What An Amazing Thing
by James Wade
"My day with Lucy Griffith, talking Big Bend, the power of nature, and poems that can sing."
I'm standing with my feet in the Guadalupe River just inches beyond a whiterock point that stretches out from the banks of the Rusty Bend Ranch where award-winning poetess Lucy Griffith lives with her husband, Andy Robinson. Andy is trying his best to coach me through the mechanics that make up a proper-- or even an adequate-- fly fishing cast. Lucy is feeding my toddler daughter homegrown tomatoes from a picnic she prepared for our outing. She is pointing out to my wife each bird song and its origin. It was supposed to be hot today, even for May, even for Texas, but beneath the tremendous canopy of second-growth cypress trees that line the river, we are unseasonably comfortable. An apt evaluation, considering we just outside of Comfort, Texas on Lucy and Andy's sprawling property (designated as a wildlife refuge, dark sky area, and meticulously caretaken by the two master naturalists themselves).
Lucy has a stanza's worth of titles: Doctor, Clinical Psychologist, Master Naturalist, Principal, Teacher, Essayist, the list goes on. But I know her as a poet. I own her collections. I subscribe to her newsletter. But even without her writing, I know her as a poet. My theory is that a poet must suffer the world because she is one of the few who can truly see it. And Lucy sees it all.
The poems in her latest collection, Wingbeat Atlas, range from narrative to experimental to heart-shattering. She accomplishes this range and more, even as each work is based from page to page on a different variety of bird. She makes me cheer for a raven and mourn with a wren. That's the power of her pen. No matter the subject, Lucy sees it, figures its place in the world, and then somehow makes that our place as well-- puts us right where we need to be.
Take then her Wrangler Award-winning collection, We Make a Tiny Herd, based on the life and mythos of Judy Magers, the Burro Lady of Big Bend. Here is a series-- again with unrelenting range-- that could have been pulled from some long-lost Arlo Guthrie catalog, which makes sense considering Lucy prioritizes the lyrical nature of poetry.
"The first criteria is that it has a song," she tells me, "has some music to it. It needs sound and rhythm and needs to make sense together- a song is a story. And, if possible, when someone reads the poem, I don't want them to go, 'So what?'. I want there to be layers of meaning in there. So there might be a story, and there might be a parable underneath the story, and there might be some bit of wisdom underneath that. I like it to work on a lot of levels."
Lucy came to poetry early in life with her father collecting poems he enjoyed or thought she might enjoy and bringing them home for her to read.
"He taught me to enjoy a good poem, and then in college, I started writing more. Then I dropped it while I got my doctorate-- nothing like writing a dissertation to ruin you for creative writing-- and then came back to it after that. Andy got me a weeklong poetry training in Alpine with the WLT then I really got back into it in earnest and realized how much there was to learn and how fun that might be."
It was while attending the conference in Alpine that the writers were asked to pen a persona poem-- a poem in someone else's voice. Griffith chose Judy Magers, the "Burro Lady" of Far West Texas, someone who had captured Griffith's imagination for decades.
"We'd been coming to Big Bend for forty years and there was this twenty-year period where if you were lucky enough you'd see her, and everyone that ever had an encounter with her remembered it, even if there was no talking involved. And I thought that I could write a poem as this woman, and really imagine what it was like to be on a four-legged day in and day out and experience this amazing country."
Though Lucy talked with dozens of Far West Texas folks who knew or knew of Magers, she was also (as Naomi Shihab Nye wrote in her Texas Monthly piece on Lucy), "thinking about Magers's spirit," when she penned much of her collection. She also lauds the Big Bend community that seemed to rally around Magers-- providing rides when she needed or checking on her during especially cold nights.
"It's almost like community psychiatry," Lucy says. "The way everyone came together to do something protective of her. They loved her for who she was. They left her alone and didn't push her to tell her story. Something about the iconoclasts of Far West Texas, that was just the perfect place for her to end up."
Both Lucy and her husband hold a great reverence for Big Bend. For the land, its people, and the great sky above them both.
"Big Bend is pretty much my church. I go out there as often as I can and find it really centering and humbling. I really love the high desert. Andy calls it the palm of God-- ringed by mountains, such an unusual space. I think it invites a lot of reflection and I think it's also the quietest place I’ve ever been. As I say in one of the poems, 'so quiet you can hear your heartbeat'. I just find that very moving. I love the water in the Guadalupe and all this, but I really need my desert time too. And of course, the skies. What it must have been like to be Judy Magers and see the sky every night for decades."
Lucy herself spent many days and nights under the Texas sky, growing up around ranchers and cowboys and learning early on to explore the natural world.
"We were practically feral," she says of her childhood. "They just let us go, we got stung and bit and learned, and it was a heavenly way to grow up. I remember when I started noticing things. Like when I was about 8, being on Flat Rock Creek. An armadillo came up to the edge of the creek, then he went into the water, and he sank to the bottom and walked across the bottom of the creek and came up, like a submarine, on the other side and just walked on. I remember thinking, 'What an amazing thing. I'll never be the same.'"
It's noon. I’ve caught my fish-- a four-inch bluegill Andy jokes is the Monster of the Guadalupe. I'm smiling. The cool water on my feet, the sound of nearby chickadees and a distant hawk, and the easy, gentle company of friends. I'm smiling for the first time since the news broke in Uvalde. I'm looking at my daughter for the first time without the crippling anxiety of releasing her, even for a moment, into the world. Lucy smiles too-- an easy, knowing smile. She nods. She calls these times a "river cure”.
Later, after we've left the ranch, Lucy will send me a poem so achingly beautiful it makes me cry. She sees the whole world, the good and the bad, and with just a few lines she has once again put me right where I need to be.
James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild, a winner of the MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction and a recipient of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel from the Western Writers of America. Find out more by going here.
All Things Left Wild is available online and locally at Front Street Books, Alpine.
Happiest on a tractor named Mabel (a muse of 55 horsepower) Lucy Griffith lives on a ranch beside the Guadalupe River near Comfort, Texas. Her first collection of poems We Make a Tiny Herd was published by Main Street Rag as a finalist in their poetry book contest. Tiny Herd was awarded the Wrangler Prize for Poetry as well as the Willa Literary Award for Poetry. A book of poems and images about birds is forthcoming from Flowersong Press. She has been a Returning Contributor Scholar in Poetry for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Lucy Griffith’s poetry is available at Front Street Books in Alpine and the Gage Hotel in Marathon. Her website is lucygriffithwriter.com