Issue 43
May 2009

David Rigsbee


David Rigsbee David Rigsbee's 7th collection, Two Estates, was recently published by Cherry Grove Collections. He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.
Staying Blue by Gibbons Ruark


Staying Blue
by Gibbons Ruark
Lost Hills Books, 2008

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One of my friends once said that he always picked up a new book of poems by Seamus Heaney with trepidation because he knew there would somewhere be a word he'd have to look up. I have that feeling about a number of poets I admire when it comes to botanical things—flowers, trees, grasses. Of course this speaks to my lack of Adamic potential more than it does to any obscurantism, willful or otherwise, on the part of poets whose work I esteem, esoteric finesse notwithstanding. I mention this because I feel the same insufficiency in reading Gibbons Ruark's fine Staying Blue, and the poet wastes no time in getting down to detailing. While I had to look up the exact shade of blue for two flowers (flowers that I knew in a "literary" way—but what is that?—but would not have been able to identify on a walk), the opening poem, nonetheless, struck me as the best poem I had ever read on a color. In it, Ruark informed me that the aim of discriminating nuances was about working among articulations to discover "the blue John Lee Hooker's gravelly/ Voice in the sundown field was looking for." The task of discernment, in other words, is not finally Adam's penchant: it's not about giving the right names to beasts and flowers (although it is about finding the names already given); rather it's about finding evocations and resonances so that the world, which sometimes seems so set on neutrality, is alive to us, not dead or petrified:

When I hand you this bunch of cornflowers
The only other color in the room
Illumines your eyes as you arrange them
They are the blue reflection of whatever
Moves in you, serene as cool water tipped
Into crystal.

Who would have thought "whatever" to be rescued and moreover made to serve as a hinge word opening on the domestic version of fairy seas forlorn? It's the visual equivalence of resonance, of echo, nicely symbolized in the shape of flowers, whose trumpets and bells suggest sound, even as they practice silence.

Accompanying the fullness of silence are the resonance of images in "Quarantine" about the poet's mother's struggle with polio. Despicably grim as a cultural marker, what FDR—another victim—knew culturaly determined as "shameful" and "ghastly," the term "quarantine" itself suggests something shelved. But there was nothing hidden about his mother's vulnerable, physically incorrect legs against the braces' steel ("the braces were hinged and ominous,/ Not Mama's legs, not anything like them."). At the same time, his mother's crippling coincides with another awakening, his interest in a casually clad aunt:

Beautiful and young, an Army nurse in the war,
Did I dream she made us buttered toast and eggs
Before remembering to put her clothes on?
She died in childbirth, fifty years ago,
And I have wondered at her all my days.

For the older poet, the wonder of that new sexuality merges directly with the elegiac pathos in that last line. Ruark has prepared for that poetic phrase, "all my days" by referencing the hovering, vulnerable ball of gnats in Keats' "To Autumn," a poem "[w]e were every one too young to understand." That understanding comes later when generations—one of the subtextual words here, give way to elegy, and a boy's interest in the sexual body learns to pursue its object not in terms of aggression, but of pity, that ancient word so close to Keats', but so foreign to our own ears. The nakedness of one and the illness of the other—sexuality and vulnerability—are linked forever as the poem ends with the mother's repose ("Only late at night could you not hear her coming."), having divested herself of the braces ("like parts of a skeleton").

A different silence pervades "Little Porch at Night," one of the loveliest villanelles in recent memory. Here silence is understood as "something...gone wrong," an absence of familiar voices that must be retrieved and restored. The poet brings urgency to bear on this desire to recover the neighborly and familiar voices by subtly revising Spenser's famous wedding refrain from the provisional "until I end my song" to the more pressing "before I end my song." This darker refrain contrasts with the more inviting, "Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise lounge." One line speaks to the scarcity of time remaining; the other to time's tending toward fulfillment, its "wish" to be filled with event and change. Both mother ("A mother should be standing with her long/ Hair tucked in a bun") and father ("For down there in the shallows should be strung/ A taut line from a father to the sea he fishes") appear. The dead mother is addressed, suggesting two ends of human time, while the father's image is incapable of address because it serves, to to speak, to connect historic time with something more remote, something that hooks us up with not only the origins of human families, but of unaccommodated life.

