Talbot Spy and Chestertown Spy have reprinted Delmarva Review contributor Caroline Bock’s “The Secret Life of Pool Cleaners” from Volume 11. Caroline’s creative Flash Fiction piece is a real gem. Check it out here.
Regional photographer Jay Fleming’s color image “Sharps Island Light,” the leaning icon of Chesapeake lighthouses, has been selected for the cover of the eleventh annual Delmarva Review, to be published on November 1.
“We’re pleased to select a cover photograph from the substantial work of regional artists,” said Wilson Wyatt, executive editor of the review. “Jay’s striking images tell us stories visually through his unique artistic style. The iron strength of ‘Sharps Island Light,’ rising 35 feet above the Chesapeake, compliments a folio of compelling prose and poetry that will last beyond our lifetimes.”
Fleming, 31, is a professional fine art photographer who learned his craft from two powerful sources, his dogged self-persistence and the tutelage of his photographer father, Kevin Fleming, another highly skilled professional artist and former National Geographic photographer.
With a studio in Annapolis, Jay Fleming’s images have been featured in many magazines and exhibited in fine art galleries throughout the Chesapeake region. His first book of photography, Working the Water, was published in 2016. A second book, Island Life, is scheduled for 2020.
The eleventh edition of Delmarva Review will contain new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from over forty authors in the United States and several other countries. About half of the writers are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region.
Delmarva Review is a nonprofit literary journal published in print and e-book editions. Both are available at Amazon.com and other leading online booksellers. The 260-page collection is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council.
The next submission period for new literary work and cover art opens on November 1. Please see the website for more information at www.delmarvareview.com.
By four o’clock Gypsy set out each day for Loew’s Jersey Palace on Journal Square. Her usherette’s burgundy uniform with the marigold braid, her military cap, gilt shoes, and flashlight stayed in her basement locker. She wore her own clothes to work, shuffling through mounds of slushy snow. Up ahead the marquee flashed: More Stars Than There Are In Heaven. Five Cents.
Above the Square, Jersey City’s famous movie house floated like a great ocean liner laced with chains of light. Usherettes could be seen through the glass doors, gliding moody-eyed in their dancerly gold T-straps. They roved like sleepwalkers across the thick carpets or leaned with folded arms against the radiators and twisted gold pillars.
When patrons arrived, usherettes woke up and came to life. They tore tickets in half and with their slender torches pointed the moviegoers to their seats. Their lives seemed magically easy, and they made twelve dollars a week.
Gypsy had been at Loew’s only a few weeks since she’d run away from her grandmother’s house, a distance of two miles up the Hudson Boulevard. She was fifteen. She needed money and had no trouble getting hired. Even if 1932 felt like the worst year of the Slump, patrons were always glad to pay a buffalo nickel for a movie, and a pretty girl could always get a job at Loew’s.
Right away, Gypsy made a new friend. Thelma was a tall, bony sylph with a sepulchral voice who paraded in her uniform with the dash of a drum majorette. Thelma sewed fine lingerie in her spare time. She was taking a great interest in Gypsy.
Together they caught glimpses of all the movies from the lobby and the back row. They talked throughout, speculating on what would happen. Whether Blonde Venus Marlene Dietrich, with her big hat and straggling cigarette, would give up streetwalking. Whether Jean Harlow, the Saigon tramp in Red Dust, could win Clark Gable away from his socialite girlfriend.
On their breaks, Thelma and Gypsy ran over to the Ming Vase for chop suey and a pot of tea. They liked the atmosphere, the red lanterns and lacquer screens. One evening Thelma bit into an almond cookie and bent her melancholy, horsey face on Gypsy’s. “You don’t look good,” she said in her calamitous drone. “You’re pea green, and your eyes are watery.”
“All the movies we watch,” said Gypsy. “I might need glasses.”
“I don’t mean that. Something’s eating you.”
“Since you mention it,” Gypsy blurted, “I might be—you know.” Her heart pounded with this admission, but what she had to hide couldn’t be hidden forever. Soon she would have to let out the waist of her movie trousers with a safety pin. She prodded a kumquat with her chopstick.
