Thursday, April 16, 2015

Their Songs Never Cease: Gibbons Ruark's "Hybrid Magnolias in Late April"

Gibbons Ruark

                         HYBRID MAGNOLIAS IN LATE APRIL

                         You bent to whisper to a small granddaughter,
                         Exposing the bald priestly back of your head,

                         Lifting her then and handing her to me:
                            See you in April.

                         Never the same, these northern magnolias,
                         As the great starred candelabra ghosting,

                         Even before I left them, the deep-shaded
                            Lawns of my boyhood.

                        And yet these too break wholly into blossom,
                        What somebody called the early petal-fall:

                        I walk out one day and the limbs are bare;
                           Then they are burdened


                        With the flared tulip shapes of opening blooms.

                        Two rainy indoor days in a row, then out,

                        The sun is out, and a fallen constellation
                           Litters the grasses.

                        What would you be up to this April morning?
                        Muttering to yourself, looking high and low

                        For the good stick fashioned out of laurel?    
                           I have it with me.

                        Patience.  Lean back and light another Lucky.
                        Whatever will kill you dozes in your rib cage.
                        Read a few more pages in the Little
                           Flowers of St. Francis,

                        Then throw a window open on the fragrance

                        Of even this, the northernmost magnolia.
                        By now the child you lifted in your arms has
                           Slipped from their circle

                        To cherish and polish your crooked old stick

                        Into a poem of her own so tender and deft

                        I can hold its wrong end and reach you the worn
                           Thumb of its handle.

Perhaps X. J. Kennedy put it best: Gibbons Ruark is a yea-sayer.

The son of a trailblazing Methodist minister, the North Carolina native is the author of eight volumes of poetry.  Deemed by Elizabeth Spires “the most accomplished formalist of his generation,” Ruark regards himself primarily as a love poet and elegist. His poems, widely anthologized and acclaimed for their attention to structure and music, eschew the esoteric and focus most often on what is close at hand and to heart: family, his beloved Ireland, the beauty of the natural world, and music itself, especially jazz.  

In verses often praised for their polish, grace, and authenticity, Ruark celebrates the milestone and the day-to-day.  Mementos – a bunch of cornflowers; a small glass swan -- become cherished gifts illuminating the bonds that tie across oceans and generations. A vacant lot brings to mind dark, feverish memories, as well as images of hope and reassurance.  Violent deaths in an Enniskillen bombing are cast against the fabric of the cosmos, the constellations in the vast night sky.

Yet uplifting every poignant line is subtle praise for life itself, and a gratitude for human connection. It is a sensibility perhaps instilled in the poet through all those Sunday morning hymns and his father’s affirming ministry.  

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked Ruark to share his thoughts on “Hybrid Magnolias in Late April,” a poem from his 1999 collection, PASSING THROUGH CUSTOMS.  As it turns out, his daughter Jennifer Ruark’s poem “Walking Sticks,” a gift for her father, provided inspiration.  We thank both for permission to reprint here.  Jennifer, with degrees in English from Swarthmore and the University of Michigan, is a managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  She lives with her family near Washington, D.C.

Gibbons Ruark has been publishing poetry for 50 years. His work has appeared in many publications, notably The New Yorker, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and The New Republic; and has earned him prestigious awards, including three Poetry Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize.  A frequent traveler to Ireland, he counted Benedict Kiely and Seamus Heaney among his close friends, as well as the acclaimed American poet, James Wright. Ruark, Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife Kay.

Tell me about your beginnings as a poet, the writers you read and admired, whose work most influenced yours.

My beginnings as a poet are hard to remember. Randall Jarrell once said that writing a poem is a way of making yourself forget how you wrote it. That said, my earliest influences are probably the Methodist hymns we sang in church and the passages from the King James Bible that were inevitably a part of the church services I regularly attended as a child. In college I became infatuated by highly lyrical poetry, especially the likes of Dylan Thomas, and I suspect he was among my strongest earlier influences.

