a warrior-lover. Sex is equated with battle, and it is a battle Hippolyta wins:

He sighs, he yields – this skirmish ends to soon –
and he sleeps like one slain, force spent for now,
but I’ll engage a battle royal by noon.
They say an army marches on its belly – how
I plan to feast! The world and its alarms

One last notable theme, more subtle than some of the others, is that of transformation. A few poems, such as “Sally’s Song,” portray a character’s inability to transform or become all that she is capable of because of circumstance. Here, young Sally is forced to turn to prostitution:

Your Ma is dead, your Pa’s a sot.
Feel in your stocking for what you’ve got.
Your petticoats hide such tight young meat
so sell it while it’s hot and sweet.
Another tickle, and God willing,
another trout, another shilling.

More often, however, transformation is portrayed in the spiritual sense or the ability to open the heart and the mind.  In the poem “The Silkie,” for example, Mhaire, the subject of the poem, is tired of her life and housework and chooses the life of a Silkie at sea:

At night, on a sheet of sand,
her muscles liquefy.
Silver fishes shoal her bowels.
The ocean shakes its creamy mane,
rises on strong green knees
and carries her away.

Mhaire opens herself up to dreaming, to the power of transformation, and as “Sky in the Pie” suggests, we must cut ourselves open to the “rush of dark thrushes,” to all possibilities.

Sky in the Pie

Two sure cuts open the crust
And release a rush of dark thrushes
With golden beaks, heralding an arc of stars
borne on a rainbow.  The spectrum flexes
like muscle, then settles in a single depth
of colour, blue as the powered lapis
on a manuscript page in a rich book
of hours, blue as a dunnock’s egg, blue
as distance.  Take your spoon before
it elopes with the knife, and taste.
The clouds melt on your tongue
and sweeten your throat.  You can chant
this day across the meadows, and call the lost flocks
home. The sheep and the chestnut cows. The dappled deer
and wild black horses. The wolves and small quick foxes.
All the lost beasts of your kingdom.
Call them home.

Maz’s death was a huge loss to the writing community. Her sonnets, especially, are remembered and quoted often, and there are seventy-seven included in the book. She was much more than a sonneteer, however, and these are skillful poems, poems with heart, poems that believe we can be much more than we are, if only we choose to be.  “Take your spoon…and taste.”

 

Margaret Griffiths (1947-2009) was born and raised in London and lived for some time in Bracknell then later moved to Poole. Rather than seek publication through traditional channels, she was content to share her work with fellow poets on various Internet forums. On the rare occasions she submitted work for publication, it was typically to online venues. Also known by the Internet pseudonyms “Grasshopper” and “Maz”, she began posting her poetry online in 2001. During the mid-2000s she worked from home, running a small Internet-based business, and edited the Poetry Worm, a monthly periodical distributed by email.
In 2008, her “Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud” won Eratosphere’s annual Sonnet Bake-off, and was praised by Richard Wilbur. Later that year she was a Guest Poet on the Academy of American Poets website, where she was hailed as “one of the up-and-coming poets of our time”. She suffered for years from a stomach ailment which eventually proved fatal in July 2009. Almost immediately after her death was announced on Eratosphere, poets from all over the English-speaking world, from London, Derby, Scotland, Wales, Queensland, New South Wales, Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Maryland, California and Texas collected her work for this publication.

12: Sonnets for the Zodiac by John Gosslee Review

John Gosslee
12: Sonnets for the Zodiac
French translation by Elizabeth D. Watson and a Spanish translation by Jose M. Guerrero
Gival Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1928589587
Pages: 108

Reviewed By: Quincy Lehr

John Gosslee’s debut collection, 12, comes in a rather large package. Twelve sonnets, after all, are a bit slim for a chapbook, much less a full-lengther, so the collection, which has one sonnet for each sign of the zodiac, has a fair number of doodads, both visual (calendars for each sign), and were that not enough, translations of the poems into French and Spanish, never mind that Gival Press is Virginia-based and presumably has limited reach in Cartagena and Lyons. One almost suspects that the doo-dads were put there so that the book would catch the eye of editors, to make it “different” and thus “interesting.”

The discerning reader may have intuited a certain curl of the lip in the above.  When one strips away the doo-dads and translations, we have twelve sonnets. About the zodiac. But hey, sonnet collections are in, with an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recent titles including Ernest Hilbert’s Sixty Sonnets, Julie Kane’s Jazz Funeral, Kim Bridgford’s In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records, William Baer’s “Borges” and Other Sonnets and “Bocage” and Other Sonnets, and others. So it’s trendy. On the other hand, though, while the quality of these books is by no means even, the best of them set the bar for sonnets quite high indeed.

For all the bells, whistles, calendars, and sonnets en francais, the sonnets in this book are… underwhelming. In the Taurus poem, “Bulls Always Charge,” we get these lines:

……….I know what is here and what has commenced
……… The divine past cannot be dispensed!

The latter line recalls in its tenor not so much Shakespeare or Sidney as it does Skeletor from The Masters of the Universe.  Gosslee’s tone and indeed imagery at times hit a bathetic level, as in his Aries poem, “The Ram’s Baa”:

………Musicians drum on its kindred’s skin torn
………By a sacrifice o’er a mortal duel.

O’er really? The poem describes a ram being sacrificed in Conan the Barbarian-like detail (original film version, 1982)—do we especially need the archaism, which elevates the tone unto risibility?

Metrically, too, the poems’ lines tend have the ten syllables connected with the traditional iambic pentameter meter, but Gosslee seems to interpret meter syllabically, resulting in periodic rhythmic constipation. Perhaps Gosslee is attempting to play it loose. Perhaps, though, he simply doesn’t have meter down yet. One cannot say with any certainty, but I would suspect the latter, with the excuse given as the former. Certainly, the collection strives, not entirely successfully, to meet rather robust requirements such as those of the Petrarchian sonnet with its ABBAABBA rhyme scheme in the octet. However, here, too, Gosslee is frequently less than sure-footed, and we get too many runs shoehorned not entirely successfully into the formal requirements of the given sonnet form. Take this example, from “Lady Justice” (the Libra poem):

……….You, bestow desires or passions deplete,
……….And decide from the start, but are discreet,
……….Allowing judgments to change through action—
……….By disavowing outside distraction.
……….The scales are above any that compete;

The inversion of “passions deplete” is, in a contemporary poem, maddening and a bit distracting, while the long sentence seems less subtle and complex than gaseous, as if coming up for breath at regular intervals for the end rhymes that punctuate generally awkward phrasing.

This is a remarkably bloated book, a lot of rigmarole for a series of less than surefooted, rather slight poems built on an idea that seems more of a workshop exercise than a grand conceit. Many of its missteps—the convoluted phrasing, the overwrought imagery, the needless or lazy archaisms—are a beginner’s missteps, and it is quite possible that Gosslee will outgrow them. Far less forgivable is Gival Press’s decision to publish this premature debut collection. Youthful maladroitness can be a phase. A book is far more permanent. Let’s hope that Gosslee’s next shows greater thought, craft, and depth.

John Gosslee was poet-in-residence for Attitude: The Dancers’ Magazine from 2008 through 2011. His first book “12″ was published by Gival Press
in French, Spanish and English. He is the Editor of Fjords Review and enjoys riding his motorcycle throughout the United States.