Resistance to the Unreal: Michael Ryan’s New and Selected Poems
THE IDEA OF “THE REAL” HAS ALWAYS HAD an allure for Americans. “Get real,” we sayand it makes a sound that is ours and ours alone, a kind of epistemological undertone that hums absentmindedly beneath our belief in a national destiny. But lately “the real” has tended to sound like nothing so much as a marketing ploy. It tells us over and over again that entertainment is our greatest invention, and that reality is something that can be manipulated or dreamed into existence. And from the President with his Doctrine of Preemptive War to Paris Hilton and her turn as a pig farmer, one thing remains constant: illusion am us.
So it can sometimes seem as if the unreal permeates everything about us these days. Even the ground beneath our feet. Last fall, on the way to pick up my car at an auto body shop in industrial east Cambridge, I passed through a new condominium development on the site of what had once been a towing lot: two-story townhouses designed in what can only be described as a post-modern New England saltbox style. Where a network of pathways met and opened out into a public courtyard, an ornate plate about eighteen inches in diameter had been cemented into the brickwork. The plate had been salvaged from New Orleans, where in some better life it had been a cover for a city water meter. Under the words Sewerage e[ Water Board was a raised crescent moon, with thin cast-iron rays shooting out from the moon’s center toward a constellation of rusted stars. Somehow the plate had found its way north to this little cedar-shingled village inhabited by biochemists, brokers and patent lawyers, the only people who could possibly afford to live in such a place. Someone-a landscape designer or architect-had probably thought of it as a bit of decorative authenticity. Or maybe it was just supposed to add a little charm. But there was an air of oblivion about the whole thing.
This is the atmosphere in which Michael Ryan’s New and Selected Poems has landed. Resistance to the unreal, and attention to the difficult facts, are its fierce strengths. The book has been shaped consciously to illustrate the growth of one man’s ability to respond to life-his own and that of otherswith adult compassion and moral intelligence. In it, the desire to be whole and true is balanced against the most scrupulous means of a witnessing conscience. It isn’t an easy book; nor is Ryan a poet at ease either with himself or with life. “One might have thought of sight,” says Wallace Stevens, “but who could think/of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?” Well, Ryan for one. He seems more than capable of such imagining of evil and loss. On the other hand, those scattered consolations of ordinary life arrived at in the book are actual and true, not the product of the poetic equivalent of spending the afternoon at a health spa.
Ryan’s thirty-plus years of work are one answer to the question of what to write in a time bounded, at one extreme, by the fragmented silliness and earnest indefmiteness of so much post-modernism, and, at the other, by the middlebrow, consumer-friendly reportage that passes for “real life” in American poetry these days. He seems to have said, simply, “no thanks.” Writing in his essay “Poetry and the Audience” fifteen years ago, he argued emphatically against both of the prevailing period styles: “the pressure for a poetic style that values ingenuity over profundity, nicety of expression over passion, restraint over candor, and complicationeven opacity-over simplicity.” The New and Selected Poems is proof of just how far you might have to go once you’ve said “no thanks.”
Dickinson has been a presiding deity for Ryan, and it’s Dickinson’s influence, her ethical forcefield translated into formal structure and inhabited perception, that we can feel behind the most recent work in Ryan’s book. Because of character or genius or religious background, it may have been “natural” for Dickinson to turn toward the affections and sufferings of other human beings. This has not been the case with Ryan. In that sense, the New and Selected Poems is a record of a spiritual struggle. It’s a struggle that probably will be more recognizable and accessible, for most people, than Dickinson’s is-her “centeredness” (more Buddhist, it seems at times, than the Buddha’s) being preternatural even when she is at her most anguished or awestruck, her images moving at their fastest and most disquieting speeds. Ryan, on the other hand, has been like a prisoner sawing slowly and persistently at the bars of the jailhouse window. “Dogged” is the word tattooed on his bicep:
Torment by appetite
is itself an appetite
dulled by inarticulate,
as Chekhov put it, “compassion
down to your fingertips”
looking on them as into the sun
not in the least for their own sake
but slowly for your own
because it causes
the blinded soul to bloom
like deliciousness in dirt,
like beauty from hurt,
their light-their light
pulls so purely. Let it.
This poem, the last in the book, summarizes the struggle in which Ryan’s speaker so often finds himself, the testing of his ability to enter into and empathize with human suffering. It’s also a kind of ars poetica, in that its complex honesty about the self-its recognition of a human hunger to remain in a state of constant wishfulness, for example, as well as its understanding that an unselfish-seeming compassion may ultimately be more about the self than the other-is distilled by a pressurized syntax and contained by quatrains that feel hammered into place, so that it becomes a model for language as thought caught in the act of speaking. It’s typical of Ryan’s work in that the poem’s formal elegance feels unfussy, even while being demanding (it also clearly aligns Ryan more with poets like Frost, Larkin, and Hardy than with, say, Merrill and Auden). It’s atypical, though, of Ryan’s recent work as a whole. Since his third book, God Hunger, his impulse to generalize has been subordinated to strategies focused on the mechanisms of narrative.
