The Cortland Review


Stanley Kunitz
The Poet and The Poem: Stanley Kunitz: An interview and reading with poetry legend, Stanley Kunitz. Grace Cavalieri hosts this one-hour audio program.

Rochelle Ratner
Two New Yorks: Rochelle Ratner reflects on the aftermath of the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001

Gibbons Ruark
The Day a Poem Comes Home: A day in the life of Gibbons Ruark

Michael Brooks Cryer
A book review of James Tate's latest: Memoir of the Hawk

John Kinsella
Further Evidence: the latest chapter of John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series

Gibbons Ruark

A selection of Gibbons Ruark's work of the past thirty years has recently been published in Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 1999). He has new work in Shenandoah, Ploughshares and The Greensboro Review, and his poem "Quarantine" appears in Crazyhorse. A member of the English faculty at the University of Delaware since 1968, he lives with his wife Kay in Landenberg, Pennsylvania.
Gibbons Ruark - A Day in the Life


The Day a Poem Comes Home

Richard Wilbur has remarked that for him composition is scarcely distinguishable from catatonia. "I often don't write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let's say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper." My slow soul goes out in empathy to that sentence, yet despite Wilbur's famously patient (and notably gorgeous) creation, he still seems by comparison to me to write like a house on fire. How, then, to respond to a generous editor's suggestion that I write about a day in my working life? Asking readers to look at such an account is a bit like asking them to look closely at that apparently typical weekend when Flaubert changed a comma to a semicolon and then changed it back again.

I think readers are interested in poets' days mainly, if not only, because of the poems those days deliver, so I will try to make that my primary focus here. A poet working as slowly as I do could hardly expect a reader to be interested in a single day, but maybe I can cheat a little and suggest what brought me to this particular day. After all, if a poet has finished a new poem and somebody asks him how long it took, he can legitimately (if facilely) recall his age and give that number of years as an answer. Every durable poem must have the whole weight of a poet's years behind it.

We are early risers here in the southeastern corner of Penn's Woods, since my wife Kay has to catch a train for work before seven, but many days on returning from the train I have the liberty of dawdling toward my study, even when teaching, which I'm not doing this year. I say "study" rather than "office" because I like the resonance of the former word (its sound alone releases me from busywork) and because I do all my indoor composing in longhand in a room without a computer or a telephone before moving across the hall to Kay's loft which conveniently contains both. So this January morning I have some coffee and graze the morning papers before climbing the stairs to my desk, which is the same old solid walnut library table I've been writing on since we found it in a used furniture barn in 1970. By the time I get there, something intimate and vivid has been washing over me, even while I kept up the pretense of looking at the papers. We have just returned from a funeral in North Carolina. My mother's sister, eighty-seven, died in her sleep a few days ago, and we have seen her gravely but gracefully laid to rest in a family cemetery in the middle of a piney woods in Halifax County, a mile or two from the farmhouse where she spent most of her life and which for us nephews and the one niece was nearly synonymous with summer.

But though I bring back the turpintiny odor of pine along with the soft rumble of native accents and the leaning postures of my cousins, it is another tree that haunts the pages of my notebook this morning: the chinaberry. At first I can't figure it out. Sure, the chinaberries fell every year and slickened the ground under the tree and made our footing perilous, but why that tree when I've just returned from a thicket of my boyhood pines to this woodlot of almost all hardwoods, beech and hickory and tulip poplar? And then it comes to me. The immersion in my Aunt Bell's farm in Airlie has brought back the year of my mother's polio and her terrible physical imbalance when she came home from the hospital, not to mention the aunts who tenderly stood in for her while she was away. So I am off and crawling along the lines of a poem about those weeks of quarantine in the big frame house next door to the Methodist Church where my father was preacher, and about what it was like when she came back in a wheelchair. I won't pretend that the prospect of this poem hasn't crossed my mind until today. In my first book, published thirty years ago, there is a poem called "Polio" about a rather primal (some might even say subterraneanly erotic) scene in which my father is exercising my mother's bad leg as she lies in bed. Five or six years ago I made a few notes about that time of the quarantine, but I've not really tried until now, in Yeats's phrase, to "write it out in a verse."

It's the light in the beech tree outside my study window rather than any clock that tells me it's time to break for lunch. Here on my own, it's usually an apple and some cheese and crackers, and today I can't help recalling how my Uncle William, Aunt Bell's husband, who raised timber and fished and hunted and hated to be indoors more than any man I ever knew, introduced me to the pleasures of sharp cheese and dill pickles and saltine crackers in the general store next to his lumber mill. (In those days "low salt" would have sounded like the name of a disease.) After lunch I go for a long walk in the neighborhood. When we lived a mile from here years ago, this was all woodland and pasture. My friend across the road who supplies us with firewood likes to point out the bullet holes he made in our trees as a boy. Though I always need a desk to come back to (unlike Robert Frost who bragged he never had a writing table, could write on the sole of his shoe, he said), I do end up writing a lot on the move, and wherever I go carry a small notebook and a pencil in my pocket. So on my walk I'm sorting out the parade of aunts who came to our house when my mother was ill. One of them, my father's beautiful young sister, was freer and easier in her ways than I was used to, and she really didn't care if we children saw her naked, unlike my starchier mother and the aunts on her side. She was to die in childbirth not long after, but I have never forgotten her presence in that stricken parsonage, and I spend the better part of the afternoon trying to get it right.

When I bring Kay home from the train, it's time for supper and not poetry, and since she's cooking rather than having me rustle up a salad, I'm treated to a delicious Indian shrimp dish with a glass of chilled white wine from somewhere in South America. After that she deserves to be free to read the paper until bedtime approaches, so I bide my time before reading her the poem. She likes it a lot, she says, and she never lies, so there's a happy ending. The workday is over, and whatever happens afterwards�a companionable goodnight kiss or something reminiscent of our youth�as Peggy Lee's smoky voice might put it, ain't nobody's business but our own.


� 2002 The Cortland Review