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Michael McGriff

Michael McGriff was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon. He has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation, and a Michener Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the translator of Tomas Tranströmer's The Sorrow Gondola, and his work has appeared in Slate, Agni, Field, the Missouri Review, and Poetry, among other publications.


“A powerful first collection of narratives with spark and intelligence.”

– Library Journal

“A lyricist at heart, McGriff is a masterful maker of metaphor . . . The result is a swiftly moving volume of poetry that leaves us with a sense of longing . . .for our own childhoods and for those few years before adulthood when it was curiosity, for the natural world and those passing through it, that defined us.”

– Third Coast

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Dismantling the Hills

People Who Might Inhabit This Place


From the opening poem, “Iron,” we read:

I could say I left town for both of us…

and for the first time felt illuminated before the sight

of water as it rushed beneath the massive turbines

spinning on the beige and dusty hills, powering a distant city

that would set me free.

The speaker says he could have left, but at the end, he “can turn away from nothing.” From here, the reader is introduced to the speaker’s world, a “great series of inadequacies.” McGriff’s poems range from the ways in which his father informs the speaker’s beliefs, to how the daily act of domestic work replaces any sort of religious practices; his father “never read anything he couldn’t touch.” The physicality of the language draws me in, especially in “Silt,” where the speaker compares the “mineral strangle/of roots, clay bleeding down,” to “silt like meat ground by a woman/whose eyes have taken the color/of basement cinders.” In the poem, the house is “taken by silt,” and there’s a repeated use of “pulling,” a motif he continues in the next poem, “Coos Bay.” Here, we get a glimpse of the city, in a list of images, ending in “…the last of the daylight,/a broken trellis falling into the bay.” This series bombards the reader with images of a hopeless place. McGriff uses this list to transition to a series of poems about the people who might inhabit this place.

Some of the poems center around people like Tanya, with deep connections to this homeplace, the dust and “chuff” of king salmon, connections so deep that they cannot leave, always entering some sort of “kingdom,” a word that McGriff uses in multiple poems. The use of this word creates a sense of holiness, so much that even the dust of this place’s earth is eternal.

McGriff’s description of Coos Bay is effective and powerful due to a reliance on more than mere description. These poems are populated. They explore the world of the roofer, the worker, people who know life in this “kingdom” created, where these people’s connection to the landscape is strengthened. The poem “Mercy, Tear It Down” seems to underline McGriff’s project. In it, a prison crew is contracted to “take the ridge. Tear it down.” In this poem, daylight “breaks its bones across the ridge,” a point from which “you could see/the whole town.” From here, he writes, “Tear it down, tear it down.”

In the last poem, “Cormorants,” McGriff brings an end to the book’s arc, tying in previous themes. He echoes the sentiment in the opening poem:

Watching the breakers

stack against the early light

I remember my old desire

to wear the house

of the hermit crab

and skitter under the riptide

past the town’s

invisible border

to the rolling foam

and quiet fires.

The speaker of the poem proceeds to walk a suspension bridge formed by his fears, upon which he finds his father, and in the wind, his mother’s wrists, and leaning over the rail, he hears his brothers. This bridge is only imagined, but on the bridge, he contemplates his town:

each suffering lies stitched

to the wing of another,

death rises

and death recedes, the mouth

of this life threaded

to the voice of the afterlife.

In the end of the poem, the cormorant’s flight path measures his love for his town, and yet heavy with “the remarkable freight” of our lives, surrounded by cliffs.

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