This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
“You have just read a work of literature,” reads the first line of Mark Levine’s departing commentary after 153 pages of photos, lists, and other scraps of paper. And while at first it may not seem that Lost and tackles the hefty task of adding a supplemental definition to what we consider to be “literature,” by the end of the book it is apparent that author Jeff Griffin has certainly begun the conversation. However, what is more intriguing (and perhaps germane to this publication) is how the book recasts our notions of what “finding” a poem really means. For this reason, Lost and generated excitement among the Found Poetry Review‘s editors when pre-publication copy began circulating because it cuts directly to the heart of what this publication represents and turns it on its head – and not in the service of a trick, gimmick, or illusion. Lost and is a work that will make readers challenge notions of context and both what constitutes content and the very act of writing.
Jeff Griffin literally found all of the pieces that make up Lost and between 2010–2013, the pieces being either transcribed by the author or reproduced directly from the source material. Typically, work of “found” poetry that finds its way into FPR is predicated on a writer scouring a text to see what poems may lie hidden or even those that may be forced into being. Whether or not a particular piece is successful hinges on how the new work produced is reframed or reconstituted. What happens when, instead of a poet finding a poem, the poem finds the poet?
What happens when authorial control is no longer about writing words, but sequencing or shaping them?
Ranging across the most arid desert regions of California and Nevada, Griffin collected scraps for several years before he even knew that he had been storing the stories of people’s lives – narratives told by things that they kept most private, never meant to be found after-the-fact. The host of anonymous writers had no chance to revise or to edit; these pages contain some of the most raw, unassuming, and uncontextualized voices that a reader may ever encounter. Above all, however, they are voices from a secluded world begging for expression but never asking to be expressed. Some of the documents included are personal letters, photographs, journal entries or poems handwritten or typed, capturing individuals in vulnerable or celebratory moments. One section (“V – Lida Junction, Pahrump, Nevada”) contains a fallout between two lovers (Estée and Tony) that takes place over the course of several letters and notes that, abandoned under unknown circumstances, have made some of the most private and sincere moments public. Estée writes “we know very little of each other. I don’t mean past; I mean feelings,” and she desires a connection with Tony in often multi-page letters all written within hours of each other on the same day followed by Tony’s single-sentence notes, one example signed
Love, T / P.S. I owe you $20.00.
The reader never sees resolution. The conversation takes place out of order, and is difficult to piece together, but so are many of our own relationships.
While it seems like these pieces are from isolated places, we begin to realize how together we all are in loneliness.
This section, among others, brings forward the acts of shaping and sequencing that Griffin incorporates into his writing process. While the section is not limited to the relationship, including other scraps and photos that were found in the same general location, the content that follows is that of redefinition. Some photographs have bits pasted onto them (not altered by the author) or others have faces cut out; in the middle of the section, one note reads “should someone find this or me, leave us it or I to wander aimlessly,” the writer cutting themselves out of society.
Lost and contains many solemn moments, but Griffin is able to uncover humor in some of the situations he finds. The book begins with an uncanny narrative: that of a bird owner teaching a budgie (named “Sir Gallahad”) to speak. One is compelled to ask why such a record would be kept. The section is capped by a short piece written by the anonymous bird trainer that sheds some light on a couple incidents, but it is a narrative told through different letters of the alphabet and what words the budgie was eventually able to acquire. Griffin’s inclusion of it lightens the mood of the book, but it serves a greater purpose. While owning a speaking bird is a neat parlor trick, such a hobby is a rare window into our own private eccentricities.
In several cases, juxtapositions between found objects produces stunning effects. Even if just text, Griffin’s work would be impactful. However, his use of photo Section “VI – East of Fallon, Nevada” documents the dissolution of a family in photographs and in letters. Opposite a Polaroid photo of a woman staring into a camera, captioned “Drinkin hard / me / July 07 / Fallon, NV”, is a letter from a child to their mother “I remember those days in the old house / the life where my life began” where the writer recollects
me building forts and imaginary worlds / you building reality building the garden / building me
As to whether the pieces are intertwined is left to question and the assumption that they are may be unmerited, but one is left to wonder – what stories are told through the pieces we leave behind?
For Griffin to answer the question, he has had to embrace concept in such a way that the work could be considered in “conceptual.” Limited narrative runs through the text, though the two acts that Griffin uses in his process of writing (sequencing, shaping) are an attempt to create as linear a narrative as possible which, often in poetry, is not predicated on the typical prosaic sense of one action necessitating the other, but one idea folding into what follows as consequence – the feeling that one thought begets the next. Additionally, the contents of the book are not traditionally what one would consider poetry. There is a new notion of the “suspension of disbelief” to which the reader is subjected, and it is ruled by the concept of the many forms of the “lost” throughout the book. To some this may be asking too much for a collection, but the broad definition of what constitutes “text” must be applied; it is as if each picture, photocopy or handwritten document is part of a larger stanza composing a poem that spans the entirety of the section.
Lost and is a catalog of these poems of longing and, strangely enough, in some places triumph. With American popular media having been dominated by reality television shows that both mock and celebrate material possession, what does a work like Griffin’s say about the true scraps of our existence, those objects that are intended for very specific audiences whether a broad group such as a family or for the singular eyes of the self? It is these records of moments that will fill in the gaps in how we tell the tale of ourselves, and how others will come to see us. But, what the text truly amounts to is a narrative of control, or at least a redefinition of how it is applied. What happens when anyone surrenders the stilted mechanics and rules of expression? In the case of Lost and, what we see is a writer who has cast off the traditional modes of writing and even the assumptions that come with a less traditional style of writing – the “found” – in order to show us that sometimes what we choose to leave to behind or to the wayside tells the more sincere story of all.