‘Erosions is as much about nature, both violent and calm, as it is about exile, chasing the exotic’

John A Griffin explains the many inspirations for his new poetry collection which he began in the ‘80s

Why Erosions? Partly because the mighty phenomenon of erosion symbolises all that time and nature can do to even the most hardened, durable, and intransigent elements. With time, steel, granite and even diamonds can be worn down, which is by no means a defeatist attitude, nor is it abject resignation. It is simply an acknowledgement that sooner or later all things will pass and be replaced, that everything we hold dear too will pass, and that this is the natural order of things.

The metaphorical scope of erosion is also vast, as our species is now witnessing self-inflicted erosions at a frighteningly accelerated rate. The old comfort of poetic immortality itself has perhaps been eroded by our endangered status on the planet. We have abraded more than wind, sand, sun and water ever could.

Erosions was written mostly in the mid ‘80s, soon after I emigrated to the US and was reading for my primary degree at St Louis University. I lived in St Louis, Missouri then and worked in John D McGurks on 12th and Russell, where great Irish musicians such as Joe Burke, Anne Conroy, Michael Cooney, Terry Corcoran, Jackie Daly, Kevin Burke, Paddy O’Brien, Dáithí Sproule, James Kelly, Noel Hill, Tony McMahon, Noel Shine, Mary Greene, Seamus & Manus McGuire, Paddy Reynolds, and Andy McGann all played. McGurks was a hub of Irish music and became a meeting place for Irish expats. I bartended there and deepened my love of our traditional music there.

I was infused with Irish poetry then too, had made the pilgrimage to Sandymount to visit Seamus Heaney, whose collection Station Island had just come out, and which he kindly autographed, I visited Parson’s Bookshop on Lower Baggott Street to converse with May O’Flaherty, who shared a cache of old postcards she had received from Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and John Montague, and knuckled down to writing many of these ‘exile’ poems. I was heavily influenced by Kavanagh, Hughes, Plath, Stevens, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Valery, and my dear friend from Boston, Melissa Green whose Squanicook Eclogues (1987) changed my poetic life forever.


It was only when I attended an MFA program in McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, that I seriously began to craft the poems in Erosions. I saw the book as a kind of poetic Bildungsroman, whose primary imperative should be to sing, make music, be lyrical, rhythmical, and make and evoke sense through sound first rather than explicitly conveying meaning or messages.

My professor was the poet, John Wood, who was writing a history of the daguerreotype, and the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Robert Olen Butler, was also on the faculty. It was at McNeese State that I met Joy Williams, Amy Clampitt, William Heinemann, and WD Snodgrass, who swapped daguerreotypes with Wood. Both were avid collectors of these old photographs. James Dickey also came to visit, gave a reading and conducted a workshop. Many of the poems in Erosions were first workshopped in Wood’s poetry class, and Amy Clampitt had input into the poem Ars Poetica.

It was Amy Clampitt, in fact, who first noted the motif of ‘lines’ in the book, namely, the line used to pull the trap that would snare the falcon, the clothesline in the glasshouse where coloured bottles were hung, the railway lines we used for our gang initiation rite in Ars Poetica, the fishing line father swung with expert ease, the lines of trees in the glens, the lines of lead holding the stained glass together, the lines left on the walls of Thoor Ballylee after the floodwaters receded, the lines of the drills we weeded as children, the lines of Maple on the dancefloor in the Tower Ballroom, the crisscrossing lines of the ribbed vaulted ceilings in church, the line of thread that Atropos cut in Parcae, and of course lines of poetry. That said, I did not want my book to become just another example of what we in the program facetiously referred to as PAP, or ‘poems about poetry’. We felt, rightly, I think, that such self-referentiality had already been done to death.

Erosions is as much about nature, both violent and calm, as it is about exile, chasing the exotic, confronting illness and death, searching for identity, beauty, meaning, significance, belonging, finding refuge in the fantastical, and losing innocence.

It was the sudden death in a car accident of one of our boyhood friends that marked our loss of innocence, and the poems Ars Poetica and Synecdoche both address that theme from different vantages and contexts. Although we had now matriculated into a world where even our young friends could accidently perish, that did not prepare us for the decline and death of those dearest to us.

The book celebrates those first influences, the amateur apiarist, ornithologist, mycologist, and angler that peopled and shaped a burgeoning consciousness. It explores and juxtaposes the fierce and awesome, destructive power of nature with its quieter, more pastoral side, and then asks where we fit in it all.

The division of the book into five parts corresponds to five different explorations of its recurring themes, and while Irish, Celtic and ancient mythologies are all present, Erosions also seeks to articulate its own fabulist reality, where flowers pollinate the birds, straw and honey are alchemized into bullion, X-ray glasses really do work, a bottle to hold sulphuric acid becomes a genie’s bottle, and poems become like buttons holding a grommet shut.

I should conclude by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to Jessie Lendennie and Siobhan Hutson at Salmon Poetry Press for their tireless work and dedication in publishing Erosions. Both kept faith with the project through the vicissitudes of Covid and many bereavements. It is no exaggeration to say that the impact Salmon has had on Irish poetry is inestimable. I would also like to pay a special tribute to my sister, the extraordinary poet, my constant inspiration and guide, and a great champion of poets and poetry, Eleanor Hooker. Eleanor and I are two of 12 children, and her presence in all our lives is a gift we all absolutely cherish.

Erosions by John A Griffin is published by Salmon Press