The first of the new poems, “A Two-Year-Old Girl in a Restaurant” shares with “Reminder” (and a series of other recent pieces) the use of a Dickinson-influenced quatrain stanza. It pushes toward character and scene, at least initially, in order to subject the speaker’s feelings about “the world’s pain” to the rigor of a test, the test of the portraying voice-how to describe an inherently dramatic event in ways that are felt and convincing. There are two kinds of projection going on in the first couple of stanzas. The first being the playing out of the scene across a screen tightly-framed by the quatrains with their use of rhyme that is insistent but irregular. The other can be heard in the way the syntax of the voice flows over and through those rhymes, translating the attentiveness that signals Ryan’s presence.
Your delight, which is contagious,
has been occasioned by
the twinkling point of a steak knife
about to liquify your eye,
so when your father swats it
from your prehensile fist
you squinch your blooming face
tight as a blastocyst
as if all the world’s pain
had conceived inside your skull…
The language is clear, direct, some would say simple, but the reality it portrays is complex in its implications. Tonally, the poem works by understating a potentially melodramatic scene. This understatement depends on objectivity, with an enormous and calm precision going into the detailing. Even so, there are eruptions all over the surface of the syntax-“contagious,” “twinkling,” “liquify,” “prehensile,” “squinch,” “blastocyst.” At first, they register as part of the sure-footed forward impulse propelling the voice down the page. They give it vitality and variation on a sonic level. But they also snag and retard the calm, controlled, assertive motion of the speech across the lines; they create tensions, the dictional equivalent to Dickinson’s use of short, angular phrasal units to disrupt the speed of syntax. And Ryan’s use of rhyme here does something similar, simultaneously guiding the outward-motion of the sentence while creating rips in the current (the use of end rhyme and intensified internal rhyme is terrifically managed, so that you get odd little echo transformations like “fist-blooming face-blastocyst” or “delight-steak knife-prehensile”).
The compression and impulse that Ryan puts in play here makes sense given the selectivity of the imagery. The first stanza is dominated by a single tight close-up of the steak knife and the eye it threatens-the point of view seems almost the knife’s (in the same way that the point of view in
Frost’s “Out, Out…” always seems to be that of the saw about to cut the farm boy’s hand off). When Ryan pulls back in the second stanza, the scale of perception shifts rapidly from line to line (from the girl’s father to her fist to the squinchedup face to the metaphorical blastocyst), so that the girl seems to be almost hurled backward, towards and through the moment when she was conceived, back nearly all the way to non-existence. This is enacted feeling and meaning, in a way that can happen only in a poem. But what I especially admire about the poem is that it isn’t particularly or essentially a portrait of parental anxiety or the random dangers of the world-at-large. It’s real subject is the incomprehensibility of pain and cruelty, and the ways in which from childhood to old age this incomprehension can fill us. No amount of experience keeps us from being surprised then. The true drama here is the drama of recognition-not the surface drama of event. It’s the story of the effort that has to take place in order for us to acknowledge what we share in suffering.
The shift toward narrative begins tentatively for Ryan with his second book. In Winter, then takes over with God Hunger. It parallels the concern with “otherness” and community that began to emerge in his essays at the time. Writing in “Poetry and the Audience” about the earliest roles of poetry, he says: “Enduring qualities of narrative and stylethe memorable story, palpable detail, and powerful rhythm-made poetry the preserver of crucial information and cultural wisdom and thereby socially important and economically valuable.” It’s probably important to view this desire for poetry to play a wider social role in the context of the spiritual sensibility at work in Ryan’s work. There’s a sense of self-preoccupation and isolation that gets picked at in the earlier poems. In the later work, the authenticity of the self registers most strongly when it can forget itself and turn toward the real. The self almost seems to want to be purified by outward attention. The poet makes the poem out of the conscience in contact with reality. “Everything must be subordinated to a whole which is not you,” he quotes Flannery O’Connor as having written. And no less than O’Connor, fiction writers like Chekhov and Primo Levi represent an alternative to the solipsism and self-aggrandizement that Ryan feels has been entwined with the poet’s role since the Romantics.
