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september 23, 2019 issue
A poet's “I” is not herself.
By Eliza Griswold
Illustrations by Harriet Lee-Merrion
n “First Person,” Eliza Griswold writes of “I,” a character in all senses—a separate self who is both estranged and strangely familiar. Griswold has taken the Whitmanesque “I”—“I” as everyone—and made it unmistakably singular. Here, “I” is an early twenty-first-century person who has seen better days: “Much like the world / destabilized by rising / temperatures and seas, // I can approach / catastrophe.” Though the sequence nods to the surreal and the psychological—Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre”—there are also echoes of John Berryman and Sylvia Plath, poets closer to home whose self-awareness was enacted on the page in the form of characters, masks, new selves. “I” especially wrestles with gender roles, conjuring the bland duties of adulthood and the stresses of motherhood: “Disposable as instrument, / I sings herself hoarse.” The poems are dramatic and witty, verse as vaudeville.
The first person is often excised from journalism, which is one of Griswold’s many mediums; she recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” a work of nonfiction centered on life in a small Appalachian town. She has also written and theorized about the hot zone between the equator and the tenth parallel, and recorded the poetry of Pashtun women in Afghanistan. Where Griswold’s journalism is immersive and adventurous, “First Person” is wry and intimate, sophisticated and all her own—imagining the adventure that is being.
—Kevin Young
I is a lion
who snarls
at the lion
in the water
who snarls.
hurt people
Troubled, I goes to the doctor,
who asks her to draw herself
with a Crayola marker. I sketches
Cotton Mather. Puritans are chic,
three centuries on, their strictures
ripe for redemption.
Turns out the things they did
and said aren’t all that bad
in the light of what they’d fled.
Hurt people hurt people.
Cotton and his father, Increase,
conjured the Salem tribunals.
Later Cotton tried to claim
he’d never attended an execution,
but he’d been spotted jeering
in the mob, exhorting
a drowning woman to fly.
empty heaven and its hymns
I doesn’t dream.
She doesn’t seem
to have a sleeping state.
High-strung, hyper-vigilant,
she’s one plucked nerve
away from springing
free of struts and frets.
Which might be wonderful.
The man who plays the blue guitar
doesn’t care what happens to his strings.
Disposable as instrument,
I sings herself hoarse.
Late at night, she jokes
among the other frayed strings,
cat gut my tongue.
a rock rolled out of bed
Before I died, she came to me
saying she’d stumbled on
the universe’s secret, stubbed
her toe so many times on a rock
in the road, the rock rolled out
of its bed, crying, Woman,
is it never enough?!
I peered at the rock, studied its face,
maybe its belly. Did it have a tiny
mouth where all the rigid principles
that rule the galaxy dissolve?
No way to tell. The quarks
had pulled themselves together.
In Revelation, when the white stone deigns
to speak, it offers a new name.
One came. Had it spoken?
Or was her bothered brain
more broken than she’d feared?
I straightened up.
old school
I is pre-millennial, and so
much of what forged her
is actionable now: the Fox News guy
slipping his phone number
over the anchor’s desk,
below the camera’s eye;
the radio host calling her a failure
for becoming a mother. The time
she was shamed for wearing a burka.
At lunch last week a board member
guessed at her weight, pitting her
against his eighty-pound doodle.
What’s to be said? Since none
of these moments mattered,
or seemed to when the body
was a distraction, an impediment
to getting things done, which I did.
I jokes she’s a Scout
knocking on your soul’s door
with one free offer
or another, maybe a tote.
And you, supposed master
of evasive maneuvers, peer
through the blinds, feigning absence.
Still, all smiles, she persists.
You might try the Cheshire manner
of refusal, half grin, half grimace
same aim of disappearance.
Unfazed, I will press her face
to the pane and wait.
Holding tight to the wall,
you’ll have to drop and crawl
to the toilet at some point.
I knows. She’s already earned
her badge in you.
I understands how you might feel
that where she parked the car
reveals a kind of disregard
bordering on disrespect.
You didn’t say or have to say
as much—it was the way
your eyelids fluttered near each
other in caress, as if to arm
your consciousness against
expressing exasperation
at the continual arrival
of unpredictable events
that come along with I.
Much like the world
destabilized by rising
temperatures and seas,
I can approach
catastrophe, a carnival
run amok. I is sorry.
singer futura
I is instinct gone awry. Sugar,
speed, near death, she loved
to limn oblivion, thrived
off the grid, since the grid
was fraught with dead ideas
of what a life should be.
In her inherited America,
mothers don’t risk
their skins. They monogram and fold.
the morning after
After I left the land of wine-soaked solace,
she sought another kind of chaos.
Insisting on sadness, on seeking the world
as it is, she called Dionysus,
the morning after,
bits of mysterious skin
in his tannin-stained teeth—
vegetable, animal, grape, human;
there was no way of being certain
what he’d bitten into.
Who’s calling?, he roared,
half serious, knowing rage
is comic at its height, and I,
ardent scribe, bristled with thrill
and tugged out her notebook,
eager to share any awful story.
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