May 2001

Gibbons Ruark


Gibbons Ruark's latest book is Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 1999). New work appears in recent issues of The New Criterion and Shenandoah. Ruark, who lives with his wife Kay in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, is on leave this year as a Fellow in the University of Delaware's Center for Advanced Study.

James Wright: Two Moments in Memory    Click to hear in real audio

One: Fiesole, 1974

This is the table where we eat our breakfast of panini and coffee and oranges, and where, after the dishes are cleared and the girls are off to school and she is off down the hill to her Italian lessons in the Via Dante Alighieri, I sit down to read and write. The only window opens onto the back valley of Fiesole, the Mugello Valley, where the river twists like a silver thread through a rumpled fallen cloth. This morning I am reading in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, the passage where the medieval master Cimabue discovers the shepherd boy Giotto sitting on the meadow grass and scratching the faces of his lambs onto the side of a boulder. Just as Cimabue is about to touch Giotto's shoulder, the doorbell jangles and a cry comes up from the street: "La posta!" In the mail is an envelope from my friend Michael Heffernan in Kansas bringing simply a page or two from The Ohio Review, James Wright's "Lambs on the Boulder," where he recalls Cimabue discovering the boy Giotto sitting on the meadow grass and scratching the faces of his lambs onto a boulder. Michael has written across the top of the page: "I thought you'd like to see this beautiful man." From a great distance, someone is touching my shoulder.

Two: Whitemarsh Creek, 1974    

This is my old friend Sandy Hammer's family cottage on Whitemarsh Creek in the Chesapeake backwaters. We are all here together gathering breakfast. First we drop a few lines in the water off the little dock and catch handfuls of shivery perch to fry up with the hotcakes. Then we pick blackberries off the bush outside the kitchen door for dessert. The girls are delirious. Dessert after breakfast! There are two or three hammocks strung among the tall pines. Full from our breakfast, we laze in them most of the morning. Then I say to Hammer the poem "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." Hammer, who once sat me down on the floor of a fraternity house in Chapel Hill and patiently explained to me the intricacies of Auden's "In Praise of Limestone," says, "That's not bad for a poem." He has become a city planner. Later, thinking of the little fish we caught for breakfast, I am moved to say the poem called "Northern Pike," which ends, 

"There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy." 

"Hey," says Hammer, "a poem about fishing. I could go for that." There is a fresh breeze in the sails of the boat tied alongside the dock. In the cattails at the water's edge, redwing blackbirds dart and flicker and come to rest, showing us their scarlet epaulets. "All we need now," I say, "is a James Wright poem about redwing blackbirds." The next afternoon, in a library a hundred miles north, I open the new issue of The Nation, and there it is, a poem by James Wright called "Redwings." You will remember it. It is the first poem in To a Blossoming Pear Tree. Believe this. It will make you happy, because then you can believe anything.



Gibbons Ruark: Poetry
Copyright � 2001 The Cortland Review Issue 16The Cortland Review