The Bone Welder

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

Revisiting Spoon River Anthology

Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) is a collection of poems, each written from the perspective of a dead inhabitant of the fictitious town Spoon River (based on Lewistown, IL). The inhabitants reflect on their lives, the bitter twists of fate and fortune, the ironies, the regrets, even the nature of the tombstones and burial plots beneath which they now rest.

Part of the appeal is that the dead, who took their darkest secrets to the grave, now speak with complete candor, treating the reader as a post-mortem confidant. By turns, they confess to crimes gone unpunished, reminisce over unrequited loves, and caution the reader against the wrong turns they took in life.

Although no speaker is reliable, many of them share the gems of wisdom they wish they’d known in life, and they often ring true:

George Gray

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Depending on the character of the inhabitant, Masters’ style shifts between the poetic and the plainspoken. Artists and thinkers, for instance, tend to reflect on their lives in metaphor and heightened language, whereas the laymen may only give straightforward accounts of the fatal mistakes that snuffed out their lives.

One of my favorite things about this collection is the way it functions as a collection. Many of the poems are interwoven, giving a complex portrait of the social fabric of Spoon River as a whole. A wife and husband give conflicting accounts of their failed marriage. Murderer, victim and judge all view the same incident in a different light. Unresolved accusations and misunderstandings between the inhabitants hover over their graves, and it is the reader who is left with the puzzle pieces.

Here, two suicides fail to see that their downfalls were brought about by the same reason: they compared themselves too closely to their own children.

Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win—and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill”—
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

Jonas Keene

Why did Albert Schirding kill himself
Trying to be County Superintendent of Schools,
Blest as he was with the means of life
And wonderful children, bringing him honor
Ere he was sixty?
If even one of my boys could have run a news-stand,
Or one of my girls could have married a decent man,
I should have not walked in the rain
And jumped into bed with clothes all wet,
Refusing medical aid.

I think Masters’ poetry is well-crafted and worthy of study by the practicing poet, but the real reason I enjoy this book is simply because it’s entertaining and a pleasure to read. And isn’t that what poetry ought to be?

The Father-Son Continuum

The Father-Son Continuum

In all that is the father
there is the longing for death in the birth of the son:
a dying man on a frightened horse.

My father on his manstalk
burned like a scarecrow just before the snow falls
when the snow falls in only one field.

When it proved useless, he put his mind for sale.
Though the moon paid in amnesia,
he traded it to the lower dark for a way out.

He built a stairwell with his bare feet,
and with his nailed-together hands he built a clock
the way nothing is built to last.

At the oak tree where he buried his father’s ashes,
his prayer with a rake in his hands
was the pile of dead leaves at his feet.

In all that is the son
there is the longing for life in the death of the father:
a frightened man on a dying horse.

— Ryan Dowling

The World Removed From Its Axis

The World Removed From Its Axis

Here is a boy whose mother loves him
stepping into a man’s world,
dragging his feet.

Here, October insects flock to windows
between two worlds, death
on either side.

Let’s get out and explore the world, we say,
as if there were trails to the stars,
bridges between them—

and yet go on living in our own worlds,
wherever we reign omniscient
in what little we know.

by Ryan Dowling

(Note: “man’s world” may seem to suggest a world dominated by men, but what I mean is adulthood. “Adult’s world” sounds awkward, and also makes me think of those sex toy superstores along the expressway… It’s unfortunate that the word that fits best has this connotation but, leaving this little explanation, I’m going to let it be.)

 

 

 

 

Love Sonnet X

Love Sonnet X
after Pablo Neruda

And there was one woman who stole into me singing,
who manipulated hearts into zips of lightning
that zigged all over the village and dizzied our people,
leaving cigarette ash and car accidents

in her wake, spitting pearls at the poor, waging
war in one hand and love in the other, many-sided
but pure—a force tailored to my weakness,
a force I could not resist because it resisted me.

No temple bell raised the sun upon her printed face,
and by evening the sky had turned its page.
I called her Muse, and the metal of her laughter

returned to the bells. I called her Joan of Arc
and broke her armor. I called her by her name, Love,
because she was only a woman, like you.

by Ryan Dowling

Love Sonnet IX

Love Sonnet IX
after Pablo Neruda

Love, I am such a central flame, loving solitude
and the way she drives me with her big eyes,
and the violin she burns at the bottom of my well
that fills the stones with your sound of horses.

I thought that together we could be this solitary pain,
one loneliness: a sort of flower on the moon,
drilling its white into our childhood’s windows,
into our entire planet of two people.

But I know you better: seeking love in loud circles
of liars, piling your hair on the slow genitals
of earth, afraid because I have placed this one star

in the palm of your universe: even so, I forgive you.
You could not know what it is to be so alone.
You could not know what it is to be so in love.

by Ryan Dowling

Love Sonnet VIII

Love Sonnet VIII
after Pablo Neruda

Nirvana rose through the roots of my legs
and I raised my arms like Heaven’s branches
to offer all gods the fruit of my contempt,
for how could I bear eternity without you, love?

Forsaken, I dove back into that mortal sea
on which I’d left you burning, my Gloria of fire;
for Heaven fizzled like that first cry of sulfur
and Nirvana was but a laughing mouthful of ash.

And I’d follow no religion save the tongued valley
between the mice-bitten hills of your breasts,
and I’d map all the rivers of my life by your veins

until I discovered your shawled heart’s robin,
and I’d rip you from the fetch of the dark,
and we’d fly—two flames—into a single world.

by Ryan Dowling