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FROM LIVERPOOL - EUROPEAN CAPITAL OF CULTURE 2008

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CAUGHT IN THE NET -  FEATURED POET - GIBBONS RUARK
Guest Editor - Dan Masterson

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Introduction by Jim Bennett

Hello.  Welcome to CITN 31. In this edition we highlight the work of  Gibbons Ruark.

Our guest editor is once again the distinguished poet and teacher Dan Masterson.  In addition to his academic work Dan runs a professional critiquing service which many poets both new and established have benefited from over the years.  I have no reservations in recommending it.  Details can be found at his website  -
http://www.poetrymaster.com            

You can join the CITN  at -
http://www.poetrykit.org/pkl/index.htm and following the links for Caught in the Net.

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GIBBONS RUARK

They are hoisting barrels out of the cellar
And clanging them into an open van,
Gamely ignoring as if no matter
Whatever is falling on their coats and caps,
Though the fat one singing tenor has shrugged

Almost invisibly and hailed his fellow
Underground:  "A shower of rain up here,"
He says with the rain, "It'll bring up the grass."
Then, befriending a moan from the darkness,
"Easy there now, lie back down, why won't you,"

From - "Working the Rain Shift at Flanagan's"


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CONTENTS

1 - COMMENTARY BY DAN MASTERSON  
2 - SELECTIONS FROM BOOKS BY GIBBONS RUARK


A PROGRAM FOR SURVIVAL (1971)
 
 "Night Fishing"
 "Sleeping Out with My Father"
 "American Elegy"
 "Polio"
 "A Screech Owl's Lament for Edward Thomas"
 
 REEDS (1978)
 
 "Lament"
 "Lecturing My Daughters"
 "Reeds"
 "Trying to See Through Joe Heffernan's Glasses"
 "Soaping Down for St. Francis of Assisi"
 
 KEEPING COMPANY (1983)
 
 "Waiting for You with the Swallows"
 "Listening to Fats Waller in Late Light"
 "Working the Rain Shift at Flanagan's"
 "Basil"
 "Written in the Guest Book at Thoor Ballylee"
 
 RESCUE THE PERISHING (1991)
 
 "Words for Unaccompanied Voice at Dunmore Head"
 "A Vacant Lot"
 "Postscript to an Elegy"
 "Words to Accompany a Small Glass Swan"
 "The Enniskillen Bombing"
 
 PASSING THROUGH CUSTOMS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (1999)
 

 "Hybrid Magnolias in Late April"
 "Househusbandry"
 "Robert Frost to Ezra Pound's Daughter from his Deathbed"
 "Late December"
 "Swamp Mallows"
 
 NEW POEMS (2005)
 
 "Little Porch at Night"
 "Quarantine"
 "Goldfinch Without Madonna"
 "Thinking of a Painting by Alexander Haden"
 "Words to Accompany a Bunch of Cornflowers"

3 - BIOGRAPHY  
4 - Afterword
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You can purchase these books on-line through Amazon at Poetry Kit's Bookshop -
http://www.poetrykit.org/howto.htm

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1 - EDITOR'S COMMENTARY BY DAN MASTERSON:  
    Gibbons Ruark is an original.  Reading the selection of poems he's gathered for us is like emptying a leather sack of keepsakes onto a sprawling kitchen table. There's "great purity and depth" there, as his longtime friend, James Wright, once wrote of him. And, yes, Ruark is akin to the New Romantics, closer to Wright than Hugo or Wagoner, and more familial in the telling of tales than Roethke, although they share that emotional catch of the breath: the residue of pain and experience. 

The poems have clarity, an understated longing. and at times, a hushed frenzy that allow phrases to arrive in unimaginable ways, often as common as "a tree limb scrap[ing] at a gutter."

"There in the shallows should be strung/ A taut line from a father to the sea he fishes."  A typical line from Gibbons Ruark's pen, lacking everything that doesn't belong.  It is one of countless lines that can be carried about like a talisman, fondled at will, tactile enough to be brought to mind by a thousand daily objects, simple enough to escape the grand pitfalls of so much of the poetry passing for poetry in the marketplace.

You'll probably find yourself committing some of the poems to memory. I suggest you start with "Basil," and work your way up to "Quarantine."  Carry the leather sack with you; you'll find it a comfort along the road.
 

-Dan Masterson

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From A PROGRAM FOR SURVIVAL (1971)

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Poems from A Program for Survival, University Press of Virginia, 1971. A National Arts Council Selection. 


Night Fishing

We have come again, my father and I,
To the edge of the known land, to the streak
Of sand that lips the undermining sea.
But we are not allowed this time to speak

Of horizons, for the sun has dropped
Behind us, and night is all of a piece.
The lights go out in the cottages propped
Above the black dunes, room by room the lights

Go out, the children fall asleep, and soon
Whole families sleep as calm as children,
Nursed by the motions of the wind and tide.
My fishing rod springs and quivers and the line

Loops over the breakers; I watch the sinker
Splash and start to reel in steadily, steadily,
Feeling the current drag.  Downshore, my father
Tosses with a pitcher’s ease, then braces

His legs against the undertow and waits.
His cigarette stings a hole in the dark.
The odor of fish grows stronger as the wind
Switches and the sea crawls to us with its sharks.

My father stands like a driven piling.
I move downshore.  Somewhere not far inland,
Where the afternoon’s shrimpboats are nuzzling
In their sleep, his hometown leans into the river.

