In The Presence of Absence
In ancient philosophy, the soul is described as a slab of wax. When the soul is impacted by experience an impression is left, often described as the glyph of a signet ring pressed down into the supple wax. Memory, then, is the tracing of what’s left behind, the outline of what once was; the ring long gone.
John A. Griffin’s Absences: A Sequence is an effort in tracing.
In the chapbook, we, readers and fellow sojourners, have been nighttime travelers, stumbling towards the open window with a black book in our hand to chart the lodestar rising in the sky. Out there gates swing on lazy hinges, rafts drift, and what’s gone is gone. Griffin’s Absences published by the Chicago-based literary effort, The Esthetic Apostle, is our Baedeker to the interstices between oblivion and remembering. It is illustrated by collage artist Martine Mooijenkind of Gouda, The Netherlands.
Laced with Latin references and longing, these twenty poems of twenty lines each, so none more than a single page, distill in free verse, in the luscious lingua franca of those left behind, the landscape, imaginary and literal, of agony, ecstasy and wonder.
The chapbook begins with a keen “Caoineadh” and terminates with a requiem “Epilogue.” From the beginning the reader has been told: “You have arisen with the cries from apocalyptic skies,/and walked along the strands where the sands recede.”
The journey is a solitary one through the anguish of “concussed fog,” of violent interruptions, edged with the “tranquil tides,” to the sound of “bronze bells,” and through a world that is at once alive, yet dying in “Relic.”
Filled with alliteration, and a language dripping with sensory detail, Griffin creates dream-poems as if trying in earnest to conjure from wisps a presence on the page. Most of the poems are tied to land, its eerie, gorgeous transience, and a person’s place amongst its inevitable entropy. In “Aurora,” Griffin offers that: “We’re spun out of control too and unreeled here,/fed on the frosted, brittle lines that tie us to the deeps.”
My favorite poems include “Monk’s Elm,” a wistful and dreamy attempt to recall and reclaim what has been lost. “This was the room you knew, your room, smelling of sour milk and fat, with shadows off their heads and the empty spaces.” Another jewel is the “Icarus Complex,” with its “blind corridors of remorse.”
In all, the poet tries to navigate and reckon the “calculus of memory and forgetting,” in the cadence often of someone from another time. The ache in this verse is all too real, and relatable. “What’s gone cannot be retrieved even though/echoes still resound and dejection’s daydreams/are transfused with blood – something else insists,” Griffin observes in “Perseus’ Complaint.”
This insistence is from a geography we’ve all become too familiar with. But, Griffin doesn’t so much as portray places we’ve all been, but rather conveys how we’ve felt in our odysseys. In “Ex Ponto,” we find ourselves upon the Black Sea perhaps on “a life raft,” which drifts, “across the sea/but never find a harbour -.”
Yet we’re curious and are lost – adrift – in our searching, inside a loss whose shore is never reached. “In Der Strafkolonie” the best poem of the collection, Griffin writes: “I opened the Black Book of the night because a chill/ had crawled along my skin. It was the braille/of absence tracing its sentence on my flesh,/”
The best kind of poetry relays singular experiences to a universal sensitivity, and Griffin does that here, wonderfully. His work is evocative and renders anew the beautiful ache of knowing: “This requiem is as old as the earth itself,/as it rinses the flesh with ancient tears,/daubs the bones, white-washes the marrow/and delivers ciphers of sand and dust/the very next surf will wipe away.”