Ryan Van Winkle – Tomorrow We Will Live Here

NB: This piece, astonishingly, is unlikely to be 100% objective. I am aware of this! I hope it doesn’t feel unnatural to begin with a critical caveat, but I’d feel weird otherwise. Many of the poems in the collection I’d read or heard months or sometimes years before the book arrived, a few I helped with in the editing phases. How do we proceed? I’m going to begin as if nothing was the matter. If this ceases to be the case so be it.

The acknowledgements to Tomorrow, We Will Live Here extends to twenty individual names and a clatter of magazines and institutions, and there is an accordingly huge variety of characters who appear in the book, not just as foils for the semiautobiographical speaker or the ubiquitous ‘you’ (youbiquitous) of love poetry (though commonly a cipher it is not necessarily a bad thing cf Paterson) but as ostensibly independent figures with internal lives independent not only of the speaking voice but of the needs of the poem. When the running coach in “Cassella: The Pastor’s Son” says the runners have ‘a time to commune, / pray, talk sport, speak our blessings’, it feels authentic –

Digression: whether or not it is authentic is irrelevant. If you’ve been to Ryan’s shows you’ll probably know from introductions which poems are based on real, historically experienced events in Ryan’s life, and which aren’t. This is useless information beyond the needs of our internal taxonomist. What is important is that the reader interrogates and absorbs it without rejecting it like a dud punchline.

– and enlarges the emotional capacity of the poem –

Sorry, me again. You may remember me being fairly techy about the TS Eliot boyos for a number of reasons. After reading Tomorrow, We Will Live Here I spotted a sore I’d left completely unsalved: the presence of an overweening director. Let’s imagine a poet at a desk with paper and pen, for argument’s sake. Picture Ryan if it makes you happy. The instant before the pen touches paper the embryonic (emByronic) work has more potential and possibility than it will ever after. The act of writing the poem is one of elimination wherein the poet delineates his/her tenor, vehicle and all that stuff s/he would have the reader take away. Willetts and Sampson are particularly apt examples of writers who mistrust their readers to such an extent that no point is left unhammered-in, which completely unparadoxically ensures the failure of any emotional impact that point might once have carried.

Back on point: Ryan toes this line with remarkable ease. Plenty of poems directly address death (eleven of the thirty-five by my count), but they assume the reader’s capacity to process it and tend towards open endings (“Cassella: The Pastor’s Son” ends with St. Sebastian’s prayer; “Everybody Always Talking About Jesus” ends in a light switched off in someone else’s bedroom; “Ode for a Rain from Death Row” with the imagined absolution of the condemned prisoner). Priority is for the expansion and illumination of the poem’s world beyond the potentially narrow aims of the directing poet. This review is now more digression than not and I think I’ve made the point I was going to in the first place. It’d feel kinda weird to go back to that little sentence up top.

– nah it’s cool I was done anyway

Thanks bro. So, what do you have against the book? What an excellent question. “My 100-Year-Old Ghost”, “Gasoline”, “They Will Go On”, “Oregon Trail” and “Bluegrass” have a degree of faux folksiness (fauxsiness) to them which is initially off-putting. Ryan’s appreciation for Bruce Springsteen is well-documented and his influence is occasionally tangible (‘Griswold  says // they ain’t gonna raise his pay’; ‘“Gonna storm,” [Martha] says.’ Oof). Even then, at their best they are immersive, deeply involving, and, I can’t help feeling (particularly with the primacy given to the disappearing and alluring figure of “My 100-Year-Old-Ghost”), deliberately at odds with some of the more intimate pieces that happen in a more recognisably contemporary space, the lasting effect of which is the provision of a decomposing past through which the raw present springs. “Necessary Astronomy”, “Knots”, “Babel” and “And Table, You are Made of Wood” are excellent lyric pieces, the latter a title with huge imaginative potential. The table is being addressed! [sincere] What resignation in those words, what an audible sigh [/sincere]. And Oregon Trail is also a computer game, so that’s cool.