Below us, empty of fishers, the old pier
Sways over climbing waters, the salt wash
Rinses the pilings scabbed with barnacles.
The timbers shudder in the tidal rush.

The water lifts, but we do not move back
Until the seaweed swirls about our thighs
And empty bait trays tumble in the slack.
We reel and pull and reel and pull again.

Somewhere in that darkened row of houses
Our women sleep in their beautiful order,
But here on the swift-dissolving shore
I drift to my father in the night’s one water.

Yearly we come to this familiar coast
To wade beside each other in the shallows,
Reaching for bluefish in the ocean’s darkness
Till our lines are tangled and our tackle lost.  


  ______________________________________________      


  Sleeping Out with My Father

Sweet smell of earth and easy rain on
Canvas, small breath fogging up the lantern
Glass, and sleep sifting my bones, drifting me
Far from hide-and-seek in tangled hedges,
The chicken dinner with its hills of rice
And gravy and its endless prayers for peace,
Old ladies high above me creaking in the choir loft,
And then the dream of bombs breaks up my sleep,
The long planes screaming down the midnight
Till the whistles peel my skin back, the bombs
Shake up the night in a sea of lightning
And stench and spitting shrapnel and children
Broken in the grass, and I am running
Running with my father through the hedges
Down the flaming streets to fields of darkness,
To sleep in sweat and wake to news of war.


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American Elegy

Let us acknowledge first our ignorance,
The sweet impossibility of knowing
What it was like.  All of us, it is true,
Have been under water, but we were diving

Then for pleasure, and the water’s surface
Was a skin of bubbles we could break for air.
Hardly one of us has sucked on airless space.
We have known fire, but very few have felt

The acid fog of smoke invade our sleep,
Ballooning the lungs of a dream until
We wake and smash the glass out of a window
And leap below to watch the rafters fall.

We have known hot light, but even the sun
On the blistering desert sets, and we
Fall asleep, if not under trees, in welcome
Oases of darkness.  Knowing such fears,

We know nothing.  We see from where we are
The blackened cockpit, the intricate thatch
Of wires, the tangled mess of tubes like entrails
Of the living.  Our televisions catch

The bugle’s thinning echoes at West Point,
The shadow of the lame formation booming
Over Arlington, and we are ignorant.
Feeling the abstract grief that swells our hearts

With blood like directionless water, we must
Imagine the usual fiery vision:
Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Edward White,
Breathing their deaths in that unquenchable light.


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Polio

The snore of midsummer flies at the screen,
Afternoon’s tepid fog crawling my sleep.
In my unrelenting dream the fire truck
Peals round the corner, and when I wake
The sirens still confound me.  From the wobbly
Room I stumble to my mother’s door,
A shifting blur in the wall before me.
Her limbs are weak and rumpled on the sheet.
The empty braces glint.  Their brightness hurts.
Pale pillow, damp hair, my father’s shadow
Straining over her, sweat at his armpits,
Straightening, bending, straightening her leg.
Like knives her shrill cries peel the heavy air,
But he keeps at it, forcing tears back till
His eyes ache.  The veins map out his anguish.
His false teeth tighten on that work of love.


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A Screech Owl’s Lament for Edward Thomas

Edward, the house is dark
As I begin to hear
What you bring back to me.
Though I am lonely now,
Nights had their loneliness
Before I found your name
In the lists of casualties.
Winter brought me a death
That shook my breath away
For a dear man lost
To anything I say
This side of silence.
Night on night the music
In me was an old hymn
Whose tune I could not carry.
Now though I am troubled
As the lost key rises
In a familiar air,
It would be worse to come
To an end of mourning.

Edward, the snow was deep
When you left for the war
And you and your Helen
Cooied to each other
Through the whitening fog
Till neither one could hear.
This evening in the dusk
Your voices came to me
In the gray dove’s call
Beyond the tulip tree.
For a time that low song
Lasted, and when it died
It made a silence
Deep enough to breathe.

But now in the cold dawn
Comes a sound like the sound
You always listened for
Where you fell in the trenches,
A shivering whistle
Like a small horse whinnying
As he falls from the sky.
The screech owl in the woods
Has left his secret branch
And glided toward me.
Now he floats overhead
Like a ghost of the dark
And lowers to me
His wild descending cry.


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From REEDS (1978)

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 Poems from Reeds, Texas Tech University Press, 1978. A finalist in the
 1976 Associated Writing Programs Poetry Competition.


 LAMENT

         What I regret is many things in my future.
                                -Melina Mercouri

 One sore thing is the way
 Our only friends will die
 With nothing more to say
 Than a long goodbye

 Or no goodbye at all.
 Another thing's the work
 Shutting down to a small
 Eye batting in the dark.

 Then come the gay daughters
 Gone from their wedding clothes.
 Where you heard their laughter,
 Hang a drained garden hose.

 Write down dry veins, the hug
 Of pain in every kiss:
 Soon any catalogue
 Of woe must come to this:

 My body breaking down
 Beside your body
 Till one of us is gone
 And the sheets are bloody,

 And I am your lover
 Taken by the darkness
 Or a blank light forever
 Where your lovely head was.


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 LECTURING MY DAUGHTERS

 Listen a little.  When my lone father
 Called me down in love or hardly in anger,
 I felt my own eyes shamefully flaring
        Under his mildness.

 Sometimes he sang, and when he said scarcely
 Anything but what he wanted me to hear,
 I heard the sound of his own palm falling
        Asleep on my shoulder.

