Terrestrial Variations
by Jane Griffiths

Reviewed by Amelia Klein


The poems of Terrestrial Variations are principally affairs of spaces and of things. Stories and human figures, past and potential, are everywhere intimated, hovering around the edges: the death of an unidentified loved one (“Elegy”); the loss of a beloved house in the move to Scotland (“After Dark”); a lonely, deeply attentive child, perfecting the art of uncoiling orange peels in one smooth loop (“Portrait with an Orange”); an ebullient grandmother retrying the gymnastic pose of her youth (“Portrait of My Grandmother Standing on One Leg”). Mostly, though, it is space and things these poems make felt.

Griffiths’ poetry often evokes Stevens for this reader, and especially in those poems structured by the tercet form that Stevens found so congenial to meditation, to the balancing of object and idea, of datum and proposition. Like Stevens, Griffiths deals in sensuous abstractions, immediacies made into ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. The care with which Griffiths chooses each word and settles it into place throughout Terrestrial Variations is palpable. This is a poet for whom words are thingly, each having its own shape and weight, its own peculiar ancestries and consequences. Like Stevens too, Griffiths plays space—by which I mean that the music of her poems is distinctly architectural. The image of the house recurs throughout Terrestrial Variations with the insistence of a dream (her first volume of poetry, published in 1990, is titled, simply, The House), and with a dream’s distortions, as in these lines from “Insomnia”:

The body in the shell of the house, the mind
in the self-coloured shell of the skull –
and smooth, fast: turning things over.

Notice the odd sleight of hand, as the mind, “smooth” as a shell, and housed in the shell of the skull, itself part of the body housed in the shell of the house, occupies itself with “turning things over”—as one might turn over shells?

“House by Night” unfolds a particularly striking conjecture, surmising that the house, and its human inhabitants, are creations of the space that preceded them:

The attic is dreaming from the inside out.
There was a space here before there was a roof to rest the sky on.
It has its piece of earth, its small settlements.


It has its ladders, its ups and downs, its breathing.

The human, in this calculus, is an emergent property of space. In this eloquent emptiness, diaspora—the dispersion of both families and individual lives across distances—coincides and contends with other forms of displacement: the loss of memory, the loss of voice, the palpable, blank spaces of what no longer comes to light. Before, after and between are forgotten, unrecorded, unrepresented in these poems of irresistible, repetitious aphasia. And yet, simultaneously, these are poems also deliberations on the exigency of recollection, the deliverance of the human from its many evacuations via the persistence of memory. Suffusing everything is the full faith in language—in the ability of words to bear with them histories, foreknowledges, relationships otherwise consigned to oblivion.

One of the volume’s principal strategies is to open up negative space—to clear by negation and then ensconce in these clearings. The first poem, “Christina’s World,” begins:

If I paint the light, the way it catches each blade
of grass that points to the house, and sharpens it,


they will say I am evading the issue.

The image, sharpened into precision, remains hypothetical, held in abeyance by that If. Meanwhile, the poem’s hypercritical, projected audience, “they,” waits to pronounce on what the poet has done wrong. The implication is that a romantic poetry of beautiful, sensuous, natural images, is complicit in “evading the issue” of the human, the social. But neither will a poetry of material objects—written according to William Carlos Williams’ maxim “no ideas but in things”—satisfy:

If I render the faded clapboard, tease out its fibrous
softness in paint, they will say it wants context.

If the first approach is too vague, too metaphysical, the second is too concrete, too near, a texture without a concept. What, then, of allegory?

If I allow house and shed to stand for what happened
they will say these are empty forms.

Finally, the poem ends with a question:

If I paint what happened, who’d look at the grass
again, or trace the shape of what can’t be spoke


in the grey-skied space between the house and the barn?

Whereas the first three possibilities (the romantic, imagistic, and allegorical approaches) are censured by the imagined audience—a commentary, perhaps, on lyric’s defensive posture in a culture all to eager to dismiss or invalidate it—the final possibility, that of the realistic painting of things as they are, is rejected by the poet herself. A poetry too wedded to fact, too photographic in its realism, risks erasure of the very world it documents. Griffiths will give us, then, a poetry not of things as they are but as they seem. Only then can lyric be what Stevens insisted it must be, the necessary angel of the earth, “for in my eyes you see the earth again.”

Like all of the poems in this volume, “Christina’s World” is what Wallace Stevens calls a “poem of the mind in the act / Of finding what will suffice.” Situated as it is at the beginning of the volume, “Christina’s World,” is also an ars poetica that announces the commitments and concerns that animate the poems that follow. It is also a work of ekphrasis – a literary adaption of a work of visual art – of the 1948 Andrew Wyeth painting of the same title. Wyeth’s painting shows the back of a woman in a barren field, gazing, in what appears to be a posture of longing and agony, across wasted land, towards a house and barn in the very top of the picture plane. It is impossible to look at this painting and imagine that the broken woman (painted after Wyeth’s neighbor, who was crippled by polio) will ever walk into that house again. One might say it is an image of insurmountable distance. But Wyeth himself said this of the work and the woman: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.”

In Griffiths’ poem, as in Wyeth’s painting, we witness the essential human struggle to overcome distance. “Elegy” evokes the work of translation as both a linguistic and a spiritual labor of this same project, a seeking of correspondences between one language and another, between one mind and another, between the living and the dead. Translation, it suggests, is a delicate, perhaps an impossible task:

Think of the way a translator at her desk behind
the vine cups two alternatives in the palms of her mind,
tests against the light the lac which can mean gift
or battle.

To choose, in translation, between “battle” and “gift”—both contained in the same Old English word, lac—giving us the modern day lack—is at once to fight and to sacrifice, to lose and to engage. Something is always lost in translation, lost to insurmountable distance. And yet it is precisely this loss, this chasm, that, like that fallow field in “Christina’s World,” dares us to survive, to plant again, to carry on. “In the end,” as Griffiths writes, “there’s still a woman, a separation, a small space of earth.”


Amelia Klein is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Colgate University, where she teaches courses on British Romanticism, literary imaginings of apocalypse, and the history of English lyric, among other subjects. She also has a radio show, This Must Be the Place (named for a favorite Talking Heads song), that airs weekly on the university’s radio station. Her poetry and scholarship have appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including Tin HouseDenver QuarterlyBoston ReviewTwentieth Century Literature, and The Wordsworth Circle.

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