The elegy for a young painter, "Thinking of a Painting by Alexander Haden" takes us to the probably unavoidable conclusion that sight often registers after the fact, a belatedness underscored by death ("Everything shifts and wavers until it's steadied?/ By a long late glimpse, this one without him in it . . ."). The poem ends in Gray's country churchyard, and such a locale, quaint in our day and age, ties Ruark's world both to Ireland, his spiritual and ancestral home, and—just as importantly—to the mainline tradition of Anglo-Irish poetry, culminating in Yeats, Kavanagh, and Heaney, a trinity of worthies. They are the headmasters of Ruark's singing school. They nearly also spell, one feels hesitant in adding—one of the visionary limits of his poetic horizon. I say "nearly" because Ruark is shrewd enough to play his other hand, as a poet who has also made his mark as a southern poet. This is plainly suggested in "Carolina Montana Bluebird Sonnet for Pat and the Memory of Charles" ("and Connemara rhymes with Carolina/ Till we say farewell and all thanks to the giver..."). Travelling poetically with dual passports as he does, Ruark can lay claim not only to the hat of Auden's "transatlantic man" but can switch easily between the space of America (see previous title) and the deep cultural time of Europe.

The objects of attention here are woven into the redoubtable and reliable textures of a human continuum so closely tied to the natural one that it feels churlish to mention history without noting the continual presence of birds, the heralds, as Keats taught, of history's insignificance. Here we find blackbirds, woodpeckers, cardinals, titmice, bluebirds, and goldfinches, Ruark's affective (and perhaps atavistic) connection with John Clare. It's again the recourse to natural information that fits this poet to the mainline.

In such a cosmos of images, life proceeds by maintaining offices of familiarity, and this maintenance is, in turn, mediated by nutritional service (feeder for birds—pubs for people) which, on the human side stints the communal values of church ("the Jesuits lost me to the tender nurses") but raises the same in the public houses. One of my favorite poems here is "Newbliss Remembered in Newquay," a poem that makes the publican the stage manager of Irish social routine and the social drinker a pilgrim. In its recursive intelligence ("Here, "there's a clock on every wall, but they're all wrong")—so ably reflected in the title, Ruark's work begins to favor that of the Larkin of "The Whitsun Weddings," that is to say, at his most burnished and colloquial. The pub's social advantages stand in contrast to the front-porch, bluegrass sociability of Ruark's Stateside poems. And that's to be expected, though the poet makes no matter of it. Indeed, he would find it unintelligible to set Connemara against Carolina—or vice versa. But just as his friend James Wright laid claim to an Italy standing at the end of all Ohios, Ruark has Ireland floating at the end of all Americas, including the Anglo-Irish one whose further career in the New World his poems in part represent. If this means that heaven is retrospective rather than prospective, making hay of the orientation does not commit him to Emerson's Party of Memory against the Party of Hope. When time is steeped in custom, memory becomes physical and hope an undiscarded platitude.

Ruark is as shrewd and observant a botanical amateur as he is energetic in stocking his aviary. It used to be that naturalists carried their casual Adamic expertise as easily as a knowledge of prosody. What with über-massive urbanization and the sequent marginalizing of the natural world, this talent is less in view. We are lucky that Ruark has the mojo of eld, not because it imposes on him a custodial status similar to that of the last person to speak Algonquin, but because such knowledge for a poet links him both with discountenanced Nature and with old time. Knowing the names prevents barrenness. Reading this poet, one is aware of the presence of poetry's most serviceable virtues, but also of what it means to haul those virtues out to perform periodic service, offering skill to bear where disenchantment whispers.




David Rigsbee: Book Review
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