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Inevitable Grace

What's predictable about a David Ray poem? Its heartbreaking power.

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Tucson poet David Ray's 2006 "greatest hits" collection, Music of Time, marked my first encounter with Ray's work, and the book earned a spot on my poetry shelf, where titans of verse--Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson--tend to push lesser volumes of contemporary poetry into a cardboard box, destined for arrival at the used bookstore. Music of Time still sings sweetly, though, causing me every so often to pick it up and find a poem that stirs me, makes me feel alive again by putting me through the literary wringer of grief and love.

Ray's new book, When, is better. Instead of providing an overview of the writer's surprisingly consistent career, When showcases a poet at his peak. On a purely technical level, Ray is formidable, moving from haiku to sestina to lengthy free-verse single stanzas without ever abandoning his conversational, "common-man" style. Whereas many of today's new formalists employ sonnets as a kind of postmodern commentary on race and gender issues, Ray simply chooses a form that suits the subject matter, as he does in the lovely, incandescent couplets of "Brooms," with couplets being a form often identified with romantic Chilean bard Pablo Neruda.

Ray's couplets, however, constitute a heartbreaking elegy to a deceased son, Sam. It's a poem that shatters me every time I read it. In it, the speaker recalls a time Sam asked him what brooms were made of. It's the day of Sam's death, and the speaker rides:

along with a rancher friend in his pickup

and we stop at the general store and gas

station in Rodeo, New Mexico, are about

to pull onto the highway as an ancient

truck roars past with a wake of swirling straw

catching light like ten thousand butterflies.

"Brooms" is that rare poem that somehow eschews sentimentality in order to reach something deeper, darker--a place in the heart where there's no irony, cynicism or blind faith. Here, Ray connects in a way that is both matter-of-fact yet transcendent; he's able to transmute suffering into a work of art that is profoundly tender.

There's an overtly aggressive side to Ray, too, especially with his political verse, which pulls no punches. "The Great Leaders," for instance, is steeped in righteous anger, each stanza cutting like a samurai sword through our dull sensibilities and low expectations when it comes to politicians and the lies they routinely tell us:

Brecht called them

those who take

meat off the table.

Might we add

sons and daughters,

taken from parents,

not leaving out infants

from the breasts

of distant mothers?

We might include

the serenity of all

but those who

believe every lie,

although they too

may inherit only

kingdoms of rubble and ash.

This is the kind of poem that wipes the film from your eyes, causing you to wonder: How did we ever get into this mess? How did we ever come to accept pro-war presidential candidates from two "different" parties? The reason I know Ray is a remarkable poet is because each of his lines makes me think about the world differently, makes me re-evaluate my philosophies in ways other writers can't match. Just, for example, the idea in "The Great Leaders" that, when you take a blunt look at history, it's clear that all our leaders have ever delivered is "rubble and ash"--whether in the form of the larger collapse of the Roman Empire or the specific atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Another cherished poem is the book's final, titular one: "When." It's a list poem of a life in letters, a life fully lived, like that of many brave souls of the '60s, on the precipice of many things: fame, madness, death. Sometimes, the precipice was crossed. Regardless, this poem encapsulates qualities that make Ray's work so resonant, namely his travel-rich imagination (whether he's hugging "wet black-barked trees in Yorkshire" or learning Hindi in India), his ability to call betrayal by its own name (back "when marriages were made out of sand") and his stark grief that, like Hemingway, gives you only so much iceberg to hold onto, leaving you to imagine the vast and crushing body of ice that lies beneath the water's surface.

When is a momentous book. Ray has ruined other collections for me, and for that, I am strangely grateful.

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