As I grew older, I began to be suspicious of or impatient with those beautiful but limited lyrics, because they seemed to distance themselves from our ordinary speech, and I grew to prefer the more conversational cadences of poets like Robert Frost and Philip Larkin. This shift is actually documented in verse in my poem called "Larkin," an elegy for the poet written not long after his death. Yeats also has been extremely important to me, but he seems more like a monument than an influence. It is easy to love Yeats's poetry, but like Shakespeare he seems to exist at a level too high to imitate or be of practical aid as an influence.

A poet with whom I feel more kinship, as it were, is Edward Thomas, killed at 39 in World War I. He was, of course, encouraged to write poetry by Frost when the two lived near each other in England before the war, so there is a linkage there important to me. The two poems I have written for him show more about his value to me than anything I say here could.

Tell me more about your father’s influence.

My father's influence is in part inseparable from those hymns and scriptural passages mentioned in my earlier reply. But he always insisted on this: my conduct was not to be judged because I was a Methodist minister's son, but because I was his son. That, I need not say, was inconsistent with his congregation's expectations. His intelligence, kindness, quiet carriage and moral courage have always seemed exemplary to me, though I have not always successfully followed his example. He was ahead of his time in many ways, particularly in the area of civil rights. In 1947, during the first Freedom Rides in the South, he invited the black activist Bayard Rustin to speak at the Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, for which many in his congregation never forgave him. It was this act among many others that made his next move effectively a demotion. And he imbued me with a love of language that has never left me.

Let’s turn to “Hybrid Magnolias in Late April.” How did this poem come into being?

To go back about as far as I reasonably can, in the early 1960's, when I was in school at Chapel Hill and my parents moved from Laurinburg to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, my father suffered a serious but relatively mild heart attack. I wasn't at home so did not get full details, but suffice it to say that pretty soon he was on his feet again and improving. He was supposed to take walks but not to run, and that proved difficult because there were some fairly unruly dogs in the neighborhood, and it was thought that he needed a stick to ward them off. A friend brought an ideal stick, really a longish mountain laurel root, I think, down from the Carolina mountains, and gave it to him. It had a beautiful natural handle shape on one end, and my father sanded and sanded it with finer and finer sandpaper until it was smooth as glass and quite beautiful and he added to that by putting a clear varnish of some kind on it. I loved that stick and at some point (I can't recall when) I told my mother it was the only thing I cared about inheriting. I got other things as well, of course, but when my father died after "successful" heart surgery in February 1970, the stick came to me.

I often walked with it over the years, and eventually, about the time I started going to Ireland in the late 1970's, I started deliberately looking in curio and antique shops etc. for other sticks to go along with it. I got sticks from Ireland, New Orleans, the Finger Lakes and other places, and then people started making me gifts of sticks, so that by the time our daughter Jennifer was in her Junior year at Swarthmore, I had quite a nice collection, gathered rather like a bouquet in a brass umbrella receptacle of sorts I kept by the door. (That eventually wore out and was replaced by a nice tall basket.)

Thus the advent of Jenny's poem, which she wrote for me in the spring of 1986. I loved it of course, and have her inscribed typescript framed and on the wall in the study here. It stayed with me for a long time without my doing anything but taking pleasure in it, and then, a notebook tells me, in late April of 1993, the mystical seven years later, there appear the first inklings (I love that word in this context) that I can find that I was on my way to writing a poem of my own about my father's stick, but with Jennifer's gift much on my mind, as the Irish say.

By that time one of my cherished sticks was one made of cherry and sent to me by Jenny from Hiroshima. (I might interject here that I saw my father last around Valentine's Day of 1970 and that he lifted the 4-year-old Jenny up in his arms and said to me "See you in April, boy." He was dead ten days later, and you will see that those words got into my poem's first stanza some twenty-three years later.) I see, looking at my notebook, that I did most of the work on the poem in two days, April 24th and 25th, then tinkered with it off and on and sent it to The New Yorker on the 28th. It must have been summarily rejected there, since I was able to send it to Mary Jo Salter at The New Republic as early as May 11th.

Fairly early I decided to cast it in the form of Sapphics, and equally early I knew the last word would probably be "handle." Since the Sapphic stanza is quantitative verse and English measures are traditionally qualitative, Sapphics have normally been thought impossible in English, but one can try an approximation anyway, as I have done in several other poems.  I think that one reason my poem is in any traditional form is that it is in fact about tradition, handing feelings and standards down over the generations. I know I never thought about this at the time, but the reason it is in Sapphics in particular may have to do with its kinship to "Lecturing My Daughters," also a poem about my father and, in that case, both of my daughters.