 He took me walking in early morning,
 In early evening, pausing in the lamplight,
 Climbing a ladder, he let a swing down
        From a tree we lived by.

 Last time but one I traveled home to him,
 He took me walking just to show me where
 A great tree hung its branches half a block
        No higher than a man.

 Though there's not one tree where we are living
 Strong or straight enough to hang a swing from,
 With a little luck we will still do something
        Harmless together.

 Little ones, I have raised the one father's voice
 You know in anger.  I will be quieter.
 We will all walk quietly out together
        Under the lamplight,

 And I will lower my own unsteady voice,
 Hardly as musical as the one father's voice
 I know, one rung at a time down the scarcely
        Audible ladder.

 Maybe I am calling you home in time.
 Given a little chance I had a father,
 You are my children, walking in lamplight,
        This is your childhood.


______________________________________________


 REEDS

 We are beginning one more time this evening,
 Leaving our daughters and letting our lives
 Uneasily down the hillside, leaning

 Northward, where the moon means nothing to the heaves
 Of stone that lie there starlit when the moon is gone.
 One more time this evening the river leaves

 The town alone to darkness watering the stones
 Of faces down by the old poet's stinking riverbank.
 In a little church whose walls fall sheer down

 Into the riverbed, a couple of blank
 Young thugs in leather jackets and their handsome man
 In a midnight suit are laughing and clanking

Around in the parts of an ancient organ.
What do they know, we turn and ask each other.
When we turn back the one in midnight has begun

 To touch a Bach Toccata like a lover.
One thug is gone, the other turns the pages
And eyes his dark companion, like a brother

Who lies back quietly in the dim-lit passages,
Then lends his hand with an assassin's skill.
In organ-light our vision of him ages;

We are shocked that he is nothing but a child.
With a little rotten luck, he could have gone all
Bloody piecemeal in Milano, killed,

Harsh headlights whipping the bloodlit wall.
Born in another country, he could be lying
Face up under water with only a reed to tell

The air his fatherland where his life is hiding.
Turning those pages, he is nothing but a boy,
Yet he knows well enough the skills of dying

To spend his evenings with a genius of joy.
Love, if we have listened, we will wander
Uphill to our daughters' eyes closed by the oil

Of youth and gladness, stare at them and wonder
As we lay a blessing on their breathing
Before we lay one other on each other.

This evening one more time it may be easy,
But it may not be, if we remember
All the trouble it took that organ wheezing

Before its small pipes rose into the reeds they are
And uttered a long low rustle from their nest
Down by that lonesome poet's stinking river,

Following an old inflection so a tossed
And driven man might find a breathing place.
Bright stars hollow the moon-bone, your loveliness

Hollowing the mouth-piece of my face.


______________________________________________


TRYING TO SEE THROUGH JOE HEFFERNAN'S GLASSES
 

These wiry gold frames that you gave me fit my head
As snugly as a skin, but the thick old lenses
Prove so strong I shut my eyes and the dark commences
To tell me where you are and what it was you said.

This long desk is a slab of walnut you might run
Your skillful thumb along to ascertain its timber
And maybe put yourself in mind of random lumber
In a pile that knocked your ear out when you were young.

The one ear you  had left was good for fifty years
Before it sputtered like a candle while you sat in Mass,
Wondering if the good Lord God would have your carcass
Hauled out of Holy Redeemer before you lost your fears.

One cold Detroit December night before the snow
I blew in out of Marquette and a bad all-nighter
With your son my longtime friend and lovely listener
Who loves you like a patriot and calls you Joe,

Who lately takes a tone so nearly sure as yours
I have to perk up like a hound for fear of some live
Line that might have hidden in it somewhere how to live.
You gave us more than welcome and a little White Horse,

But hardly enough of freight trains and those brotherly men.
Locked out of hearing, you thought we didn't care to hear.
Nights now, you drive the city that you love and bear,
Taking a darkened turn away from home again

The way you hopped some darkened freight in the Depression,
Never caring if it went where you were headed.
You had a little money and you weren't downhearted,
And anyway all tracks would somewhere make connection.

If I open my eyes and take the dizzying risk
Of looking through your glasses, will I see the flames
Of my beloved faces gutter in their frames,
Or one more night train bound for any night but this?

Joe, it is almost baseball season in Detroit,
That murderous city where you live and make a living.
If luck holds out, the winds may prove forgiving,
Detroit may win the pennant and I'll see you in Detroit,

Or else we'll gather one day like lost settlers
By the roadbed, and hear the lone freight laying on its irons
The dead and living fathers' signal to their sons:
It's all right, boys, we can always grab a handful of rattlers.

______________________________________________


SOAPING DOWN FOR SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI:
THE CANTICLE OF SISTER SOAP

                It took in, that human, that divine
                embrace, everything but soap.
                --Henry James

Winter sunlight in Assisi, and the birds tilting
               Their small wings over the roof-tiles,
And the mirror lilting from the bedroom wall,
               And the good and lovely and leering Signora
Giving us breakfast and a shower all to ourselves.
               There is soap in Firenze, there is soap in Bologna,
But more than ever there is soap this morning in Assisi.
               Henry, if you were here, we would soap your longest
                   sentence down.
As it is we gather into soap whatever sunlight lifts in our direction,
               Shoulders, slippery breasts, long tapering backs,
Eyes clouded after a while against the burning,
               We are soaped all over, we are slithering somewhere,
We are two well-leavened loaves of fresh Italian bread,
               We are the morning hillsides of Assisi.
Great white doves of soapsuds fly from our shoulders,
               Great wings of dazzling soapsuds are waking
And flying and perishing into Assisi sunlight,
               And we are giving the beautiful dirt-loving Francis
More soap than even Henry James could ever think he wanted,
               And the good dead Francis is coming piercingly clean for
                      once
Where we give each other love we never bought or paid for
               In this room of the profane and holy bargain.

