- Anthem for a Burnished Land: What We Leave in this Desert of Work and Words by Shaun T. Griffin
Shaun T. Griffin is one of the luminaries of Nevada’s literary landscape: an inductee into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame; author of the poetry books Bathing in the River of Ashes (1999) and Wood-smoke, Wind, and the Peregrine (2008), among others; editor of absolutely invaluable poetry collections such as Torn By Light (1993); and translator of Emma Sepulveda’s Muerte al silencio (1997). These literary endeavors alone would be enough to keep most people well occupied, but as Anthem for a Burnished Land demonstrates, Griffin’s contributions to Nevada life extend well beyond the written word.
Subtitled “A Desert Memoir,” Anthem details Griffin’s involvement in a number of projects—struggles to found and maintain a community center in Virginia City; teaching poetry to prison inmates; a homeless youth education program. Throughout, daily life carries on: Griffin is married and has two children; we follow him along on a fishing excursion to Pyramid Lake; we watch his sometimes tense interactions with some of Virginia City’s more scurrilous residents.
At times, Anthem seems to meander as though it needed a more cohesive narrative, but what eventually emerges is a complexly layered, episodic story about learning to cope with life in the Nevada desert. The opening passage, for example, describes the quality of sunlight on the Comstock: “It has changed everything: the rabbit brush is saffron, the locust seeps yellow, and the Virginia Range has a burnt tint . . . weather will change soon. You must prepare” (9). A later chapter describes the ever-present fear of fire: “Smoke has come into the room like an unwanted bird that has strayed from [End Page 486] its path. . . . This smoke is a terrible smell. No one who lives here has escaped its reach” (223). The natural landscape is both an inspiration for Griffin’s art and a cypher—a force that doesn’t readily supply a clear meaning. In the chapter called “American Flats,” Griffin provides imagery that’s both familiar and startling: “rusted lids, bed springs, bottles, shotgun shells, ceramic beer bottle shards, tin cans, barbed wire,” and while riding towards an aspen canyon, he sees “a rattlesnake [that] had swallowed all but the last of a baby rabbit” (162). “It took me a long time to notice such things,” he continues. The landscape “is a metaphor for the quiet and calm as much as it is for progress and desolation. It is a metaphor for those of us who live with this contradiction” (163).
Griffin confronts this with a cheerfulness and enthusiasm that runs through the entire book. Despite moments of ruefulness—the deaths of loved ones, financial setbacks to the work in the community—Griffin maintains an optimism that is infectious. Perhaps the sustaining force in the book is art itself—Griffin’s own art (and there are numerous moments of arresting beauty in Anthem), his friends’, and his students’. In the chapter “Learning from Artists,” he describes the watercolor work of a Silver City painter named Karen Kreyeski, who supplied images for his first poetry book, Snowmelt (1994):
The visual images were crisp and sensual. She made this landscape appear as if it were a human figure, a woman’s torso entwined in the snowmelt. The moon was a pale purple, rising in the half-light of dusk. The flanks of the mountains were blue and flecked with red watercolor pencil. She rendered the place of my awakening for the cover of this book.(55)
Elsewhere, drawing upon the dual meaning (given the context) of the word “sentence,” Griffin describes the epiphanic reaction of his prisoner students to Ken Brewer’s Whale Song: A Poet’s Journey into Cancer (2007): “This, I imagine, is what Ken Brewer had hoped for: to scramble the alphabet of cancer and save one person from its sentence” (64).
In the end, Anthem for a Burnished Land...