In any case Ryan’s turn toward narrative was driven far more out of spiritual need for shared redemption than out of social critique. It marks God Hunger as one of the seminal books in the resurgence of narrative in American poetry in the 1980’s, along with Larry Levis’ Winter Stars, Stephen Dobyns’ Black Dog, Red Dog, C. K. Williams’ Tar, Sharon Olds’ The Dead and the Living, Stephen Berg’s In It, and Denis Johnson’s The Incognito Lounge. Although not all of these poets had poetic values as classically Horatian as Ryan’s”temperance and sobriety of invention,” the knowability of truth, the objectivity of making-each of them desired to take story elements such as scene, character, and plot, and a descriptive richness and social texture more associated with prose than poetry, and to fuse these with a moral intelligence that would, in the words of Chekhov, “dirty (the) imagination with what is dirty in life.”
The limits of the self, and the self’s attempts to reach out past those often soul-crippling limits, the compulsions of sexual need, the isolating volatility of male rage, the hunger for the consolations and order of truth-telling, the bewildering and compelling power of the past to shape us, the desire for escape and surcease if acceptance is not possible-all of these have been Ryan’s obsessions from the start. The relentlessness with which his poems would take on these subjects was signaled by his first book, Threats Instead of Trees. Could a book with a title like that have anything other than a wedding poem as conflicted as this:
The love we’ve defined for ourselves
in privacy, in suffering,
keeps both of us lonely as a fist,
but does intimacy mean a happy ending?
I’m afraid of marriage.
Driving past them at night, the shadows
on a drawn curtain hide terrible lives:
a father stuck in a job, his daughter
opening her blouse to strangers.
And your hands, for example,
like a warm liquid on my face
don’t evaporate as you take them away.
Nor are our betrayals silent,
although we listen only in passing.
We’re learning how to walk unlit streets,
to see threats instead of trees,
the right answer to a teenager
opening his knife. The answer is yes.
Always we couldn’t do otherwise.
Although there are echoes here of the contemporary influences of the early 70*5 (Mark Strand, Richard Hugo, Jon Anderson), there’s more than enough trueness of voice; as Stanley Kunitz remarked when he chose the book for the Yale Prize, “a subtle and mercurial persona inhabits this poetry …, subject to periodic crises of spirit, responsive to every metabolic change of weather.” There’s a terrible loneliness in these early poems. The loneliness of acute self-awareness for one thing; but also an isolating and saddening distrust of words, the kind of separation that comes, as Larkin so memorably wrote, when speech fails to find “words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind.”
The largely lyric intensity of the poems in Threats Instead of Trees allowed Ryan to enact serious psychic conflicts. But, reading them thirty-plus years after they were written, one senses that the lyric strategy was just one more symptom of the power of those psychic conflicts. They trap the poet in what Auden called “the enchantment of disenchantment” The incisiveness of their arguments, their structural intensity, the spare exactness of the imagery, their very truthfulness and directnessnone of it could create a force strong enough to push the speaker of these poems past the boundaries of the self. Actually, they helped create those boundaries, in the sense that they gave body to the poet’s early persona. A dozen years later, in a poem called “Meeting Cheever,” Ryan was to satirically critique that figure: “And you, inconsolable bellbottomed cliche/of wounded-by-the-world angry young poet/who became me as strangely as years become today. …” That’s a harsh exaggeration, of course. Any poet does only what he or she can do, with what one has to work with, at any given time. What distinguishes Ryan, at this moment when many poets would have sat back in satisfaction at having won the poetry world’s preeminent prize for a first collection, is what he did to change his work as he wrote the poems for his next book.
A slender book, In Winter was anchored by three long meditative poems in sections (two of these, “Poem at Thirty” and “Sex,” are included in the New and Selected Poems), counter-pointed by shorter poems, some of which begin to use elements of narrative scene. Short or long, the poems are marked by exactitude of thought, and a shift away from some of the personal expressiveness that can be heard in Threats Instead of Trees. Tonally, the poems from this book sound more distanced and impersonal than any Ryan has written; the strong note of passionate response can still be heard, but the passion is sublimated into an objectivity whose calm is brooding and tense. The self puts itself under hard scrutiny, almost as if by doing so it could be freed from the limits of character and time. But if the speaker behind the poems seems to have no illusions about anything, neither is he cynical or misanthropic (unlike, say, the speaker of some of Larkin’s poems). Wary, yes. Skeptical, yes. But not resigned or sneering. You could say the speaker of these poems was searching, if by searching you meant a kind of faith in truth, a commitment to what is difficult. The speaker of these poems would never be tempted into describing himself as “searching,” though. The most he might say was that he was looking for some sort of self-acceptance.
