If you love travel, you would enjoy Jeanne Griggs’ poetry collection, Postcard poems, which comprises postcard-sized poems ostensibly sent from locations around the USA, and further afield. Like all good travel writing, though, these poems offer more than just simple travel.
However, before I discuss them, I should introduce the poet. Some of you will already know her, because Jeanne Griggs is the blogger behind the wonderfully titled Necromancy Never Pays … and other truths we learn from literature. How could a reader not love this? You can read about her and her blog’s name on the blog, so I’ll just add that at the back of the collection we are told that besides writing her blog she directs the Writing Centre at Kenyon College, and plays violin in the Knox County Symphony.
So, the collection. It’s divided into three parts, and each poem occupies a page – on the left of the page is the poem and on the right is the addressee (like “To Allen/Crystal Lake, IL”) plus that little rectangular box you get on postcards for the stamp. It’s a clear, simple layout, which maintains our focus on the poems’ context. The titles of the individual poems ground us further, with each referencing its subject, such as “Note on a postcard of Cypress Gardens” or “A postcard of Antelope Canyon” or “A postcard with ornamental pear tree”. There is also an epigraph, and I’ll share it because it’s perfect. It’s from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.”
Regarding the trigger for this collection, besides the obvious travel that is, Griggs wrote on GoodReads that “I was writing poems and fitting them onto the back of actual postcards and then sometimes I would send them to my friends and family. Very soon it became clear that this was a collection, that together the poems told a kind of story”.
Now, all this might sound a little cute, but the idea has not resulted in something formulaic or overly structured. Indeed, the poems roam through place and time, and encompass a variety of holidays and trips, some overseas to, say, the Alhambra in Spain (“Note on a postcard of the Alhambra”), and others closer to home, like visiting a child at college (“Note on a postcard of Wellington, Ohio”).
What captures the attention, however, is that alongside the expected description of a place, most poems contain more. There are reflections, some delightfully wry and some pointedly ironic, on the experience of travel – the joys and challenges, the misses and triumphs, the surprises and the ordinary – and their impact on the traveller. I enjoyed, for example, poems about attending festivals, like:
We’ve come to hear about books,(from “Note on a postcard of the St Francisville Inn”)
drink bourbon, and eat crawfish,
casting aside our inhibitions
like layers of clothing, extraneous
in the bloodworm Louisianna night.
There are also the personal stories that made these trips worth writing about, such as memories of family holidays followed later by cards to children now grown up. There’s the mother remembering her own mother, only to recognise the pattern is repeating:
and thinking about my mother(from “Note on a postcard from the El Tovar hotel”)
how she would take me
to fancyhotels and
sit, saying she was content
with the view, watching me
disappearing over the horizon,
like my daughter, now.
Letting go isn’t as easy when it’s you doing the letting go!
… so it was the first trip(from “Notes on a postcard of Niagara Falls”)
we took without you. I missed you,
loosing my regret out of earshot,
drowned out by water roaring,
wishing I could watch you
see this …
The Contents list, in which a poem on Santa Monica Pier, for example, is followed by one containing a piece of the Berlin Wall followed by one from Waikiki, might suggest, on the surface, something quite random. However, reading the poems reveals subtle segues in nearby poems, from simple things like mentions of cereals (Froot Loops and Cheerios anyone?) to concepts like growing older. Books feature too. Few are named, but keen readers will spy the likes of Tolkien and Shakespeare within these pages.
There’s also some politics. One, “Note on a postcard of the Mount Vernon public square”, documents weeks of protesting, of wanting neighbours to realise that their congressman “is voting against / their health benefits, our water supply”, while another, “Note on a postcard of the Marie Laveau Voodoo Museum”, shares how a human skeleton brings to mind “desperate people feeling / no control over their lives, / the deck stacked against them”.
A couple of the poems particularly resonated with me – in addition to those dealing with family, ageing and children growing up. “Notes on a postcard of Mesa Verde”, for example, captured my own wonder about that amazing place and the people who lived there, while the opening poem, “A postcard of a mirrored room”, makes that poignant (there’s no other word for it) point about
… all the places
we’ve been, until
we get to the last one
and who will know
where that is until after
we reach a final destination.
The last poem, “A postcard from the Getty Museum”, offers a different sort of finality – the arrival of the pandemic. It’s not named, but when Griggs writes of not thinking about the crowds until “After, when the press of all / those people became unimaginable” followed by “all future plans suspended”, we know what she means.
Postcard poems is an engaging and accessible collection that uses something as relatable as writing postcards to explore things that matter. It’s nicely crafted, but also accessible. Well worth reading.
Frankfort, KY: Broadstone, 2021
(Review copy courtesy the author)
17 thoughts on “Jeanne Griggs, Postcard poems (#BookReview)”
This sounds really nice:)
I collect the postcards people send to me, as long as there’s more than ‘wish you were here’. Both sides become more interesting as time goes by, because places change so much and so do we, but I have yet to find an album that displays both sides.
I thought of you as I was reading this, Lisa. And when I started reading your comment my question was, How do you store them? I think some photo sleeves would allow it if you didn’t put the photos back to back but that’s not very elegant.
In a nice box ATM. But I’m always on the lookout.
It’s been shoe boxes for me … they tend to be just the right width … or, the older smaller ones were.
You are such a generous reviewer ..
Thanks M-R, but here’s the thing – I don’t review things I don’t like reading or that I think don’t have interest or value. If I’m going to spend time reading and writing my review it has to be worth it for me and I like to show why.
I really like this idea. I have a box full of blank postcards. Maybe I should write some Australian poems on them… I need to get hold of this book by Jeanne Griggs for inspiration.
You should Trish … I mean both get hold of the book (you can find details at a tab on her blog) and try some yourself!
I was talking to mum yesterday about dad retiring at 60, which I said I found unimaginable. She said one of the things she insisted on (and she had her second and last job, as a teacher, at age 19) was that they travel twice a year. Which explains the postcodes lying around which I use as bookmarks. No poetry though.
Haha Bill … no, my postcards weren’t very poetic. And I’ve used them as bookmarks in the past too.
I love that she insisted on travel.
I wonder why we don’t send postcards anymore. Cities everywhere have unique, local-flavor postcards in places like gas stations. If we would write something a little more meaningful than “Wish you were here,” I would probably be a postcard collector. I have a few from Michigan somewhere (unless I tossed them out in the move), and a collection of funny postcards about a comic strip character. Hmmm. I think if I started sending postcards now, people would wonder why I’m being goofy.
I have started sending postcards to our grandson in Melbourne as a treat in the letter box, though I have to tell his parents to check the letterbox for it! But, I am finding it hard to find cards around town here. I know they exist but they aren’t where I’m going. I want Aussie animal ones – the sort that will appeal to a child. I will have to think of better things to wrtie on them now though!
You could write a fun/funny animal fact on the back of each? He might like that.
Yes, good idea Melanie. I’ve tried a couple of things but that’s a great one too … and fun for me to research.
I’ve started traveling again this summer. My family went to Italy in June and I just got back from visiting my youngest in Los Angeles…the first time I was able to get out there to see him since March 9, 2020, when we went to the Getty.
Loved your perspective on these poems!
Oh lucky you to go to Italy Jeanne. Did you write more poems? And so glad you’ve been able to see your son. the pandemic has been tough on families.
Anyhow glad you enjoyed my response. The poems were great to read. Somehow I found I couldn’t read them last year during our lockdown, so had put them aside. This was probably a combination of the lockdown and grief over losing my parents. But then, when I picked them up recently, I found them perfectly approachable!
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