Thelma nodded darkly. “I had an inkling.”
That night after work, the girls didn’t go straight home but eased down in the plush seats along the theater’s back row. They kicked off their golden slippers and toyed with their paper fans from the Ming Vase. Thelma lit up, but Gypsy didn’t want a ciggieboo. The organ that could play thunder, gunfire, and a stringed orchestra had fallen silent. While the colored girls vacuumed the theater, Thelma and Gypsy had things to talk about in low voices.
Thelma propped her long knee bones against the seat in front of her. Without her military cap to hold it down, her hair, the dullish brown of lentil soup, frizzed out as if she were in galvanic shock.
“Who’s the fellow did it?” Thelma asked, seamlessly taking up the topic they had left off in the Ming Vase.
Gypsy bent to massage first one foot, then the other, so she wouldn’t have to look at Thel. “He’s not around.”
“But who is he? You’d know, wouldn’t you? Who it is, I mean?” Thel bored her fateful insinuations into Gypsy’s ear, her warm breath ruffling Gypsy’s blonde curls.
“I do know,” said Gypsy, letting Thel browbeat her.
“I’m not trying to upset you,” Thel said quickly. “We have to find him. He’d come through and do right by you, wouldn’t he? Since he’s the only one it could be. Isn’t he?”
“I said he is. What kind of a person do you think I am!”
Thelma grabbed her hand. “Don’t get sore, Gypsy. I didn’t mean anything like that.”
Gypsy freed her hand to pick up her gold shoes and cradled them in her lap. Her apprehension mounted, seeing how she had become a special charitable cause for friendly Thel. “He doesn’t know. He’s traveling.”
Thel dropped her cigarette butt on the floor and swatted it out with a shoe. “Isn’t that always the way when they knock you up! We have to do something.”
She dug into her big pocketbook and pulled out a cellophane Wonder Bread bag of dried fruit, peanuts, and carrots sticks she brought from home. “Help yourself.” She offered Gypsy the bag with the red-yellow-blue polka dots. Gypsy selected one raisin and set it on her armrest. “It’s not what you might think,” she said. “He’s very nice.”
“Nice or not, it ends up being the same thing.” Thelma munched thoughtfully on a prune. “I can put you in touch with someone to help you get rid of it.”
A willful twinge nipped at Gypsy’s belly. “I don’t know, Thel, I really don’t. It’s a little soon.”
“It’s never soon. You have to act fast.” Thelma gnawed a carrot. “How far gone are you?”
“A couple of months, maybe,” Gypsy said in a faint voice. She knew exactly how long it was.
“Heavens above!” Thelma nibbled nuts from her palm like a pony eating sugar. She dusted her fingers. “I can put you in touch with someone to get rid of it. Let me look around.”
Thelma’s snoopy, good-hearted determination terrified Gypsy. The idea of going under the knife terrified her. She couldn’t say which was worse: dying in a mess of blood—she would surely die—or being chained for life to the small microbe rooted inside her.
“No, please don’t.” She brushed off a stray peanut that had fallen on her lap. “It’s probably nothing.”
“I’ll get on it right away,” said Thelma.
Gypsy felt a fresh battery of palpitations. She squinted up at the immense ceiling where spurious clouds wandered overhead and turned to mist. To Gypsy, the shutting-down of the star machine in the ceiling looked like the end of the world. When the house lights dimmed, the faraway stars winked like the eyes of a hovering cosmic malice. They died, but they would be back tomorrow night.
Most days Gypsy felt as if she’d swallowed a dozen gin fizzes, bourbons, and Scotches, though she never touched a drop, and she didn’t even know how to find a speakeasy. She was always drunk. There was no immediate cure for this hormone hangover without doing something desperate. The thing kept unfurling its fetal fumes throughout her body. She was a dream-walker plastered on baby-dew. She pictured herself as a shimmering cocktail cradling a cherry, giving temporary haven to a hapless olive. So brimful, the next breath of air would spill her.
When she showed the movie patrons to their seats in the three-thousand-seat theater—or was it four thousand—the beams of her flashlight dizzied her. She swayed like a drunkard in the cavelike lobby of Loew’s with its amber blaze of Moroccan lamps, naked statuary, and balconies dripping vines, pan-pipes, and mandolins.