The long poems in In Winter float on the discursive wave that washed through poetry in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Like much of this poetry, they are influenced by Stevens (the Stevens of “Esthetique du Mal” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”). But unlike the work, say, of Robert Hass or Robert Pinsky, both of whom had globalizing, expansionist visions, Ryan’s long meditative poems depend on inner-focus and compression. They are all about a probing through argument, an inward rather than outward movement. The serial form of the argument seeks to be a release from the self’s obsessing, even as it enacts it. With no interest in Stevens’ dictional extravagance or metaphorical flights, Ryan comes away from him instead with a lesson in argumentative rhetoric, fugal structures, and the interplay between proposition and illustration. It’s hard to give a sense of the overall development of these long poems by excerpting from them, but the flavor comes across well enough. As here, in the beginning of the second section of “Poem at Thirty”:
No one can tell you how to be alone.
Some fine people I’ve known swirl to me
in airy forms like just so much hot dust.
They have all moved through in dreams.
A lover’s smell, the gut laugh of a friend,
become hard to recall as a particular wind.
No one can tell you how to be alone.
Like the deep vacuum in sleep, nothing
holds you up or knocks you down, only
it doesn’t end in waking but goes on and on.
The tangles of place, the floating in time,
you must accept gently like a favorite dream.
This poem about the absence of others, and what loneliness does to us, is so immersed in isolation that even the “I” speaking it seems to be hovering at a distance. Psychologically, the repetitions of the first line give a sort of suspended, trancelike feel to the speaker’s thoughts. Later in the section, when the line reappears at the end of the third and fourth stanzas, it sounds less like an exercising of wisdom and more like an aggrieved eruption, a protest against being so cut off. You can hear it pushing against the constraints of the pentameter and the irregular end rhyme. It ‘has little of the finality or authority of knowledge. It admits incomprehension as a pained feeling. It does this so that the wishes for release that dominate the fourth and final section of the poem can actually get expressed. The incomprehension doesn’t go away, it’s resolved into the music of possibility (no less understandable than pain and suffering, but at least the speaker can admit that it’s there now). It makes it seem possible that the self isn’t the whole show.
As Simone Weil once remarked, “the person who is proud of his intelligence is like the prisoner who is proud of his cell.” To move beyond the razor-wire perimeter of the self, to move toward that “background music to storm clouds,” will require for Ryan something other than the mind’s insights and his need to make sense. It will require a world portrayed in scenes that are filled by characters acting in ways almost beyond the writer’s reach. Story made out of life.
It’s not that Ryan turns to narrative as an abandonment of intelligence, but that his intelligence uses story to try to re-wire its circuitry, enabling the “self-forgetful” intimacy and compassion that are its only possible relief. There’s a great deal of talk about desire in In Winter, as well as the need to be open. But these things feel more or less like “ideas.” Ryan seems mostly to be talking around and about them, even if insightfully. He never quite allows them to posses the writing. The exceptions are those poems most fully involved with memory, where the writing pushes through into the physical world. There’s a new kind of vulnerability here, the control less assertive, or less interested in authority. In “Memory” and in the book’s title poem, there’s a tone of greater directness. Narrative movement is at the core of this; but so is that inflection in a human voice that Ted Hughes referred to as “the imprint of intimate presence.”
At four o’clock it’s dark.
Today, looking out through dusk
at three women in stretch slacks
chatting in front of the post office,
their steps left and right and back
like some quick folk dance of kindness,
I remembered the winter we spent
crying in each other’s laps.
What could you be thinking at this moment?
How lovely and strange the gangly spires
of trees against a thickening sky
as you drive from the library
humming off-key? Or are you smiling
at an idea met in a book
the way you smiled with your whole body
the first night we met?
I was so sure my love of you was perfect,
and the light today
reminded me of the winter you drove home
each day in the dark at four o’clock
and would come into my study to kiss me
despite mistake after mistake after mistake.
If the longer meditative poems advance on the logic of tightly-reasoned probing, this has the tentativeness and vulnerability of personal conversation. The voice is present to itself in a different way, poised but relaxed, less self-conscious, less distant (which is odd considering that the narration is focused on a memory of a moment of remembering, twice-removed from its sources). The failures of love that lie just under the surface of the poem are off-set by curiosity and tenderness-the effort to imagine what the lover is doing right at this moment in the present has an unforced, understated charm. The questions (especially the second) are a wish for well-being; for the woman who is remembered, naturally, but also for the speaker, since his capacity for generosity and self-honesty is what’s really at stake. The poem is composed not as a continuous narrative but as a quick succession of discrete scenes, like camera shots in a movie. This narration is the storyline of a mood or feeling. And the mood at the end isn’t so much about dismay as it is about a sad wonderment.
