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A Review of Michael McGriff's "Dismantling the Hills"

 Third Coast, Spring 2010
A Review of Michael McGriff's Dismantling the Hills

The poems of Michael McGriff’s debut collection, Dismantling the Hills, winner of the University of Pittsburgh Press’ 2007 Agnes Lynch Starett Poetry Prize, find their genesis in McGriff’s upbringing in Coos Bay, Oregon, a small, hardnosed, working-class town of the Pacific Northwest.  These poems often come as addresses to members of McGriff’s childhood or to the landscape of Coos Bay itself where, in "Ash and Silt," industry’s imprint is everywhere: “a grid of service roads, a net / stretched over thousands of acres of Douglas Fir."  In the midst of a major decline in its logging industry, bucking timber and the “dust of stars, the grain of timber, the burls in the hearts of men” are replaced by employment at the local Walmart in “When the Spirit Come to Him as the Voice of Morning Light,” and McGriff’s personaes are haunted by “the weight of log rafts at low tide” and by “the boy who lived on this corner / …shimmied raft to raft, / slipped between the logs and never came back” (Ash and Silt).

A poet looking into the past is often a poet trying to change that which has already occurred, and McGriff is no exception— his empathy for those who shared his experiences a much greater force within these poems than the experiences themselves. 

The collection’s opening poem, “Iron,” for example, tells the story of myth-playing as a child with a girl along a mountain logging road: “You were the Queen of Iron / and I, the servant Barcelona… / Jake Brakes sounded the death cries / of approaching armies as they screamed over the ridge / where… / we passed the spell of invisibility between us.”  Moving at an almost furious narrative pace, the next line leaps five years forward into their young adulthoods when the girl stabs one of their classmates, is impregnated by her father, and McGriff, our speaker, “never [sees] her again.” 

McGriff, like so many young men the poem is about, makes grand “plans to drive a claw hammer into his skull” and imagines leaving town, declaring “I could say I left town for both of us, that I drove I-5 South / and for the first time felt illuminated before… / the massive turbines / spinning on the beige and dusty hills…”  But, of course, he never does, and the poem takes one of those wonderfully imaginative turns that is the maker of great poetry:


In the book I read before bed, God lowers himself

through the dark and funnels his blueprints into the ear

of a woman who asks for nothing.  Tomorrow night

she’ll lead armies, in a few more she’ll burn at the stake

and silver birds will rise from her mouth.  This is the book

of the universe…

The closing eight lines to follow are even better, transforming the speaker’s childhood friend upon which so much tragedy  has fallen into a romantic heroine-- Coos Bay and its own tragic story her domain.

The poems that follow share this ususual fusion of heroics and elegy, McGriff’s subject matter oscillating between his father who, in "Ash and Silt, is “blind without glasses…never read about anything / he couldn’t touch”; his mother in “Mother Expanding from the Piano, the Light, the Whales (2)” whose “left hand is grief / her right, beauty” hangs above the keys of the piano; the land-and-people-scape of "Coos Bay," "The World’s Largest Lumber Port,/ The yellow hulk of Cats winding bayfront chip yards, / betting on high-school football // at the Elks Lodge, bargemen, / abandoned Army barracks…"; and all of the various in-betweens: young love, first jobs, death, and questions of religion to name a few.

A lyricist at heart, McGriff is a masterful maker of metaphor:


those tiny spiral staircases

he collects by the handful

(“Five for the Roofer”)


Like the blue elephants

we watched and never understood

under instant patchwork tents next to the highway


the river makes a slow gray drop

to its knees.

(“Lower McKenzie”)


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 in the sky


through which it came.

(“When the Spirit Comes to Him as the Voice of Morning Light”)

He’s a lover of language, too, utilizing a rough iambic in lines such as the opening to “76 Tank Farm, Highway 101": “I still want to know / who watched over those drums, / put an ear to their rusted // sides and waited / for the petroleum hush…”  He has an adept ear and knows how to use it in the brief couplets of “Cormorants”: “Watching the breakers // stack against the early light / I remember my old desire //  to wear the house / of the hermit crab // and skitter under the riptide / past the town’s // invisible border” and in the longer lines of “Seasons between Night and Day”: “Somewhere between eternity and the filthy skin / of the millpond, the stars. / …Somewhere between…[my mother] and the stars, / my father and hundreds of men / punch out of Georgia Pacific’s sawmill forever, / the forklifts behind them at half-mast, other machines chained to barges / with Japanese names / before the workers file out of the alien yard.”

The result is a swiftly moving volume of poetry that leaves us with a sense of longing, for the Coos Bays of our own childhoods and for those few years before adulthood when it was a curiosity for the natural world and those passing through it that defined us.  But there’s something sinister too about this place that occupies such a large space in this young poet’s mind, something lurking and destructive and impossible to define that informs the more lyrical impulse of these poems.  Perhaps its poverty.  Perhaps its hard work and desperation itself.  Or perhaps it’s his innate love for a place that, even as a child, he senses is coming to its end. 

What’s probably most impressive about Dismantling the Hills is that McGriff pulls all of this off without a hint of sentimentality or the convoluted desire to do something new.  These are, after all, poems we’ve seen before.  But who gives a damn when the poems are this well written, this truthfully rendered on the page?

It’s possible that the best poems in Dismantling the Hills come in the first fifteen pages, the long, leaping, narrative lines of “Iron,” “Ash and Silt” and “Coos Bay” overshadowing the more fragmented, declarative poems that follow.  But it wouldn’t be fair to denigrate this book for knowing how to knock a reader out in the first round, and there are few books of poetry that open as successfully as this one does. 

It would be fair to say that this book could benefit from some section breaks, the poems bleeding together at times with the lack of white space or thematic/tonal shifts that sections would likely allow for.  But to say that the only good poems in the book come at the beginning would be folly.  There’s “Buying and Selling”: a poem about a father and daughter selling cordwood in an empty lot in homage to Phillip Levine’s poem of the same title.  There’s the wonderfully imaginative “The Last Temptation of Christ” in which the speaker reads “the Bible literally… / [that the] waters parted and desperate people / and a few stray animals crawled // through mud and over sea creatures / that by now must be extinct.”  And there’s the extraordinary dawn that occurs in “Cormorants,” the collection’s final poem:

This is the moment

    when the daybreak’s blown fuse


severs the coiled fog

    from the spit;


when bait hunters

   scour the crush


of beachbreak for sand crabs;

      when a tide pool ticks


and its single eel


   feels time getting closer…



I come back and say yes


   to the whorled fingerprints



under the whitecaps of Coos Bay.

   Let a cormorant…fly



with the remarkable freight

   of our lives…


These poems certainly do.

Check out the review @ Third Coast.com