Ode to a River Boulder

Ode to a River Boulder

Humankind say loneliness
but the boulder says solitude.
Boulder, old abider,

moveless and aloof
to the liveliness of the the river you live in,
though its leaves, its archipelagoes

of ice congregate against your gut,
your spine. What’s it to you
if birds make advances on your bald spot,

if the sun never warms your mossy side,
your right cheek in winter? You let the smelt
nibble stonewort below your waistline.

And once, a half-naked woman
pressed her breasts upon you, stroked you
like a fat pear for the photographer.

It’s said her body could sway a man
but she did not sway you. You weighed in
never to envy the love of stones

among stones. When you are gone
you shall go alone, a grave of sand a mile long
beneath the river murmuring,

a fine sediment between a child’s toes,
a final cloud of silt
as the crayfish flash away.

— Ryan Dowling
first published in The Rockford Review

James Galvin: Ideas at Play

Expecting Company

Death is when the outside world
Wants to get away from itself
By going inside of someone.

Till the walls cave in.
Till the roof is gone.

I’m floating face up
On a sea of adrenaline.
A broken window hangs around my neck.

I have to make more room in here.
I have to get rid of the furniture.

by James Galvin (b. 1951)

A Brief Analysis of Space and Death

In the first stanza we have two extremes of space squared off against each other: the macrocosm of the “outside world” vs. the microcosm of “someone,” a single person. Although it makes more sense to think of a person going into the outside world, this precept says that death happens when the outside world actually “goes inside” of a person.

Now that Galvin has set us up with this inversion, he proceeds to remove the barriers (“the walls” and “the roof”) that separate a confined space from the outside world. His careful word choice suggests not only the figurative decomposition of the person in question, but also the literal dilapidation of their living space once they no longer live there.

Side note: Much of James Galvins’ work revolves around his ranch in Tie Siding, Wyoming. When Galvin writes of someone’s living space after death, he’s probably not thinking of a city apartment that’s simply rented out again a week later; he’s thinking of a cabin in the countryside that’s been gutted out and left to rot.

In the third stanza, in a surreal turn of events, the speaker somehow has a window hanging around his neck and is floating face-up on a “sea of adrenaline.” These images suggest death (or violence in the very least), but it’s not clear that it’s either homicide or suicide. Remember the precept of this poem: “Death is when the outside world… [goes] inside of someone.” Still, it remains ambiguous as to whether the speaker has brought death upon himself or whether Death, in fact, has somehow taken action upon him.

The last two lines really drive the title of the poem home. Now that the speaker is presumably dead or about to die, he is expecting company (Death). Due to his lack of space for the “outside world,” the speaker can only express his anxiety at getting rid of the furniture for this particular guest. Now space is portrayed as the empty space that follows death. Although Death is never actually personified in this poem, his physical presence is certainly felt.

An Investigation of Zhuangzi’s Dream

An Investigation of Zhuangzi’s Dream

You dreamt heavily Saturday,
and woke up Sunday with an old question:
Am I yet the butterfly sleeping on the temple bell,
dreaming he’s a man? The day’s
events threw you off with their suggestions.
A young priest, dozing at the wheel,
rear-ended you at a red light.
He was scared and sorry,
but the police officer on duty was so jolly
the jokes rolled right off his tongue.
A circle of people in the town center
locked arms around a fountain
and then redispersed into the crowd all at once.
A bird sang from a soapbox
and its song got stuck in your throat.
The small invitation to your brother’s funeral
slipped in the wind
and landed on a dandelion.
There was no more honey in all the house.
You wrapped yourself tightly in your sheets like a cocoon.
When sleep lowered its bell over your head
you could hear a ringing
somewhere far away
and somewhere very near.

by Ryan Dowling

The Mechanic

The Mechanic

We’ve learned to think for cars, and think like them;
we know their schematics better than our own anatomy.
Our blood’s been mixed with waste oil, our bones
replaced with bent rods. Our brains are computers
that cannot reboot. The dash lights are on.

Why do we do it, why do we lie down
on these dollies and slide under another Dodge,
another Corvette, another Ferrari we’ll never afford—
link by link, our hands broken in the wreckage,
groping for salvage as if it were salvation.