The use of narrative scenes pointed Ryan toward a way to make a different kind of shape in a poem, a shape “that may not encompass the facts,” but that would give up many of the toolings of argument so as to be more open to the unexpectedness, the “realness,” of feeling and event. What Ryan could write after this would be carried more by attention to the world and others than to the self. His voice would be much more expansive in its designs and spirit. Not so much unleashed as inclusive. It would also feel more “spoken” than ever before, its syntax alert to the possibilities of colloquial speech.
The poems in God Hunger seem startled into existence by events and characters beyond the speaker’s control, and by the very richness with which they come to him.
These are not just examples of a terrificallyfocused, highly-detailed naturalism. There’s something in the coincidence of image and music that makes the thing described actually happen in language. The jarring consonants that power the metaphoric jackhammer that might as well have flown John Cheever from New York to Iowa. The hammering on cast-iron in “The Ditch” and how it is echoed back in the buried vowel rhyme of “half-ton” and “petroleum” and “five-hundred” and “drummed”; the syntactical compression and flex that powers that initial sentence across its six lines. The rhyme of “soul” and “stove” in “Not the End of the World.” The tonal disquietude in the flat declarativeness of saying “In my dream by Henry James there is a sentence.” And the adaptation of the villanelle form in “Milk the Mouse,” which turns its essential song structure into a narrative mechanism for puzzling obsessively over the memory of childhood abuse.
The rendering of these openings is imbued with a passionate need to speak. Ryan’s poems have always felt like they needed to be written. They seem s to exist because of some pressure to respond, not because of facility for language alone. This is a more peculiar thing that one would think, and certainly a rare quality among poets. In this, he resembles his mentor, Kunitz, who, as Ryan has noted, wrote that Keats’ “technique was not an aggregate of mechanical skills, but a form of spiritual testimony”-an assumption that makes for poems individualized by those moments in a life to which they are indebted.
It’s impossible to consider the changes in Michael Ryan’s poetry in God Hunger without taking into account the crisis he was going through while writing much of it. That crisis is detailed in secret Life, the memoir he published in 1995, five years after the appearance of God Hunger. In it he describes not only the events surrounding his having been sexually molested by a neighbor at the age of five, but also the lifelong consequences of that molestation, felt most strongly in a compulsive and addictive sexual behavior. When secret Life appeared, reviewers tended (either positively or negatively) to lump it in the category of books about “recovery.” No doubt this had something to do with the way the book got marketed; and there are a few, brief moments when the boilerplate language of i2-step programs comes into play (though it should be said that it happens only in description of particular episodes in Ryan’s life, not in the context of offering up advice to be valued as therapeutic). secret Life is as much a book about “selfhelp” as Anna Karenina is about railway accidents. It has much in common with books like Phillip O’Connor’s Memoirs of a Public Baby or Tobias WoIfPs This Boy’s Life, or better yet, with Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, whose usefulness as a model of exemplary writing Ryan summarized in an essay called “Authenticity and Authority”: “its absence of sentimentality and self-pity, the rigor of its self-portrayal, its compassion for others, the efficient arc of the narrative, the unobtrusive brilliance of its style.” I use Ryan’s praise for Levi’s writing, not to claim the same greatness for secret Life, or to compare the difficulty and evil of Ryan’s experience with that of Levi’s-such a comparison would be meaningless and confused-but to show what values Ryan aspired to, and how much his own work embodies Levi’s relentless honesty and sense of conscience.
Another word for this is sincerity, and from first page to last the writing m secret Life is suffused with it. This sincerity is a compound of scrupulous self-purging and objectifying compassionwithout the compassion (for his molester, for those Ryan himself had hurt with his obsessive sexual hunting, for himself as the boy and man he had been), there would likely be an atmosphere of aggrieved judgment and sensationalism; without the scrupulosity, there might be an avoiding of the most painful facts and possibly even a sort of “selfhero worship” in which the story would present itself as the triumph of a resurrected soul.
The voice narrating this life is dispassionate. But the calm candor with which it describes even the most brutal moments of the molestation isn’t so much about spiritual detachment or stoicism as it is about a faith in words to tell the truth. As in the following passage-which deals with one of the women involved with Ryan in the months shortly before his life blew up in the early 80’s-the writing is clean, particularized, and probing. It’s especially interesting to see how the flow of sentences adds to the evolving complexity of each paragraph. Each sentence keeps shifting not only our attention, but the voice’s sense of its own “posture.”
