Gibbons Ruark

Gibbons Ruark Air Date: August 22, 2009

I’d like to read you a poem by a dear old friend of mine who taught with me at the University of Delaware for many years. His name is Gibbons Ruark. He is a poet whose work is anchored in the land, particularly his native North Carolina and his beloved Ireland. His poems are gentle and, I think, as gorgeously crafted as Elizabeth Bishop’s. He’s published in The New Yorker, Plowshares, The New Republic, Poetry and other of the best journals in the country. The poem I want to read to you in his seventh book, his New and Selected collection called Passing Through Customs, published in 1999 by Louisiana State University Press.

The poem is called “A Vacant Lot.” I know the place, in Newark, Delaware, where we both began and ended our university teaching career. But I admire this poem not because I know the place. I admire the way it reaches beyond itself. He begins by remembering the house—only a vacant lot, now. He remembers one night there, twenty years ago, when he was having a conversation with a film buff. This person has told him that, basically, poetry’s dead. Film’s the future. Gib sides with poetry, the word rather than the picture. But then pictures begin playing in his head. He walks down that street again It is as if he sees himself living there, his young daughter sick with fever, his father dying and he’s getting in the car headed south for the funeral. Night visions. Dark ones. But then he says to his daughters in the present—they’re away at school, grown up—don’t worry. There’s nothing to hurt you. The lot is vacant, clouds thickening.

Then the remarkable. The sound of rain is the sound of water in a tap, the thirsty man getting a drink of water after tending to his sick child. Well, after all that, I’ll read the poem:

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.

What’s remarkable about this poem is that the speaker manages in a subtle, backhand way, to refute his friend’s argument that film is the superior genre. The visual past, seen in his mind, is only the beginning of what turns out to be the sound of a hard rain, the sound of water running, all run together. The sound of the poem carries us much farther than the pictures in it do.

And the poem is flawlessly musical. There are five stresses per line, an iambic beat—ta DUM— five times. You wouldn’t be aware of that, hearing it, but what you are aware of is the regularity, like rain, of the lines. You hear “hard rain drumming” –each of those words sounds alone, like a hard rain. You hear “full force till the water’s cold enough to drink” and the line comes at you full force, with all its consonants.

Behind every fine poet, the ones we admire, you can feel the press of knowledge, of experience, and of deep understanding of the tradition he or she is writing in. This poem, as is true of all Ruark’s poems, rings so true and so clear that we read it as if it’s spoken in one very present voice, but within that voice is embedded the rhythms and the tones of all the predecessors who have shaped the words, however subtly—Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and on back to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Most immediately I hear Frost in this poem. I hear his rhythms, and I hear a kind of attitude toward the material that I recognize is like Frost’s—a quiet attention that has in it a very subtle irony. You can hear the attention to exact language. You know that each word has been chosen from among many considered choices, both for sound and for sense. You know that each line’s been worked and chisled and wrung until it does a great deal of work, by itself. And that the whole is the product of a life-lon g commitment to getting it right. I’ll quote Ruark here, from an interview with him called, “A Day In the Life.” He says, “If a poet has finished a new poem and somebody asks him how long it took, he can legitimately (if facilely) recall his age and give that number of years as an answer. Every durable poem must have the whole weight of a poet’s years behind it. I’ll end by reading another poem of his I like a lot that appeared a number of years ago in the journal Plowshares.

To Janey, Address Unknown

Wherever you are, the coast is tumbled stone, And there in the clearing is a white-tailed deer. Listening a moment to these words alone, Perhaps you will believe the silence here. This morning as I stand still on the lawn An owl halloos somewhere beyond the meadow, Beyond the boundary, and then is gone. The swan unfurls above his brilliant shadow. Here where he wavers in the sun’s return To inland water, we might just gather Our thoughts toward a word or two, or take turns Saying simply nothing of the weather. Meanwhile, if you listen from your far wherever, Silence where I am will include a deer.

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry