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Anthem for a Burnished Land

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Sitting alongside the Little Walker River last weekend, contemplating Nevada’s Desert Peak in the distance, I began reading Shaun Griffin’s memoir, Anthem for a Burnished Land. As I turned the pages, I realized how perfectly his words were matching my experience of the moment. A desert landscape turning from summer into fall, golden leaves here and there, a brisk wind cascading down-canyon and shuffling the grasses and trees. Or, as Shaun writes at the outset of his memoir, “the rabbit brush is saffron, the locust seeps to yellow, and the Virginia Range has a burnt tint.”

Once again I’m making a “Bookin’ with Sunny” exception and reviewing a book written by someone I know well. Or at least someone I thought I knew well until I read Anthem for a Burnished Land! And that’s why I want to review this memoir because it so honestly caused me to rethink my understanding of familiar places and to reconsider the breadth and depth of Shaun’s personal commitment to the land and to those who live beside him. His book is beautifully written, as only a poet might envision the world.

Even if I hadn’t already known Shaun’s poetry, I might have guessed that his memoir was penned by a poetic sensibility. Its prose moves in verse-like paragraphs that echo off one another, sharing imagery and forcing the reader to make parallel connections. Part I, especially, moves poetically from one theme to the next—Shaun’s friend Jess, Shaun’s poetry, the community Shaun and his wife Debby are building in Virginia City, the actual construction of the building that will shelter the programs the Griffins together envision, the steep terrain of both Virginia City and the dreams that Shaun and Debby have. Meanwhile, Jess segues in and out of Part I, a literal and metaphorical constant who himself embodies dreams.

Parts II and III are more conventionally designed, mini-essays that develop the Community Chest project, describe Shaun’s intense work with prison poets, talk about literature and life, depict the Griffins’sons as they grow and mature. Shaun thoughtfully ponders fatherhood, even as he and Debby give birth to the community center of their dreams. He also muses about the complexities of social justice, balancing the harsh landscape against the occasional rigidity of real-life problems and pains. Even so, I could hear the poetry behind the prose, admire Shaun’s diction and syntax as he probed life’s complications.

There is a sense of wonder throughout Anthem for a Burnished Land, along with a sense of gratefulness for Shaun’s intellectual and emotional riches. Even as he worries about raising more money for the non-profit Community Chest and frets about paying the bills, his prose soars above the mundane day-to-day troubles. Beginning in the fall, turning frigid in the winter, then coming to fruition in spring and summer, Anthem for a Burnished Land carries Shaun and Debby and Jess and many other likable friends through the seasons. This memoir exemplifies all that is welcome in a first-person collection of musings about society and self. Not only is it well-written, but it’s eminently thought-provoking. As I said at the outset, I found myself reconsidering my friends, applauding all they have accomplished and appreciating the world they have created for themselves. – Ann Ronald

Also available by Shaun T. Griffin: This is What the Desert Surrenders; Desert Wood; Bathing in the River of Ashes; Torn by Light (with Joanne De Longchamps); Woodsmoke, Wind, and the Peregrine; Razor Wire ’03, A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Art (with Ismael Garcia Santillanes); Snowmelt; Death to Silence/Muerte Al Silencio (with Emma Sepulveda-Pulvirenti).

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