Rachel Eliza Griffiths Reads W. S. Merwin
Rachel Eliza Griffiths joins Kevin Young to discuss “Rain Light,” by W. S. Merwin, and her own poem “Heart of Darkness.” Griffiths is a poet and an artist who has received fellowships from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Cave Canem Foundation, and Yaddo, among others. Her latest book is “Lighting the Shadow.”
Below is an automated transcript of this podcast episode.
Kevin Young [00:00:04] Hello. You’re listening to The New Yorker poetry podcast. I’m Kevin Young poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine. As you may know on this program. We invite poets to pick a favorite poem from The New Yorker archive to read and discuss alongside a poem of their own that’s appeared in the magazine. My guest today is Rachel Eliza Griffiths a poet and artist who’s received fellowships from the Robert Rauschenberg foundation Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Cave Canem Foundation and Yado, among others. In 2012 for a collection “Mule and Pear,” was the inaugural winner of the Poetry Award from The Black Caucus the American Library Association. Eliza welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:00:45] Thank you for having me, Kevin.
Kevin Young [00:00:47] So the poem you’ve chosen to read today is “Rain Light” by W.S. Merwin. Can you tell us why this one felt particularly special to you?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:00:55] Sure. So, unfortunately, and very sadly, recently we lost W.S. Merwin although we still have his poems. And each day I’ve been thinking about Merwin’s work his spirit his energy who he was, all of the different things he saw in his life. And then just the fact of kind of time passing and at the beginning of the year it was Mary Oliver a few days after W.S. Merwin it was Linda Gregg and I remembered actually the issue of The New Yorker when this poem came out and how I kind of tore it out of the out of the magazine and carried it around until it kind of fell apart in my hands. There was just something in the poem for me that spoke to so many aspects of, of living and ways to be. And so I think that’s some of what I can say. And Merwin himself said that “Rain Light” was not a rational poem. And I just love that.
Kevin Young [00:01:52] Well let’s hear it. Here’s Rachel Eliza Griffiths reading “Rain Light” by W.S. Merwin
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:02:31] “Rain Light” by W.S. Merwin.
Kevin Young [00:02:38] That was “Rain Light” by W.S. Merwin which ran in the March 3rd, 2008 issue of the magazine. I’m really glad we’re talking about Merwin and because he was in the magazine over two hundred times over seven decades which is just an incredible thing and I’ve been thinking a lot about both the magazine being fortunate enough to have published him that much but also that relationship to a writer which, are there other places that we can think of that had that sustained connection. I’m not sure.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:03:07] No I don’t think so. I mean every time I saw a Merwin poem in The New Yorker it was an event and I found myself again kind of ripping the poem out to carry it around with me. And really appreciated. Whenever those events would happen are so many it’s so rich it’s wonderful.
Kevin Young [00:03:26] Yeah I miss the magnetic. The one I miss of how magnets on fridges is you know the poem or you go to someone’s house and be a New Yorker poem from ten years before that got them through.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:03:39] Absolutely.
Kevin Young [00:03:40] I love that you cut that out and kept it its disintegration seems also part of the form of the poem almost. It’s a poem about leaving but also about what stays. It has that elegiac tone that I think we’re going off often has. Do you think of it as a proper elegy or just elegiac? How do you think about the form in a way?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:04:02] It’s interesting because it is elegiac and at the same time I find a certain kind of reassurance in it of a kind of going on or continuum that there is a kind of way that you move in the world and know the world even though holes and gaps and like things go missing and lost in Merwin write so much about memory and so it kind of is this assurance that you will be remembered. Things will be forgotten. Things will be saved or lost or discarded. And yet the world will go on and I love the sense of the world in the poem. So it’s elegiac to me. But at the same time, it has that that strange Merwin energy where the whole world is burning sounds intense but at the same time, it sounds like well here’s a way to go forward through those flames which I love.
Kevin Young [00:04:53] Well it’s like a cleansing fire or a light in a way.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:04:57] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:04:57] I love that line. The washed colors of the afterlife. How do you take that line?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:05:03] It’s extraordinary. I mean I don’t don’t I’m like how did he get away with that.
