Turns out that Ray is the kind of postwar bard who, rather than compose indecipherable verse from the tenured safety of the Ivory Tower, elected to greet the world head-on beginning in 1966. That year, he co-edited with Robert Bly the now-(in)famous anthology A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War. A wanderer, he taught at universities all over the world--India, New Zealand, Australia--established New Letters magazine and somehow found the time to publish 15 well-received books of poetry, earning praise from some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, artists like William Carlos Williams, Studs Terkel and Denise Levertov.
Ray's "best" poems are now gathered in Music of Time, and they stand as an example of the kind of verse that speaks directly to the human heart. I searched through this collection for a weak or artificial sentiment and failed to find one. Music of Time is bulletproof and deserves a place on every poetry lover's bookshelf.
Just flip through the book at random, and you'll encounter a piece like "At the Washing of My Son" (from Ray's 1968 collection Dragging the Main), which captures those terrifying and ecstatic moments that follow the birth of a child: "I ran up and grabbed your arm, the way a man / On a battlefield would recognize a long-lost comrade." The poem only grows stronger and more heartrending with every line:
I stood by the glass and watched you squeal.
Just twice in a man's life there's this
Scrubbing off of blood. And this holy
Rite that Mother Superior in her white starched hat
Was going to deny me. But I stood my ground.
And then went in where for the first time you felt
Your mother's face, and her open blouse.
I'm not ashamed to say I wiped my eyes after reading that one.
But Ray's poetry is not just about his family. His attempts at ekphrasis--or the lyrical evocation of a work of visual art--are superlative. Take for instance the attenuated lines of "Giacometti's Figures" (after Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti):
They are thin already,
down to the bone.
has made us fat
they have drawn
in to the fine
vertebra, the core,
Ray's is always an unusual and informed appraisal of art, particularly in poems like "A Midnight Diner by Edward Hopper" and "On the Photograph 'Yarn Mill' by Lewis W. Hine," which will have you looking up these works via the Internet and nodding your head in agreement.
He also reaches out to the older poets, his mentors and the source of his inspiration. Whether admiring the clean lines of the Japanese haiku poet Basho or taking comfort in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, Ray finds solace in the thoughts and writings of his literary forebears. In the case of the latter writer, Ray provides a kind of requiem:
"No matter who dies today
I must be happy," you wrote
and on the day of your death
that line was a comfort.
But how many losses did it take
to teach you, to teach me
that even such a day must
pass unruffled, with hope
there will be no tremors,
no sign of bloody skies.
Indeed, the theme of hope runs straight through 40 years of Ray's writing. For a man who chronicled a harrowing, horrifying story of child abuse in his 2003 memoir The Endless Search, it's inspiring to read Music of Time and be comforted. Sure, there is darkness here and there--a poem like "The Razor's Edge" will keep you up at night, no doubt--but what is light if it's not contrasted and occasionally obscured?
Music of Time is not only a great place to start enjoying the poems of David Ray; it's also one of the best collections to be published within the last few years. Make a little room for it on your bookshelf, please.