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From KEEPING COMPANY (1983)

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WAITING FOR YOU WITH THE SWALLOWS
 
I was waiting for you
Where the four lanes wander
Into a city street,
Listening to the freight
Train's whistle and thunder
Come racketing through,
 
And I saw beyond black
Empty branches the light
Turn swiftly to a flurry
Of wingbeats in a hurry
For nowhere but the flight
From steeple-top and back

To steeple-top again.
I thought of how the quick
Hair shadows your lit face
Till laughter in your voice
Awoke and brought me back
And you stepped from the train.

I was waiting for you
Not a little too long
To learn what swallows said
Darkening overhead:
When we had time, we sang.
After we sang, we flew.
 

______________________________________________


 LISTENING TO FATS WALLER IN LATE LIGHT

for Tom Molyneux, 1943-1977
 
Once, in a Village bar, you kept us listening
To this music till we nearly missed our train,
Then hailed a taxi half-way to the station,
Your bright tie flying behind you like a little wake.
Now we are listening into late mountain light.

A little jazz in the South of France, Vence
Maybe, or some other town in the South
Of the heart, was what you dreamed you longed for.
Wine and daylight, the company of women
And children, the slow gold raveling of an afternoon.

The year we were for Italy, you were for France,
Their local wines so distant, yet the two countries
Closer in the end than our South and your North.
You were meant to visit us in Italy,
But your lame Peugeot would never make the hills.

Back home in the coldest winter yet, you nursed
Your broad-beamed Oldsmobile like a mother
With a sick child, bundling the engine at night
With old blankets, cajoling it to hold on.
Loaded with wine, it broke down on a Maryland road.
 
This is America.  If this were in Europe
We'd send it to you on a sunny post card,
The lake water rubbing the stones with water-lights,
The small birches lonely even in their groves.
We came from your death to this beautiful place.

The sun goes down.  He's doing "Honeysuckle Rose."
Were you speaking you would no doubt tell us
There is no clean way to come to this music
Save the one long mountain road of our grief.
There is no clean way to come to this place

Save the one long mountain road dead-ending
At the landing and nothing but the sunstruck lake.
This place appeals to your love of the sunlight
As our love for you appeals to the blue
Provencal light of your early absence.

For us the North Italian, for you the Provencal,
Those two skies nearer the one color than we thought.
Now the late light shines on our luck in each other,
A wish flashed over your shoulder as you left the party.
We are cooking the small-mouth bass and listening

To Waller, drinking the white wine of Verona
Since lately we get no kick from champagne.
Lucky the woman, lucky the man, relishing
Fresh dill, a little lemon and a little butter,
A little traveling music, a particular voice
 
Suddenly from no place at all in particular
Wishing us to live and be happy, have fun
Somehow tapdancing barefoot on the warm floor
Going cooler as the mountain sun goes down,
And the man himself, old friend, the man is doing
 
"Ain't Misbehavin'."  We are getting mature.
 
 ______________________________________________


WORKING THE RAIN SHIFT AT FLANAGAN'S
 
for Ben Kiely

When Dublin is a mist the quays are lost
To the river, even you could be lost,
A boy from Omagh after forty years
Sounding the Liberties dim as I was
When that grave policeman touching my elbow

Headed me toward this salutary glass.
The town is grim all right, but these premises
Have all the air of a blessed corner
West of the westernmost pub in Galway,
Where whatever the light tries daily to say

The faces argue with, believing rain.
Outside an acceptable rain is falling
Easy as you predicted it would fall,
Though all your Dublin savvy could not gauge
The moment the rain shift would begin to sing.
 
They are hoisting barrels out of the cellar
And clanging them into an open van,
Gamely ignoring as if no matter
Whatever is falling on their coats and caps,
Though the fat one singing tenor has shrugged

Almost invisibly and hailed his fellow
Underground:  "A shower of rain up here,"
He says with the rain, "It'll bring up the grass."
Then, befriending a moan from the darkness,
"Easy there now, lie back down, why won't you,"

As if the man were stirring in his grave
And needed a word to level him again.
His baffled answer rising to the rainfall
Could have been laughter or tears or maybe
Some musical lie he was telling the rain.

This is a far corner from your beat these days,
But why not walk on over anyway
And settle in with me to watch the rain.
You can tell me a story if you feel
Like it, and then you can tell me another.

The rain in the door will fall so softly
It might be rising for all we can know
Where we sit inscribing its vague margin
With words, oddly at ease with our shadows
As if we had died and gone to Dublin.
 

______________________________________________


BASIL

There in Fiesole it was always fresh
In the laneway where the spry grandfather
Tipped you his smile in the earliest wash
Of sunlight, piling strawberries high and higher
In a fragile pyramid of edible air.
Light down the years, the same sun rinses your dark
Hair over and over with brightness where
You kneel to stir the earth among thyme and chard,
Rosemary and the gathering of mints,
The rough leaf picked for tea this summer noon,
The smooth one saved for pesto in the winter,
For the cold will come, though you turn to me soon,
Your eyes going serious green from hazel,
Your quick hand on my face the scent of basil.


