In Eliza Griswold’s poem “Authority,” the speaker recalls her time in a city under siege, “so many years ago / and fifteen seconds,” and admits,
I’m embarrassed to remember
the time before I grew
uncertain about you,
or that I had a right to say
where I had been
and what I saw there.
Griswold has seen more than most. As a freelance journalist, she has reported from many of the world’s most dangerous and forsaken places, investigating cannibalism as a tool of war in the Congo and covering long stretches of what she calls the “jihadi highway” from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Her debut book of poems, Wideawake Field (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is a series of short, sharp dispatches, arranged in sections that alternate between two different planets: one a mosaic of the badlands and war zones of Griswold’s foreign correspondence, the other a native terrain marked by romantic loss and disillusionment. Her poems are unnervingly lucid, yet at the same time capable of revealing new layers and interpretive possibilities with each rereading.
Wideawake Field is one of several recent collections that explicitly position the poet as a kind of reporter or, more broadly speaking, as a witness of grim history in the making. C.D. Wright’s One Big Self: An Investigation (Copper Canyon) documents Wright’s visits to three Louisiana state prisons. Martha Collins’ Blue Front (Graywolf)—like One Big Self, a book-length poem—gathers the evidence of a lynching in the small town of Cairo, Illinois, that Collins’ father witnessed at the age of five. And the central long poem in James Hoch’s Miscreants (Norton) depicts the events surrounding the rape and murder of a childhood friend with the aid of quotations from newspaper reports, court records, and family members.
To make verse out of other people’s calamities is often to contemplate the limits of language. Griswold in Wideawake Field maintains a strict economy, and the acrid brevity of these poems—none runs longer than a page—brings to mind the poet Joan Didion might have become in another life. Griswold is sparing in her use of adjectives and chillingly matter-of-fact: in the book’s first “away” poem, “husbands are burning their wives”; in the second, the speaker wakes “to the sound of a man / beating his wife.” That the ruined world of Griswold’s journalism is particularly inhospitable to women is a constant. In “Bedbugs,” someone suggests that the poet’s fearless travels could imperil her chance for motherhood. “That’s hardly true,” comes the sarcastic reply. “All over / the earth, I’ve fed my flesh to bugs. / That’s some kind of mother for you.”
The pairing of “true” and “you” sharpens the edge of this rejoinder, and it’s not the only place in which Griswold aims for the singsong strains of a ghoulish nursery rhyme, notably in a pair of poems set in Kabul. (“The Uzbek boys on Chicken Street / have never had enough to eat.”) These mordant notes are essential modulations of tone in a book that might have risked monotony in its confrontations with the ugliness and benumbed futility of so much human activity—as in “Border Ballad,” when Griswold describes the cries of children in a refugee camp: “that high, defeated wail / left useless in the grass / beside their emptied pail.” In “Bats,” even a rare outburst of laughter begets injury: “We laughed until our noses bled.”
There is a ring of defiance in that laughter. The voice of the poet-journalist in Wideawake Field shows no pretenses to selflessness or a noble calling, but it does hint of rebellion—her investigative travels have the elements of a dare. (From “Copper”: “When are you coming back, you ask. / I ask myself. If I said never what would you do.”) The violence and privations abroad become the norm—they are the norm, globally speaking—and weirdly reassuring in their familiarity; one of Griswold’s most fiercely concentrated poems is entitled “Beyond the Solace of a Devastated Landscape.” Meanwhile, home and its inhabitants grow more and more foreign, and the speaker risks turning into a reporter of her own relationships: attentive but dispassionate, a good notetaker. The poem “So,” from the book’s final section, arrives at a plainspoken epiphany:
I feel my heart closing.
It’s not enough to feel this;
I have to try, at least,
to figure out why.
Griswold doesn’t talk about feelings much. It’s difficult to report on them, often foolish (think of the TV reporter jousting with her microphone and asking, “How do you feel?”), and threatens to obscure one’s subjects in a flurry of useless pity and guilt, reducing them to mere supporting players in the reporter’s own confessional melodrama. The overture to C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, delivered en route to East Carroll Parish Prison Farm in Louisiana, acknowledges the hazards of feelings and good intentions:
It is a summons.
