Lighting the Shadow by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Four Way Books, 2015; 136 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
Poets and artists often build their books or shows around a conceit, turning a book/show into a snapshot of what they were focused on at the time—an exploration; perhaps this is a result of the artist’s desire for, or the perception that viewers want/need, continuity, order, structure. I’ve heard numerous editors and critics argue for a “narrative arc” or “necessary transformation” to take place over the course of a book of poems, and while transformation (and transportation) is unavoidable when reading Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Lighting the Shadow, and yes, it comes with a loose conceit, this hearty collection does not rely on either and breathes as so much more than a well-constructed book. It is an expansive, adaptable, demanding conversation, one that will last.
Lighting the Shadow is a wellspring of language, story, myth, and meditation; it maps self-love, elders’ lasting touch, translations of film and visual art into language, the deadlock wrestle for betterment, America’s contradictions, how history walks and stalks, and humanity’s identity crises, its capacity for grace and obliteration, all spilling over the brim of any one perspective, any one time.
The book is littered with epigraphs in dialogue with speakers and poems; its population is varied and vast, and its nuance, elastic, liquid. As readers we are not confined to a form or a style or a perspective, rather we get to swim in Griffiths’s language and vision, sometimes overtaken by image, sometimes sound, other times by our own spiritual/spirited connection to the details. Those details slipping between darkly whimsical, “A woman burns in the socket of midnight” (24), precise, “I want to see your promises arranged / like shoes walking somewhere” (83), direct, “The bullets in America are not thoughtful” (85), and sagely, “We’re millionaires of absence” (96).
Elegies, anti-elegies, non-elegies: this collection situates itself in relation to the elegy; it is a study in elegiac possibility. And cross-stitched with elegy, Griffiths explores the concentratedness of prose poems, the series “Verses from the Dead Americans Songbook,” a glorious long poem titled “a word of rescue from the great eyes,” and variants of “The Human Zoo.” The formal range of this book is as vast as its content, meeting readers’ minds and pointing them in every possible direction. Lighting the Shadow’s expanse is reflective of at least two meaningful realities: 1) So much ache can and should be transformed into a means for connection; how we process ache can u-turn us, together, toward preventing it, and 2) Griffiths holds this transformational possibility at the center of her work—written and visual—it seems, at the center of her life.