This made long-term relationships impossible, to say the least, and monogamy impossible. I dealt with the former by dealing with it up front (if the subject arose), and dealt with the latter through power. I liked students because I had power over them. Although I was teaching only two courses, Marcia was getting three grades from me, the third being her senior thesis on John Donne, which I was directing. I slept with other women that semester, but she was the only student. One of her jokes was that she was the little Dutch girl with her finger in the dike, protecting all other Princeton coeds from the flood-a joke I enjoyed because it implied I was an inexorable sexual force. Dark. Dangerous. Devastating. The only way I could stay inside sex with her was for her to participate in this myth by surrendering completely to the Sex King. Such self-ironic honorifics were designed to defuse this dynamic between us, but they were serious jokes. I was certainly a magnet for some women, as some women were for me-suicidal women for whom sex was both validation and self-annihilation, an intense temporary escape from the pain of being themselves (as it was for me). Many of them had also been sexually molested, some of them by their fathers. I could pick them out the minute I walked into a room. Their hunger is what made them sexy to me and, no doubt, vice-versa. We always at least half-hated each other, the half that was a mirror.
Marcia was such a knockout I wanted to squire her about to show her off, but she would have none of that. She insisted our relationship be secret. She made me pick her up in alleys downtown. When her friends asked her how she had spent the weekend, she made up a story. Some of the undergraduate boys complained to me that they couldn’t get to first base with her and speculated that she must be dating some honcho lawyer or actor in New York. How I loved smiling to myself then. Maybe some similar part of her enjoyed having the secret, too, but as the semester went along, it got harder for her. She was my student during the week and my lover on weekends. She said she felt invaded. She said she didn’t know where I ended and she began.
I just wanted more and more of her, to take her further sexually than she had ever gone and then some-further than she would ever go again. This fantasy was the way I could stay inside sex with her, and why she thought I was like another person when we went into sex. I was another person: I was her molester. To be invaded, to be confused about where the other person ends and you begin: this is what it feels like to be molested. It is an assault on the nervous system. I couldn’t figure out why she was angry. She’d say cruelly perceptive things about me, like, “There must be something wrong with you, wanting to be with a twenty-year-old.” I’d usually just deflect them. “Men are pigs,” I’d answer. Or “Men bad. Women good.”
The remarkable thing about the sincerity of voice here and elsewhere in secret Life is that it manages to project an aura of dignity while confessing to terrible human behaviors. I don’t mean that this tone dignifies these terrible events, or that there is some virtuous nobility inherent in such confession. I mean dignity as a present-ness in the writing that is opposed to illusion and escape. Ryan’s poetry from God Hunger on shares this quality. Often, what passes for sincerity in writing is actually a canny packaging of an idea, an illustration of an idea-it’s promoting the writer or our image of the writer. True sincerity is an inhabitation of a voice, a “here-and-now-ness,” a being in the song if you are a poet. If the “here-and-now” you’re dealing with is childhood abuse and sexual compulsion, and you want to deal with it without either sensationalism or self-drama or false hope, it requires an avoidance of theatrics and tricks. The ambition of such a writer was summarized perfectly by Zbigniew Herbert: “I would like to describe courage/without dragging behind me a dusty lion/and also anxiety/without shaking a glass full of water.” Hard to imagine two writers more different in style and subject than Ryan and Herbert-but tonally they both register this same sort of dignity, a byproduct of insistent clarity.
This tone, which has little to do with mere honesty, comes into Ryan’s work full-blown alongside the emergence of narrative in God Hunger. The crisis portrayed in secret Life makes clear why there is that sense in In Winter that he is talking around and about sexual desire, rather than allowing the writing to be possessed by it. Did the very forms and strategies Ryan used in In Winter help to keep hidden those secrets so much at the center of his life? That would be a simplistic way of seeing it. In any case, when he turns to narrative in God Hunger, it is in an attempt to set some of the pain of his own life in a context of wider human suffering. It’s almost as if Ryan’s self-compassion would be activated only by a test of his empathy for the lives of others. “Test” is absolutely the right word to use here, because Ryan’s poems make clear that, for most of us, true compassion is in limited supply. The only way it can grow larger is in the encounter with others. “Winter Drought” can stand in for all the character-studies in God Hunger, all the portraits of lives pinioned by suffering. In it, a meeting with a suicidal, angry and terribly alone young man continues long after his death.
“Tell me what you want” is certainly the great question that echoes through God Hunger, whether it’s addressed by Ryan to someone else or to himself. It’s a question held up like a mirror to the other questions in this poem: “How could anyone so young want to die/so much?” and “Does such rage for pain/give immaculate clarity to things?” It’s one of the poem’s psychological complications that it’s hard to tell if Ryan is addressing the latter question to the boy or to himself, as if the intensity of the detailing here, both in the scenes that happen in memory and in the imagining of the young man’s life and death, has its source in the poet’s own psyche. The implication creates a disturbing undercurrent in the poem.
For one thing it tunes in to Ryan’s own woundings-the question resonates with the signals sent out by other pieces in the book, from poems such as “The Gladiator,” “Larkinesque,” “The Crown of Frogs,” “Spider Plant” and “Milk the Mouse.”