Salter returned the poem to me on June 3rd, expressing the hope that I could work out what she saw as the awkwardness of the last few lines. I did so to my satisfaction, returned it on June 8th, and it was ultimately accepted and published in The New Republic for October 4th. The final acceptance letter and any proofs I received I cannot currently find.

Jennifer Ruark

                         WALKING STICKS

There is a comfort in walking,
the easy rhythm of one foot
falling solidly to earth
and one foot surely following.
And with your newest walking
stick, a third beat, tapped out
by the shiny tip on the end
of a slender Irish blackthorn.

You left by the back door, pulling
it from the bright brass can,
shifting it in your hand
as you set out, to find
the proper place it held.

Your first one is still your favorite:
your father found
the root of a mountain laurel
with a natural grip,
worked it smooth
and polished it.

Now in the backs of dusty shops
you discover birch, maple and walnut,
some cool and clean as marble,
bits of light wood fit with dark,
others with the nub-ends of smaller
branches still attached,
and even one with a solemn-headed owl,
ivory carved to make a handle.

Now one by one you gather
them, but none like the first from your father;
walking with it you remember
one hand fitting into another.

Even as a young woman, your daughter realized the importance of those walking sticks, especially of that one you'd inherited from your father. Tell me more.

Jenny turned 5 the April after my father died in February, so although she knew and loved him, she did not have that much time to get to know him. So her strong feelings and high regard for him are significantly inherited from me in the way that the walking stick was inherited from him. The movement of the whole experience is interesting, I think. It starts out with my inheriting that single stick, then the other sticks gather around it and prompt Jenny to write her poem, and then in my poem I return to the single stick. I say "stick" here rather than "cane" since the latter calls up for me something more formal and not necessarily hand-made. Though several of the sticks I have might not be "one-of-a-kind," a number are and were just cut out of a hedge or off a tree somewhere and then finished to varying degrees. For instance, the one Jenny mentions with the "nub-ends of smaller branches still attached" is an old blackthorn worn by much use which I found in a curio shop in Dublin which no longer exists.

Walking sticks are much in use in Ireland, or at least used to be, and my great old friend Ben Kiely carried one routinely long before he needed it for support. Walking sticks are company on solitary walks. In 1983 when I was with Seamus Heaney in Dublin, I showed him the blackthorn I mentioned and he went upstairs and brought down a stick that had belonged to Charles Stuart Parnell and which had been given him by Conor Cruise O'Brien with papers about its provenance and instructions to pass it on to another deserving Irish writer when he thought it appropriate. More than just a few years ago he handed it on in a public ceremony to the poet Nuala Ní  Dhomhnaill, who was the first woman to receive it. So there's an Irish element in all this as well. Heaney has several poems involving his father's walking sticks, which were likely used by him partly to move cattle as he was a cattle dealer as well as a farmer.  A little 3-line poem about facing the ice in Cambridge when he was teaching at Harvard indicates that he inherited at least one of his father’s sticks.

Regarding the element of support that sticks or canes provide, I can't help thinking that it matters that my mother graduated over a long time from a wheel chair to a walking stick in her eventual recovery from paralysis owing to polio. The image of offering someone in physical trouble help by reaching out with a stick must also be involved. I think offering someone the handle rather than the other "wrong" end might be my invention. I don't know.

Ruark's most recent collection
Why does poetry matter?

I've just spent an afternoon with my friends who play Irish music, so my first impulse is to say that every poet is a failed musician. Walter Pater said: "All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music." At a certain level I think that is true. When one writes a poem he is trying to make a piece of verbal music.

But at another level poetry wants to be not equal to but somehow better than music. Since, along with physical touching, we want words to convey our deepest feelings, in one sense one wants a poem to tell something that matters in the most musical way possible. So form has always mattered deeply to me. It is a way of turning words into music.

The other feature of poetry that matters most to me is perhaps best conveyed by the title of the old hymn which gave its name to one of my books, Rescue the Perishing. What poetry does is to save what would be otherwise lost.

This interview appears in the April 2015 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site: