Practicing to Walk Like a Heron

ridl--walk like a heron

Originally published on Blogcritics

If more poets wrote like Jack Ridl, more people would read poetry. Reading a collection of poems by Ridl, you feel as if you are sitting in his living room, or across the table at a bar, or roaming through a trail in the woods, just listening to him spin tales. The tales are not necessarily stories, although he does that as well.

Like many great poets, Ridl tells tales which make us see exactly what he sees, but in a whole new way. I let my two dogs out every morning, but after “The Dogs’ Door Is at the Far End of the House,” I’ll never watch them go out the same way again. Like every dog owner, he watches them trudge into the morning heat or a drift of snow, day after day.

“I wonder if they wonder what waits
on the other side. They never complain
or balk. They walk, let go, find their
momentary stay against the coming day.”

One of elements of Rid’s poetry which differentiates him from other poets, is his humility. He is not trying to save the world through his poetry. He is not even trying to understand the world through his poetry. He is trying to live in the world through his poetry. As a result of this humble approach, he does indeed bring understanding and glimpses of salvation to all that is around us.

Throughout his other works, and this one is no different, Ridl also displays a welcome sense of humor. You can almost see him standing off in the corner with a wry grin on his face, watching something unfold. In “My Wife Has Sent Me An Email,” we see a tender exchange of checking on the coffee supply at home and signing off with love.

“I am sitting in

our living room, laptop on my
lap. She is sitting in her office

upstairs. We are emailing
in our own home.”

It is not a diatribe against the inhumanity of technology. It is someone chuckling to himself over his own use of it. His humor can be more straight forward, as in “‘Moose. Indian.’ –The last words of Henry David Thoreau,” where he rethinks what those words could be.

“Why not ‘The cabin was cold
but I got a book out of ‘? Or

“My god,
I kept track of everything except

my own pencil!'”

Ridl also captures those moments which we all know, but somehow they slip away. In “The Two Chairs in the Garden,” he observes

“The obligatory nap has disappeared
into the light that falls after 4pm.
It is time

for the sweet blue of cornflower
the muted palette of mums. This
is something I love: the season
between season.”

This volume is longer than some of Ridl’s other collection, and the result is a fuller picture of his art and a greater context to reflect upon his work. It is divided into four sections, one of which, “Interlude: ‘Hey Skinny, the Circus is in Town’,” was published separately before as a chapbook. In the midst of these other poems, they take on a new color, which is why larger collections of poems are sometimes better than the one poem standing alone. They are likes songs on the albums of yesteryear, which we listened to because they were there and required attention. Those songs could stand alone, but they take on a new sound when listened within an album. Poetry can work in the same way, and Ridl’s book is stronger because of its depth.

The sections reflect different ideas. The first section, “From Our House to Your House,” is a return to his childhood, and especially seeking a connection with his father. In “The Enormous Mystery of Couples,” he looks at relationships of different types. The final section, “The Hidden Permutations of Sorrow,” focuses not simply on sorrow, but really, the hidden permutations of life.

Perhaps Ridl succeeds because he writes for everyone. The opening poem is “Write to Your Unknown Friends,” so Ridl brings to life many of his unknown friends. Tanya, the single mom with three kids working at the post office. Ted, who sells cars and wishes those with fins were back in style. Ann, with the best perennial garden in town, who wears a hat wherever she goes.

In other words, Ridl is writing to everyone, not just other poets. He has done this throughout his career; in this volume, he excels at it.

The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, Poems 1953-1964

avenue bearing the initial of christ

Also published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

I’ve read and reread Galway Kinnell’s poetry over the years, and although I bring no scholar’s claim to his work, I can attest to the power of his words. Kinnell’s words show an honest, earthy, man who is open to the world around him.

I’ve often used the word “earthy” to describe Kinnell’s work, but I’ve also seen “earthly” applied. Looking for the difference, I settled on this distinction from “Earthly and earthy were originally synonyms, but the adjectives have undergone differentiation over time. Today, earthly means of, relating to, or characteristic of the earth (often as opposed to heavenly or divine). Earthy means (1) plain, (2) natural, or (3) indecent or coarse.”

