Friday, March 6, 2009

Review of Bill and Linda French Griffin's "Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary"

Review of Bill and Linda French Griffin’s Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (March Street Press, 59 pages, $15)

Poetry doesn’t sell. Everyone knows that. But Bill and Linda French Griffin have created a beautiful book of poems and sketches that is bound to buck that trend. “Beautiful” is not a word one finds in poetry much anymore. It’s vague, overused, and ultimately so subjective as to be essentially meaningless. It remains, nonetheless, the first word that springs to mind when looking at the Griffins’ Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary. It is a beautiful book of beautiful poems with corresponding beautiful drawings.
Outside the realm of photography, calling a book a “coffee table book” is usually considered something of an insult. In this case, however, it is simply a description of how Snake Den Ridge can be used to add immediate aesthetic beauty, intellectual depth, and meditative calm to any living room or waiting room fortunate enough to have the book placed therein. In other words, because of the poems’ unique combination of intellect and readability and the visual appeal of the sketches, Snake Den Ridge will make any room a more interesting place. How many contemporary books of poetry can make a claim such as that?
According to the book’s preface, “A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals, plants, or other entities of the natural world.” Such books have existed since at least the second century. The poems and sketches in this bestiary combine to present, in the words of the authors, “one week’s experience on an Appalachian mountainside” and “join in celebration of a fabulist natural world, where creatures voice moral messages.”
Glancing at the Table of Contents, the reader is naturally inclined towards the dramatic monologues from his or her favorite animals. In my case, I was sure my preference would be for “Hawk,” “Bobcat,” or “Junco,” and I admit to great pleasure in hearing Hawk proclaim his discriminating tastes:

Oh yes, there’s hunger,
but not for Rabbit --
I’m teaching you
to feed the place
you never knew you had.

Similarly, Bobcat’s confession of discretion conjures a smile from one who has both heard, and much more rarely seen the bobcat but only heard tales of panthers in “these parts”:

do you blame me if I choose
to be invisible?
Was it cousin Panther’s choice
to be exiled from the Ridge
and extirpated?

Finally, for a 20-year bird-watching veteran, the confidence with which Junco (also known as a snowbird) speaks of eluding Hawk’s dives while using his special intimacy with winter to survive “four seasons on the Ridge” brings a nod of recognition and appreciation.
In truth, however, none of these favorites created the most lasting impression upon me. That was achieved by the animals the author placed first and last in the collection, the animals who seem to squabble over actual ownership of this ridge: Raven and Bear. Raven opens the collection with a vital reminder of proper perspective, something most people lost before they were even born and never have the opportunity to regain:

I know from twenty circles
of snowdeep and hungry moons
and twenty circles of fresh shoots
that Sky . . . Water . . . Earth . . .
none of them are mine.

And I know none are yours.”

Reading these lines one can’t help but think of Frost’s absent owner of the woods in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but then Bear concludes the animal monologues with a clear and somewhat eerie refutation of Raven’s claim for the absence of ownership:

Raven is mistaken -- this Ridge is mine.

And if you hear me, it will be the rising chest
of the mountain and its timeless slow
and if you hear me
it will only be because
I didn’t hear you first.

And, finally, in the epilogue, Raven’s words hint towards a different level of “ownership:

Don’t sigh
at my passing -- each morning
and for every dawn to come
I will spread my soul of wings
where they cast no shadow
and invite you to join me as part
and presence
of Snake Den Ridge.

Ultimately, these totemic poems reinvent the message many of us first heard in Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” that the natural world is sacred, invested with a divinity which is too often and too easily obscured by our obsession with ourselves as prime mover as well as by the “other-worldly” religions in which we have chosen to believe.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, Scott. Thanks for turning us on to another good book.