Erat Hora is Latin for “That was the hour.” This poem is not only an adoration of the fleeting muse (Pound embraced unrequited love so long as it inspired his poetry), but also an ode to a moment that is so pure and permanent that it transcends the linear structure of time, encompassing eternity. Its delicate imagery, eloquent simplicity and pointed brevity make it one of my favorites.
“Thank you, whatever comes.” And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.
by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
He carried her a rose on a bicycle, through a snowstorm,
across a bay of splintering ice. She kindly let him down.
So much floods between two lovers you can wring them together
like two oil rags and ten thousand birds will spill their guts.
One by one the people made of onyx snuffed their torches. Looked.
The sharp, invasive shape of the moon: a hook in the lip of the dark.
We are here for such a short moment—so sweet, so easily
forgotten—laugh, weep, make love on a lily pad in a pond of honey.
There was screaming, and a big smack like a god had slipped
on the golden sky-lit floor; and in the cave of her mouth a small fire.
He came back to collect his things: axe, gaff hook, half
the coal and two wolf pelts. Loaded the canoe and left the baby.
by Ryan Dowling
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
In my last post I revisited Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. In the following poem you can see where I’ve borrowed Masters’ use of interlocking autobiographical poems. However, my poem zeroes in on a single family rather than a whole community; not all of my speakers are speaking from death; and I’ve also added to Masters’ formula some contemporary social issues.
The Morowitz Brothers: A Patriarchy Tale
Bill Morowitz Jr.
It’s hard to be a homosexual
when all 6 of your brothers are straight
and tough as nails.
Instead of coming out,
I played along:
I cried “faggot” and “sissy”
at any man who showed a feminine side.
I assumed misogynistic attitudes
so no one thought twice
about my celibacy.
I even tattooed a stripper
on my right bicep.
I outdrank the best of them
and started brawls
over a look in the eye.
I let my beard grow wild,
wore raggedy jeans,
flannel shirts and boots,
and found work in the lumberyards.
When my brother Derek found me on my knees
with another man behind the sawmill
I knew he’d out me,
so I shot myself
just to shut him up.
We still don’t know why
my brother Billy, the toughest of us all,
took his own life,
but it shook the family up,
who left his job at the lumberyard
to become a full-time drunk.
As for me, I saw that life was too short
to live in fear of who you are
and I came out to my brothers as gay.
Who knows what got into him,
but it was the first time
I’d ever seen Derek weep.
Bill Morowitz Sr.
I’ve broken my back
for 39 years as the lumberyard foreman,
the same as my father before me.
I raised my boys to be men,
hardworking, strong, fearless
not the pansies they’ve become:
Reggie, a treehugger
who takes photos of flowers;
Jack, who moved to the city
to wear a business suit
and marry a feminist;
Derek, a weeping drunk;
Butch, a nurse in a hospital
where the women are the doctors;
Max, flown South
with his boyfriend,
hating my guts;
and Bill, my Billy,
backbone of all your brothers,
– Ryan Dowling