Ryan Van Winkle – The Good Dark

Full Disclosure: Ryan is a close friend, one of the first poets I met in Edinburgh and a ceaseless source of care and encouragement. I also did a little editing work with him on this manuscript a couple years back, and I’m in the acknowledgements. So get ready for hella objectivity is what I’m saying.

Review: The Good Dark builds on the work done in Van Winkle’s first collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, in its gestures of gift-giving, its intermingling of past trauma with present crisis, its blend of intimate address and a kind of Galway Kinnell-ish emotional proximity to nature. It’s probably useful to think of the book as a kind of stock-taking, an out-of-love letter, an attempt to triangulate the speaker’s life with those closest to him. Unlike a great many broets, however, the poetry of loss in The Good Dark, particularly loss of love, is not bitter or recriminatory, but a kind of analysis, a recognition of one’s own failure, even a manner of apology. The book’s opening poem, ‘The Duke in Pines’, inhabits a time significantly after the initial parting, in a kind of workaday breathing space between loss and closure, which finds its punctum in a dress left behind by the speaker’s partner:

‘sometimes I would open the door and look
at the lichen thing, wonder why it had to hang
like an unwatered fern, wonder if it ever wanted you
the way I sometimes wanted you. And, of course,
it was just a dress and it could not say. And I
was just a young man and I could not say,
even about a dress that did nothing but hang.’

A great many poems would take such an opportunity to embark on a Cavafy-style conflation of lover and lover’s signifier, but ‘The Duke in Pines’ is a quieter, more thoughtful creature, more concerned about telling the truth of its wordlessness than a more dramatic fiction. If there’s an abiding tone in The Good Dark, it’s this kind of stoic sadness, a recognition that other people’s lives are complex, that their interaction with our own more complicated still, that the ways we hurt each other are rarely intentional. And yet through all that Van Winkle’s poetry is primarily, I think, one of gift giving, a faith in the consolatory and conciliatory power of creative gestures, their ability to give us the strength to continue. Take ‘I Do Not Want Rain for Rain’, a poem that looks back from the wet summers in Edinburgh to his childhood in the states; the poem comes in little, five line stanzas shaped like, well, rain:

‘in good dreams
my grandfather takes
my hand, says I am forgiven
for getting to his hospital late,
for the way I speak

to my mother,
for living while he is dead.
And I say thank you and he says to enjoy the rain
while I can. And because he says it, I try.’

This is a silly idea. It would get ummed and ahhed out of most workshops. But Van Winkle makes it work, and it’s difficult to put a finger on why. There’s a sincerity to the poem, an earnestness and an openness about childhood, memory, being a dick to one’s siblings (and ultimately forgiving and being forgiven), and it’s all tied up in this dumb formal trick, its organising metaphors of ice-cream and rain, its little stay against mortality. I love it. Van Winkle specialises in brief, unatomisable lyrics, and in ‘Untitled (Lincoln)’, links Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, starfish, and an extended moment in which the speaker implores the beloved not to run so fast to catch a train. The setup is simple, the execution complex; it opens with a deft piece of deflating irony, maybe even self-parody:

‘Time is nothingness
and this should allow
me to take any transport

I want.’

But in just a few stanzas the poem becomes something caring, sincere, almost painfully vulnerable:

‘And my arms and time
are nothingness and that

should allow you to take
them in your own time,
deliberately, like boarding

a train you know you want’

Sure, it’s a set-piece, it’s a bit of poetic trickery, it gives the emotional investigations of other poems a breather, but it’s difficult not to get a little swept away by its everyday metaphysics, its emotional immediacy.

3 JP

In ‘Gerontocracy’ (government by and for old men, useful word!), this attempt to understand or explain the speaker’s family is explicitly linked to collapsing relationship in the poem’s present:

‘Maybe you and I needed bills
like old boys on Capitol Hill; maybe
we needed debate, gavel-bangs, and lashings
of whips. But I couldn’t call that government
to order because all I’d ever learned
of government was from Father’s hard hand
and all I ever learned of talking
was from the TV; so loud
it spun out everything honest
so I could not tell what was puppet
and what was shadow.’

Silence begets silence and alcohol, the relationship fails, ‘and we are left with nothing / but noise and the cold majority / of silence below noise’. The extended metaphor picks up the poem’s feeling of entrapment in executive orders whose authority still resonates. It’s an angry poem, and the lines ‘when my mother / finally took to the lawn and threw her eyes / at her own home I think I understood / the single government of my father’ provide a defiant, comprehending gesture, perhaps one the speaker wishes to emulate. At its core, ‘Gerontocracy’ is the record of sabotaged relationships: the speaker’s parents by violence and the his own by an unwillingness to do likewise; even if that’s what the relationship ‘needs’, it is too high a price. When the speaker ‘wished / my own government wasn’t owned / by the same old ghosts of old men’ it’s a recognition of a flaw being managed; the ghosts may have harmed him, but they won’t harm anyone else.

In Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, one of my favourite poems was ‘And Table, You Are Made of Wood’, in which Van Winkle kinda goes, ‘welp, guess it’s just you and me, table’, I imagine in a bar or restaurant somewhere far from home. It has a spiritual successor in ‘One Year the Door Will Open’, in which the poet once again finds solidarity in a stalwart household fixture. Once again, the ostensible silliness of the setup is offset by, or perhaps permits, the seriousness of the poem’s substance; it moves from the blue of childhood and seasides to ‘argument red, family yellow, divorce brown’, ‘been locked and pushed / shut, hung on frames and forced to gaze / through creaking day and slamming night’. Ultimately, however, both door and poet survive, even look with some hope toward the future:

‘Door, I too have stared
at my own brass, have become wood
and squeaked with need. Weathered, pale,
but still here. So we can peer through gloam
and into each other, honest as hinge
and nail, can open and call this home.’

Home is at the heart Van Winkle’s work, a point his poems continually set out in search of and/or find their way back to. It is often a disturbed and unsettling place, as in ‘Untitled (Lynch)’ (‘It doesn’t matter what you know of other places if you’re still trapped in the building’), and the distinctly Lynchian long poem that concludes the collection, ‘Untitled (Snoopy)’. As an aside, the book’s title is partly drawn from Snoopy’s epigraph, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’; it’s a neat bit of ironic undercutting of a title that at first appearances felt portentous, a slightly heavy nod to the Robert Frost-ish New England backdrops of Van Winkle’s ‘nature’ poems. The poem itself is a kind of rangy, free-associative dream quest, alighting on some of the images and scenes from earlier in the book; in many places it expands on the book’s themes of loss of innocence or intimacy, the fear of being caged and the fear of the passage of time, the poem’s formal unrestrictiveness permitting some striking passages:

‘I counted letters
I should have written on the hill,
the butterfly I might have chased,
locked in a jar, carried home.
For, when the night turned stormy,
I could have said, “I have done
something. I have run
for beauty. I have begun.”’

‘But she
began to call me Moon as if
I was far away. Hey Moon, are you
hungry? C’mere Moon, give us a kiss.

Later, I became Mr. Moon. Mr. Moon,
this is serious. We must call a meeting.

It also permits maybe a little too much, and the stronger passages get a little lost in the meandering. But maybe the concision and thoughtfulness elsewhere in the collection have earned a bit of relaxation, a little breathing space. The Good Dark takes a kind of emotional failure as its point of departure, as a key element of its understanding of the world, and makes from that first shortcoming something beautiful.

Tl;dr: Hey, guess what, I really liked Ryan’s book. Hopefully I have not been blinded by this strange human emotion called friendship.

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.’