Kevin Young [00:05:08] I’m like if someone hands it and people are like well I’m not sure that was good. But then, of course, that’s what you’re going to remember you know.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:05:15] Exactly. I mean I think Merwin seemed to me to write from this kind of first mine intuitive mystic kind of place and the washed colors of the afterlife. It seems I don’t want to say baptism but just kind of this certain dying like “dye” dying of faith but also that there’s something to be made like there’s a there’s an object there’s a there’s an art to this. And it also reminds me I was thinking of it on my way here that I had just last week checked out this Jasper Johns Show and I kept hearing Merwin and that energy of Jasper Johns and his regrets and these different things and caustic work that he does and it has that kind of gray, grays and white and nuance and shadow that is happening and I feel like that’s happening in this poem too that I could walk into a gallery and see rain light which is cool.
Kevin Young [00:06:10] Yeah it has a physicality and I love that about the Johns is a fascinating comparison because you know Johns is using a caustic and often and using wax with coloring in and it’s like a tough process but it leaves this kind of built up color almost, it’s not just saturated it’s almost part of the canvas or something.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:06:31] It’s like residue and then you are burning. Your burning your scraping your you’re chiseling. And so that kind of burning I’m like oh I can see that I can see that as a thing. I also really love in this poem all the verbs of kind of watching, see, look reminding us to kind of be observant in our day to day moment even though we’re most mostly engaged with kind of where the fire is like what’s happened today in the news and here’s the fire and we’re all stampeding toward it but actually there’s also this other kind of washed out kind of chilled out spot of bliss that you can find if you want to find it if you want to see it. And that it’s there any way for you whether you’re seeing it or not.
Kevin Young [00:07:11] Well it’s interesting because rain light is both physical in a way but it’s also a kind of idea and you know it might be something that you see in the rain or the light of the rain. There’s a lot of double and triple meanings there but then it starts with the stars in the daytime which is one of those fascinating things that when you realize the stars are always there but we think of them as quote coming out at night.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:07:37] Nocturnal.
Kevin Young [00:07:38] That’s a really interesting place to start not with with like that isn’t there.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:07:43] Mm hmm mm hmm. And I I like that just rain light also is never static. It’s always going to be something different than the last time you saw light touch rain or that kind of like nature. I especially love in New York particularly, you know, the way the sky can look after a rainstorm or before a rainstorm. There’s something almost theatrical and dramatic about it. And at the same time, it’s never never repetition and at the same time, there is a repetition of every night. Here are the stars again. Here’s the rain again. Here’s the light again. Here’s death again. Here’s flowers again water again. Right. And that there’s this cycle. You know I think he was at the whole of that cycle especially with his garden and just his way of being in the world.
Kevin Young [00:08:28] Well it’s very classic kind of almost an ode to the language you mentioned with Johns, the chiseling and I feel like what’s fastening about Merwin is how he chiseled away at his form. You know, and poetic form in general but specifically his sort of mid-century you know the metered form that he started with and then he changes here and elsewhere into something really present. And I think in other hands like we’re saying the washcloths of the afterlife are these big ideas the sun and the Hill and the cloud would become lesser. But for him, they become archetypical because they’re so earned their so much part of his form and what his vision let’s call it.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:09:13] Yeah, I totally agree with you. The way that you can read it, I love that you have to really be mindful of your own breath while you’re reading it and the words kind of sit in a breath. They sit in air and remind you how he’s able to break the line so that when you’re reading it it also sounds very similar. And it’s kind of the weight happens or the inflection happens on the words as you need them to feel or need them to be the way burning could sound how quiet the poem is. And yet this urgency and immediacy. And actually I feel that this poem could be picked up fifty years from now and there would be something worth your breath to say worth his breath to hear and you can hear his voice. I also was thinking about this poem because I only saw Merwin read once many years ago. I think around shadow of serious time and he read at the 92nd Street Y with our beloved Lucille Clifton and I was looking at his work and then thinking about Clifton’s where there is this forging this burning this you know the way that breath happens in her poems. And so I found this kind of symbiotic energy about kind of the world and the voice and kind of this is what I know this is what I don’t know. But here’s a poem here’s a birth here’s a labor here’s work I like work. Thinking about the two of them.
