In Her New Book of Poetry, Rachel Eliza Griffiths Conveys Beauty in Loss
Courtesy of Rachel Eliza Griffiths
The Wilmington-raised poet grapples with grief in her new intimate collection of poetry, and shares how mourning takes up residence in the body.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is grappling with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic from her midtown New York City home on the day we speak in late May, noting that despite the city’s ghost town vibe, at last, “There’s sun in New York today instead of rain, so little gifts.”
And its these details—of life, loss, grief and gratitude—that emerge from the poems in the Wilmington-raised multimedia artist, poet and photographer’s fifth collections of poetry and images, Seeing the Body (Norton), released earlier this summer. A graduate of St. Mark’s High School and the University of Delaware, where she earned her undergraduate degree and her first master’s degree, her work has been featured in, among other places, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Best American Poetry 2020.
Delaware Today: Dealing with the death of a parent is a huge trauma and the circumstances of your mom’s passing—you were away and got back just in time for you to be with her—added to that. Did this work come from a place of trying to process those emotions?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: I was fortunate to be bedside with my mother, with my family, when she passed away. Right now, the stories that I see of people having to put loved ones to rest—through virtual funerals, shivah, shabbat, memorials and tributes—it really breaks my heart. I think at first when my mother died, I wasn’t going to write about it at all. I don’t ever want to write a poem about this. There are no words … to tell the story of how this feels. Because I’m an artist, that became the space to actually let me process and think that from death there can be life, there can be art, there can be a celebration. And so writing the poems allowed me to feel really close to her and to let me feel like she was sitting right there with me …and that was very comforting. I think when people are grieving, they turn to art, music, poetry, funny films or memories that they’ve made. People look at family albums when someone dies. They’re trying to hold onto the story.
This book is my attempt to hold on and celebrate and transform … and give [people] who are grieving loss something to connect with. [Something] I hadn’t expected as I started to work on the book is people were writing to me—they were in hospice with their mothers, or their mothers died the last week and they saw a poem in The New Yorker—and I thought, someone writing me from Indonesia [because my poem] connected to their own life, that’s a miracle to me. That’s such a gift.
DT: Do you think people will be able to use this work for help in grieving during this strange period when we’re all experiencing this weird thing that we’ve never experienced before?
REG: I hope so. I hope that it can be helpful to someone else. I hope it might inspire or encourage someone else to write their own poetry or use whatever gift or talent that that person has or whatever their super power is, because everyone has a super power, whether it’s cooking or dance or doing something for a neighbor. Maybe the book is a map that you don’t have to feel lost and inconsolable, that you can come towards the absence in your life or the hole or the grief and try to grow something out of it or just stand in that space and feel all the things you need to and know that your life can go on and that you can be stronger or better even though you’re hurting or suffering or missing your loved one.
DT: While they don’t correlate directly to the poems, how do you think the inclusion of your photos helps build upon the words themselves?
REG: One of the things I experienced after my mother died was feeling lost in the world. Wherever I was traveling, wherever I was going, I just kind of felt lost. I felt very disconnected [from] my identity as an artist … or anything. So, I was kind of going around different places—I’m in the desert, I’m in the South, I’m in the Midwest, I’m in New England—and feeling not grounded at all. [I was] trying to think, there’s a big world around me [that’s] really beautiful—I have to remember all these places that I’ve traveled on this journey.
I also was finding it very difficult to write, so I thought maybe the camera is the thing that will help me remember this time and what the world looked like and what I looked like. Also, now that my mother is no longer with me, when I look at photographs of myself, I can see her. So I began to photograph myself. I could see my mother again and that was really wonderful for me.
[When I was photographing], I also found it really comforting to look at the natural world and find mirrors that could describe my inner emotional state. I felt really happy in the desert because inside, my life felt like a desert—dry and sandy and barren [without my mother]. So my photographs, to me, know things that I don’t know on a conscious level. So I wanted that to be in the book, that kind of nonverbal space where I’m asking you to look at me but also look at this world and all these different landscapes and places. I’m asking readers to think about your own landscape, your own map of where you’ve been in the world.
DT: The photos come from across the country during your travels. Which one, upon review, strikes you the most?
REG: When you open the book, there’s an image of two figures that are sort of in a vortex. That would be perhaps my top choice for the book, and then my second would be the cover. Those would be the two that I feel maybe most amplify the emotional narrative of the book.
DT: I know it’s a weird time to be thinking about it, but will you be touring in support of the book?
REG: I consider it every day. This is a very fraught time for [any artist] trying to launch new work, especially books, into the world. I think books are a little bit kinder because people have time to read. What has happened in the publishing industry is these virtual events, and I think I go up and down about them. I’ve attended a few and done a few readings. One of the amazing things is that through Zoom, a podcast or whatever the platform is, you can actually be reading your poems or be talking about your work and have 100 or 200 people ostensibly logged in and listening to you in some capacity. At the same time, especially for poetry, there is nothing like being in the room with the poet. With this particular book, I had hoped that it would have a physical life when it launched, and now I just have to realign to what the reality is. And the reality is that I want everybody to live and be safe, so I have to find silver linings. I just have to go with the punches and realize that if I did my work then the book can travel anyway, and it can reach people.
Learn more about Rachel Eliza Griffiths at rachelelizagriffiths.com.