Michael McGriff | Poetry

When the Spirit Comes to Him as the Voice of Morning Light

You held your head in the Millicoma River,
opened your eyes before the spawning kings,

beheld the chuff of their rotting heads,
and said, Is this the milk of Paradise? to no one.
And when no one and nothing
was exactly what you wanted
I was and will be all-that-is-absence, all blue light
whistling over the farthest ridge.

When men dismantled the mills
plank by plank, smothered eternal fires

and left only one hushed smokestack,
its shadow drinking the pond’s oily water,

I was all the men you cursed,
the final cinder, the chimney sparrows

swirling down the charred throat
of the stack at twilight.

I was time moving over the water.
I was twelve varieties of beach grass

breaking through cement to form the outlines
of foundations where sawmills once rested.

Where was I the day you got your draft card
in the mail? I was the hole in the sky

through which it came. The day your sons left
for the laughter and daughters of the rich

I was the odor of the woodpile
you added to cord after cord, the place

where you split kindling and wept.
I shuffle through the old streets singing

the psalms of the poor. When I kneel
in prayer – one leg in the Millicoma,

one leg in the millpond – I bring my hands
together and join the dust in your room

with the dust of stars, the grain of timber,
the burls in the hearts of men.

Editors Note: The descriptions in this poem by Michael McGriff are sensuous and precise, but that description doesn’t do them justice. There’s something especially evocative about their being mediated by the addressee’s mind and really his mind’s being mediated by the speaker’s, as though every image has a few layers of resonance, a son’s feelings about a father’s feelings about a landscape. The poem is made of impossible hopes — that the addressee can go back to his old life in the mill; that the speaker (whom I read as the addressee’s son, McGriff, from near the Millicoma river he writes about) can bring his father back and also undo the pain he caused when he left his father’s working-class town — and McGriff responds to the impossible hopes with the impossible reassurance that he was all sides of his father’s pain — the people who dismantled the mills, and the landscape, and a kind of God his father prays to. McGriff responds to hopelessness with certainty but without denying the hopelessness, attitudes he matches in confidently displayed but literally impossible images such as the title, which suggests that the addressee can hear light and that light has a voice in the first place. The language mimics the conflicts the speaker works through, which I hope helps to explain some of the poem’s descriptive resonance. —Adam Plunkett

"When the Spirit Comes to Him as the Voice of Morning Light" is from Dismantling the Hills by Michael McGriff, ©2008. All rights reserved by University of Pittsburgh Press. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

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