“Because we’ve come from the past
and future, we’ve gotten closer
when the present remakes us,
where fresh cells are a wave lifting us
into the sky as a next rain opens up
over the falls. . . . “ (Out of the Light in Leaves)
James Grabill’s last book, Sea-Level Nerve (Book Two) came out from Wordcraft of Oregon in December of 2015, and finally a new book is out, Branches Shaken by Light, from Cyberwit in India. While the two Sea Level Nerve volumes are prose poems focused sharply on the ecologies of our lives and universe, and human reactions among them, this new book—composed of new work with a scattering of poems from previous collections—shows a broader range to Grabill’s curiosity, passions, and deep knowledge of language and image.
“One day a woman found herself driving a car
through blazing California forests
though perhaps she was asleep.
No, she was awake, and she lost her thoughts.
She lost her name as she lost a vast number of trees.” (California’s Burning)
Grabill samples widely across the here and now, the American landscape, the landscape of human consciousness, a scaping that moves through time, species and possibilities. The natural world, the world of science is a prime channel in his work, as here in the title poem:
“A branch of the genome carries the shuck of mammoth breath.
Fallen leaves blow through layers of mushroom soils.
Overhead miles have their stretches of wing flying in further world.”
His poems also have references to and quotes from a variety of people and cultural phenomena. One of the poems is entitled “Improvisatory Jazz on the Sound System, Weekend C-Span on TV, People Inclined to Be Listening, Some Kind of Time Rounding the Clock” while another poem (p. 80) steps from Olympic marksmanship to Wynton Marsalis.
Along with this roiling range of ingredients are Grabill’s language skills, like a musician capable of going from Mozart to Miles and more. This book is a fine sampler of poetic modes, the interaction of lines, voicing, contents and expectations.The speeds and compressions of his voice, at times a river flowing across a flat valley, other times in choppy water, with quick pivots, quick glimpses of forests and canyons. There are prose poems, litanies, stream-of-universe and several sizes of unlabelable wonderment.
In some poems the strings of image and relationship keep interlinking and leaping:
“the geo-magnetic wide-spread coil and uncoil
in public enginery sunlit blue-black with blues,
the rhino tipping down his dusk-lit ivory horn
where the future’s not fixed, not glued into place,
and where you have one remote star you’ll have
yourself ten thousand billion in galaxies spiraling . . .” (Veracity)
Grabill wants to understand so much, and knows and observes so much he wishes more other people did.
I know we’re all unique, no two poets write the same, but James Grabill is uniquer than most. His intelligence, vocabularies, curiosity and heart. A teacher but also a fellow pilgrim/investigator. I was surprised to realize that he rarely talks in the first person singular, mainly ‘we’ and ‘you.’
Grabill is a different kind of guide, but most skilled and trustworthy. He can start off like he’s going to explain something but then takes a couple quick sharp turns and you wonder what is he talking about, but then you get a sense of things, maybe not coming together but of limning broader connections and resonances. Grabill’s poems are ecologies—you need to relax and listen to see how each part is necessary, how it connects and reflects upon the other phrases.
“The human brain handed down to us sees it can’t stop working.
It suffers with this existence and the shock of consciousness” (Where the Brain’s Close to Leaves)
And in this suffering, this attempt to know better the unknowable, to celebrate the known and the to be discovered, Branches Shaken by Light shows us the subtleties, the eon-deep connections, that offer hope, work and adventure.
dan raphael is the author of Maps Menus Emanations (cyberwit, 2021), Moving with Every (Flowestone Press, 2020) and Manything (Unlikely Books, 2019.)