Saturday, September 15, 2012

Not A New Mexico Poet: Michael Ryan

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:

Every Sunday

Psychotic homeless boy
clocking our exit from the church--
straggle-haired, bloated,
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 airhole-punching
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.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My Top Ten New Mexico Poets: Connie Voisine

Under the heading of "Research and Creative Interests" in her faculty page of the New Mexico State University website, Connie Voisine explains how the subject matter of her poetry has evolved to a fascination with desire and death, coinciding with the transition from her twenties to her thirties. I am envious of the craft and restraint with which she captures these two themes, and the way they interact with one another. This is never more true than in the opening lines of "Anonymous Lyric:"

It was the summer of 1976 when I saw the moon fall down.

It broke like a hen’s egg on the sidewalk.

The garden roiled with weeds, hummed with gnats who settled clouds on my

oblivious siblings.

'A great hunger insatiate to find / A dulcet ill, an evil sweetness blind.'

A gush of yolk and then darker.

Somewhere a streetlamp disclosed the insides of a Chevy Impala—vinyl seats, the rear- view,

headrests and you, your hand through your hair.

'An indistinguishable burning, failing bliss.'

Notice how the images flow in and out of one another as the poem progresses:

Because the earth’s core was cooling, all animals felt the urge to wander.

Wash down this whisper of you, the terrible must.

Maybe the core wasn’t cooling, but I felt a coolness in my mother.

That girl was shining me on.

In blue crayon, the bug-bitten siblings printed lyrics on the walls of my room.

I wrote the word LAVA on my jeans.

'It must be the Night Fever,' I sang with the 8-track.

But the moon had not broken on the sidewalk, the moon

was hot, bright as a teakettle whistling outside my door,

'tied up in sorrow, lost in my song, if you don’t come back . . .'

and that serious night cooled, settling like sugar on our lawn.

I wrote the word SUGAR on my palms.

'I shall say what inordinate love is.'

The moon rose itself up on its elbows and shook out its long hair.

Other examples of Voisine's images that sing of both desire and death range from "bullet holes above the bed," to "the crumbling pyramid's altar top flocked with moonlight," from "the hysterical crush of insect limbs rubbing, animal want, all night bang[ing] against the window" to "the saints, robes heavy with must, with ancient gnarled hands, deserving the nothing they felt their way toward (all from "'The Altar' by George Herbert").

I'm new to Voisine's work, and I'm still investigating it, but what I've read of it so far has earned her a place in my top ten New Mexico poets.

Connie Voisine is an associate professor of English at New Mexico State University, where she directs the creative writing program. Educated at Yale University, she received her MFA from University of California at Irvine and her Ph.D. from University of Utah. Her book, Cathedral of the North, was winner of the AWP Award in Poetry and was released by University of Pittsburgh Press. Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream was published by University of Chicago Press in 2008 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award--from her official bio.