Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020) contains some of the most powerful poetry that’s been written within the last few years. Griffiths’s fifth collection of poems elegizes and honors the death of her mother through an incredibly potent lyrical voice that embodies the landscape of a mourning daughter in insightful and visionary ways. The book is divided into three sections: mother: mirror: god, daughter: lyric: landscape, and good death. The middle section consists of a series of lyrical photographs that give space to Griffiths’s body in various locations (enclosed spaces as well as in nature). Seeing the Body is heart-wrenching, beautiful, and technically strong. Through the lyrical voice, Griffiths is able to articulate grief in a way that is both masterful and human. Readers will find that these poems are poignant and unforgettable as they memorialize a mother whose love and spirit continues to inhabit the world through Griffiths’s stunningly immaculate poetry.

There is an overarching sentiment that builds throughout the collection and is expressed poignantly in the concluding poem when the speaker finally asks: “Why / should I want peace instead of my mother?” Although it takes the entire book for the speaker to be able to ask such a difficult question, it is a feeling that is perceived early on. In the first poem, “Seeing the Body” the speaker says:

She lived Us & I—
She held We & I—
She kept speaking with those flowers
falling from her blood, taking her
across the sky to death. I remember
her voice like a horn I never want
to pull out of my heart. In the next life,
which is here & here, I gather every mouth
that ever sang my mother’s blues.
She burned & I—
She talked back hard at god.

The music of the poetry here is incredibly tight and powerful as the speaker acknowledges multiple states of being that encompass singularity and plurality. “She lived Us & I,” “She held We & I” express an identity that is both individual and communal, and yet the speaker’s mother is distinctly herself: “She kept speaking with those flowers / falling from her blood.” The speaker conveys this deep psychic connection to her mother by saying “I remember / her voice like a horn I never want / to pull out of my heart,” and connects her to a larger community when she says “I gather every mouth / that ever sang my mother’s blues.”

What makes this collection so powerful is the way Griffiths is able to transform her particular experience of mourning into one that can be understood universally by those who have a psychic relationship with their mothers, who empathize with the pain of that heavy loss. These poems shine light on that feeling. In “Chronology” the speaker gives her mother’s name and identity a place by saying “My mother’s maiden name is Pray. She is a pure being of / blood, promise, trouble,” the poem opens up as she says “I want to open / my mother’s dead hands & listen” and the poem also becomes a collective voice of mourning as she proclaims: “Our wounds took the form of night. / Our fears rocked like the white, tearful waves against the last ships. / Our mothers rolled like shells under the raging sea.” The perspective narrows down to a singular voice as the speakers says “my naked hand labored through the bruised dark to speak.” Through the speaker’s individual experience of mourning, the universal feeling of pain and loss is recognized and felt.

In “Name” a poem that shifts between lyric and narrative, the speaker expresses the specific feeling of losing her mother in a number of ways. Speaking generally, she says: “There is only what we say we feel. For example, pain.” She articulates this feeling in a political sense: “Who names the body / of the oppressor when I say the oppressor does not exist if / I have murdered his name & burned his house down?” She attempts to pinpoint her mother’s experience of dying by saying: “She looked at Nothing I could / see.” There is also the fear of not being able to reconnect with her mother spiritually: “How would my mother find us again with so much starlight?” But there is also hope: “One day I’ll meet her / with my stones & flowers,” and remembrance of what it meant to assist her mother in her dying: “All that mattered to me / was that I could be sure my mother had enough / peace.” Toward the end of the poem, the speaker becomes incredibly poetic as she meditates on death and womanhood:

A dead woman is always looking at a book
or a mirror or at the sea. She is looking for edges
where her face dissolves into depths. Memories she
licks & places her fingers inside so they won’t fall
apart: it’s precise & wonderful: the beeswax melting
over her nipples & her mind. What is preserved
in grief cannot be golden, cannot be burned down
to make anything but a story or idol. Yes, it is true:

I am lifting my mother towards the glittering gods
who lash the rivers of my dreams with light.

Yes—

I am opening myself for the black-horned galaxies
where the soul hides, endangered by its unknown gibbering
alphabet. There was music I only knew by the ringing of
my teeth. And when pleasure sang me open & hot
I offered my cries to all dead mothers, so bruised
& beloved by their gods.

