In Lighting the Shadow, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ third collection, the poet sings a song of nonself. Varied sources—from news, visual art, poetry, and family—generate the current along which moves the speaker’s polymorphous permeable body electric, enacting her intention to “turn to every shadow I’ve ever been, stare at them until they form another / woman . . . pouring blood / into a basin of memory.”
The book’s central focus is this “learning how to be a shadow.” The idea of undoing self to achieve wide identification with inconsolable suffering by dwelling as shadow is one that African American studies scholar Daphne Brooks describes as “an interpretive strategy.”* Lighting the Shadow uses this approach of reading realities from a “particular and dark position,” contributing to the politically-charged innovative lyric.
The book’s framing devices point toward the shadow as a cipher. Griffiths’ title declares a broad intention of making those in the shadows visible, and a short prologue, “The Dead Will Lead You,” situates the reading experience as a descent into underworlds. The collection’s four main sections continue this initial emphasis on darkness as a trope: “Diaphanous Corpse,” “A Dark Race for Enlightenment,” “Verses from the Dead American’s Songbook,” and “The Human Zoo.” The final section, a lengthy “Notes,” expands the poems’ address beyond the living to include the specters of the fatally wronged. Several poems are devoted to victimized women, among them “Before Blood After Honey,” which she dedicates to “those women who have died or currently face the loss of their lives due to the tradition of observation of ‘honor killings.’ ” Her “Elegy” and “Anti-Elegy” are “dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, James Byrd Jr., Sean Bell, Ousmane Zongo, and too many others to include in this small book.” There’s also a poem dedicated to the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and one for Jyoti Singh Pandey, a New Delhi woman who was brutally raped and murdered in 2012.
In addition to framing the book in shadows, Griffiths elaborates on the trope of darkness by foregrounding the senses, dwelling in the body’s depths. She is well regarded for her visual art, examples of which can be viewed on her website, and she deftly uses imagery that generates a complex visceral response. The ending of “26,” dedicated to the “community and extended community” of Newton, Connecticut, lamenting the “immeasurable and continuous loss of children to gun-related deaths,” provides example. Here, the poet resists ideological certainty and emotional neatness, positioning herself in relation to group accountability by directly addressing the victimized dead: “where your faces peer in, ask us questions light cannot answer.” The image of victimized bewildered children risks sentimentality. But Griffith’s devotion to the shadows is a commitment to sentiment, bodily response, and interconnectivity.
While provoking a response with her imagery, Griffiths also reminds us that we experience a mediation of our perceptions through technology:
bleat in the stalls. Shorn by light.
Their tongues slaughtered & nailed
to the white walls. I don’t know which
tongue is mine. Look through the glass again.
In this image, the victims are the songs within our bodies. The glass may be the monitor screen or that screen, the page. Griffiths reminds us that the Cartesian cut of mind from body captivates us with abstractions and can make the page a potential cage or, worse, abattoir. Beneath the surface, her supple assonance (orphaned / iambi / nailed / again / animal), (iambi / light / white / mine) ripples with language’s capacity to stir our deeper feelings, particularly the social impulse. In shared affect, poetry’s consequence assembles the power of the body politic. Griffiths urges us to recover this suppressed collective identity experienced through subjective song rather than objective data, to “remember the war of the alphabet, its ears sliced from its face.” Lighting the Shadow asks to include poetic speech within the cultural memory, to highlight the subterranean reality of feeling, to grant the fullness of truth that, as Muriel Rukeyser declares, “extends the record.”
Griffiths accesses this underground through explicit explorations of darkness as a metaphor, as well as through formal choices privileging the ineffable. Collage creates intricate potentialities, working within what Brooks describes as an “aesthetics of opacity.” Expectations for lucidity are thwarted. Instead, textual darkness works as a “trope of narrative insurgency, discursive survival, and epistemological resistance.” Images are pieced together through juxtaposition into a “gristle of imagery,” and on every page sing “sentence[s] wrapped in stinging. / The jaundiced ash of the dead riding their own courage.” The courageous dead could be said to include the author, whose compositional strategies result not in a stable authorial presence but an inscrutable and vast connectivity. “Self Portrait, With Decay,” for example, proceeds via an anaphoric litany of the preposition “with.” The poem begins this way:
With moss, the deer who stood against
the twilight in a Vermont road,
with white-capped dawns pushed
by terror, with an oval face
tilted on a pillow of childhood,
with blood pouring from her nose & mouth,
with her wedding dress, with bare feet,
with marquees announcing the end
of a woman . . .
The imagery in this passage moves swiftly, from the tender vulnerability of “deer” to the “white-capped . . . terror” evocative of the KKK, without offering the clarity of any narrative. Instead, the litany invites the association of the white caps, a pillow, and a wedding dress likely splattered by “blood pouring from her nose & mouth.” As to any final meanings or argument, the reader is left in the dark. The poem closes with
. . . a skin
embroidered by flaws & ecstasy,
with her brindled fluke
that crashed into the joy
of the undiminished
The ecstatic stance described here is hard won, with Griffiths opening herself to agonies without the comforting reassurance of transcendent meaning.
Lighting the Shadows succeeds in addressing systemic injustice by seeking an end to our reliance on fossilized Enlightenment values; by digging where “maggots / reverse the promise of absence, of memory”; by “throw[ing] turpentine” on the delimited “I,” the old monuments, the false legends. Rising up from the ashes is a lit living dark: our limitless connectivity, a “new flesh, the truer poem.”
*From Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
New York: Four Way Books, 2016. 136 pp. $16.95.