Houghton Mifflin was kind enough to send me a copy of Michael Ryan's New and Selected Poems. I was not familiar with Ryan, a contemporary American poet born in 1946 in St. Louis, and who now lives and teaches in California. Author of several volumes of poems and of memoir, his style is masculine, taut, and feels very mid-western to me - uneffusive. The poems have an easy-speaking diction but a rhythmic formality, they lie in neat columns on the page. Often they are narrative in substance with an impact like an American black and white art photographer - say, Robert Frank. (I just looked him up, although I know Frank's photographs well, he was born in Switzerland and lives in Nova Scotia, but his book The Americans is so quintessentially 1950s America. And he collaborated with Jack Kerouac and the beat poets, so he qualifies). I'll accompany some of Michael Ryan's poems with Frank's photographs, why not? The photo directly below, however, is a portrait of Ryan and not by Frank. If the length of some of the lines ends up overlapping the side bar, just open this post in my reader by clicking on the icon at the bottom of my side bar and you will be able to read the whole thing.
I think The Past a remarkable poem - direct, the images so precise - whether it does or not it feels like it stems from direct experience. The past is a character - in a coat - even on this steamy day. Yet it is also a storm blowing through the house, and the narrator was one of those children and sees his child self, but is also a grown up man now and whispers into his father's ear knowing now what he could not have known then. Or maybe you see something else, but it does its work so efficiently, its few words are very evocative.
Tourists on Paros
If I die or something happens to us
and a stray breeze the length of the house
takes you alone back to that June on Paros
when we wrote every morning in a whitewashed room
then lay naked in the sun all afternoon
and came back at dusk famished for each other
and talked away the night in a taverna by the water -
I hope the memory gives you nothing but pleasure.
But if you also suddenly feel the loss
snap open beneath like a well covered with grass,
remember our stumbling in T-shirts and shorts
onto that funeral party in the cafe at breakfast:
not the widow, barely sixteen, in harsh wool cloth,
nor the grief that filled the air and seemed boundless.
but the brawny, red-haired Orthodox priest
whose shaggy orange beard over his black-smocked chest
was like an explosion from a dark doorway
of a wild, high-pitched laugh.
It shows up one summer in a greatcoat,
storms through the house confiscating,
says it must be paid and quickly,
says it must take everything.
Your children stare into their cornflakes,
your wife whispers only once to stop it,
because she loves you and she sees it
darken the room suddenly like a stain.
What did you do to deserve it,
ruining breakfast on a balmy day?
Kiss your loved ones. Night is coming.
There was no life without it anyway.
Who made gangster dreams?
The old moss on the brain.
Who calls to you upstairs?
One in winter without a fire.
Who won't listen to you talk?
I won't listen. You can't talk.
What's that face in the bedroom mirror?
That's the gangster. He's the gangster.
What's trapped beneath the cellar?
That's the gangster underwater.
Where's the house wrapped in fire?
No one's house, with no one there.
What slim victim cries for air?
That's the gangster. He's the gangsterr.
Who made gangster dreams?
The old moss on the brain.
An Old Book in Florence
Ancient Art and Ritual by Jane Ellen Harrison, London, 1913
It smells like water from a rusty pump
I drank as a child on my grandmother's farm
in Bellflower, Missouri - this old book
from a British subscription library in Italy.
The water it absorbed from basement air
minute by minute, year after year,
browned the edges of the pages
and fades toward their centers to a faint rust color;
specks of darker rust blot words and letters;
and, on the insides of both covers,
squiggles the shade of dried blood
have made a kind of topographical map
that shows only rivers.
A modern scanning x-ray machine
might have seen a splinter of flame
like a votive candle in the underground stacks,
and the book salvaged with sponges
and tweezers and chemicals.
But no technology can save it now:
the touch of its paper is the skin of hands
dried out by work and crosshatched with veins.
The life it had was in people's hands.
Someone's earnest marginalia
by someone almost erased -
fragments of a dead man's opinion
in a book that's almost dust -
buy they must have been alive in him
when he returned the book
to the British Institute and stepped
out onto a gray stone street in Florence
bordered by a wall where you can rest your elbows
and watch the river change with the light
like a heavy shot silk. Here's
one passage in the book he marked:
"It's what the tribe feels that is sacred.
One may make by himself excited movements,
he may leap for joy, for fear;
but unless these movements are made by the tribe
together, they will not become rhythmical;
they will probably lack intensity
and certainly permanence."
To this he shouted "No!" in the margin,
addressing the author, Jane Ellen Harrison:
"Madame, you are an islander as I am."
In our family, my grandmother was famed
for gentle toughness that yielded to no one.
In 1913, a teenage bride on an Ozark dirt farm -
did her life already somehow contain
the deaths of her husband and son,
my father, who had just been born?
I had heard the phrase "gentle toughness" spoken
by grownups when she left the table after holiday meals,
and spoken by my parents in the dashboard-lit
front seat during the long car rides back to St. Louis,
and I understood what they mean by it,
but to me, "gentle toughness" was the way her hands felt
when she passed me the dented tin cup
to hold under the spout while she pumped,
saying "Look for bugs before you drink!"
before she'd rough my cheek and tell me
I was her special one. Often as not,
there would be a fat red beetle
floating in the cup, which she'd pinch out
and hold right up to my nose -
its six tiny thorny legs still trying to swim in air -
and say, "That's never going to hurt you"
and flick it away like a speck of lint.
Then she'd tell me I could drink, and that's when
I'd tip the cup and smell the water
and see the silver bottom battered into craters
and drinking was being face to face with the moon.