Last week, instead of walking to dinner, I walked to a bookstore. And I spent my dinner money on books.

These days I feel torn when I see books I want, because I now own a Kindle to make my travel reading easier. But poetry, poetry I always buy in book form. I like to scan the poetry section and find all the tiny volumes hidden among the overwhelming anthologies of the more famous, classical poets. I don’t pretend to know anything about poetry. I haven’t studied literature, and I haven’t learned how to analyze writing. Sometimes these tiny, simple volumes take me by surprise as I flip through them. Usually it’s certain words, or the simplicity of the typography, or the modesty of the cover. Shyly, and perhaps predictably, I admit that I love to read about love.

I plucked Eliza Griswold’s Wideawake Field from the shelf. I thumbed through the pages. I secretly confess that I took photos of the poems I liked, until I realized I was photographing every page. While the language is simple, I believe this is precisely what stopped me in my tracks. Her conciseness allows her poetry to transcend the usually complex language that is required to describe such heavy human emotion, such as loneliness, not taking things for granted,  and, of course, love.

Well. Of course, I took this as my meal, and my heart felt full.

The synopsis:

The chairs have come in
and the crisp yellow thwock
of the ball being hit
says somehow, now that it’s fall,
I’m a memory of myself.
My whole old life–
I mourn you sometimes
in places you would have been.
The poems in this fierce debut are an attempt to record what matters. As a reporter’s dispatches, they concern themselves with different forms of desolation: what it means to feel at home in wrecked places and then to experience loneliness and dislocation in the familiar. The collection arcs between internal and external worlds–the disappointment of returning, the guilt and thrill of departure, unexpected encounters in blighted places– and, with ruthless observations etched in the sparest lines, the poems in Wideawake Field sharply and movingly navigate the poles of home and away.

The title poem trails at the end of the book:

I’ve never been where we are,
although the glass studded
with soldier’s rusted buttons
says we aren’t the first.
The airstrip’s islands of cracked macadam
suggest an ancient volcano.
We are the volcano.
We, the notes sung
by a creator, who, if not singular,
is creation—
not an idea, a force.
Let us tumble.
Let us laugh at our grip.
If these are last days,
let them not catch us sleeping
but awake in this field, and ready.

The lone review on Amazon reads:
“As someone who has spent a great deal of my life overseas, and particularly in areas of conflict, it felt like Eliza had accompanied me for much of it. Yet I think her work moves beyond the specific and touches on the universal struggling to be – and because we are – only human.”


from Work in Progress, previously unpublished poetry by Eliza Griswold. These poems are longer, and more specific to her work as a reporter.

The mimosa trees misunderstand
the New Year’s heat, and burst
into mustard tufts across the garden—
their premature buds a birth
forced by the earth’s unnaturalness.
Poor trees, like nine-year-old girls
who have to negotiate breasts.  It’s death
pressing up under the most tender flesh.
In this age, most of us feared ours
were tumors, and we were in season.
Long ago, a girl could become a tree.
Daphne’s fingers sprouted twigs;
root hairs branched from her toes;
her torqued curls gnarled into limbs.
She thickened, as we do, in self-defense.
Libyan Proverbs
The naked man in the caravan has peace of mind.
He who has luck will have the winds blow him his firewood.
He whose trousers are made of dry grass should not warm himself at the fire.
He howled before going mad, and led a lion by the ear.
Like the sparrow, he wanted to imitate the pigeon’s walk but lost his own.
Walk with sandals till you get good shoes. Where the turban moves,
there goes the territory. Him whom you do not see, see his companions.
Men meet but mountains don’t.  Always taking, not giving back,
even mountains will be broken down.
Penny piled on penny will make a heap.
Fish eats fish and he who has no might dies.
The small donkey is the one everybody rides.
My belly before my children.  Sons I have not got,
but I have a mess on my clothes. Only the unlucky coin
is left in the purse. As long as a human being lives
he will learn. Learn to shave by shaving orphans.
He who is to be hanged can insult the Pasha.
In the house of a man who has been hanged
do not talk of rope. Much shouting and crowds
over a hedgehog’s slaughter. The funeral
is big but the corpse is a mouse.
I lick my grindstone and sleep in peace.
The delicate Italian town
preserves its symbols—
its sheaves of wheat and axes
stamped onto manhole covers.
A balcony presses past a worker’s window
in the same crossed shape
of wheat bound by wheat.
Yet the white, weathered farmers
have fled utopia. This block is let
to gypsies and Africans.
The cash crop is kiwis.
All markets are black.
Without meaning to, I file
these facts to show you,
ambassador to a country
that no longer exists.

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