______________________________________________


WRITTEN IN THE GUEST BOOK AT THOOR BALLYLEE
 

This room needs furniture and the blue walls are cold.
Whether we should have been welcomed by the old ghost
We admire seems hardly civil to ask in County
Galway, where doors swing open to the rankest stranger
And they say whatever warms you when you are cold.
Still, this room needs furniture and the walls are cold
And colder in the resolute Atlantic wind.
 
This room needs music.  I call old Tommy Nolan
Down from the streets of Galway with his great fiddle
And his frightening cough, to haul his chair up
Close to the measly fire we would be grateful for,
And lean into music.  I call on Tony Small,
Laughing at the counter there in Cullen's, marvelous
Raw voice sweet with whiskey, to put down his glass and sing.
 
This room needs music and nobody here can sing.
Wind bangs the shutter.  Long absences drum at the door.
Some voices we would gather the wind has scattered
All over this and other islands, some few as far
As the man who found and imagined this place, and then
Abandoned his soul to its battlements to die
In a French room without benefit of Galway.

We saw where they plowed him into that rainy churchyard.
He might have called his own bedroom the stranger's room.
Instead he chose this room where we standing wondering
How cold a man would call a room for guests the stranger's
Room, or how honest.  Speech is exhaled into the cold,
Whatever we say, though rhetoric may turn to rain
And leave a lover's indiscretion in the air:

If you want to believe our life is possible, come
Look out the window where the wind blows a brief shower
Of leaves on the stream, swift with earlier rainfall,
And try to imagine that they love their vanishing
Merely to leave the surface untroubled and clear.
Then listen for breath in this room without music.
While you can hear it the stream makes a personal sound.
 


_________________________________________________________________________________________


From RESCUE THE PERISHING (1991)

_________________________________________________________________________________________
 


WORDS FOR UNACCOMPANIED VOICE AT DUNMORE HEAD
 
One old friend who never writes me tells another:
The boy has need of lyrical friends around him.
Don't ask me how I ever found that out,
 
Given as I am to these fugitive headlands
Where not so long ago the news from Dublin
Arrived washed up with driftwood from the States,
 
Where the gulls rehearse the local word for weather
And then free-fall through ragged clouds to the sea wrack.
The bar at the end of the world is three miles east.

Last night the music there ascended with the smoke
From a turf fire and showered down in dying sparks
That fell on lovers and the lonely ones alike

Where they cycled the dark roads home or lingered
By a bridge till every cottage light was out--
Fell silent from the night as innocent as milkweed.
 
All night those soft stars burned in my watchful sleep.
At dawn I abandoned my rackety faithless car
To its own persuasions, took up a stick
 
And leaned uphill into the wind for the summit.
No music here but the raw alarms of seabirds
And the tireless water high against the cliff face.
 
No more the flute and the whiskeyed tenor rising,
The chorus of faces in the drift of smoke.
This is the rock where solitude scrapes its keel

And listens into the light for an echo.
This has to be good practice for that last
Cold wave of emptiness on whatever shore,

But why do the reckoners in my nightmares
Never ask me what I said to the speechless
Assembly of whitecaps instead of was
 
There anyone arm-in-arm with me as I spoke?


______________________________________________


A VACANT LOT
 
One night where there is nothing now but air
I paused with one hand on the banister
And listened to a film aficionado's
Careless laughter sentence poetry to death.

It's twenty gone years and a few poems later,
The house demolished, the film man vanished,
The friend who introduced us to him dead.
 
I side with one old master who loves to tell
His film-buff friends that film is like an art form,
And yet my eyes keep panning the empty air
Above the rubble, as if, if I could run

The film back far enough, I might still start
For home down the darkened street from the newsstand
And turn a corner to the house still standing,

A faint light showing in an upstairs window.
Is someone reading late?  Or is it the night
Our newborn lies burning up with fever,
And all the doctor can say is plunge her
 
In cold water, wrap her up and hold her,
Hold her, strip her down and plunge her in again
Until it breaks and she is weak but cooling?

Is it the night they call about my father
And I lay the mismatched funeral suit
In the back seat with the cigarettes and whiskey
And drive off knowing nothing but Death and South?
 
Somewhere a tree limb scrapes at a gutter.
The wind blows.  Late trucks rattle the windows.
Never you mind, I say out loud to the girls

Away at school, There's nothing there to hurt  you.
The sky is thickening over a vacant lot,
And when I leave there is a hard rain drumming
With the sound of someone up in the small hours,

Thirsty, his palm still warm from a sick child's
Forehead, running the spigot in the kitchen
Full force till the water's cold enough to drink.
 

______________________________________________


POSTSCRIPT TO AN ELEGY
 
What I forgot to mention was the desultory
Unremarkable tremor of the phone ringing
Late in the day, to say you were stopping by,
The door slung open on your breezy arrival,
Muffled car horns jamming in the neighborhood,

Our talk of nothing particular, nothing of note,
The flare of laughter in a tilted wineglass.
Or we would be watching a tavern softball game
And you would come short-cutting by, your last hard mile

Dissolving in chatter and beer on the sidelines.
How did that Yankee third baseman put it, tossing
His empty glove in the air, his old friend
Sheared off halfway home in an air crash?  "I thought
I'd be talking to him for the rest of my life."

Talk as I may of quickness and charm, easy laughter,
The forms of love, the sudden glint off silverware
At midnight will get in my eyes again,
And when it goes the air will be redolent still

With garlic, a high note from Armstrong, little shards
That will not gather into anything,
Those nearly invisible flecks of marble
Stinging the bare soles of the curious
Long after the statue is polished and crated away.


