'Dismantling the Hills'

'Dismantling the Hills'

It is a standard newspaper belief that poetry in the paper is deadly.

But Oregon native Michael McGriff's debut collection of poems, "Dismantling the Hills," is a lean, mean, invigorating work saturated with the living spirt Northwest regionalism, so we'll disdain the conventional wisdom.

This thin book of poems is testimony to the landscapes and industries of Oregon life, seen through the focus of a blue-collar lumber town much like Coos Bay. Or maybe a Coos Bay of the mind.

Here's the start of a McGriff poem about mercy:

Under the half-light of the toolshed

my father's lost beneath the tractor,/

the white-knuckled lover

of broken machines./

He packs the new bearings,

dark fingers smooth the grease bead. ...

Zing. An unsentimental evocation of a place and its people. Landscape that's more than landscape.

A river may run through it, but the land is vibrant with the doings of its featherless biped denizens: logging, living, loving, running trucks on the old highway and burning seed where Mennonite country wraps around paper mills and roadside nurseries.

McGriff was in fact born in Coos Bay. He recently completed a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

He also attended the University of Oregon and the University of Texas at Austin.

He's been awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and "Dismantling the Hills" won an Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ed Ochester, editor of the Pitt Poetry Series, said that McGriff's poems are "distinguished by their masterful craft and human sympathy."

As in this passage from "Entering the Kingdom," a poem about a blind woman sitting in a room where stockpots fill with rainwater and plaster:

She keeps

the shadows of her hands

in a jewelry box

beneath the sink.

She keeps the thoughts of her hands

in a jar of raisins.

She thrusts two fingers

beneath her jawbone

and counts her pulse

backward from one hundred

as the sound of water and metal

ferries her into sleep. ...

McGriff has taken deep measure of the landscape and the people of the classic Oregon Coast. Sometimes he seems amazed by his own obsession, as when he asks in a poem titled "Right Now, the Bridge":

What is it about this reckless landscape,

the wind off the sand dunes punching

its white moan through the gutted mill

and dim lunar yard?

"Dismantling the Hills" is full of tractors, Chevys, chain saws, rain, wind, Douglas fir, the slough, Wal-Mart, log rafts, centipedes and salamanders, Japanese glass floats, cranberry bogs, green chain, oyster shells, beachgrass ...

Reach Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail at bvarble@mailtribune.com

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