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Reviewed by:
  • Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me: Essays from a Poet by Shaun T. Griffin
  • Bernard Quetchenbach
Shaun T. Griffin, Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me: Essays from a Poet. Reno: U of Nevada P, 2019. 264 pp. Cloth, $27.95.

In “Walking into the Desert,” the third essay in Shaun T. Griffin’s Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me, the author offers water and a ride to a stranger on a wintry night in the Great Basin desert of northern Nevada. The stranger is volatile, perhaps unpredictable, but also highly literate, if too fidgety for a coherent discussion of Shakespeare. The encounter ends with the rider demanding to be dropped off “almost where he wants to be— in the black unknown” (28).

This chance meeting reveals three major subjects of Griffin’s essays. The collection’s first section focuses on his Nevada home; like many writers transplanted from other places— Gretel Ehrlich comes to mind— the California-born Griffin is preoccupied with the oddity of a writing life in the interior West. Despite his apparent bemusement, it is clear that Griffin considers Nevada home, and his induction into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame is evidence that his adopted state has accepted him as one of its own. The essays illustrate Griffin’s integration into both a challenging natural environment and an extensive network of literary connections throughout the West.

Griffin’s unquestionable devotion to the art of poetry dominates part 2 of the collection. He seems to have struck up friendships with an anthology’s worth of late twentieth-century poets, including Richard Shelton, Carolyn Kizer, and Vassar Miller, among others. The second section begins with a pair of essays on Hayden Carruth, an especially important mentor to Griffin, who edited a posthumously published anthology devoted to the life and work of that influential but troubled poet. The essays establish Griffin’s role in bringing guest poets to Nevada, but Griffin’s advocacy extends beyond the usual coffee houses and university creative writing programs; he details his many years of poetry workshops at the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility, an effort that eventually led to the publication of Razor Wire, a journal edited by inmates and featuring their work alongside that of poets living beyond the walls. [End Page 109]

The book’s last section finds Griffin traveling to destinations ranging from Ireland to the impoverished townships of South Africa. These essays provide further examples of the longstanding dedication both to poetry and to humanitarian causes evident throughout the collection. For example, an essay recounts a trip during which Griffin’s community building takes a literal turn, the poet and his family assisting in the construction of a school library in Mexico.

Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me could have benefited from more careful editing. Some of the essays continue long after their primary purpose has been fulfilled. Surprisingly for a book by a self-described poet, there are clunky and grammatically unsure sentences (“He seemed happy— the blessed curse of the Westerner— because he did not try to trap it like a fly” [215]). In some of the travel pieces Griffin comes dangerously close to unintentionally implying that, because he is a poet, he feels the pain of a depressed or repressed society more than its members do.

Taken as a whole, Griffin’s “Essays from a Poet” illustrate a life devoted to poetry, community, and bringing the two together. Griffin emerges from these pages as an unpretentious ambassador for the art of poetry, generous in service to other poets, to the inmates who attend his workshops, and to his northern Nevada neighbors. And even to lone wanderers in the desert night.

Bernard Quetchenbach
Montana State University, Billings


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pp. 109-110
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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