Emily McGriffin, Brick Books, 2012

 

Patrick Lane, quoted on the back of the volume, is “undone” by Emily McGiffin. Undone – interesting to consider this word as a descriptor when the collection’s final poem, “Swadeshi” which charts the process of weaving a wool sweater, is merely one instance of McGiffin’s interest here in what’s made of the rags of life (a hooked rug, for instance). But yes, perhaps: undone. Between Dusk and Night, released this past spring, is Emily McGiffin’s first published collection of poetry. As the title suggests, these are poems about waiting and that long last light. From the overture, “Wokkpash,” to the volume’s coda – the abovementioned “Swadeshi” – McGiffin’s poems move from surety in solitude under the open sky – the animal cunning that awakes in us – to the relative precariousness of domestic living.

McGiffin’s most significant accomplishment in this collection is the strong sense of atmosphere throughout, created by the sustained tension between wild and tame, taming wild(er)ness, wilding the domestic. In “Firewood,” strong, single syllable bursts fill the body of the poem:

Bend, pitch, next

piece by piece the day stacked up, split

at the ends by a wedge of dark

thought […]

The meter of the onomatopoeic stack, split, etc., speaks to the strictly regimented existence this – and many of the poems’ speakers – lead. There is the sense throughout that something of the domestic experience need be kept away, some raw thing that one must try to forget. Does this speak particularly to women’s contemporary experience of domesticity? I wonder. I think, on the whole, McGiffin at least makes this connection. In “Firewood,” again, time stretches out, gapes, threatens boredom and the reminder of the speaker’s isolation or confinement. Yes, that too. In poems like “Swadeshi,” the speaker expresses a sort of wild-thing fear of closeness and intimacy. The process of shearing the sheep, soaking and dyeing the wool, the twining, the looming, the weaving of a sweater for the speaker’s “you” is described at length. The gift is meant, ostensibly, to bring the speaker closer to her lover, but in fact postpones the moment of intimacy until the very end of the book, of which the last lines are:

Left, right

you kissed the inside of each wrist.

There, where the skin is thinnest.

 

You took your gift.

It held you all night. (“Swadeshi”)

Even this fleeting moment of closeness is nebulous. The kiss on the thin skin of the wrist suggests more than mere physical connection. At the same time, it’s the gift of the sweater that holds “you” all night, so the collection ends with this unresolved hesitation.

Interestingly, it’s in poems like “Wokkpash,”in which the speaker sits alone in a wood at dusk, observes, uneasily, the “traces of your kind disappear,” and expresses that “old wish to have done better,” that the anxiety of waiting, of not knowing is ultimately mediated:

You crouch there

crepuscular,

animal,

alive (“Wokkpash”)

Time collapses on itself, so that it becomes “only / a measure of forgetfulness,” and, anyway, the speaker says, “It doesn’t matter.”

In the half-dark,

in this wolfish light, you are cold

 

awake with everything thoughtless,

everything without cause,

without reason […]

These two poems are particularly successful, too, because of McGiffin’s expert weighing of concrete images against figurative language. An imbalance between the two results in some awkward moments in, for instance, “Cranes,” where the speaker’s “chest is a cold scrap yard / of broken, rusted things.” The sentiment suits the themes McGiffin seems interested in exploring, but the metaphor here cloys a bit. In the fourth stanza, the speaker describes

Now, midway across the yard, six sandhill cranes

pass overhead. They’re so low I can hear their wings

skin the cold air.

The image of wings “skinning” the air conveys more effectively the reason for the speaker’s sense of cold and “lockjaw,” and anyway, it’s compelling and a bit frightening.

Between Dusk and Night is characterized by a fine attention to detail that allows each poem to breathe, as though in still life. The poems unveil unexpected resonances of open landscapes and close, domestic spaces. Despite occasional awkward moments of abstraction, McGiffin demonstrates an accomplished sensitivity to tactility, to sound and tempo.

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Sarah Bernstein is a writer from Montreal. She recently completed her MA in English at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where she now lives, writes, edits poetry for The Fiddlehead magazine, and shelves books at a French-language library. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in CV2Room, and Numero Cinq magazines.