The reason I include this is that Kinnell’s poetry fits both of these definitions. He certainly writes of the earthly, but he can do so in an earthy way. It is hard to walk away from Kinnell’s poetry without the need to wash up, not from disgust, but from the dirt and grime he immerses you in. But it is the dirt and grime of a hard day working on a project — it is a good feeling. Kinnell seems as if he can walk into the earth, and he does something much like this in one of his masterpieces, “The Bear.” He is grounded in this world (earthly), and takes the world for what it is (earthy).

This collection, The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, Poems 1953-1964, is described as follows: “This newly assembled volume draws from two books that were originally published in Galway Kinnell’s first two decades of writing, WHAT A KINGDOM IT WAS (1960), which included the poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” and FLOWER HERDING ON MOUNT MONADNOCK (1964). Kinnell has revised some of the work in this new edition, and comments on his working method in a prefatory note.”

In this short, prefatory note, Kinnell explains he took out some “unsalvageable” poems, and then revised others. For him, writing is a process, so returning to these poems in 2002 (when this volume was published), he lets the process continue. There is no weeping and moaning over what was or should have been — he makes changes he wants, and moves on. In a way, this reflects his poetry. It is unique mix of the objective and emotional. He can be moved by something in nature, describe it in an objective way, and then move forward from the experience, as opposed to pining to relieve it once again. He does not forget it, indeed he may be defined by it, but he does not get lost in it.
What this collection shows is Kinnell bouncing between his New York and Vermont homes, which he did for many years. The title poem, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World,” is a 14-part poem which recreates the sights and sounds from the outset.

“pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek pcheek
They cry. The motherbirds thieve the air
To appease them. A tug on the East River
Blasts the bass-note of its passage, lifted
From the infra-bass of the sea. A broom
Swishes over the sidewalk like feet through leaves.
Valerio’s pushcart Ice Coal Kerosene
Moves   clack
On a broken wheelrim.”

So many visual and auditory signals in that opening verse immediately put you in the context. But the words are simple, the images clear and not overwrought. They are earthy and earthly.

Throughout his work, Kinnell allows what he sees to speak for himself. He is a poet who gets out of the way of his poetry. Like the simple prose of Marilynne Robinson, Kinnell knows a simple phrase can carry a great deal of meaning. What he does in the city, works well in the country as well.

First Song
Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder’s ache
A boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Not only does Kinnell capture a simple scene, he allows the weight of it to show — this is not a Norman Rockwell painting, but Kinnell is also not so cynical that he cannot find joy. What this poem also shows is Kinnell’s respect for children and their experiences, which does not show up as much in this volume as some of his other work. This poem also shows that Kinnell does not simply present a laundry list of ideas for the reader to interpret. He is willing to interpret and offer his view.

In the second half of this volume, which is  “Flower Herding On Mount Monadnock,” there is a poem entitled “Spindrift,” which ends with the verse:

Nobody likes to die
But an old man
Can know
A gratefulness
Toward time that kills him,
Everything he loved was made of it

It is a strong statement for a then young poet, but one that holds true, although I would argue the man does not need to be old. Gratefulness is not necessarily a time-bound attitude, although it is difficult for some to attain.

In the end, Kinnell creates that “earthy” and “earthly” poetry, which shows a world we can recognize. But through his poetry, we see more in it then we realize. It is not a forced deepening of everything we see; it is an openness to what the world has to say.

Note: For those not familiar with Kinnell, here is a short excerpt from his bio:Galway Kinnell is the author of ten books of poetry, including The Book of Nightmares, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone, Imperfect Thirst, and most recently A New Selected Poems and Strong is Your Hold.  He also published a novel, Black Light; a selection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs; and a book for children, as well as translations of works by Yves Bonnefoy, Yvan Goll, Francois Villon and Rainer Maria Rilke.A former MacArthur Fellow and State Poet of Vermont, he has been a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.  In 1982, his Selected Poems won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and in 2002, he was awarded the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America.

The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime

ImageWhat an unusual idea. Perhaps in the midst of new Sherlock Holmes interest, Penguin decided to put out this unusual  volume entitled, “The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes From the Time of Sherlock Holmes.” It ended up in my mail after reviewing a collection of Holmes-inspired stories. It is a collection of stories with characters I was not familiar with, by authors, of whom just a few had some name recognition for me.