I think of the millions of miles of accumulation,
all the scum of the earth sucked up on a Sunday drive—
the sludge, the sludge, unstomachable.
Neon and sweet, the ethylene leaks. The blood
of a rodent sputters from the hubcap, and the rubber
hisses from a nail. What began as a spot of rust
ends in cancer. There is a diagnosis, there is a danger—
corrosion in the engine: the cylinders
eaten, the pistons spit out, the brute steel
beaten like an anvil under heat…

And at the end of the day, I just can’t get the filth
out from under my fingernails.

by Ryan Dowling

Bad Apples

Bad Apples


Look, the world is
flat (they just haven’t
proven it yet),

its exact edge a sign
that god is guilty, where god
equals one square inch

of buried evidence in an
apple orchard
abandoned last August.


A bad apple
only wants to fall somewhere
near its roots,

to be dismantled by
ants and carried
away from its core

like a word from its
significance, significance
from its sign.


Whoever thought this funny
and tore down the
stop sign: the cops

are looking for you.
I died last night—dropped
right off the

edge of the world. That sign was
there for a reason.
That apple was there.


by Ryan Dowling

Bachelor Afternoon

Bachelor Afternoon

With his gut spilling over his abdomen,
he stands almost like a hamburger—

almost flat on the kitchen tile,
and as wide as his kitchen island. Eggs,

sunny side up, over a pound of sausage
have their yolks slit on his plate.

His pot-bellied pit bull gobbles
the slop as soon as it smacks the floor.

Finished, he pulls his plain T-shirt
fold by fold over his belly rolls, then smears

the grease across his pimpled lips.
From a pack of smokes, his potato spud

fingers pluck a battled cigarette;
he spits his chew and bites the filter,

lights it and fits sideways out the door.
His feet depress the concrete.

People step aside, as if a tank—
its cannon still smoking from the blast,

its steel momentum like Fate—
were crushing the streets of Auschwitz,

but he’s just fetching his mail
on an otherwise easy afternoon.

by Ryan Dowling

Playing God

Playing God

I myself do not believe in Him, no. And yet, whenever someone opens their mouth to let a beam of light shine out, and projects the God they have in mind against the sky, and grows intoxicated—I admit I get a little envious.

Then a large flock of ducks flies through God’s face—Ducks!—infinitely more variegated than He. Yes, a giant flock of them, just like that—quacking up a Second Coming— fleeing hunter and hound—out of the cattailed fen. Their wings beating over His eyes, their feathers falling out of His hair, they burst His features into a thousand iridescent birds!

And they fly—fly right through the razorwire of the sky.

They burst upon the dining room windows of family reunions. They fall onto suburban front lawns with a ka-put!—and float belly-up in the local reservoir. This one here, the loudest of them all—this one with his head held high—will be reborn through the propeller of a small plane—carrying a donor heart from Miami to Seattle—a boy aged three.

Sometimes, when I’m intoxicated, I too can see God in the sky—placing one bird above another—the cross in the eye of the hunter—the adrenaline after the smoke.

by Ryan Dowling

Whatever The Poem

Whatever The Poem

A badly written poem: I’m sure it will not sell,
but still it must attempt to earn its stay.
It must stand at intersections, under streetlights,
among the stupid and insane.

And a better poem has bigger problems;
for surely one sees how its substance stoned a nun,
—after its form aborted her son
—after it gave her husband its word.

Reader be harsh: Hatred’s a finer art than praise:
It is the horse-spit in the priest’s ear.
It is the prostitute looking over her shoulder
at the poet working kitty-corner.

by Ryan Dowling

Debauchery Blues

Debauchery Blues

Can’t find the phone in my pocket,
and my girl’s mad as hell.
Can’t find the wallet in my back pocket,
and my girl’s mad as hell.
I been up all night with other women
and my girl knows it well.

Smell like the fumes from a cigarette toke,
face all full of scratches.
I smell like perfume and cigarette smoke
and vomit on my jacket.
She asks me am I worth her time
and I ain’t got an answer.

She leavin’ me cold in my lonely bones,
and now I got nobody.
She leavin’ me cold, cold as bones
that been without a body.
I got me my glass and my bottle of rye;
don’t need no drinkin’ buddy.

Here’s a toast to the day I lost my soul,
may it burn forever in hell.
And here’s to the day I gave up the ghost,
may it burn forever in hell.
I’d trade my faith for women and rye
and the devil knows it well.

by Ryan Dowling





It’s never too early to slight a recent dream,
never too late to step one-strided to the heights.
The earth and its catastrophes cannot restrain
a man from slurring silence into Speech.

And razor Light eviscerates the multitude,
and Music spires through the middle ear,
and eloquence is balanced drunk with Dance,
and Memory, that traveled tide, comes back.

by Ryan Dowling