Dogs here live in the streets, the filthier the happier.
They neither obey nor have behavioral issues, unlike ours.
I received a Quechuan blessing in a Colonial church
and felt the hooves of Spanish horses trampling my home.
Followed by police, a gypsy woman stormed
the Plaza de Armas, stabbing the city trees with a shiv.
In Arequipa, a 500 year old frozen girl, clubbed
in the skull and offered to the gods on Mount Ampato.
Eduardo handed me a machete though I was only
joking. He taught me to make it zing through bamboo.
Deep in Peruvian jungles they grow wealthy on cocaine
and peddle the sacred coca leaf to sick tourists.
Looking back at Lima I flipped over my handlebars
and bit the sand of the Pacific. Pachamama.
by Ryan Dowling
Passing Through Ghost Ranch
The clouds today are worth watching. The gods are up
to something. A bird entered the white and never came back.
The desert, it’s almost like when the earth dried up
it cracked like cheap terracotta, and all the water leaked out.
You can walk all day without water because the sky said so.
Cicadas make the sound of the sun on your lips.
Earlier I was mesmerized by Cerro Pedernal, blue mesa
in a rusty dawn. O’Keeffe herself added the gold.
Always checking my watch as if time had somehow magically
leapt ahead, because out here it actually does.
The West took us for a walk: come to be cowboys,
we’re nothing but cattle who’ve left the herd in order to die.
I’m so hungry I could eat a ghost. A branch bends
beneath a fat bird—a quarter pound of meat that flies away.
by Ryan Dowling
Flesh to Stone
Says K. in The Trial, “Like a dog!” and the stone
feels cool against his cheek until his blood spills over it.
Let us be clear: the average stone is a many-veined
cranium with as much blood and occasionally eye-pits.
Summer of 1996 I sunk a skipping stone in the Mississippi;
it’s still there, leaning into the current, a clean cut.
Soapstone in the bed of a brokedown 1983 Ford Ranger:
stone a million years old and—look—still going!
I have come to accept that I envy the centers of worlds,
that, dense as stone, I spin endlessly upon myself.
And here I sit, head spinning like a bar stool, stone
drunk at the peak of pity. Each tear a pebble at my feet.
by Ryan Dowling
I like the silence until it begins to turn everything so loud.
Silence in which a crumb explodes between an ant’s mandibles.
I like it like the captain of a ship drinking brandy in the tophouse
on the last night of a long trip, sleepy in the sea chop.
Often it is even better to eavesdrop on prostitutes at truck stops
than it is to be quiet. And for the price of a cup of coffee…
I think of the hermit philosophers, the ascetics of the deep woods,
all those words in their heads and nothing to say to anyone.
I catch a fly, muffle it between the vase to a dead bouquet
and a book by Nietzsche. Then I open all the windows and sing.
by Ryan Dowling
One of the most common mistakes I see among new writers is their tendency to believe that the speaker, or the “I”, being used in a poem or story refers to the author. With the exception of memoir and other autobiographical—sometimes called “confessional”—writing, this is almost never the case. Skilled writers understand that the use of “I” is only a tool, a narrative technique, to help them convey meaning. And although a skilled writer may draw from personal experience, and even add their own personality traits to a first-person narrator, we must never confuse the author with the speaker.
This misconception can lead to another mistake whenever new writers use “I” in a poem or story and assume that they must, in effect, talk about themselves. Although this practice can be therapeutic in a personal diary or journal, and even result in effective writing in the hands of a skilled memoirist, it should be avoided most of the time, especially for new writers. The reason for this is because most readers, to put it bluntly, do not particularly care about you—your sufferings, your dreams, your cuddly cats, etc.—and why should they?—they only care about how well you can express yourself in writing. Ironically enough, the more you can detach from your own ego and focus on better writing, the more people will take interest in you!
Take the following poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye in which she imagines herself as a dead person who consoles her loved ones by assuring them that she lives on in nature. The use of the first-person narrative technique is powerful here because it lends a voice to the dead person, reminding the reader that she is, in fact, not dead; it creates intimacy and authority by addressing the reader directly from the source; and it allows for all kinds of free play with personification as she identifies with specific aspects of nature.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004)
Many thanks to The Rockford Review for publishing my poems “Elegy for Ian” and “Lyndon Station.”
Elegy for Ian
At your memorial
I am reminded of religion
by the stiffened rows
of pews, bowls
of holy water, Saints
in stained glass.
It never worked for me
and it won’t now.
I see their wooden Jesus
on a wooden cross
hanging over an altar:
cheap red paint
on his head, his ribs,
his hands and feet–
fake, all fake.
But you, my friend,
here you are a jar of ash.
You, who shook my hand
in the flesh, now dust.
Let the gods
die on crosses
with their resurrections
It is you
who is not
by Ryan Dowling
The frost splintered your windshield like a snowflake
that wanted in. We pitched a tent beside the firepit
and bent the stakes on frozen ground. There was enough dead
cedar to build a barn, enough matches for two packs
of cigarettes, but we only succeeded in blowing the ashes
of our incompetence into snow. The three of us–you, myself
and the Cold–entered the tent and butted heads.
The bottle of Jager went quick. I whittled a dead stick
sharper than my knife; you wrote a poem and read it,
a polemic against my face: fat-lipped, lazy-eyed, my hair
a nest of straw and wire wrapped up in a skullcap.
You wanted inflammation, so I picked your brain
for details. That’s the stuff. The Cold waited for us to sleep,
to creep into our sleeping bags. By dawn, even the heat
we’d hidden under our armpits and testicles had been stolen.
We drove home without saying a word to each other,
no longer friends but almost brothers.
by Ryan Dowling
The Bone Welder
I’ve gone to the bone welder
and had him weld a tail to the butt of my spine.
That way I don’t have to smile anymore.
That way I don’t have to lie, “I’m doing fine”
when others lie, “How are you?”
That way I don’t have to look so surprised
I might as well be stupid
when someone tells me the good news.
And when I accept some award,
or marry, or toast on New Year’s Eve,
I don’t have to give some ridiculous speech,
I don’t even have to hear myself talk.
All I have to do is wag my tail.
A simple way of saying it: “I’m happy.”
But happiness can never be that easy,
not for us. That’s why we’re all so miserable,
even as we blabber on about “happiness.”
That’s why all our animals are laughing at us,
laughing and wagging their tails,
while we just sit here baring our teeth.
Next month, I’m thinking of going back
and getting tusks, or maybe a horn.
– Ryan Dowling