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.