I’d feel remiss without looking closely at an individual poem, though I think the book holds together more strongly when taken as a unified collection. Let’s have a pop at “Everybody Always Talking About Jesus”, to my mind the strongest single poem. (As an aside which I didn’t want to include in the paragraph above, “The Grave-Tender” is not a good poem, and this is because the pantoum is the worst form in the world. There, I said it. Fucking pantoums.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is itself a small series of poems. One of Ryan’s strengths is that (all aboard the jargon express) where his grammatical syntax is simple, his syntax of imagery is allusive, instinctive and complex. The first section is a delightfully f’d-up piece about pubescent sexual deviance that captures a simultaneous feeling of decay and blossoming, something wholesomely clandestine, ‘I was so happy, I took it all; her arms sweating / like horses. My father and sister never knew / but in that house noise always dried like palm.’ Placing this story beside the subsequent evidence of his father’s sexual waywardness puts both in a light that could not have been achieved otherwise. We even learn that they were probably happening at in a similar timeframe, the ‘red-head / that was not my mother’ (how much hangs on that rather than who?) appearing in the back row at ‘high school plays’, the playfulness and mock-serious tone of the first section oddly mirrored in the photo of her asscheeks being ‘rosy as if slapped / or left out in the December snow’. The emotional fallout in the final section is palpable, and the feeling of confusion and paralysis is beautifully rendered in the closing exchange between the two remaining children: ‘Dad left me the car, you can have half the car. But no, / she says, the car’s seen too many stations / she doesn’t want to think about. She spits // her toothpaste and I watch / the light beneath her door / til it’s gone.’ The longing in the last stanza is heart-wrenching. More importantly, this habit of reining in a series of images to create a single intricate whole is repeated throughout to great effect. I had included a line here about Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius but then I took it out.

I’d been thinking about writing this review pretty much since the TS Eliot debacle started, and here’s my conclusion: this book is easily better than half the TS Eliot shortlist. I talked previously about having a novelist’s eye/ear for developing personality in a restricted form, and it is this quality of narrative that distinguishes Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. While there are occasional rambly or overdone lines or stanzas, the collection has emotional depth and engagement, finds imaginative ground to share with its audience, and what it lacks in technical flair it makes up with a sincere curiosity and fearlessness about presenting and exploring innately unappealing and emotionally fractured characters. An inclusive spirit pervades the collection, and the ‘we’ defined by the title is movingly enlarged by the book’s close, though the penultimate poem “Unfinished Rooms” gives the distinct impression that even with its abundance of detail, its tireless effort to get everything on board, the culmination of its work remains just out of reach. The poem’s last lines: “It is almost done, // they say, / just a few more things // and the room / will be complete.’

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6 thoughts on “Ryan Van Winkle – Tomorrow We Will Live Here

  1. tsrosenberg February 11, 2011 / 3:51 pm

    Strange, I was just thinking that I have published two pantoums and have not been able to pull off another one since, and also I was thinking about writing another one because the repetition would support what I was writing about, so I am going to write it.
    And it’s going to be awesome.
    So there!
    (Is this how poetry feuds start?)
    PS I liked Ryan’s book.

  2. davecoates February 11, 2011 / 4:07 pm

    sorry tracey, but we are now enemies. POETRY ENEMIES

    unleash the hounds

  3. tsrosenberg February 11, 2011 / 4:14 pm

    Oooh, oooh, can we write thinly-veiled screeds of hatred (in perfect blank verse, natch) and force our friends to take sides? /turns on popcorn maker

  4. Matt Merritt February 18, 2011 / 11:14 am

    Sounds splendid – added it to my list of books to buy. I’ve enjoyed the poems of Ryan’s that I’ve read in mags in the past. Quite intrigued by the fondness for Springsteen – he’s the second poet I’ve come across this week who references him.

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