Lighting the Shadow, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s fourth book, deepens her lush, neo-gothic sensibilities, concerned with the personal, political, and “questions light cannot answer.” The third sequence of four, “Verses from The Dead Americans’ Songbook,” finds darkly alliterative music in contemporary traumas: “I don’t want to write the word Hope / on a headstone. I don’t want to count the splinters / in a child’s cheek. I don’t want to tell my son / to leave the hooded sweatshirt / at home.” At times the narrators of the poems speak in off-rhyme, a stark and elliptical approach that recalls Plath’s: “I’ve worn a black suit / my entire life. It suits the war / my eyes ignite.” Griffiths’s lexicon is full of wings, blood, and stones, as she is “Passing through the aviary of dead poets” to a space that is her own, specifically identifiable by her strange and graceful imagery: “There is the Queen Anne’s / lace of a child’s laugh, the froth of the ferry’s wake, the man / patting his bicycle like a pet.” The pictorial-art technique chiaroscuro, the contrasting use of light and shadow, often present in Griffiths’s visual artwork, comes to mind as a reader encounters poems in which “Gatsby’s green heart / of a wish” feels more like a photographic negative of America’s promise.
This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2015.