By Remi Recchia
Burial Machine by Jacob Griffin Hall
Backlash Press, 2022
Jacob Griffin Hall is a poet of and for his time. Even beyond the stunning beauty with which he depicts the natural and social world around us, at every turn in his debut poetry collection, Burial Machine, he poses questions: “Why, then, are you making alibis / under the light of wildfire?” (12); “What if all things took the shape / more or less of their maker?” (16); “Whose justice is this?” (47); “Whose world do I live in?” (61). These questions—or perhaps I should say demands—ask the reader to reconsider place and privilege in a culture shrouded with inequality and violence. In the poem “Lily,” for example, Hall references the erasure of physicist Lise Meitner’s work in the mid-twentieth century. The implication is that Meitner’s work was overlooked because of her gender; the reader gleans that from the statement posited earlier in the poem, “How you interpret the joke…depends on whose world you live in” (61). Hall and his speaker(s) identifies the reader as complicit in the patriarchal institution that is the Western world. “Lily” is, furthermore, a prose poem, whose form constricts the movement of the language. The reader, like Lise Meitner, the speaker, and the interlocutor, is trapped in the world of the poem. The reader becomes language. But at what cost?
The uncertainty of language and restriction is introduced earlier in the collection, most obviously in “Where I Learn to Say I Love You”:
When did I first learn to lock my life away? I know I saw a stranger walking through an alley
and named the story before its crest. You twisting wet outside the tattoo parlor,
you beneath the clock tower with a pen against your wrist:
the stranger calling my hands masculine,
a shadow pocket where I learn to say I love you.
Asleep last night I was a boy again underneath the bleachers, mistaking my lessons in violence
for a path through the world, back strapped with artificial confidence, chin up, my flowers tucked away
in pockets, unseen and unseeming, colors still
seeking sunlight through dirt-streaked cloth. (9)
The echoes of what may be considered a forced masculinity are present in these lines, too, prompting the speaker to hide flowers—i.e., beauty, i.e., poetry. The second part of the poem explodes in a crescendo of Whitman-esque confession (this association is, of course, underscored by the repeated instances of blades of grass throughout the book): The speaker loves the strangers “giving the gift of the electric sky”; he loves the strangers “protesting war on the corner of Providence”; he loves the strangers “wading face first into the picket line”; but most importantly, the speaker loves himself.
The flowers tucked away in the speaker’s pockets, symbolic of many things that may be deemed delicate—the demonstration of emotion, perhaps, or physical affection—appear over and over again in Burial Machine. In “Myth,” a poem with severely short lines (a move that is unusual for Hall), the speaker declares, “From now on / I’ll enjoy looking / at the flowers / and refuse / to pick them” (36). Ironically, the short line-breaks imitate the picking of flowers. Still, though, “Myth” is one of many moments of the speaker’s insistence on gentleness in a world that insists on violence (this is also evident in “In the End When the World Has Come to Its Final Lurch” when the speaker says, “I made friends / with insects and told myself / I would never kill them” ).
In this discussion of gentleness and beauty, I would be remiss to not mention the undercurrent of addiction threaded throughout Burial Machine. The speaker looks compassionately upon those suffering from substance abuse, such as in “It Was Good to See Him Breathing”:
I dreamed his pills
spilled from the plastic bag across the table
Awake I spend my days waiting for the phone call,
waiting at breakfast, waiting in scarcity, waiting with beads
hanging limp from my pocket.
If in the gap between clouds I decipher
our grown stubbornness, maybe he’s still waiting alone in Mom’s attic
with impatient anger, holding lighter to spoon
as if that combustible could bring the relief of rain. (7)
In the lines above, the speaker wills this person—a brother? a father?—to live, to breathe. To appear before him not like as a ghost, but as a vision.
Addiction sneaks back into Burial Machine in “In Order to Establish Perspective,” a poem in which the speaker comes “across a friend / sitting on the bank, / wet sand caked / to his ankles, a needle / in his arm” (51). The description of the friend situated in nature, especially after the speaker has “worshipped insects / and held landscape / accountable for the grief” (51), returns the friend to a place of comfort and belonging. The addict(s) populating Burial Machine are present in the collection as integral parts of the book’s skeleton, not as flashy appendages for shock value.
“Event Horizon” insists that “the future is coming / whether we’ve got the hang of it or not” (17). If this is true, if we must resign ourselves to the restraints and erasures that Burial Machine makes bare, then I’m worried. But not as worried as I would be without this marvelous up-and-coming poet to guide us in his determination to fight for gentleness and a place where beauty doesn’t have to be kept in linen-darks.
Remi Recchia is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a Ph.D. student in English-Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Cimarron Review. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Remi’s work has appeared in Columbia Online Journal, Harpur Palate, and Juked, among others. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University.