Michael McGriff was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon. He attended the University of Oregon and the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Creative Writing. His translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola is forthcoming from Green Integer Books. His work has recently appeared in Poetry, AGNI, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Northwest Review, Poetry Northwest, and From the Fishouse. He received a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine / The Poetry Foundation and has recently published the limited-edition chapbook Choke (Traprock Books, 2006). He is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Michael featured on From the Fishouse
Buy "Choke" at abebooks.com
I was wrong about oblivion then,
summer mornings we walked the logging roads
north of Laverne, the gypo trucks leaving miles of gravel dust
eddying around us. You were the Queen of Iron
and I, the servant Barcelona. The slash-pile
we tunneled through was the Whale’s Mouth,
our kingdom. Jake-brakes sounded the death-cries
of approaching armies as they screamed over the ridge
where we held our little breaths and each other,
passing the spell of invisibility between us.
Five years later, you brought your father’s
hunting knife to school and stabbed Danielle Carson
in the hip and I never saw you again.
I could say I left town for both of us, that I drove I-5 South
until I reached the aqueducts of California,
and for the first time felt illuminated before the sight
of water as it rushed beneath the massive turbines
spinning on the beige and dusty hills, powering a distant city
that would set me free. I could say
after your father covered the plastic bladder
of his waterbed with baby oil and wrestled you to it,
that in those days after your pregnancy I made plans
to drive a claw hammer into his skull. But I never left,
and when I moved it was only as far as the county line.
If my life has been a series of inadequacies, at least I know
by these great whirls of dust how beauty
and oblivion never ask permission of anyone.
In the book I read before bed, God lowers himself
through the dark and funnels his blueprints into the ear
of a woman who asked for nothing. Tomorrow night
she’ll lead armies, in a few more she’ll burn at the stake
and silver birds will rise from her mouth. This is the book
of the universe, where iron is the last element
of a star’s collapse and the moon retreats each moment
into oblivion. My blood fills with so much iron I’m pulled
to a place in the hard earth where the wind
grinds over the ridge bearing the wheels of tanker trucks
oiling the access roads, where deer ruin the last of the plums,
where the sloughs shrink back to their deepest channels,
and I can turn away from nothing.
[first appeared in Northwest Review]
The World’s Largest Lumber Port,
the yellow hulk of Cats winding bayfront chip yards,
betting on high-school football
at the Elks Lodge, bargemen,
abandoned Army barracks,
Japanese glass floats, cranberry bogs,
mooring lines, salmon roe,
swing shifts, green chain, millwrights
passing each other like black paper cranes
from one impermanence to the next,
phosphorescent bay water, two tons
of oyster shells, seagulls, beach glass
tumbled smooth in the surf, weigh stations,
off-bearing, front loading, cargo nets,
the Indian casino marquee promising
continental breakfast, star-crowned animals
stitched to blue heavens
behind the fog, log booms,
choker setters, gypo outfits, acetylene sparks
falling from the Coast Guard cutter Citrus,
dredging units, gravel quarries, clear cuts,
scotchbroom taking over the dunes,
smokestacks pocked with peep shows
of flame and soot, the year-round
nativity scene and one-armed Santa
in J.C. Penney’s alley window,
my grandmother dying just over the ridge,
mother-of-pearl, sea lion calls
in the dark, low tide at Charleston Harbor,
the sound of calk boots
in gravel parking lots, salmon sheen hosed
onto the street, the arch
of a big rig’s empty trailer, sand
in all the moving parts,
floodlights, tie-downs, ridge beacons,
great blue herons whispering
through the hollow reeds, the cat piss smell
of a charred meth lab between the V.F.W. hall
and pioneer newspaper museum,
the rusted scrapyard and tank farm.
The drawbridge spans forgotten coal bunkers,
buried fingerprints of Chinese laborers,
rope-riders and mule bones.
Then there’s the rain that never sleeps,
it’s fallen for seventeen years
to reach the field below our house
where my father and the machinist neighbor
dying of cancer huddle around
an oil drum burn barrel and smoke cigarettes,
a few weeks of newspapers and wood scrap
hiss into ash, trapped angels
under the wire grate they warm their hands over.
The great heave of the Southern Pacific,
sturgeon like river cogs, barnacle wreckage,
cattle-guards. The last of the daylight,
a broken trellis falling into the bay.
[first appeared in Choke (Traprock Books, 2006)]
Like the blue elephants
we watched and never understood
under instant patchwork tents next to the highway
the river makes a slow gray drop
to its knees. The flood plains breathe,
surrounded by miles of barbed wire again.
I know a place where the winds
from those waters smother ferns in coils
of dust. I know where we can work our green lines
up and down a piano roll of trout.
It’s over there, past the rust-gutted steam donkey
and the dry creek beds pooling up with yellowjackets.
[first appeared in the canary]
Mercy, Tear It Down
We were contracted with the prison crew
to take the ridge. Tear it down.
Trees, scotchbroom, fence posts.
It was too hot to smoke cigarettes.
My chainsaw touched a whole world
of yellowjackets in a beetle-rotten stump
and my skin went tight. I lay face down
in the duff after the crew boss shot me
full of something he kept in his saw bag.
An inmate carried half a hunting dog
like an armful of cedar bolts
from the last stand of brush.
What was left was swollen with ants.
The vise in my throat bore down,
daylight broke its bones across the ridge.
Tear it down. From there you could see
the whole town. Tear it down, tear it down.
[first appeared in Poetry]
The Last Hour of Winter
This winter’s carnival of rain
tears down and moves east
for the hills.
No more working wet
or boots by the wood stove.
No more sweating booze
in your rain gear
or fouled chains stripping the cogs.
He sits at his bacon and coffee
like a man at a piano.
His hands begin to work,
he becomes invisible,
the coast wind chases the tide
and passes through him.
The jetty, the seagulls,
the broken piers moaning
on their barnacle stilts.
He is tired of the gray world
that says a man can’t leave
his body unless he leaves it
for good, so, like Chagall’s rabbi
he floats out of himself
through the kitchen window
to the old coast highway
where the sandstone banks
lie etched with names and swastikas,
arrows and desperate propositions.
He sees fields seed farmers will burn
where Mennonite country
skirts paper mills
and roadside nurseries,
sees himself in bend of water
filled with junked cars
where the river eddies
then changes direction,
the old water riding
from one season to the next
through the skeletons
of bucket seats.
There’s a tear in the world
where he places the name
he’s called himself all winter,
then re-enters his life.
[first appeared in Mid-American Review]
Above my cold house at daybreak, you hang
in a nest of thinning stars, navigate
the pitch of the roof like November rain.
Where’s the invisible bridge you’re building
with your slow climbs, work songs, the blueprint
of shadows you leave on the roof?
Are there barometers, clocks, greased bearings
whirring inside you? Are you hard-wired
to the sun, its spun copper cables?
What’s engraved on your porcelain bones?
On the ground, like everything else, you’re dust,
feathers, bone carved by fits of wind.
There’s a burning coal fading in your throat
you sing to life over and over.
When I hear your voice outside my window
I take a silent vow to work
as you work, endlessly. Digging.
As though you could tap your way
through the mud to another sky
where a lost brother flies underground.
[first appeared in Front Porch]