James Grinwis’s Exhibit of Forking Paths

Review by: 
Micah Bateman

Book cover“...[W]hile in transit, // things glitter.”
—James Grinwis, from “Inupiat,” Exhibit of Forking Paths


Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.

Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
Because of the firecat.

Or until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.

The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
To the right, to the left,
And
Bristled in the way.

Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.

In Stevens’s “Earthy Anecdote,” we find the poet’s interest not only in dynamic systems and bodies in motion, but also in the elegance by which the systems conduct energy: in “swift, circular line[s],” say. Stevens asks, How is motion borne through a poem, and how can its energy translate into feeling, ethos, maybe even catharsis?

One finds similar interests in James Grinwis’s second book, Exhibit of Forking Paths (Coffee House Press 2011), chosen by Eleni Sikelianos for the National Poetry Series. Grinwis alternates between static displays of phantasmagoric images or tableau vivants and dynamic prose poems headed by rudimentary diagrams of electrical circuitry. Between these two poles, static and dynamic, Grinwis’s collection attempts to locate the perfect living image by experimenting with how, like an electrical circuit, a poem controls and utilizes energy and work. Ultimately, he concludes that it cannot (or shouldn’t). Whereas Stevens’s poem combusts under its own control and resolves into rest (the firecat feeds and sleeps), Grinwis’s poems end outside their circuitry in wonder, surprise, and nonsequitir; their voltage is untenable. If Stevens asks how motion is borne through a poem, Grinwis seems to ask how a poem can possibly be borne through a line of motion.

Grinwis begins his collection with the title poem, “Exhbit of Forking Paths”:

In tablet 12 is a girl in ski boots
wading a lushly gurgling stream.

I am defeated.
In tablet 4, an ex-torture chamber attendant
shucks the shells of shrimps
and crawfish. He is opening
a bar, “The Shuck.” A nosy insect
screams in a tree behind him.

Tablet 222: Mr. R., digging
a small pit for a vial of barbiturates.
The hair on his back is long and fuzzy. [...]

The opening of the first poem negotiates the two modes Grinwis oscillates between: his image/text prose poems of systemic dynamics, and his lineated poems of fragmented, static images: “Scuba diver with crystalline utensil. [...] Portrait of blanket with ice in background.” In the first poem, images in motion appear piecemeal as the moving tableaus of a phantasmagoria. The images often bear the surreal zaniness and simplicity of utterance Grinwis no doubt picked up from his forbearers on the University of Massachusetts–Amherst faculty, though his images’ gravity and grotesquerie move far beyond the lighter tenors of yesteryear James Tate poems. From here, the poem’s conceit disintegrates for a short moment before returning to its exhibition of "tablets":

The end of love. A tall sundial.
A genie strangled and left on the curb
like a derelict’s rag.

I am torn. Wasted.
A pummeled plate. A dent. [...]

In these lines, Grinwis jumps outside the boundaries of his tablet museum, and suddenly the poem’s powers become unlimited by the parameters of his exercise. At the same time the conceit of the museum is dismantled and we are thrust into a blank and abysmal, surrealist lyric space, the poem’s subject reasserts himself most potently: first he is “defeated,” then he is utterly “torn,” though he still participates in the space of the poem.

In the prose poems that follow the title poem, we find the subject missing:

On the way to the store a delivery truck collided into a wall, behind which a group of men were throwing javelins, many of which had thocked into the truck-rammed wall with the violence spilling out of the throwers’ hearts.

Instead, we get a third-person account of a system of intersecting actions—of interacting objects. It’s as if the subject is now the small boy playing God over his model train set, and the last utterance in each poem is something akin to his collision. Consider the last clause in “Light-Emitting Diode”:

After lassoing the hawk, hauling it down, twisting fireweed about its ankles and setting it free, after the bonfire had dwindled down and the last of the sirloin had been eaten, the barbecue sauce rubbed into their jeans, Tina and Sam spread a bearskin over the outcrop that overlooked Diamond Lake, the moonlight streaming and the stars straining, everything seemingly happy with everything else, Buddhistic almost, with the diatoms on the pond buzzing out luminescence like the selfsame elements comprising the lake’s name, and fucked each other silly.

Under the title “Light-Emitting Diode” is the mechanism’s parenthetical definition: “emits light when current flows through it.” Grinwis’s interest lies in finding the energy required for luminescence. His poems, like the diatom-laden pond, buzz with activity held in “Buddhistic” equilibrium until the last possible moment when the energy jumps its system, when the luminescence explodes into fire, when the voltage breaks the circuit, when the train with untenable momentum derails into catastrophe. Catastrophe is required, Grinwis seems to say; poems are not meant for control.

By the end of this collection, Grinwis has beautifully interrogated ideas of both containment—“To be a valley inside walls. [...] A downpour caught / in a carton of flowers”—and motion—“What is seen in the motion / and what is felt.” Ultimately he concludes that what is seen is only the surface: “things [that] glitter.” What is felt is different entirely. “The beyond goes only as far / as ourselves,” says a character in the book, but Grinwis disagrees with such a limit. He’s interested in the very "beyond" of feeling that exists outside the system of our awareness or our poems’ language:

Two spikes were rammed into the ovoid door of a cave. Behind that door was another door, a flat one. Behind that, who knew.


Micah Bateman is from Jacksonville, Texas, and teaches poetry and writing in Iowa City. His poetry appears in such journals as Boston Review, CutBank, Denver Quarterly, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Exhibit of Forking Paths
James Grinwis
Coffee House Press, 2011
$16.00 (paperback)
ISBN: 1566892805
68 pages

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781566892803?aff=iowareview