One evening after the last show, she found a November Ladies Home Journal left on one of the velvet seats. Idly paging through it, she alighted upon a story called “Lovely Expectations.” She ran down to the girls’ locker room and sat alone on the scarred bench, reading with fearful fascination. The story warbled about “your precious bundle” and “your blessed gift from heaven.” Dry-eyed, Gypsy scanned the columns and found the damning lines: Some of you ladies may feel you have tippled a cocktail. There is no reason to worry. This is a natural symptom of the wonderful changes you are undergoing.
She ripped the pages from the magazine and tore them to shreds that she flushed in the toilet.
On Wednesday she arrived at work early and stood without removing her coat. In the lounge’s spotty glass, she examined her face, bloodless and moony as an opal left to perish in a cave. Mirrors remained coldly mute these days and gave no flattering messages. She didn’t care how cute she looked in her uniform or how the gold braid matched her hair. All she could think about was the unseen thing that had fastened itself in her body to sip at her, that would not let go, that would not give itself up to bleed.
Thel, gaunt as a pipe cleaner, hurried into the lounge to where Gypsy was standing by the mirror and the gray lockers. She was bursting with news.
“I found somebody for you,” she murmured in her secretive sinkhole voice. “I’ll go with you when you get it done. I’d like to see the place for myself.”
Gypsy panicked at how fast Thelma could move. “I don’t want to put you out, Thel.”
“No, I’d love to. You’ll need fifty dollars in cash.”
“Fifty!” That was more than four times her Loew’s weekly salary. She stood frozen. “I can’t. It’s too much,” she said.
“This is not a time to pinch pennies. Look what you’re getting for it. Value for money. I can loan you some, I have quite a bit set by, and for a case like yours, I am glad to help.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can. Besides,” Thel reasoned, in syllables low and tragic, “it’s illegal, so they have to charge over the top. Some doctors charge a hundred or two.”
Gypsy pulled off her galoshes. In the mirror her face was yellow as old piano keys. She shed her coat, scarf, and cap, which crackled with static from the cold weather. She tossed them in her locker. “I can’t make up my mind.”
“You’re crazy!” Thel softly wailed. “You can’t do this to yourself, throw your whole life away. With that bun in the oven, your life is worthless.” She sat on the bench, took an emery board from her handbag, and filed at a thumbnail. “You can’t go looking to the phonies who advertise in the classifieds. This person is good. She’s not a doctor, she’s better than a doctor.” Thelma scoured her thumb in a fury.
“She’s a quack?” Gypsy got into her uniform piece by piece.
Thelma dropped the nail file in her purse and scrutinized Gypsy’s waistline. “Of course not!”
Gypsy cast another look in the mirror at the mouse’s belly under each eye. “I can let you know, can’t I?”
“You haven’t a minute to lose.”
“We’d better go up to our stations.”
“I did this for you, and all you can talk about is our stations?” Thelma gasped in a hollow tone, as if she’d been deprived of her rights to oxygen.
“But the movie opens in half an hour. Mr. Jago will wonder where we are, and I don’t want to be late.” She felt a wave of nausea at the thought of drawing the manager’s wrath.
Thelma gave Gypsy’s arm a hard squeeze of sisterly affection. “You’d be doing the right thing. I’m taking your problem very personally. Besides, she’s on Gifford Avenue. Near the park.”
“What do you mean, Gifford Avenue?”
“It’s a high-class neighborhood. It means she has an up-and-coming practice. She’s getting results.”
“I really have to think it over, Thel. I can’t decide all at once.”
“Think! Don’t waste time thinking. It’s a little pain and bother now, a few days, then you’re freed up for a life of fun.”
They went upstairs to the lobby. In a fog, Gypsy greeted the five o’clock moviegoers and guided them to their seats. She lit up the aisle with her flashlight for a man in a fur collar with his pregnant wife. She was draped in green brocade, big as a sofa.
With the movie playing, Gypsy stole a little time to sit in the theater’s back row alone. She tried to understand what was going on in the movie’s plot, but she paid fitful attention to Barbara Stanwyck’s entanglements with the bootleggers in Night Nurse.
