When a Great Heart Ceases

I read M.A. Griffiths’ collected poems, "Grasshopper," from what I believe is a unique perspective, that of a poet who, like Griffiths, was dying over many months, alone, aware that she was close to death. Many of her poems are extremely moving to me, and I feel very close to them.

Review by Mary Meriam

 

In my twenties, I almost died from the grief and torment of having seen my beautiful, lively, sensitive sister destroyed by so-called health care. I lost faith in everything, and became an outcast, but miraculously survived.

The English poet M.A. (Margaret Ann) Griffiths (1947-2009) was not so lucky. She took care of her parents as they suffered through health care, and after they died, when she became seriously ill, she avoided health care. Subsequently, in 2009, she died at home, alone, and her body was not discovered for several days.

Grasshopper: The Poetry of M.A. Griffiths, Able Muse Press, 2011

 

Recently, The New Yorker published an article, “God Knows Where I Am,” about a woman in New Hampshire, Linda Bishop, who refused to participate in health care. After she was released from a hospital, she found an empty house, where she hid, and lived on apples from an apple tree in the yard.

She kept a journal, so we know that when the apples ran out, she lived on melted snow. She knew that she was dying, but still she stayed hidden in the house. After she died, her body was not discovered for several months.

Thirty years after my close call, I’m still trying to understand how and why I survived. If I had died, it would have been some time before my body was discovered, because I too was alone.

Like M.A. Griffiths and Linda Bishop, I discovered the critical lifeline of writing. And I’m very glad to be alive now, so that I can write and tell you that Griffiths and Bishop are heroes to me, not because they died, but because the way they chose to die makes a powerful statement: Some people would rather die alone than be subject to a barbaric health care system.

Griffiths had a computer and an Internet connection. From 2001 until her death in 2009, she participated in online poetry workshops, posting her poems for critique, and giving critiques. She called herself “Maz” or “grasshopper,” started a poetry journal called “Worm,” and established contacts with poets from all over. She was prolific, and her poems were widely respected and appreciated, garnering praise from the great poet, Richard Wilbur.

Unfortunately, she was careless about saving her poems and not very interested in publishing. After her unexpected death (she was a very private person), her friends and admirers, poets and editors from London, Derbyshire, Scotland, Wales, Queensland, New South Wales, Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, Missouri, Maryland, California, and Texas, were able to rescue and collect over 300 of her poems and find a publisher for a collection called Grasshopper: The Poetry of M.A. Griffiths.

I’m happy to say that I saved one of the poems she workshopped, though I intensely regret not saving more.

I read Griffiths’ collected poems, Grasshopper, from what I believe is a unique perspective, that of a poet who, like Griffiths, was dying over many months, alone, aware that she was close to death. Many of her poems are extremely moving to me, and I feel very close to them.

Her poems frequently use the imagery of the stars and the skies, and I know how it feels to look far into the distance for help, or to feel so disconnected that you might as well be there, in “the cold spaces of the stars.”

“A View from the Hill” begins with an epigraph from Mister Mister: “Where do we go when the world forsakes us? / Where the healing waters flow.” and continues:

 

“Consider the fortunate: those golden souls

who never lose the sun, or never for more than

a short season. Their rain is always summer-soft,

their skies always blink blue. Their eggs hatch.

What of the rest of us, disconnected, feeling

the cold spaces of the stars so keenly,

we rarely look up?”

 

The third stanza of this exquisite poem begins with lines that seem to me could only have been written by a poet close to death and alone. Being close to death and alone paradoxically brings one closer to life. The phrase “mundane ecstacies” [Griffiths was an English writer, and often uses English spelling] is an oxymoron that suggests both the material and mystical, mostly ineffable except for instants like these:

 

“but life grants us instants of joy, pangs and flutterings

in the ribs as if the heart can fly out of its cage.

More and more I am seized by these mundane ecstacies,

sweet yet bewildering.”

 

Sirius, also called the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky, and part of the constellation Canis Major. Grasshopper has several fine, poignant poems about dogs (she loved animals, birds, and small creatures, even insects), but “Sirius” moves beyond them into the realm of great poetry.

 

Sirius

by M.A. Griffiths

I was an old dun dog who followed Christ

through the wilderness. He put his palm

on my head, and I saw all things as they were,

bright with water, ringing with light.

I fed on locust-fruit, St John’s bread,

 

and at the end of forty days, I lay down

to die. He rested beside me. I licked

his brow and heard ocean calling

from the shell of his ear. The warm waves

took me. I am the new dun dog

 

who swims in the beginning sea

where all things are God’s thoughts,

silver as tunney, lithe as seals.

I am the size of the sun, laughing

as only a brown dog can laugh.

 

Grasshopper is a highly energetic, wide-ranging collection, with free verse and formal poems; poems written in the voices of various personae; funny, disturbing, moving, and powerful poems that modestly convey Griffiths’ erudition. For example, “Egypt” begins with a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra:

 

I am dying, Egypt, dying

and all the weight of night

and Nile is on my shoulders

and my brow, the helmet

breached, the armour cracked

open like a wounded turtle

the carapace of jewels

is scattered on the flood-plain

 

While the poems contain sophisticated allusions to knowledge and literature, they are not incomprehensible on first reading. The beauty, feeling, and music of the poems is accessible. They are alert and alive to every sight, sound, creature, and substance in the world, and a pleasure to read and study. “Great heart” is an elegy that moves me tremendously. Dear Maz, Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

 

Great heart

by M.A. Griffiths

When your great heart

ceased beating, I think

there was a silence

in the sky, a long echo

of the pulse suspended,

and then a circled sigh

of termination from

the stars and spheres.

 

When your great heart

ceased beating, I think

there was a shadow

in the spectrum, a fading

of peacock falls and flowers,

a dimming of all colours

as if nature’s palette

ran with sullen tears.

 

When your great heart

ceased beating, I think

there was a fragrance

in the air, of precious attar

burning, of frankincense

and rosewood fuming

from a pyre of dreams.

 

When your great heart

ceased beating, I know

there was an emptiness.

A grey and sudden chamber

opened in the tower

with a sampler spelling

Nothing is as certain

as it seems.

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