All roads are turning into prison roads.
I already feel guilty.
I haven’t done anything.
But I allow the mental pull in both directions.
True to its title, One Big Self—which began as a limited-edition book featuring photos by Deborah Luster—moves from its first-person opening into an empathic attempt to create a “we.” A multiplicity of prisoners’ voices mingle with third-person narration to offer anecdotes, epigrams (Wright finds a couple of occasions for the maxim “No condoms for the heart”), metaphysics (“Solitary confinement, Mr. Abbott wrote, / can alter the ontological makeup of a stone”), snatches of dialogue, and prescriptions for time off: “Don’t blink don’t miss nothing: It’s your furlough.” Wright takes this last dictum as her own: while Griswold pares away her poems to sinew and bone, One Big Self tangles with an urgent need not only to take everything in but to get it all down. The poem’s strengths are descriptive; it’s cumulatively powerful in the sheer accretion of evocative data.
Blue Front shares this power, but it’s a more anxious, ambivalent object. Named for the restaurant where Martha Collins’ father stood out front and sold fruit as a boy in 1909, the year that two men—one black, one white—were lynched in his hometown, the book dramatizes a struggle to converse with the dead. Sometimes, Collins’ agitated lines run on without pause; at other moments, they start, stop, start over again, split open, erase themselves. Blue Front is a palimpsest—an apt medium for a poem that picks and tears at the fabric of that cultural conundrum known as whiteness: “an other owing / what it is to what / it thinks it isn’t.”
On the same page of Blue Front, Collins invokes her father’s memory and, at the same time, identifies the motor of her poem: “what he had seen / is also what I was / I had to know.” The sentiment here is one shared by Griswold’s “Authority” and the first pages of One Big Self: the feeling that the witness is somehow implicated by what she sees. James Hoch finds an indelible metaphor for the dilemma of the bystander at the outset of “Bobby Almand,” the central poem in Miscreants:
It is an awful sight—a horn
growing out of the head of a woman
preserved in a museum case.
And even as I squirm, contort
and marvel over the fingering
branch of bone, spur,
how it alters the rest—eyes
half-lidded, lips parted
as if to say something or have something
poured passed—I tell myself,
It’s okay to look. It’s okay to wonder
how the woman slept, took off
her clothes, made love, or answered
anyone crude or curious enough to ask.
Even as the onlooker begins to shape-shift (to “squirm, contort and marvel”) in order to accommodate the sight of the twisted body in the box, he also weighs his right to see it at all. This “kind of permission the self grants,” Hoch adds, was the same allowance that the adults gave Bobby’s friends at his open-casket funeral: “Go ahead, they said, / you can kiss him if you want.” That Hoch draws the parallel using an exhibit at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum of medical abnormalities nods to the sensational aspects, the freakishness, of Bobby’s terrible death, of the people and town disfigured by their sorrow and guilt, of the notion that one could ever wrench such a thing into words. He returns to the museum later in “Bobby Almand,” this time fascinated by “a child drying / in an exhibit case, strung by / wire, drawn by wrist, like / he’s levitating,” an image later to be superimposed on the sight of two boys on a seesaw, “one older, the other / stranded in the air, pleading.”
Mercy is often hard to come by in Miscreants, which in its final poems takes some steadying comfort in the simple fact of people and animals keeping busy. A dog figures out an electrical fence, workers plant trees, and in the last poem, “All Things End in Fragrance,” starlings salvage ruins: they “fidget in the wasted eaves / of a bar burned down last summer.” Crucially, the poem addresses a “Dear Witness,” who could be Hoch, or the reader, or both. You might say, in fact, that the Dear Witness is the ambivalent protagonist of all four of these books, uncertain of her claims to be an interpreter or an advocate, but ruefully aware that the poems she reads and writes can only advocate for themselves.