It is more scholarly work than one for the general reader. It is edited, and edited well, by Michael Sims, who has written a range of books, including ones touching on the offbeat works found in this collection. His introductions to the stories set strong contexts for both the stories and the authors. Most of authors are males, but several women represent their own characters in breaking new ground.
A common theme in many of these stories is a woman, forced by circumstances, to enter into a male-dominated profession. Quite often, the fact that they are women, or wealthy, or educated, allow them into situations in which a male detective could not make progress. In other words, many of the authors set up situations which allow their characters to enter into an non-female world with an excuse most readers could grant. Once in that world, their success comes from their own wits. It would have been nearly unheard of to actually have women working in these roles, so their appearance in fiction precedes their appearance in reality. As Sims notes in his introduction, “Whatever the progressive sensibilities of the author, the creation of a female detective instantly provided a number of narrative possibilities that were unavailable to male heroes.”
The range of stories also show the development of the detective story. Some show little real investigative work at all; instead, simple clarity allows a case to unfold. Others show the detectives doing the hard work of examining crime scenes or following a suspect, even to an underground cavern.
I say the work is more scholarly than a general read in that Sims includes stories which are justifiably forgotten, except by those wanting to know what was the publishing culture at that time. Mary Wilkin’s “The Long Arm,” has all the elements of a suspenseful plot, but the suspense is mainly missing and we wait patiently while she solves nothing — it is a visiting male detective who does most of the work outside of the story. However, these stories are balance by some excellent entries, including two by Anna Katherine Green.
This anthology will be enjoyed those with interests in the detective story, or women in literature, but it is not aimed at the general reader looking for just another good mystery.

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

Help Thanks Wow
Anne Lamott definitely stretches the boundaries of Christian writing. For that, we can thank her. Yes, she swears, says honest and unkind things (usually about herself), sometimes refers to God as Phil, and even lets slip a longing for her earlier, non-Christian lifestyle.

In her most recent book, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,” Lamott takes her earthly approach to the most holy of acts, prayer. In this short work, she talks about each of the three prayers and ends with some thoughts on “Amen.”
She notes at the outset that “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” If other prayer books make you feel wholly inadequate to seek communion with God, Lamott will get you shouting at God without guilt. “God can handle honesty, and prayer begins as an honest conversation.”
Of the three prayers, her section on “Help” is the strongest. Although a short book, this could even be shortened more as the multiple of examples for one type of prayer can become tiresome. And Lamott always has a tendency to want to show people how cool she is — she tires too hard, since her unique approach to life is clear. But perhaps she has used “Help” more than other prayers, so her words hit the mark with assurance.
Calling it “the first great prayer,” she says in praying for help we find “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing.”
The theme that runs clearly through all of Lamott’s writing, is the power of grace. She does not get why God would forgive her, but she is forgiven, so she accepts it. But grace does not create some sudden understanding of God, or a clear answer to our prayers in the way we want them. “Grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on. Through the most ordinary things…life is transformed.”
Lamott appropriately follow up the section on “Help” with the prayer of “Thanks.” More than a prayer, Lamott seeks for us to live a life of gratitude. This has the danger of sliding into banal platitudes, but Lamott refuses to lose that essential, theological language. “Thanks” is not simply what we say to God, but is seen in our actions as well. And it needs, she argues, to be a habit.
The final prayer, “Wow,” is not so much about words as our reaction to the divine. “Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace.” Such reactions are not limited to beautiful sunsets, but can be found in art galleries and at the sight of a natural disaster. It is the sense of awe which becomes increasingly difficult to grasp as the world manufactures more ways to confuse our senses. But sooner or later, and they are not rare events, we come to face the awe-inspiring, and we say “wow.”
Lamott, in her usual style, has taken a challenging topic and made it very accessible. The reader will finish feeling good about their prayer life, even if it is nonexistent. And then they will feel like they can pray if they want to. In fact, as Lamott’s simple prayers show, we may be praying without even knowing it.