Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Not A Pittsburgh Poet: Michael Ryan

Editors Note: My apologies to my readers for the interruption in the series, "My Top Ten Favorite Pittsburg Poets." Today's post resumes regular entries on this blog and I will return to the thread of "Pittsburg Poets" soon. Thank you for your patience and loyalty. TL

I love used bookstores. Recently my friends and poets Michael Waters and Mihaela Moscaliuc visited from New Jersey. I treated them to several local used bookstores. Upon entering each one, Michael and I would race to the poetry section to see who could get to the "finds" first. Michael usually won (I was being polite to a guest), but I did manage to capture a hardback copy of Michael Ryan's God Hunger for a pittance. Ryan is new to me, but I am completely taken with him. I am now looking for his selected works, and will dutifully report back when I find it.

The opening poem to God Hunger, "Not The End Of The World," blew me away. It is three pages long, so I will not reproduce it here in its entirety. Since the last line is one of the strongest I've ever read, I'll summarize the narrative of the poem, and then let the final two stanzas speak for themselves.

A bird flies down the chimney into a wood stove. "Wings/alive inside cast iron/gave the cold stove a soul/wilder than fire, in trouble." The narrator knocks the window-screen out, drops a shade over the window, shuts the study door and stuffs a wad into the keyhole, hoping the bird ("whatever it was") would fly back up the chimney, would fly for "the full, clean stream of light/like the sliding board from heaven/our guardian angels slid to earth on/in The Little Catholic Messenger/weekly magazine." But, no success. Instead, "A dull brown bird no bigger/than my fist hopped modestly/out, twisting its neck like a boxer/trying to shake off a flush punch." It stayed on his rug, not moving, for so long that finally he scooped it up "and sat it outside on the dirt."

Ryan then describes how he rushed back inside and watched what happened through the window: the other birds started landing in a circle around the collapsed bird, at first encouraging it with chirps and cheeps, but when it didn't move, raising the stakes by pecking it and stepping back to wait. Ryan's climax and denouement provide an ultimate view of reality that is rare, even in poetry.

It flapped once and fell forward
and rested its forehead on the ground.

I've never seen such weakness.
I thought to bring it back in
or call someone, but heard my voice
saying, "Birds die, we all die,"
the shock of being picked up again
would probably finish it,
so with this pronouncement
I tried to clear it from my mind
and return to the work I had waiting
that is most of what I can do
even if it changes nothing.

Do I need to say I was away
for all of a minute
before I went back to it?
But the bird was gone.
All the birds were gone,
and the circle they had made
now made a space so desolate
that for one moment I saw
the dead planet.

For reasons I trust you can see above, if you do not know Michael Ryan, I recommend him to you. Of God Hunger, Robert Pinsky says:

Michael Ryan's book has what we seek every day from our radios and magazines and television sets, but rarely find: copious imagination, words that meet the test of reading out loud, our ordinary daily language joined to the extraordinary, the palpable force of life itself, held in words worth repeating.

I would only add that far too often we are thirsty for the memorable when reading a poem, as well. Not the case with Michael Ryan. Each one workshops the canon and can improve our lives--writing and otherwise. To read God Hunger is to be sated for a time, and then to desire Ryan's next book. Thankfully, there are many...

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