Kevin Young [00:10:43] Do you think that the poem is a gesture toward knowledge or comes out of knowledge or is it a gesture towards full discovery or is it both?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:10:54] I think it’s a mixture. I think it’s a mixture. I mean there’s some knowledge that you have that no one else has that you you know you offer into the poem your deciding form device is language rhythm sound musicality images you know lyric whatever that is. I mean the most interesting poems to me are kind of, you know you get to the end of the poem writing it or reading it and it’s you know this echo and echo of of discovery as far as I never want to write I know many poets feel this way. I never want to set out to write a poem that lacks discovery that I just know what the end is and here’s the bow. The most boring so I think it’s a mixture.
Kevin Young [00:11:39] Well it’s interesting because both Clifton and Merlin I think are poets who on the surface might’ve seen their work is simple or you know it’s on punctuated often but it’s so punctuated by line break and you know I think her line is very different. But I’m I’m very interested these days in thinking about breath and the line as a breath and what does that mean and you know are our breaths different Here there’s almost a kind of breathless quality but the lines are so clear to me in the Merwin and Clifton I think gives us a really interesting different complicated version of speech as well.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:12:17] Absolutely.
Kevin Young [00:12:18] I almost wanted it to be a sonnet but it’s not quite right.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:12:21] No no it’s it’s bucking against I mean.
Kevin Young [00:12:26] Darnit, I always want everything to be almost a sonnet. Oh well. I’d love to talk with you about your poem. So in the February 11th, 2019 issue The New Yorker printed your poem “Heart of Darkness,” which you’ll read for us shortly. Is there anything you like to tell us about the poem first. Don’t give too much away but is there anything that might be important for listeners to know in advance.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:12:51] I don’t think so. I think this poem is pretty straightforward. And it’s energy and sound and it is a sort of elegy. I’ll say that much and it’s an allergy for a particular person in a particular city at a particular time. And, you know, the time that I find myself in now looking around New York sometimes and things vanishing and reappearing and coming out and going back not quite the same when you meet extraordinary people who leave and you know you’re left with with what the what their vision was.
Kevin Young [00:13:27] This is Rachel Eliza Griffiths reading her poem Heart of Darkness.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:13:34] Heart of Darkness by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Kevin Young [00:15:36] Thank you very much.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:15:37] Sure.
Kevin Young [00:15:37] That was “Heart of Darkness” by Rachel Isaac Griffiths. I’m really amazed by your reading of the poem. You’re a one-take artist which I admire, not being one myself but I also think that there’s something about the breath in this poem. The line breaks are very there’s a lot of enjambment and there’s a lot of turning on the line and I love that enjambment is such a good word meaning throwing the leg over from one line to the next. Well, there’s something about, you capture I think wonderfully Cecil Taylor not only his amazing outfit which I both jealous of and just amazed by and this kind of flirty wise musical character that he has even when he’s not playing music.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:16:26] Cecil was extraordinary. And I remember this day it was kind of one of my New York days. I have just arrived in New York in a way. And you know he comes down the street like a unicorn like he’s just like there’s no one I mean the clothes the everything. And he just knew himself. He knew the sidewalk that was under his feet the air around him. And so he has that beautiful, he had that beautiful way you know that musicians and music people have where they’re just hearing a song all the time and you can tell that they’re kind of bopping around with it but even the way Cecil talked you know long pauses sometimes and then a flurry of words. And I had never met anyone like that and I don’t I don’t think anyone will ever meet someone like Cecil Taylor. But also if you heard him play the actual dissonance the movement the cacophony the triple enjambment that of just the lines stacking up on each other are toppling over flipped over leg arm elbow up.
Kevin Young [00:17:30] Akimbo.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:17:31] Whole body. Yes. And so wild you know and startling I think in a way that I want poems to be just startling and troubling and surprising where you can’t sit back and have like the poem wash over you. I feel like gotta put your elbow grease in it and like get involved.
Kevin Young [00:17:46] Well I think that you know our listeners I’m sure, have heard Cecil Taylor but perhaps it has been a while or haven’t. I think this poem will remind them of the ways that he is so inventive and as you said sort of physical but also unexpected. And I think that quality is in the poem both in his style let’s call it but also in your lines and your enjambment and your elbows and knees and everything else. I’m really interested too in the way that you know were you familiar when you met him with his music or I mean one must be but were you?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:18:26] I was slightly but not as much. After I met him it sent me running to find his stuff. And again there’s a certain kind of a rarity in him where you have to look to find Cecil Taylor and you have to get involved.