For another, it brings to conscious awareness the problem of “the enchantment of disenchantment,” and in doing so it uncovers another layer of moral concern in Ryan’s relation not only to this young man but to all those sufferers who become characters in his poems. It’s worth noting that Ryan’s character portraits are like Robinson’s; they are extremely individualized but they still function as examples of “types.” The danger in this is that the writer may give the appearance of “using” these figures merely to construct some moral lessonin short, for his own sake. So the final question wants to break down the distance between Ryan and this young man, it wants to pierce the artifice of the poet’s control.
On a narrative level, the artifice in the poem is remarkable. The syntactical sweep of the poem’s first long sentence gives the speech a powerful sense of inevitability. And as with Frost’s “Directive,” it’s an inevitability that isn’t so much resolved by the poem’s last line as it is amplified. That this sentence has such an assertive syntactical force disguises the fact that most of the narrative information it conveys is anecdotal or expository. Normally, this sort of extensive “set-up” or preamble would be deadly, flattening. Here, the prepositions drive forward the movement of clauses and phrases, and in those clauses and phrases the boy’s life begins to add up into a “terrible algebra” of its own.
This patterning creates a dramatic tension that’s felt in the ear. At the same time, the anecdotal nature of the storytelling allows Ryan to undercut the natural melodrama of the material: there’s a resoluteness and directness to the speech in this first sentence, a declarative sensibility that initially makes the speaker seem slightly removed from the boy and his death, distant in feeling as well as space and time. There’s an undertone of wariness: about the boy and his story, yes, but maybe even more so about the speaker’s own need to tell the story. It’s interesting, though, to hear how that wariness and distance begin to soften toward the end of the sentence. In the last four lines, all of them enjambed, Ryan begins to break against the units of grammatical and syntactical sense that give the first nine lines their air of balanced authority and control.
What’s also interesting in the poem’s opening is how much Ryan leaves out; in particular, how he avoids describing the boy’s actual suicide. There’s a jump-cut from the boy stealing his father’s car to the moment three days later when his body is found in the water. This gap has something to do with the undercutting of potential melodrama. But it also allows the instant of the boy’s death to enter the poem later in a more haunting way, when the speaker (and poet) will seem genuinely surprised by it. When Ryan says to the boy, “you rose abruptly from the undercurrents of memory dredged in a steel net,” the image feels as much of a surprise in the dramatic structure of the poem as it would have been in the psyche. The line glints with a drama that is charged and psychological. It’s less about the events and more about their after-effects: that overriding sense of the boy still being alive in memory, troubling, “twisting as if hurt//when the net broke the surface.” Then there’s the slight jump backward in time-“the moment you balance on the iced iron railing/and jump”-so much left out in that description, the image shaved to a harrowing simplicity, all the more frightening for how clarified and present that “iced iron railing” is.
“Winter Drought” is fashioned in such a way as to avoid the danger of explaining away the strange powers of time and death. The complex sequencing of events and commentary in the poem is worked with an eliding impulse in mind. It’s an impulse that most great narrative poetry has, embodying the principles that the late Thorn Gunn wrote about when describing how story-telling worked in the English and Scots ballad tradition: “Omission, then, whether of incident, of motive, or of a whole social or religious context. . . (because these omissions) result in an atmosphere charged with mystery: we are given bare situations, but of such intensity that their implications are very wide.”
We know so little actually about this young man, his life and pain. The back-story is unavailable, the characters pared to an outline. There’s no attempt to interpret or analyze the boy. And yet he is wholly present. In the “sculptures of mistrust in the early light,” in the theft, in his rage in the bar, and in the sorrowful, frustrated concerns of family and friends. “A pushy kid who loved poetry,” a bridge above black water, an aching loneliness, a jump. No answers. “How could anyone so young want to die/so much? we asked, as if loneliness tightens its death-grip gradually with age.” There is no reason why. There’s only a walk across a mown cornfield during a dry winter. Each of the narrative vectors in the poem, and each individual scene, is managed so as to preserve dramatic power and mystery. The story proceeds through an atmosphere of implications, as it does in “Lord Randal”we know no more about why this “pushy kid” killed himself than we do about why Lord Randal’s lover may have poisoned the eels she prepared for his supper. But both are vivid beyond belief, and we care about them.