She could think only about Axel, how they had twined their arms around each other, lying in the damp, late-autumn leaves and grass of Mosquito Park, under the monument of the Great War Soldier. Both of their fathers fighting on different sides of that war, Axel’s severe father an enemy leader, Gypsy’s father lost in battle in a French wood. The bronze Soldier, long dead, stood over the lovers, straddle-legged with his musette bag, ready to lob his grenade. He had all eternity to calculate his aim. Gypsy had little time, and time pressed her hard.
To think now about Axel afflicted her with an ache she thought would kill her. His black eyes, the trail of black hair running like an arrow from his navel downward, an arrow her fingers had traced with delight. If only that bodily ache would drive the blood from her insides, the way it drained the blood from her heart.
By Halloween she had reflected on the sucking pull of the autumnal moon on her body’s tides. Her grandmother’s wisdom was all she had, since both her parents were dead, her mother in the influenza epidemic. Her grandmother liked to say, “Girls are ruled by the moon.” Gypsy closed her eyes to concentrate on this dark dictum, but the blood would not be drawn. She pleaded for the cramping of her body that would mean she was okay. She saw her blood flowing, flowing in welcome rivulets, but the pregnant moon was not on her side. That secret blood she looked for each day remained hidden, and her spotless panties mocked her.
The embittering words of Thelma assailed her. Only a little pain now, and you’re freed up for a life of fun.
A fleeting superstition nagged her, that as long as she held on to Axel’s baby, she and Axel had a connection. The baby was a mightier charm than any, attached inside her by a slender string that tied her to Axel wherever he was, a string, a ball of twine that would draw him back to her. He was a high‑flying kite. If she held tight to her end, the wind might tug at him, but he wouldn’t disappear into an endless sky. She might hold on and be able to reel him in. If she cut the cord and let the baby go, that would be the end. She would surely never see him again.
Gypsy was glad when Thelma stayed home from work the following week with a sore throat. It was a throat so sore, a fever so high, she might be kept out for more than two or three days. So Mr. Jago reported. Gypsy felt relief at not having her friend around to advise and torture her. It was all decided, anyway. She was going along with the wisest thing to do, and she didn’t want to have to talk to Thelma about it anymore. She didn’t want Thelma coming along, either.
Instead of strolling over to the Ming Vase, she took her break walking along Vroom Street. She looked at the shops. She badly wanted to distract herself from the awful thing she planned to do, the fact that it was settled for tomorrow when she would carry out the most hurt she’d ever done to herself, but it had to be. Window shopping seemed a good idea. She might do something nice for herself, give herself a present.
She walked alone through the freezing streets. Her nostrils burned with the cold smell of icicles. Gypsy had her wool cap pulled down, her scarf tightly wrapped, but the bone-aching winter freeze bit into her gloved fingertips. In the gutter where dirty snow lay crusted, starved dogs pawed at rubbish barrels, desperate for food. Gypsy hugged the shop windows for warmth.
Stopping outside a parfumerie, she studied the banked clusters of Lucite bottles and artificial orchids. The poster of a girl kissing herself in the mirror. A caption read So soft, so clinging, so lovable, so French. Gypsy felt so cold she couldn’t unclench her jaw. She might have slipped into the shop just to get warm, but the door was locked and the shop looked empty.
She veered past Bond’s haberdasher, where headless mannequins stood clothed in rich wools, their virile wooden bodies stiff and perfectly formed. She imagined she saw Axel in the doorway, but it was a tall, bearded beggar with scorching eyes who asked for a dime.
She stumbled away, her snow-booted feet leading to a boutique called Baby Bunting. In the windows lacy shawls foamed and spilled from pastel garden baskets foretelling spring. The display left her cold. But that was the trouble. She was so cold she would stay cold forever, and she felt like going inside just to have a look. She loitered without deciding, but only for a moment. At least she could get warmed up, since the shop had nothing to do with her. All had been decided, the matter was settled, her mind made up, the appointment set.
She pushed the door to get her teeth to stop chattering. The overheated store smelled like Dr. Rose’s talcum powder. On a shelf teddy bears lounged, pretending to read books of washable cloth.
