by Marylen Grigas
Nature’s Face Publications. 2016.
One of the first poems in Marylen Grigas’ Shift, “About Muscle,” relates the life cycle of a sea squirt, a creature whose time on earth culminates when it comes to rest on a rock and devours its own brain. “Don’t let me settle,” Grigas writes after considering the animal’s lifespan. The poem that begins with a simple report of a single species’ shift from one part of its life to another quickly becomes an anthem about forward momentum, a protest against inertia. The poem concludes with a shift from the sea squirt to a more personal anecdote: “I started moving and arranging boulders last fall./ I thought I was making a terrace. But afterward it looked more like a grave.” Even movement, even the most productive work, Grigas realizes, is a precursor to the eventual settling, a precursor to immobility. Poets see the world differently. Most people see the first sprig of green in the spring as a harbinger of life. Robert Frost sees dissolution. Grigas sees an action that most would consider to be active, the betterment of her yard, as a herald of torpor.
“About Muscle” is an excellent introduction to this volume that so often turns to science for its metaphors. Like “About Muscle,” the next two poems, “Foreign Cities” and “The First Cell: Longing” take as their subject natural history. But the book doesn’t fall into stagnation, doesn’t just keep doing one thing well. Instead, it keeps moving forward, keeps shifting, because these two poems manage to be not only scientific but also mythological, moving quickly from the image of a singe cell splitting to that of Shiva’s multiple hands. “The First Cell: Longing” then takes a step back to view the grand cycles of life: the cell becomes both “predator and prey,” “enfolder and enfolded.” Everything becomes both Agni and Soma, that which burns and that which is burned. Duality is consumed by a larger vision of the world. This is the kind of vision where the act of building something like a terrace can be re-envisioned as a grave.
Shift, it should be said, is not only concerned with the large issues but, like any other excellent book of poetry, is also sonically taut. It’s no mistake that “First Cell” and “Foreign Cities” share initial consonants. To point out all the auditory symmetry would take more room than this review is allotted. Read the book. Or better yet, read it aloud. As you do, you’ll find that Shift is not just a random collection of poems. Its pieces have been painstakingly stitched together so that one poem shifts deftly into the next. The poems have both simple and complex conversations among themselves. Because of this, one of the glories of the book is that a reader might encounter a seemingly trivial image, but later in the collection a similar image might resonate with it, making it shine with an unusual significance. This book certainly has what Stanley Kunitz would have called an “interior logic.”
In “Night Mending,” Grigas envisions unraveling hems and torn edges. As the sea squirt has already taught us, the world naturally tends toward dissolution. Despite the odds, most humans are obviously intent on trying to curb that tendency: “Knock mind against what it might fix,/ what’s scarred, what it can’t undo.” There’s a lot that we can’t undo. In the end, it’s a losing battle: time and decay will prevail. All we can do is try to make our temporary stitches “neat and even.” All we can do is “patch up the damage.”
Although Shift doesn’t shy away from the theme of mortality, the final poem, entitled “Free Will with Small Yellow Truck,” brings the book back to a more lighthearted and childlike space. In this piece, the speaker delivers her lines in the voice of a two-year-old’s small yellow truck, which is cruising across a coffee table. Grigas writes “I’ve been speaking as a truck for so long, my appearance has transformed.” If we imagine something strong or long enough, the poem suggests, we can become what we imagine. What a positive way to move forward. “Motion is endlessly fascinating,” Grigas writes about the small yellow truck. Yes, we do have the ability to make some forward strides. At least, we have that ability for a while. We come back to the sea squirt, who loses that capability. How long can we sustain our mobility? How much of that is in our control? The borders blur, as they do with every question worth pursuing.
Marylen Grigas’ Shift is elliptical. It’s educational. It’s gorgeous and terrifying at once. The book will make you re-envision your world. It might even make you rethink how you live in it.