By Jennifer Hetrick
Presa Press published what’s crucial to say across the unseen ties between one person, another, and all of us in Eric Greinke‘s The Third Voice: Notes on the Art of Poetic Collaboration.
Released in 2017, the book weaves academic and analytical aspects of approaching poetry through Greinke and a number of fellow scribes clearly cherished by him well beyond what’s tucked under the proverbial skull. And a reference to bones fits well here in that they’re universal in the marrow we all have and need. Heart-wrenchingly, three of five of Greinke’s collaboration partners passed away between 2011 and 2012.
Poet Hugh Fox shared line-writing with Greinke as final language-carving efforts in knowing cancer would take his body away from him. Their paired words intertwine into the often mentioned third voice, perhaps in the same family and vein as the idea of collective consciousness.
Greinke says, “Above all, we both knew that the best thing we could do in the face of Hugh’s impending death was to write a poem about it.” Embracing versus avoiding the truth of blood, bones, and the body’s systems, even in the face of cancer-too-common death, brings out a sense of truly living which isn’t as easy to see sometimes in stressed, slowly-edging-toward-the-grave others of the world.
Deep into drawn-out stanzas, the ninth in a 170-line poem titled “Beyond Our Control” glides with Greinke’s voice, that of his then-dying friend, and the third voice created by them for all of the world and those who cannot or do not write but whose insides would understand the meaning in the snap of a resilient finger.
We have been carried along by a flood of songs,
mostly in languages we didn’t understand as the audio-visual world
wasn’t our reality, but the melodies played around us as
wind-tree bird-song thunders that brought us back to our real selves
yet forward and away from ourselves too, into a long
immersion in the sensual celebrations of
sub-atomic love down ancient genetic pathways.
While the collaborative poems in this book sometimes blend voices across lines, others are one written in response to another (“Axes” to “Swiss Army [Knife],” “Carpenter Ants” to “Black Flies” with Harry Smith who Greinke so enjoyed talking to by phone but never actually met). A number of poems spanning these pages are similar to former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and the late Jim Harrison’s book Braided Creek, penned as correspondence while Kooser went through cancer—although the two perhaps wisely and whimsically elected not to identify which friend wrote which of the 300+ observer-oriented glimmers published by Copper Canyon Press in 2003.
Greinke’s reverence for collaborative poetry stretches from the early 1970s into recent years, and he’s never limited himself in the possibilities of how combining mind-space with that of a good friend builds strength and art which might not otherwise float on up into this realm of days.
Philosophy bobs and knits onward at the second surface of Greinke’s writing paired with the voices of fellow poets. But he doesn’t lend to the belief that poetry must be serious and without its own deserved comedy and comfort of awkwardness at least some of the time. He illustrates this in the following instructional poem excerpt as the first of four stanzas written with Ronnie Lane , first published in their joint venture Great Smoky Mountains in 1974.
Lay down. Chew dead calendars.
Drink Pancreas Tea.
Libraries are so valuable to literary-loving folks that wanting to gobble them up in certain moments doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The beautiful mush of two brains clinking together their quirks and curiosities—and obscure or not-really-so-obscure-at-all thoughts housed in them, is a welcome specificity in stanzas.
“Collaborative poetry achieves a level of universality that is greater because it is a social rather than a personal artifact,” Greinke explains early on in this book. And while he didn’t say it directly, the most vital point and beauty of what he conveys, in other words—poetry-drenched ones—resonates: the world and its people need poetry. Alone and together all at once, fully, deeply, and away from the disconnection and dividing we see around us and hear about too often in the news, with hardly as much attention given to the compassion across collaborations in communities. This book’s language and goals are necessary and will show readers the often untested waters of what we can achieve when we support each other at a heart-level while we’re on this earth.