______________________________________________


WORDS TO ACCOMPANY A SMALL GLASS SWAN
 
1
 
Cold midnight, Gogarty struggling in midriver,
Having slipped the Irregulars, leaving
An aftertaste of wit and his great fur coat.
He shook himself loose from its sleeves and was off,
Promising, stroke after stroke, if he got clear
He'd give a pair of swans to the Liffey.
Today, slipping indoors out of nothing worse
Than Dublin rainfall in a minor key,
I thought of Gogarty's lost coat, the warmth
He relinquished to plunge in the freezing river,
I thought of oceanic distances,
Shelter from storm, the home fire of your face,
Then found this small clear swan along the Liffey,
And a big duvet as soft as Gogarty's coat.

2

Duvet, it turns out, is merely the word for down.
Not downward down but airy upward swansdown.
That last Dublin morning rose clear and cool,
Though the sky was cumulus by afternoon,
Cloud drifts more friendly than unbroken light.
Breakable swan in my pocket, I walked
Those streets where shadows came and went like water,
And then, toward evening, bent to touch a lamp's
Furled shadow, and my fingers came away wet.
The clearest glass is misted by our breathing.
Think of the way translucent loneliness
Can augur a rush of love, and you won't wonder
When this brittle, sway-necked clarity gives rise
To warmth falling on you in a cloud of down.
 

______________________________________________


THE ENNISKILLEN BOMBING
 
1. Remembrance Day, 1987
 
"Showery with bright periods," said the forecast,
The way it does so many days in Ireland,
And indeed the arrowy soft rain fell

And the clouds parted more often than not
Above that watery parish, and the farmer
Walked in collarless from Derrygore,
 
The butcher left his awning snug against the lintel,
Two boys forgot their caps on the orchard wall.
Nobody looking at the sky or listening
 
To the weather would ever have predicted
That thunder would erupt before the lightning,
Blow the whole end gable of St. Michael's out
 
And bring the roof spars raining piecemeal down--
Not the slow-tempered grocer gone open-mouthed
With or without a cry as the windows roared,

Not the stooped pharmacist red-faced with grief,
Not the veteran of two World Wars in all
His ribbons, scrabbling with his raw bare hands

Through the choking dust for anybody's heartbeat,
Not the father wandering almost blindly,
Eyebrows seared from his face, who found his son

Still breathing only to knock the tip of his stick
Against his daughter's wedding ring, her splintered
Hand upturned in the rubble incarnadine

As the fuchsia banking a rain-swept roadside.
 

2. Before It Happened
 
One afternoon a friend from the Falls and I
Drove out from Sligo into Enniskillen
For a quiet drink among old lamps and mirrors,
 
The glancing talk conspiratorial
As wives at the half-doors, silences freighted,
Lamplight pooled with sunlight on the polished bar,
 
The street outside a cleared-out Control Zone.
Across the street and up the narrow stair,
In a room with spring light swimming in the windows,
 
Fine as lace and firm as Blake's engravings,
The paintings of a dozen Irish wildflowers,
One after one, hung cleanly on the wall.
 
My friend the country walker, botanizer
Reared in the gutted streets of West Belfast,
Called every one by name from memory.
 
Bogbean, pipewort, grass of Parnassus,
Harebell looking so fragile it might tatter
In a breeze, yet stubborn as the stone ones
 
High on the capitals at Corcomroe.
We came downstairs into the slant of evening
And drove away in the unmolesting dark.
 
As we left behind the small lights of the town,
The voice at the wheel was naming constellations,
Orion, Cassiopeia, where they wavered
 
At first, then spread their nets of stars in the night wind.
 

______________________________________________________________________________________
 

PASSING THROUGH CUSTOMS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (1999)

_________________________________________________________________________________________
 


HYBRID MAGNOLIAS IN LATE APRIL
 
You bent to whisper to a small granddaughter,
Exposing the bald priestly back of your head,
Lifting her then and handing her to me:
       See you in April.
 
Never the same, these northern magnolias,
As the great starred candelabra ghosting,
Even before I left them, the deep-shaded
       Lawns of my boyhood.
 
And yet these too break wholly into blossom,
What somebody called the early petal-fall:
I walk out one day and the limbs are bare;
       Then they are burdened
 
With the flared tulip shapes of opening blooms.
Two rainy indoor days in a row, then out,
The sun is out, and a fallen constellation
       Litters the grasses.
 
What would  you be up to this April morning?
Muttering to yourself, looking high and low
For the good stick fashioned out of laurel?
       I have it with me.
 
Patience.  Lean back and light another Lucky.
Whatever will kill you dozes in your rib cage.
Read a few more pages in the Little
       Flowers of St. Francis,

 
Then throw a window open on the fragrance
Of even this, the northernmost magnolia.
By now the child you lifted in your arms has
       Slipped from their circle
 
To cherish and polish your crooked old stick
Into a poem of her own so tender and deft
I can hold its wrong end and reach you the worn
       Thumb of its handle.


______________________________________________


HOUSEHUSBANDRY

Early this morning when I idled around the house
Behind the carpenters, they were in rhythm,
As is only right, with the laws of square and shim
And shore-up, all oblivious of the hours
Of kneel and back-bend you had given to the borders,
The single peony that may or may not live
--No matter the ministry of sunlight and love--
The clematis still awaiting its climbing orders.
 