Kevin Young [00:18:37] What did you find what was your hope. Tell us your discoveries.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:18:40] I just like this cat is wild his brother, I mean this is an OG here, I mean a great great radical racist and I was listening and listening and I thought wow like how did this happen. You know it’s like an earth in front of you in your ear and like that.
Kevin Young [00:18:59] Was a record that for you is as totemic of his.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:19:03] No because you know I think he was always after something different each time you get.
Kevin Young [00:19:08] And free jazz I think or however, you want to characterize him very much is.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:19:13] Yeah ruptures everywhere and at the same time it just there it was full bodied full throated I feel I love that.
Kevin Young [00:19:21] Yeah well I love this to hear you say with some poets and Cecil Taylor but because also there’s an implication of course that he is not a poet but also that he is a poet in the poem and you say that later I remembered later when we stood on the sidewalk sugar and poetry in us period heat. That’s a great line break and you capture a lot of things here. A New York summer which you know unless you’ve had the pleasure of 95 degrees sweating in the subway perhaps this is a foreign pleasure but then it comes pretty soon you’re like I love that you know. I often am here in August and everyone’s gone you know to wiser milder climes and I’m like you know sweating in the shower. But I also think there’s something about your capturing about memory because I’m really interested in the mix you have between memory and elegy now these things often coincide but there’s something about how you start the poem years ago I went to NoHo Star with some poets and Cecil Taylor Noho Star is close now and Cecil died yesterday I walked. There’s this you know the walking is almost part of what the poem is doing it’s kind of a walk and I love the idea of a poem as a kind of walk or a motion through the world. But there’s something about that dining which poets like to do and that sharing that he’s saying, this heart of darkness which you’re trying to capture. Tell us more about that.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:20:57] Sure, so you know I really love what you’re saying about the kind of walk and you know I remember when the announcement went up that that Cecil had died I thought you know it just really overwhelmed me and I just started walking. You know I literally started to walk but as you said I’m walking through memory you know around the time that Noho Star closed Temple Bar closed like all these French Roast had closed or I’m like oh I’m in the area now where everything I love this is closed Cafe Loup. I think something I think that’s been seized. And so.
Kevin Young [00:21:32] Right. I mean Colson says you know you’re a New Yorker the moment when you say that like that used to be this you know.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:21:39] Right and I find myself you know even in the last few years with so many tremendous poets kind of leaving us and things dying. But particularly with this Cecil in some way had kind of remained a memory this moment for me that all those years since that actual moment I had never tried to write about Cecil I had never tried to say oh that was a great poem. Suddenly it was the collision of all of these things kind of being dead or dying. And then Cecil there brought them together which made me actually think I could write about them. I mentioned my mother who died five years ago. And so that too was kind of in photographs of her from the 70s these kind of chiffon dresses and things. And so in a way I was able to pull her in the her presence in the poem as well but it was one of those nights in New York where you know know NoHo Star had this wonderful dessert menu that was all kind of literary things. And Cecil, Heart of Darkness. You couldn’t even make it up. And that’s that’s the way sometimes New York can be where something happens in a night or a morning or someone walks down the sidewalk or you see it’s a corny word like a miracle but it kind of it is that. And it’s it’s about memory but it’s also kind of like going forward. But then you have this thing in you now that you can pull up or you you thought you’d forgotten. And I hadn’t really thought about that and I thought when did I first meet Cecil you know and then that’s when I just sat down and started scribbling I’m really thinking of him. Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:23:16] I think the thing I was going to ask you about the mother because that vintage dress in an eye and an ivory was a great set of phrases there. I in an ivory dress that was vintage instead of saying I was wearing an old vintage you know I was wearing this kind of off white you know that all the choices there I think are very sharp. But also there’s this real sense that the speaker the I is invoking the mother both in the poem and the memory and the elegy but then also in the selfhood in this new the new to the I dress the new garment that is being sort of conjured here.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:23:58] Yeah I think that feeling of kind of as I get older the way that I see my mother is in the mirror in the morning.
Kevin Young [00:24:05] Wow.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:24:05] And so myself at this time when I met Cecil being in the dress I was more me.
Kevin Young [00:24:11] Sure.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:24:12] And now thinking about it. You know my mother is in every dress I wear and some kind of way whether she would approve or not is another question but I’m thinking of her as being who she might have been back in the 70s or something wearing a kind of dress like this as a young woman. And you know what was she like and who was she. And so there’s something in that as far as also I mean I just was like thank goodness Cecil complimented me on my dress because he looked like a rock star and I thought oh my gosh you know this man.
Kevin Young [00:24:46] You had no idea you were going to meet him. You know total okay.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:24:49] I’d never met him before.
Kevin Young [00:24:51] But you were styling luckily.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:24:53] As we must assume must Kevin.
Kevin Young [00:24:56] So I have a question sort of about your work in general and thinking about I know for me and my work you know my father die it’s almost like before you know and after you know in terms of one’s work and I wonder how do you feel like your work’s changed and is this from a new body of work. Tell us about that.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:25:16] Sure. My last book was called lighting the shadow to loop back to Merwin. Merwin is definitely present in that kind of notion of light and shadow. Very much so. And I turned that in in 2015 and July in the summer actually and literally two weeks later my mother died. So the woman who wrote those poems who you know did those edits on that book a lot of her died too. And this poem “Heart of Darkness” is from a new book that I’ve been working on called “Mother Mirror God” it’s elegies but celebrations both of my mother but also the world that I now look around at in a different way. There’s a certain searing clarity whether I want it or not.
Kevin Young [00:26:01] Yeah.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:26:02] About time and desire and grief. And so it was wonderful kind of working on the book and having to think of my mother and bring her life into a different form in a way parts of it. And then again this the parts of it that I can never know being acknowledged as well and being grateful to be her daughter. But yes this is from a new forthcoming thing that I’m super excited about.
Kevin Young [00:26:29] What I’ve seen of it it’s been really tremendous. So I’m looking forward to the whole. Are there more music poems as well. Or is that something you think of. I, of course, love a music poem. So you know what do you see and that maybe is a better way to ask it.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:26:44] Sure. I usually always have a music a musician kind of who’s orchestrating things unconsciously so in my head it was Nina Simone.
Kevin Young [00:26:55] Okay.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:26:56] Miss Simone was kind of working things or showing me the ropes and in ‘Lighting the Shadow” it was oddly it was Johnny Cash The Man in Black.
Kevin Young [00:27:08] He helped me with a book called Dear Darkness as well.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:10] I love that book.
Kevin Young [00:27:11] Thanks. Thanks.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:12] So fantastic.
Kevin Young [00:27:14] Well and so what about this new book. What do you feel?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:16] This book is Stevie Wonder. It’s Stevie.
Kevin Young [00:27:19] OK. So we have to take a moment to talk Stevie which Stevie like if you had desert island Stevie one record one album.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:28] Songs In The Key Of Life. Wow. See.
Kevin Young [00:27:30] OK. See I’m an Inner Vision kind of guy.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:36] Inner Vision! I’ll go there with you. Song in the Key of Life.
Kevin Young [00:27:38] Mr. Know It All, these songs and then some of the you know All in Love is Fair, one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard in my life.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:47] I mean it’s heartbreaking it’s devastating.
Kevin Young [00:27:49] There’s something beautiful and sexy about that record.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:27:51] Yeah. No it’s it’s definitely sexy and it’s it’s amazing. I have a poem called As. Which is about my mother. But then again I feel like it actually has some of that rain light energy as. And then epigram over the book is did you know you’re loved by somebody which Stevie ask kind of in the middle in the chorus of As he’s like Did you know you love by somebody. And I thought yeah that’s it. That question.
Kevin Young [00:28:15] Right, that’s great.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:28:16] Yeah. Thank you.
Kevin Young [00:28:18] Well I’m really looking forward to it and seeing more and hearing Stevie through you. Sounds wonderful. Eliza thank you for chatting with us today.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths [00:28:27] Thank you so much, Kevin. It’s been a delight.
Kevin Young [00:28:31] “Heart of Darkness” by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as well as W.S. Merwin’s poem “Rain Light” can be found a new yorkerdot.com the essential W.S. Merwin was published in 2017.
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