Lighting the Shadow
By Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Four Way Books, 2015
Reviewed by Cheryl R. Hopson
Rachel Eliza Griffiths opens her fourth full-length collection, Lighting the Shadow, with the poem The Dead Will Lead Us, in which she writes, “This, / is what you must learn / by heart. The closed flesh / as commandment, a terra cotta / smear of fingerprints / praying along the blue cave.” The poet continues,
Lighting the shadow, a woman
crawls out beneath her own war.
The Dead Will Lead Us is only one of the book’s many epigraphs. The speakers in these poems have come to tell us what we must learn by heart – that transgressions, violence, rage, and caustic elements and ideas will “crawl out” of the shadow to struggle “with this blow of light.”
Griffiths’ collection is divided into four sections, Diaphanous Corpse, A Dark Race for Enlightenment, Verses From The Dead Americans’ Songbook, and The Human Zoo. The book has the feel of a patchwork quilt; or better still, a mosaic of images that strike at the heart and trouble the mind. These images are at once severe and magnificent.
The speaker of The Dead Will Lead Us talks of mercy as “the pulse of lupin / in a yellow field,” and of her “mother’s / Eyes” as “forgotten vases of irises.” But she does not explain herself further, nor does she ever come out from beyond the shadow. So what are readers to make of this poem, of the collection itself, and of the woman at the center, crawling out from beneath her own war?
We know of the speaker’s reliance on women artists of the recent past, such as celebrated Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who is famous for her self-portraits and depictions of physical suffering and love:
there is a death mask of your face
on the canopied bed.
We know of the speaker’s calling on the late African-American poet Lucille Clifton, who said “I write as a Black woman,” and left it at that:
Lucille, how wild
And we know of the speaker’s looking to Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser, who told of the power of a woman’s truth to split open her own and other worlds:
Muriel : / […] of imagined ablution
In poems such as 26, Elegy, and Anti Elegy, the speakers indict America for its obsession with guns and its acceptance of the daily blighting of black, brown, young and old lives; its deadening/deafening bullets aimed at the Trayvons, Michaels, Jordans, and James.’
The poet tells us that she “won’t leave them / huddled like bulls inside the stall of a word,” these boys and men and women and children whose “names toll in [her] dreams.” These ceaseless dreams become nightmares are now hers, and our own national legacy’s.
Lighting the Shadow is a powerful collection. The book is at turns elegiac and raging, personal and transpersonal, dreamlike and nightmarish. It’s a collection that showcases a poet at work – “Thighs stoned by vandals” – and in process.
Cheryl R. Hopson, PhD, is an assistant professor of African American Literature at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She has published essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, as well as on U.S. Black feminist sisterhood. Her chapbook Black Notes was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.