“Now it has been years./You were nearly nothing to me,” the speaker says at that point where all the poem’s energies are about to turn. And the sentence-sound here is a tone of near dismissal, an idiomatic echo of the wariness and distance with which the poem begins. But by the time we get to the end of the stanza and the poem, the tone will have changed totally. The whole purpose of writing the poem is to advance the action of this change, which is a change in spirit, as reflected in the altered inflection of the voice. Ryan sounds different in the poem’s last line because he has been changed. He’s imagined, had to imagine, the moment of the boy’s death, and it’s changed him, opened him (both to the boy and to himself). “Tell me what you want,” he says then-meaning not only “why do you come to me?” and “what do you need?” but also “tell me whatever you want to, say what you have to, I can accept it.” All of which ultimately comes down to one thing: “I can imagine it, I know you.”
In the poems written since he published God Hunger, Ryan has pushed to enlarge this openness, to enact the drama of empathy, and to attend to “the shunned and the shamed./unbeautiful losers, unfittest and unmourned.” These are portraits of the fragility of all human wishes and arrangements, full of the suffering, resentments, redemptions, and simple pleasures that surround us merely in being alive all day every day.
A direct line runs from “Winter Drought” to these character studies. Many of them work like sketches, framed by Ryan’s use of the i6-line quatrain form he adapted from Dickinson. The form depends upon selectivity of detail. The opening of “Every Sunday” has an almost notational quality, a kind of floating engagement with the figure. The image has the swiftness of haiku, with its undetermined but focused looking.
Psychotic homeless boy
blocking our exit from the church
eyes shining like ice
The pathos in this is all the product of an empathetic curiosity; the speaker is hardly present except as a kind of wonderment. It’s not that the speaker has erased himself, but that the form has distilled his witnessing and turned his questions into metaphor. Something startling occurs in the ending of the poem-when it seems about to conclude on a bit of summary narrative that resolves into a rhymed couplet, a half line is appended to the sixteenth, changing it into haunted irresolution:
He will not live long.
He will allow the pastor
to wrap an arm around his shoulder
and lead him to coffee and crullers.
But to be him
The lack of a period at the end of this final line is just about the loudest thing in the poem. But the sentence’s incompleteness sets off the most profound silence. And its sadness has in it the difficulty of immense spaces to be crossed. It’s a little like Issa’s endless sea:
This distance, the distance that any one of us has to travel as we make our way toward each other, may be the true subject of Ryan’s new work. Poems like “A Dead Girl,” “A Good Father,” and “Distant Friend” want to ritualize the sensation of being whirled across these spaces, whether one wants to be or not. The sense of movement is fed by a muscular syntax flung across enjambments designed to produce speed. The poems’ formal structures-especially the use of rhyme-give this motion the quality of an elemental exercise. Even when-as in “Dickhead”-Ryan moves away from the quatrain form, the narration is less about individual episode than it is about the mysteries of character and fate. The comic-drama of this man who is teased for being a tight-ass, “a self-righteous goody two-shoes,” feels like the enactment of an old, old moment in the history of mutual human dumbness. Nobody looks very bright in this poem. Still, there’s no contempt or cynicism in Ryan’s attitude here. Really, there’s no attitude at all, no moralizing; the urge toward judgment or redemption is absent. What is there is a clearheaded, dramatized view of the complicities of ordinary cruelty.
Ryan’s honesty is as fierce as ever-one reading of “The Use of Poetry” will prove that. But, in these recent poems, truth-telling takes its place alongside a new sort of humor. The cartoony, sardonic vision of “Eschatology” and the self-ironic prophesying of “Extended Care” are versions of this humor. But so is the cozier, more gentle image of domestic pleasure on display in a phrase like “croissants big as couch pillows” (from “A French Café in Orange County”). And this more various and extensive humor comes largely out of acceptance, as well as from an ability to let go into the light of other lives, in friendship and love. It’s why a poem like “An Old Book in Florence” has the feeling of an arrival-its Frostian line, “the life it had was in people’s hands,” a sort of mini ars poetica all by itself. The “gentle toughness” and affection of the grandmother who is traveled back to through the odd vehicle of an old water-damaged book of aesthetics is an image of a wholeness “beyond confusion.” The battered tin cup that the boy Ryan was drinks from could hardly be more like the one that Frost has in mind at the end of “Directive.” So when the grandmother says “That’s never going to hurt you” of a beetle she has just plucked from the water in this cup, it has the trueness of a promise to be kept.
As in “A Version of Happiness,” a poem addressed to Ellen Bryant Voight and her poem “Dancing with Poets,” and which makes its own kind of promise, a music perfectly suited for dancing in public “beside an eleven-year-old and her mom”-the commitment to it as hard-won, and real, as any you are likely to find in poetry:
DAVID RIVARD’S new book, Sugartown, will be published by Craywolf Press in 2005. His previous books include Betwitched Playground and Wise Poison, winner of the 1996 James Laughlin Award. He teaches at Tufts University.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated May/Jun 2005
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