Editor's Note: Three months ago I interrupted my series on Pittsburgh poets to write about Michael Ryan. At that time I had only read God Hunger and desired more of him. I recently worked through his New And Selected Poems, and so I offer a break in my New Mexico series to deepen understanding and appreciation for Ryan's work.
What poet hasn't written of sex and faith and death? In this regard, Ryan is no trailblazer. But few poets write poems that are so palpably, so embarrassingly, about my sex, my faith, my death. And if not, at least about my neighbors--both in open, as well as in closed, form. Hear then, "This Is A Poem For The Dead," from Threats Instead of Trees.
This Is A Poem For The Dead
fathers: naked, you stand for their big faces,
mouths stuffed flat, eyes weighted, your miserable dick
sticking out like a nose. Dressed, you're more of
a mother making dinner: those old dirt bags,
the lungs, sway inside your chest like tits
in a housedress. Perhaps you're frying liver
that shrinks like your father getting older.
You still smell him breathing all over
your skin. He drank himself to death.
Now each woman you meet is a giant.
You'd crawl up their legs and never come down.
Even when you think you're big enough
to touch them, his voice flies from inside
your throat and "I love you" comes out
a drunk whimper. All you can do
is breathe louder. You're speaking
out of his mouth. Finally you admit
you know nothing about sex
and drown the urge slowly
like a fat bird in oil.
Still, those wings inside you.
At the hot stove all day you feel yourself
rising, the kids wrapping themselves
around your legs oh it's sexual
this nourishing food for the family
your father stumbling through the door
calling to you Honey I'm home.
Part of the beauty of this poem is its deceptively simple plain language, masterfully sensitive to the line, with enjambments that season the experience without calling attention to themselves: "Dressed, you're more of/a mother," "Even when you think you're big enough/to touch them," "his voice flies from inside/your throat," "All you can do/is breathe louder" and "all day you feel yourself/rising."
On this backdrop Ryan hangs lines and phrases that typographically, sonically and ideationally "stick out": "your miserable dick," "like tits/in a housedress," "You'd crawl up their legs and never come down," "you know nothing about sex/and drown the urge slowly/like a fat bird in oil."
Duality--its battles and its comforts--is a prevailing theme in Ryan's poems. The speaker in these poems is "painfully grateful there's breath/to make noise with." It's the pain that makes us so grateful for the gratefulness, and the gratefulness that gets us through the pain.
I'm speaking again
as the invalid in a dark room
I want to say thank you
out loud to no one.
I want to suck my cracked lips in
on the sound, as the sound
dissolves slowly like a man living.
I'm painfully grateful there's breath
to make noise with, and many words
have meaning. I feel lucky
when hello doesn't hurt.
On a bus, I could love anyone.
It's not terrible to be alone.
Last night I talked to a person
so haltingly I might have been looking
for a word that wouldn't change.
That made her misconstrue everything.
Did she feel what I thought she was feeling?
Did she feel me concealing
the pleasure that keeps me going,
as I circled that pleasure
like a dog around its master?
This pleasure, for me, is speaking,
as if words enclosed the secret
in myself that lasts after death.
I would be remiss if I ignored Ryan's shorter, newer poems. In them, the darkness still threatens to overcome, but the containment of it in rhyme and verse, contrasted with the expanded field of white, allows some kind of hope to be an organic part of the message. Ryan's pithy last lines also assist. Two poems illustrate:
Psychotic homeless boy
clocking our exit from the church--
eyes shining like ice--
doing his rooster-pecking thing
with his hand made the beak
into each of our faces
as we file out--
or is it snake-striking
or just compulsive counting us
one and one and one?
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
Mr. Pain Speaks For Himself
That I love you you can't
deny because you think
you don't love me. Each day
I drive you to the brink
as faithfully as mom
her precious little one
to soccer, dance, and violin.
Don't you get it, hon?
I'm not going anywhere,
but you are. So when
you feel me rolling in
like a fleet of Peterbilts,
don't try to run away again
like a watermelon on stilts,
but love me and be changed
to what you can't imagine.
Michael Ryan--a poet I couldn't imagine. Yet once experienced, a voice I cannot do without.
Saturday, September 15, 2012
Not A New Mexico Poet: Michael Ryan
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for two decades. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com