There was no question of a lack of water.
The poplars dripped.  The carpenters mulled over tactics.
Would it be better to have had an attic
Or have strung up the former owner from a rafter?
Meanwhile the chickadees darted at the feeder
Through their mild but metronomic turbulence.
I went in for coffee and escape from consequence.
The carpenters discussed the cost of cedar.
 
Later in the fog I nearly sideswiped
A truck bound for the house with a load of siding.
No way he could have known where I was heading.
When I reached the parking lot the air was rain-swept
And the apparition waiting, hand on hip, was you.
I felt a sudden lightening back of my breastbone--
A plumb bob swinging to a standstill, gone
Featherweight on finding the hollow it was sounding true.
 

______________________________________________


ROBERT FROST TO EZRA POUND'S DAUGHTER FROM HIS DEATHBED
 
Love is all.  I tremble with it.
Romantic love as in stones and poems.
I'd like to see Ezra again.
 
Did I say stones?  My mind said stories
And my tremulous tongue said stones.
Love is all I tremble with.  It
 
Goes without saying I am gone.
Before I go for good I'll say
I'd like to see Ezra.  Again
 
The years, the years rattle my spine.
How often must I not know what
Love is?  All I tremble with, it
 
Rummages these old bones, scattering
Breath like the silvered leaves of birches
I'd like to see.  Ezra?  Again
 
His crazed head haunts me like a cloud.
All the dark certainties tell me
Love is all.  I tremble with it.
I'd like to see Ezra again.
 

______________________________________________


LATE DECEMBER
 
While it's true that some conspiracy of stars
Persuades the eye the lumbering clouds are green,
That's beyond the pane, in the outer darkness.
Here the only green thing going is the spindly
Spiderplant at the window, and it looks cold.
 
Or look again:  Is there a caught breath of green
In the curtain we may have just seen stirring?
It's not breath enough to quicken an ember.
The room is entirely lit by ice or snow,
Whatever sends that blue glaze through the window,
 
Furrows of snow or else the scraped sheen of ice
On a pond abandoned even by shadows.
The fire's gone cold that was in another room.
The man who sat here while it died was reading,
Lear it could have been, and he wanted weather
 
In view when he lifted his eyes from the page.
Now the shrill metal chair, brought in from the lawn
At summer's end, is empty, an odd blanket
Lapped over it like a mantle of snow
Or the folds of his last thought as he sat here:

In order to make believable Lear's cry
When he draped the cold Cordelia in his arms,
One consummate player sealed his civil tongue
To a scrap of dry ice, then emptied his throat
Of the sound the tearing away brought out of it.
 
 
______________________________________________


SWAMP MALLOWS

Nearly still water winding among the grasses.
Low white clouds of blossoms, "useless for picking
Since they wilt within an hour."  A cumulus sky.
This looks so much like a version of the calm
We might slip into out of troubled waters,
 
You will forgive me if I sense my father
Just out of sight around some mallowy bend.
At the painting's edges time unravels anyway,
So we might as well let it be summer,
Eastern Carolina, 1949,
 
The moment he leans down to steady the johnboat
Beside the dock for me to clamber into.
Then, when he has me balanced in the bow,
He reaches me the rods and tackle box
And steps down gingerly into the business end.
 
This time he has only a single paddle.
We won't be going far, and he loves the quiet
As the boat ripples into a channel
So narrow we can touch the brush on either side.
Then it is all drift and fish--the sun lowering,

The "weedless" hooked lines skimming the bottom for bream--
Casting and reeling till down the long perspective
Of the evening we grow weary of fishing
And catching nothing, lay the gear down carefully
In the slick boat-bottom and give in to drift.
 
My father's hat is tilted over his eyes
As we float in the freedom of saying nothing
Till warmth and water ferry us into a drowse.
Anybody watching from the bank would see us
Slide unknowingly under a little footbridge

Where a few old ones with kerchiefs on their heads
Are lifting their crab lines with the patience of heaven,
And then we scrape a tree stump and wake up to this:
Nearly still water winding among the grasses.
Low white clouds of blossoms.  A cumulus sky.

We have come around in a backwater silence
Still white with mallows.  In the face of all this air
And water and slow-to-perish brightness,
We might for once imagine death has been neglectful
And surrendered our passage to be banked with bloom.

 
 _________________________________________________________________________________________

 NEW POEMS (2005)
_________________________________________________________________________________________



LITTLE PORCH AT NIGHT
 
Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise longue.
Tell me the empty dark will fill with voices
And talk to me before I end my song.
 
A summer night, and something has gone wrong
To rob the mild air of familiar faces.
Pull up a porch chair.  Next to this chaise longue
 
A mother should be standing with her long
Hair tucked into a bun.  Unwind those tresses
And talk to me before I end my song.
 
That vacant angle where a hammock hung
Adopts the whole moon in its loneliness.
Pull up a porch chair.  Next to this chaise longue.
 
Summon the fireflies, matches struck and gone,
The Morse code of the stars who've lost their places,
And talk to me before I end my song,
 
For down there in the shallows should be strung
A taut line from a father to the sea he fishes.
Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise longue
And talk to me before I end my song.


______________________________________________


QUARANTINE
 

Some things happened every year, no matter what:
The air cooled down a little after a storm,
The fireflies rose and fell in total silence,
Unlike those mournful gnats along the river
In that poem the lovelorn teacher read us
We were every one too young to understand.
The berries fell from the chinaberry tree
And left the backyard slithery underfoot.
But this was the year of Mama's polio,
The summer when the epidemic kept us
On the block, then under the trees, and then,
When she came down with it and went away,
Behind the head-high railings of the balustrade.
Next door was the church, high sunlight angling
Through the steeple's stained glass, unfolding then
Like a flickering board game on the floor.
I stood on the steps and hollered "Polio!"
Then came the parade of openhearted aunts,
Spelling each other, stern and sweet by turns,
One not caring if we saw her naked,
Since we were only children, after all.
Beautiful and young, an Army nurse in the war,
Milk-pale except for the dark touch here and there,
Did I dream she made us buttered toast and eggs
Before remembering to put her clothes on?
She died in childbirth, fifty years ago,
And I have wondered at her all my days.
When Mama came home, there was the wheelchair,
Strange, like a marvelous oversized toy,
And then the crutches and the metal braces.
Crutches I knew, big boys with football injuries,
But the braces were hinged and ominous,
Not Mama's legs, not anything like them.
Only late at night could you not hear her coming.
Then she lay down and they were taken off
And stood till first light in a bedroom corner
Like parts of a skeleton, and she slept
As we all did, swimmers floating in a salt pond.
In those hours nobody needed to walk,
Unless you had to pee or the house caught fire.



Click here for "The Day a Poem Comes Home," an essay on the writing of the poem —"Quarantine"— The essay appeared in the Winter, 2001, issue of The Cortland Review.

______________________________________________


GOLDFINCH WITHOUT MADONNA
 
In the elected quiet of early morning,
Whoever calls, the phone is off the hook.
We're wearing nothing but two cups of tea.
 
Sunlight is pouring in the kitchen
Indiscriminate, laving me as well as you,
The slow clock, and the spilling philodendron.
 
In West Virginia once, by an old friend's river
Idling in the rain, I saw a brilliant
Democratic goldfinch light with equal
 
Insouciance on a rusty hubcap's rim
And the just-flowering branch of a pear tree.
The promise we keep to the goldfinch who visits
 
Our feeder is never to dress till he appears.
Was that a flash of something at the window?
Only the air where a feather of gold might be.
 
With any luck we'll touch before it flies.
 

______________________________________________


THINKING OF A PAINTING BY ALEXANDER HADEN
 
               in memory of his life, 1977-1995

1.  In a Country House Hotel

Glimpses were all we ever really had,
And yet they gather piecemeal to a glimpsed boyhood:
At four, the towhead shy behind a barstool,
 
Then the small savvy boy who knew the territory
Back with clabber to the tops of his gumboots
From guiding strangers to the ruin across the road.
 
Later, tramping the hill with Oliver's donkey,
And then, the final time, slipping in and out
The door, slender and winning in a crisp white shirt,

Making Biddy laugh out loud as he helped her.
Everything shifts and wavers until it's steadied
By a long late glimpse, this one without him in it,
 
Deftly painted in the year of Susie, the year
Of soccer at Glenstal, of the nearly cloudless
Summer, the year that ended on the northbound road:
 
"Fishing Boat--The Aran Islands" 1995.
The boats still ebb and lift in the harbor
At Kilronan, the near one still a dusky red,

The blue one in the offing staying blue.
 
2.  In a Country Churchyard
 
We walk the hedgy lane off the switchback road,
Cross two fields and the Mass Bridge over the stream,
And now are on the hill below Rathborney.

Here the gentians are just unfurling their flags.
It's one of those days when you can't tell the clouds
From the cirrus limestone streaks in the valley.
 
Solitaire among the leaning stones of the churchyard,
A plain carved cross of bog oak with a cursive name.
In this light it might be the mast of a sailboat,
 
A breeze off the islands filling its invisible sail.


______________________________________________



WORDS TO ACCOMPANY A BUNCH OF CORNFLOWERS
 
Those beads of lapis, even the classical
Blues of dawn, are dimmed by comparison.
When I hand you this bunch of cornflowers
The only other color in the room
Illumines your eyes as you arrange them.
 
They are the blue reflection of whatever
Moves in you, serene as cool water tipped
Into crystal, oddly enough the willing bride
To a cloudy head of melancholy
So deeply blue it could prove musical.
 
This is the blue John Lee Hooker's gravelly
Voice in the sundown field was looking for.
This is the unrequited dream of an iris.
Ice blue, spruce blue, little periwinkle blue--
Nothing else that dies is exactly so blue.

 

_________________________________________________________________________

3 - Biography

Gibbons Ruark was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1941 and holds degrees from the Universities of North Carolina and Massachusetts. His poems have appeared widely for many years in magazines such as Ploughshares , The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Poetry, and in various anthologies and texts, including three editions of X.J. Kennedy's Introduction to Poetry. They have also won the poet frequent awards, including three poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, and the 1984 Saxifrage Prize for the best book of poems appearing in the preceding two years. Collected earlier in A Program for Survival, Reeds, Keeping Company, Small Rain, Forms of Retrieval, and Rescue the Perishing, seventy of them appear in Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1999). Mr. Ruark taught English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for three years, and in 1968 joined the faculty of the University of Delaware. He has recently retired and returned to Raleigh, where he lives with his wife, Kay. Click here for "The Day a Poem Comes Home," an essay on the writing of the poem —"Quarantine" (see above) — The essay appeared in the Winter, 2001, issue of The Cortland Review. All the poems featured here—published originally in a variety of literary journals—are reproduced on this web site with permission of Mr. Ruark, who holds the copyright.

_________________________________________________________________________

4 - Afterword

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