But now, now what does ripeness have to do
with me anymore?

This intense lyrical section indicates that the speaker has experienced a psychic awakening, giving her visionary powers. She describes what it means to be a dead woman in poetic terms, but she also describes her own role in assisting her mother toward death: “I am lifting my mother towards the glittering gods / who lash the rivers of my dreams with light.” She also describes what this psychic awareness means for her on a personal level: “I am opening myself for the black-horned galaxies,” “I offered my cries to all dead mothers” and “…what does ripeness have to do / with me anymore?” Here, the speaker is both passively and actively engaged in the cosmic experience of death even as she questions her own mortality. This part of the poem is especially significant for the way it records a moment of great transcendence.

The photographs are an essential part of the collection. They are all in black and white and were taken by Griffiths days before and after her mother’s death. These photographs are important because they track a different kind of space in regards to the experience of mourning. In all of them, there is a contrast between Griffiths’s body and the landscape, but there is also a sense of isolation and deep psychic pain. Two of the most poignant photographs show Griffiths’s naked body curled into itself in mourning. One of them is of her bare back next to a window; the other one is of her hunched down by the side of a very old country road. In both photographs, grief can be seen literally making its mark on Griffiths’s body, showing the physical manifestation of emotional pain. The last photograph in the series captures Griffiths under a large tree. The smallness of her body next to the grandness of the tree in an open field speaks to the connections between personal memory and a deeper collective memory and how they interact. The feeling is that the smaller body will be subsumed into the bigger body in order to create an even larger, more fruitful entity.

One of the most impressive poems in the collection “Good Mother” tells the story of a woman who held the speaker when she broke down in the middle of Rite Aid upon remembering that it was about to be Mother’s Day:

She put her arms around me & waved away the cashiers,
the security guard who repeated Ma’am, Ma’am?
A stranger rocked me in her arms, so much kindness
as we fell over & crashed against a row of votive candles.
She didn’t say it would be okay. She didn’t ask me
what was wrong. But her arms put me in a vicious prayer.
I almost bit her, almost pushed her away.
We held on. We held on & praised the nameless thing
that makes us what we think we aren’t strong enough
to know. She knew. She didn’t let go of me.

This poem speaks to the empathetic connection that exists between those who are suffering and those who recognize suffering in others. Here, the woman does not hesitate to give the speaker the necessary care she needs, even in such a public place as Rite Aid. And the speaker welcomes the nurturing arms of the woman even as she instinctively wants to resist. In the end, the woman holding her knows better and does not relent: “I almost bit her, almost pushed her away,” but “She knew. She didn’t let go of me.” The speaker continues:

Crushed bones. Blossoms pushing through my mouth—
a word: Mom Mom Mom. This broken birdsong of mine
with no bird, no wing, no way to fly back through time.
Praise the woman who did not leave me
like something suddenly dead on the sidewalk
with a breeze blowing over its face.

Mourning is an intense type of suffering, but what makes it endurable is the knowledge that it can be soothed by someone who is observant enough to recognize pain in others, someone who does not turn away from grief, but instead, acknowledges it and experiences it along with the sufferer. This poem is brilliant because it says that human suffering is very real, but it also has a remedy: human compassion.

In the final poem, the speaker proclaims: “They asked me was it a Good Death, was it / a Good Death? Was there peace for all of us? Why / should I want peace instead of my mother?” Throughout this collection Griffiths’s translates her emotional pain into an intense type of lyrical clarity that can only come from the experience of deep loss and devastation. However, Griffiths’s love for her mother serves as the true core of this collection as the speaker sings: “Love persists / within my gold bones.” It is recognition of this deep love that opened up Griffiths’s work; this is the same love that will allow her to continue to create poetry that is both masterful and enduring. At its root, Seeing the Body reflects “The shadow of the world looking back / where hell held a love song.” Tremendous loss and suffering creates visionary beauty, but ultimately, love is what sustains and nourishes. This is what Seeing the Body will be remembered for: its profound expression of intense eternal love a daughter feels for her mother and the transcendent power it contains.

August 24, 2020