Containing a selection of poems spanning five decades, Eric Greinke’s new book, For the Living Dead is a sort of “greatest hits” collection chosen by the poet himself. Across the years, his work embraces many of the same themes, concerns and styles , a playful but serious meditation on the universe around us, both the natural and supernatural. Take “The Insomniac,” written in 1973 when Greinke was twenty-five.
I lie awake
where the river bends:
the jams of logs,
the broken, confused
rocks, (heads of frightened
bathers), deep funeral places.
I breathe the murky shadows.
I float incessantly
above the weeds. I suck
the black muck. Every morning
I am killed by the hot passing sun.
Compare this with “Cold Oceans” written thirty-eight years later.
I sit by my open window.
A lake breeze brings the outside in.
The white pine tree makes its green stand
Between me & the foggy lake..
It grows taller with each season,
But I do not.
My height has eroded since my age increased.
Even the Rockies re half the size
Which they were a million years ago.
The wind brings the scent of the lake to me.
It blows my countless blessings
Beyond cold oceans.
Both poems have the same cadence, the same pace (“I lie awake…”; “I sit by my open window…”). But more than that, both are solidly grounded in the natural world, the world we take in through our senses. But equally we are taken beyond our perceptions to contemplate the “murky shadows’ and the “foggy lake,” what is hidden from us. This dual action is present throughout Greinke’s work, at times flying off to post-apocalyptic speculation and surreal imagery.
Greinke writes in deceptively simple language, like Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson. Like Frost, too, he has a real feel for the woods and the water, only set in Michigan, not New England. There are poems about storms (“After the Ice Storm,” “Cape May Storm,” “Summer Storm”), about time and the seasons (“The Lake in Winter,” “April,” “May,” “October,” “Our House”), and haiku-like images of nature abound in such poems as “Drifts,” “Flotsam,” “Leelanau Fire,” “The Dark Root.” He vividly shows us what is. Take the opening of “Leelanau Fire”:
The night is white.
The moon, a cosmic smile.
Big wind frightens a fawn.
A branch falls, an alarm,
You can feel the scene, the camper by the lake.
Yet for all the accurately observed natural details, there is also a flight into the illogic of dreams and what might be called the “supernatural.” Take the title poem, for instance, an eight-page poem written in 2007. Beginning in a familiar picture of solitude, a man in nature, it quickly veers into a surreal, post-apocalyptic story of zombies and robots.
For my money, Greinke is at the top of his game when he is describing a scene, telling a story whose implications do not need to be spelled out; they throb with a kind of numinous significance lurking below the story he tells, the situation he describes. Poems like “The Accident” (1972) exemplify this, but it is true especially of some of his more recent work: “My Father’s Job,” in which the car factory is shown as a sort of prison, and his father’s existence, a life sentence; “Shooting Lessons,” in which a boy accidentally kills his brother with his father’s shotgun and is never the same; “There and Back,” a story about being assaulted at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago by a group of drunken teenagers. “It would nevef be easy to distinguish/our friends from our enemies again.”
Clowns figure into Greinke’s verse (“The Moment,” “Clown,” “Dream Home”), in keeping with the tone of surrealism, but the clowns more often than not are like the Fool figure in Shakespeare. One of my absolute favorites is the 1974 poem, “The Clown Choir.”
The choir loft was filled with an awful quacking, as
if ducks. But it was the clowns. Their new identity.
When they were in a church, they quacked. When
in a br they barked like dogs. In courtrooms all
across the land there was mayhem – caused by the
Clowns, chirping like parakeets.
A reporter asked them why they did it. They could
only meow. Finally, doctors examined them.
When the exams were over, neither the doctors nor
the Clowns could do anything but moo.
As another reviewer has noted, there’s something of Magritte or Salvador Dali at work in poems like this.
All of this seems to lead, at times, to Zen koan-like riddles about the universe and our place in it. Perhaps the best way to sum Greinke up, then, is to show him at work in this short poem from 2011, “The Final Question”:
If the universe
ceased to expand,
& contracted into
one last dense wish
against the dark & cold,
& the burnt-out stars
a hungry black hole,
would a memory of fire
still travel past
the catatonic stones
where light began as love
in the all conceiving night?
Similar Reads: Gerald Locklin, Deep Meanings: Selected Poems, 2008 – 2013; T. Kilgore Splake, Splake Fishing in America