Sara Burant on Richard Greenfield’s latest poetry collection, SUBTERRANEAN

Subterranean, Richard Greenfield’s latest collection, is a starkly beautiful and haunting book. Situated mostly in the desert Southwest, these poems inhabit a psychic space called grief, a borderland that hems us in and defines our edges, the negative space that shapes our lives. The grief is personal, addressing a father’s death. And it is public, addressing the impacts of our capitalist system upon fragile ecosystems and fragile human communities alike: “in the delicate/evening of emergency   we know // we won’t know   how / to distinguish // from the sales pitch.”

The book opens with “Border,” a poem which begins in the mythic, with Charon and a river, “Water vapor / Visping across / the silver surface,” then seamlessly shifts to the U.S. border: “every child-crosser / tastes it / on barrens / ceremoniously swabs / the body / with rags / filled with river.” In the cross-over, between actual and mythic places, our expectations are re-arranged, upended. The river is in fact dammed. The land it passes through, a “prehistoric oceanbed,” is home to roads, trucks, a roadrunner carcass, trash, “necklaces of teeth.”  We are passing between what states exactly? In liminal spaces, time and place warp. There is no straight line from then to now, from here to there, but rather a resonance between the two, a harmonic tension.

This tension plays out as well in the figure of the deadfather, who is but is not only the speaker’s dead father and is sometimes present without being named: “I see the dead in the / molehole   he may be my hostage … I see the arm of the chair but not the / chair ….” The poem “Subterranean” goes on to list “effects,” that is, items left behind, someone’s personal “effects,” each described with alarming accuracy though the speaker admits he sees “only peripherally.” By such effects and peripheral sightings, through “obscuring canopies,” we come to know “the huge patriarchy of branches,” trees both familial and cultural.

Greenfield’s formal choices serve to sustain the tension. For example, he pairs long lines with steep enjambment, horizontal energy thrusting to vertical, as in these lines from “The Second Circle”:

Did not find the body the body    the body found me    the corpse will not listen
though I speak more faintly to it    not reverently   than I
otherwise would    though not an it    but a subject    killed by
emphysema as reported to me    I was told the subject was alone
on welfare    what other schemes could be forced into that
suitcase?     look at the wound trying to stand …

Formal choices mirror the strain between speaker and father, all the more moving because of its tonal matter-of-factness: “after-belongings / auctioned off to pay for cremation and packaging and shipping of / ashes in red sharps container.” Dante populates his second circle with those who lacked self-restraint. They’re exposed for eternity to a constant “buffeting wind.” In Greenfield’s second circle, the speaker remembers bringing groceries to his father “in a blizzard,” suggesting hell-in-life, the repercussions of the father’s choices upon the son. The father may be dead, but the wound remains.

Eleven poems bear the title “{Transcription.}” Printed with white ink on black paper, these poems ghost the page, enacting negative space, and in a sense bringing the peripheral into the foreground. Observing a mud dauber wasp tending her nest, the speaker experiences a visitation: “the nest is a portal for / the deadfather—through its miniscule / bright tubules he larvally writhes and—enters ….” Through these transcriptions we’re reminded that the deadfather represents more than a personal haunting: “the rubber plant bends / into a hatred next to the deadfather whose / cilia pulse near—the deadfather retched / from the belly of dead fathers—the dry / canals of their penises—flood to feed the pecan orchards.” In biology, transcription is the process by which information in a strand of DNA is copied into a new molecule of messenger RNA, allowing genetic information to be stored and passed on. The deadfather is one of many dead fathers who came to a dry landscape and altered it, diverting water from rivers into canals to feed orchards, to feed growth. The deadfather is a way of being, a conquering, subduing force which ghosts us through the borders we erect, the economic structure we inhabit, how we use the land.

“They estimated the number of species but ignored / the conspiracies it took to survive where one should not // To conspire is to breathe concurrently” observes the poem “Border Authority.” We read here a critique of the vast infrastructure we’ve created in order to inhabit desert places. We read as well commentary upon our shared fate, across arbitrary borders, both human and non-human. Runoff has “fed the dead lake.” We live with or by the “noise of getting.” Capitalism both enslaves and captivates us: “did the captivity choose // us or did we choose the captivity // how did we find the product.” The impact humans have on our landscapes and each other is large, yet we ourselves, the span of our existence, is small, fleeting: “Jornada del muerto is an intervening—in which the dying is only / dying and withers the cell-building on the path of conquistadores, the / errands of their helmets dropped along the wayside / and reabsorbed into the drifts of sugared stone over the milpais … ascetic at sage edge, sage cupped to your nose, / said into the wind ….”

Gorgeous and achingly specific, the language here excites and enchants. A knife has a spey blade. The desert soil, having little clay, is albic. In this “droughtfreaked” landscape, limbs are “laden with marcescent leaves.” The border fence and its setting are both exquisite and terrible: “Sprung upon the mallow sky and aniline cirrus, the studded blades / punctuate the coiled steel concertina.” The imagination, given form, exerts itself against the “pressures of reality” precisely by admitting the contrasts, the mallow sky and the blades and steel.  

Subterranean leaves me with twin questions: is language the negative space against or around which we come to know the world? Or is the world the negative space against or around which our language—and so we—may be experienced? This poetry suggests that the subterranean, what exists at the root, what thrives in scarcity, our bodies and our language capacity are tethers, stays to uphold us within a desert spaciousness that includes but is greater than loss.

Subterranean, by Richard Greenfield. Oakland, California: Omnidawn, April 2018. 96 pages. $17.95, paper.

Poet and climate activist Sara Burant lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her reviews appear somewhat regularly in Omniverse. She is the author of a chapbook, Verge.

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