A dithery old saleslady waylaid her. She had fluffed white hair. Behind the rimless glasses, her periwinkle eyes shone hard as stones. Lavender flowers scattered her organdy-collared dress. She wore antique rings on every white, wrinkled finger and a cameo of a gold Cupid’s head on her chest.
“May I help you, dear?”
“I was just leaving,” said Gypsy, re-buttoning her coat.
The saleslady’s lenses flashed at Gypsy’s flat middle. “When are you due, dear?” Her sticky smile poured like pancake syrup around a question so blunt it was an accusation.
“I’m not.” She still shivered, although the shop was stuffy. Hurrying to the door, she said, to be polite for having soaked up a little warmth, “I have girlfriends who might be, but it’s too expensive for me.”
“How about these, for one dollar?” The saleswoman dangled a pair of yellow booties. “Remember, nothing in Baby Bunting is machine made.” Her tone was less sugary.
Gypsy smiled and brushed past, bumping into something close to the door that had nothing to do with her needs in this real world. It was a pair of red, soft leather shoes that would fit a kewpie doll. Silver buttons fastened the Mary Jane straps.
She didn’t dare to touch them. She couldn’t pass them by. “Would they walk in these?” She heard herself ask and was feeling afraid.
“Why, they’re more for dress-up and showing off. Not for a walking baby,” said the devious crone. “When your friend wants to dandle her little angel for Grampa. And they’re more for a wee girl. Isn’t it a little soon for these?”
Gypsy, feeling miserable, said nothing.
“They’re pricey. But the booties I could reduce to seventy-five cents. They would be perfect for your friend.”
“I don’t know,” Gypsy said. She doted on those shoes. They made her mouth water. She longed for a treat for herself.
“Well,” said the woman doubtfully. “These are all handcrafted in supple Italian leather. I can let you have them for four dollars.” She gave Gypsy a steely appraisal to see how the deal struck her.
“Could I have them gift-wrapped?” Gypsy pulled out her money before she could change her mind. The doll shoes were nearly half of her week’s salary at Loew’s, but she wanted them. They were all she wanted. “That silver tissue paper over there?”
“I’m sorry, we reserve the silver paper for gifts over ten dollars,” the hag demurred.
“I would like that paper, or I might almost faint,” said Gypsy. “I almost might faint.” She pressed her fingers to her temples. She wasn’t wholly lying. She was the only customer. “I don’t want anything like that to happen in your store.”
The woman’s tone turned biting. “I’ll make an exception in your case. These are so tiny they won’t need much paper.”
Gypsy ran all the way to the theater, the held-back tears now freezing on her reddened cheeks. She hugged the shoes to her chest. In the theater basement, she crammed the paper bag with the box inside into her locker before anyone could spy on her.
By the time she finished work and reached her room late that night, she hated everything in the world. She had fashioned a trap to ensnare her unwary footsteps. She opened the box and parted the crunchy silver paper that matched the silver rosette buttons. She held the baleful shoes, and yes, they made her mouth water. She pressed them to her face and sniffed the red tomato-raspberry fragrance of the cured leather. She forced herself to throw them back in the box. She couldn’t bear them. Not putting on a coat, she ran into the alley beside her boarding house and crushed them down into the metal garbage can. She never wanted to see them. She hated, hated, hated them. Let somebody find them.
That night she had to smother the sickness laid upon her by the lure of red shoes, and her brain burned with a bye-bye-baby song. She had to talk to it, explain things to it in its own language. “I got you started with mother-of-pearl knitting needles, belly-button to belly-button. I purled you a pair of ears, then I crocheted you a nose. Now we’re tied together with wires and nailed with spikes. I’m holding you, baby, I’ve still got hold of you, but baby, baby, I don’t think I can do it much longer. I’m not sure you and I will ever meet.
“You’re sailing by the stars, but there could be shipwrecks. Nine stars? Will two or three be enough, baby? Don’t be greedy, you don’t want that much living. Life isn’t a game, believe me. Being born is too hard, that choo-choo down a long, dark alley into the cold crying light; honestly, you don’t want that. Don’t ask for it; don’t ask for what I can’t give. You’re better off without me, so please don’t blame me.
