Every Edge An Altar: Reviewing Michael Garrigan’s “River, Amen”

April 25, 2023 By: Cameron Scott

Whether an upstream edge or a downstream edge, the world of watersheds in Michael Garrigan’s newest book of poetry, River, Amen, are many: flooded, failed, left high and dry in drought, pastoral banks in afternoon sun. And it is from these living edges River, Amen, begins to take shape.

In one of the first poems of the collection, “Of Blood and Bark,” Garrigan meditates on the interconnectivity between the forest and fauna. There is a fine sparseness and strength of language within the poem; a poem you could put the weight of an entire mountain range on, and be left with coal or a fossil. But at its heart it is a poem about living, about edges, about deep ecology and interconnectivity, about our ultimate inseparableness from this word. For me, it is the first altar in River, Amen, I encounter: a poem to pause on, to mull over, to absorb.

Throughout this collection there are many such poems. And interspersed among them are an intersection of the sacred and profane. Perhaps it is the font, shapes, and inherent internal and external imagery within the poems, but I found myself thinking about James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break. There is even a direct nod in the collection when Garrigan titles a poem “Lying in a Hammock…” though ends with “…with Wicked Wind Coming off the Androscoggin River.” Also true to the nature of these poems, there is a heavy streak of other outdoor poets I hear singing between these pages; from Todd Davis to Michael Delp to Greg Keeler to Han Shan, a chorus of voices chime in the currents and breezes of Garrigan’s watersheds.

Though much of this collection abides in the serious themes of environmental degradation, impoverishment, and spirituality, threads of the Lebowski also abide. There is a silly, heartening, don’t take life so seriously, embracing of the sacred and profane. This is definitely not your dry fly purist’s unattainable perfection. And with that said, it isn’t your down-and-dirty catfish noodlin’ slip-slop, either. Somewhere between these pages the words gain energy, and behind them Garrigan’s careful shaping of the poems carries them like gravity.

Ultimately, it is Garrigan’s way of seeing the world, the poetry and muses and gods held “on ledges and ridges, on thin fir needles, on foam lines of water against bank, in that granular heaven where rock and dirt meet…” that I revel in the most. There are deeply personal poems in this collection, a life shared, that impact the most. And as a reader I will be returning to this collection again and again.