Tuesday, June 28, 2011

This review of Roads of Bread: The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles (Petaluma, CA, 2009) first appeared in the newsletter of the Marin Poetry Center, June 2011.

Eugene Ruggles: Poet of Hands

“Here is to the five horses grazing at the end of your wrist.”

––Eugene Ruggles

By Zara Raab

Eugene Ruggles had an intensely expressive gift for opening his mind to vivid imagery and apt metaphor. It’s a powerful, hazardous gift, a rapture that could be deadly and certainly led in his case to misjudgments and occasional ruin. It was as if he made and lost himself in a single gesture, like a waterfall. It is no accident that water(s) occurs twenty times in The Lifeguard in the Snow, fifty-eight times if we include cognates like river, sea, and rain. The place that holds the water even as it falls is a pair of cupped hands, making Ruggles the Poet of Hands. Though he is often described as a poet of the heart, but in a closer look, he becomes the Poet of Hands, in a contest with hearts, Ruggles’ hands (mentioned thirty-three times) win hands down. Even in poems that do not explicitly mention hands, their gestures are integral to the poem, as in “A Simple One,” in which the poet imagines lying in his coffin beneath the ground “looking up at a wooden sky/with the rest of the immigrants/my friends the roots//waving—“ [32].

Ruggles finds and expresses his meanings in the simplest physical gestures, often though not always involving hands. The gestures of kneeling, folding, covering, guarding, protecting, occur again and again in Ruggles’ poems. In “Beginning Again as Morning,” we are instructed:

Kneel down with the insects

where the sea has been folding

a scarf for you,

open her leaves of water. [44]

Ruggles’ presence in his own body, and his awareness of it is palpable in almost every one of the thirty poems in the remarkable Part I of The Lifeguard in the Snow.

Stretching as far as I can

As though to hear through my forehead

Like a snake come down to drink

My mouth pressed against the weeds

[5, A Poem of Weeds]

This presence extends to the elements in physical contact with him, the weather, the land, the quality of light, the time of day, seasonal affects:

She has placed the wind about me

like a shirt without a seam,

and told me that the words

like men, should have weather in them.

[14, The White Goddess]

As with powerful actors like Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, or Anthony Hopkins, it doesn’t matter so much what is said. Alec Guinness is eloquent by his very presence. A person can speak with his entire physical body and mind. So Ruggles writes in the title poem of The Lifeguard in the Snow:

Watching those young children all last summer

Has folded this black sunburn through my chest—

A small girl water carved out of my arms forever. [6]

It is the way we speak to ourselves, in incomplete sentences, unmindful of grammar, when we feel something deeply.

Ruggles’ descriptions of the body are fresh, original. An old man’s arms are “thin as oars/buried in the sliding daylight” [23]. A man’s “dark face” is “packed with scars” [24]. The lover embraces the beloved, his “arms like the rain about [her]” [27]. Ruggles’ understanding of the world is derives from his physical body, his very words brushing “against/the ancient drawings on the walls/of the mouth [28]. In “Love I Have Kept You Poor,” the lover withdraws “this last breath/from the bank of your thigh” [31]. Ruggles’ bodies are part of a seamless fabric of living things. A logging foreman sleeps alone in the woods where, “after a few hours of sleep/there are small movements in the dark/hollow where he has lain,/as when you roll back an old log/in the fields” [25].

Of the twenty-nine poems in Part I of The Lifeguard, all but the final poem have at least a few, often several, of the cognates for weather––water, rain, snow, wind, light (or sunlight), and various cognates for the physical body––body (bodies), hand, thigh, arms, bones, earth. In The Lifeguard as a whole, body and its cognates—bones, heart, eyes, fingers, shoulders, stomach, ankle, waist, skin, thighs, chest, face, arms, hair, blood, and especially hands, occur an astounding 263 times.

John Updike, a far luckier man than working-class, last-of-a- gaggle-of-kids Ruggles, once famously described a television in one of his novels as a “warm fire.” For Ruggles, in “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward,” the television becomes, more vigorously, a raging stove into which the poet “shovel[s] [his]. . . share of coal” [48]. The external world is not “out there,” it is fully incorporated by the experiencing, perceiving body. Ideas are in things, and specifically in the human body, the poet’s body: “I stand in my casket light and piss/through it” [63, “Deciding to Run for Office”). Describing the coming of night in the alcoholic ward, the poet writes:

Now there’s only the moon.

A full November moon. Nailed

In the corner of a barred window

[no stanza break]

And my hand a yard turning dark.

[48, “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward”]

The poor in prayer are

ecstatic as the fingers of an old baker

of loaves who is brushing

the last flour from his apron.

[64, “From the Coats of the Poor”]

In other poems, Ruggles sometimes stumbles, losing control of his image. In “The Poor Man moves through Washington, D.C.––Spring 1968” (one imagines at an anti-Vietnam war rally), the poet’s “vision [is] shaded by the scar tissue/above his heart. And he is bringing/a load of firewood in his arms./These are the different logs of his rage.” In this, and in the Earth Day poems in The Lifeguard in the Snow, written in 1973 and comprising the middle section of Lifeguard, he strains too much for a political statement. “Ending War,” for example, advises

Chain all pregnant women together

to form a circle in every town

and aim rifles at their stomachs.

Do not let the women know

the rifles are empty.

. . . .

Let every stomach hear the clock

from each rifle and then

release your woman [53]

In this poem and some others, Ruggles’ intellect, his ideas, do not harmonize with his own physical, embodiment. But even in the apolitical poem “Back Inside the Crowd,” he writes,

The two legs of the heart are longer

Through men and women than I ever realized. [51].

I am not sure what to make of this. Ruggles seems to lose his sea legs; ashore, he cannot quite make his way. There are remarkable poems in both Spending the Sun and Enough, the two unpublished manuscripts––“The Animal That Waits Beneath Me,” “Love’s Migration,” “The Room,” “Small Morning Prayer,” “The Unemployed Automobile Workers of Detroit,” “Homeless.” But some of the power is gone; the physical vigor of the earlier poems wanes all too often to the kinds of spiritual, political, emotional searching common to much of contemporary poetry since Lowell’s Life Studies half a century ago.

Ruggles can still astound, even as he gropes for subject matter, once he returns to his core themes. “Amputee” is one of the later, unpublished poems we are blessed to have in this new volume. I quote it in full:

I feel strongest alone.

Removed, late at night.

The fire burning down

beneath my ankles,

touching nothing I’ve known

I listen to the dark

healing between us.

When it has finished

covering the last opening,

where the skin belongs,

I empty into sleep,

into many. A crutch, the oar

of a pencil tied in my hand

with rope, growing back

toward all of you. [156]

In “Amputee,” Ruggles returns to the archetypal image at the heart of “The Lifeguard in the Snow,” the collection nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1977 when the poet was thirty-eight years old. In the unforgettable title poem of that collection from which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, the poet narrator returns in winter to the swimming hole where he was the lifeguard on duty when “a small girl [was] carved out of [his] arms forever.” An era of history can leave its signature in the emotional lives of a generation. In the times of Eugene Ruggles, with the Vietnam War still a foul taste in the mouth, and when to be a man was not to be a warrior, but still to guard and protect, the failure to do so could mark a life, a body of work, and perhaps an era, as well.

Zara Raab’s most recent book is The Book of Gretel. Swimming the Eel is due out later this year. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse and Spoon River Poetry Review, with poems scheduled to appear in Evansville Review and River Styx. Her literary reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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