“Can’t you stay wrapped up forever in your white sea-gown? Go sailing up and down the sky through cloudy caves in your wooden shoe, go fish for fishy stars with Wynken and Blynken and Nod. When the moon washes you clean with brine, you’ll roll over and over for a couple more millennia just waiting for me. I’ll see you out there, I promise you, baby, I’ll catch up with you. You’ll just have a head start on me and none of the grief. So can that be all bad?”
In the morning, Gypsy got up in her chilly basement room. She had already taken off Thursday and Friday from work. She said she had to visit her sick grandmother, agreeing to let Mr. Jago, the manager, dock her pay.
She padded across the room to boil water on the hotplate for tea. She moved, dragging her feet through heavy mud. She sat on the wicker chair with the faded cretonne cover to wait for the water to boil. Her grandmother said a watched pot never boils. It’s like saying a watched-for man never comes back. If only stories could have the endings she’d seen so often on the silver screen. If they’re in the movies, they must happen in life. At the last moment when all is lost, well, here he is at the door, pounding down the door. He’s been looking for her, and finally, after months of fruitless search, he gets her address somehow from an unknown well-wisher. He comes knocking, slamming her door down in a passion in the early chill of a midwinter morning, when frost flowers are diamonding the windows under the ceiling of her basement room. Sweeps her in his arms and carries her to his waiting limousine. He has passage reserved on the Normandie or the Europa, and they sail, the two of them, across the Atlantic.
Gypsy knows what it’s like to stand at the railing of an ocean liner, since she’s seen all the movies. Once on the far shore, they drive at breakneck speed in their private motorcar across the map to the old country estate. There at the altar, the fair-haired daughter-in-law, Gypsy, arrayed in pearl-hued bridal satin with a snowy veil….
Movies were so stupid, most of them. She could not be guided by them. Once she’d thought that being an usherette at Loew’s meant she’d watch the lives of the stars and would know what to do herself.
No, you had to make your own decisions. Gypsy dunked her teabag, and when it cooled, she drank her tea. She felt strong and confident, and she had made up her mind. She dressed carefully to bolster her nerve for the snuff movie she was about to make. She had to dress nicely for her baby’s farewell. Garter belt, stockings, teddy trimmed with real Val lace. She slipped her dress from its wood hanger, not the perfumed, satin, padded kind she once had at her grandmother’s. She buckled on a thin, red leather belt. Her waist was still twenty-two inches. Now it wouldn’t ever have to get any bigger. She had painted her toes deep red, for no blood must stain her feet. She kissed herself good-bye in her mirror.
She bundled on her old coat and scarf and cap and went out into the alley, heading for the Journal Square bus for Gifford Avenue. Passing the garbage cans, she took a last, over-the-shoulder look. Hungry dogs had overturned them, spilling trash, pawing at the foulness of the garbage, coffee grounds, banana peels, decaying bones. Rabid and starved, they were tearing apart the box she had stuffed there last night. Fighting over it, eating the red shoes.
“No,” she cried at them and ran to fight them. She kicked at them, swatted them with her purse, shouted at them to scat, get, shoo. They slunk away, yapping, protesting. She picked up the shoes. They were torn but wearable. She held them to her cheek, first one, then the other. She sniffed the soft flesh of the tomato-raspberry leather. They felt warm, vivid, filthy with the breath and slaver of dogs. They were too much alive. Small, malevolent creatures with open mouths. Mouths without tongues. They frightened her as if they could speak. No, not even speak but simply demand life, accusing and forlorn. She didn’t want to look at them ever again, but she did and pressed them to her cheek, to her mouth.
They had caught her unawares, and they opened their piteous red mouths to plead with her. “Let us stay, oh, let us stay, stay with you,” sang the red shoes to Gypsy’s innermost ear.
Excerpt from Volume 10
A CONVERSATION WITH GIBBONS RUARK ABOUT HIS COLLECTION THE ROAD TO BALLYVAUGHAN
With Anne Colwell, Poetry Editor
Colwell: In his review of The Road to Ballyvaughan for World Literature Today, Fred Dings says that the poems in this book “find the exact place on the ledge of speech where ordinary expression lifts off into song.” One of the things I find particularly engaging about the book is not just how the poems themselves sing, but also how they follow the thread of song, singing and keeping time through the geography of the volume. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of music to the journey?
Ruark: Fred Dings's remark is a lovely one, and I don't think I can improve on it. But I do like that idea of the poem somehow being poised in that mysterious space between speech and song. For somebody who can't even carry a tune, I've always had an inordinate love for music of various kinds. It's partly jealousy, I'm sure, wanting to do something somebody else can do and you can't. I suppose the first music I took to heart, after the lullabies sung to me as a child, was really, like those, not chosen by me, but something I was just immersed in because of how I grew up. As you know, my father was a Methodist minister, which meant that as a child I spent a lot of time in church, where the old hymns of course were being sung. Those hymns have stayed with me even though I've long since ceased being a churchgoer. There's a poem about that in my second book called "Singing Hymns Late at Night for My Father." And the title of my most "Irish" book before The Road to Ballyvaughan, Rescue the Perishing, is of course the name of an old hymn. A notable feature of hymns for me, I think, is that they are relatively short. I'd say a typical poem of mine is closer to a hymn than to an oratorio, closer to an aria than to an opera, closer to a jig or a reel or a hornpipe than to one of those sometimes seemingly interminable sean-nós songs. So, my instinct is for the small rather than the large musical canvas, which makes it more difficult for me to talk about the music of a book as opposed to the music of a single poem. For what it's worth, while I was putting together this book I was listening mostly to two different kinds of music, both arguably related to national character. At home, I was listening mostly to early jazz: Armstrong, Pee Wee Russell, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, you name it. On Sunday afternoons, every time they could rouse a quorum, I was out at a local pub listening to friends who are superb musicians play traditional Irish music, almost all instrumental, with the occasional song thrown in for good measure. I can't really say for sure how either of these fed into my poems, but I think they did, and I think maybe the subtle shifts from tune to tune in many an Irish set might have influenced the tonal juxtapositions of individual poems within the larger groupings in the book. But let's face it, those groupings are first of all geographical, except for the middle section, whose poems take place in different counties or no discernible county at all. So the music is there, but it's an undertow. The surface tidal movements of the book are geographical.
Colwell: Following up on that question: the poems themselves are gently yet insistently musical, many of them in traditional forms. Sometimes the juxtaposition of these formal and musical poems creates a deep resonance in the larger collection, like the pairing of the sonnets “With the Bust of Maecenas at Coole” and “To a Countryman from Riverside.” Many of the open form poems in the book also exert a clear metrical cadence and rely on assonance and consonance to create music that elevates the language. Do you set out to write in a certain poetic form, or do you find that some poems move that way in composition or revision? In other words, do you find the form or does the form find you?
Ruark: The two poems you mention face each other partly owing to layout and pagination. I was lucky that way in this book. For instance, all of the two-part poems end up with the parts either fitting on a single page or facing each other on opposite pages. There are other felicities as well, like the two sonnets for my daughters being opposite each other. With regard to the Maecenas and riverside poems, they are together first because they are both set or at least begin in County Galway. But I can see that there are other resonances, the issues of neighborly or brotherly loyalty and internecine violence which plagued both Ireland and ancient Rome. And they are both about "face-offs" of different kinds. When I say, "at least begin" it's because in the riverside poem the scene shifts unannounced and probably undetected in line 5 from Galway to the Dublin quays. The only signal I suppose is the shift from "One night" to "Tonight." That was my first visit to Ireland in 1978 in the company of an old school friend. We found each other not the best of traveling companions, and I spent only three nights on the island before traveling on to England to visit another old school friend, who remarked that I had mistaken Ireland for a green light and gone right through. But enough of that. I want to take mild objection to the use of the term "open form" in describing others of my poems. For me the term is synonymous with "free verse," and although I've written a handful of free verse poems in the past, I haven't done so in years, and I don't think there are any in this book. But you say yourself that even in poems that might be called "open" I'm using various musical devices to lift them out of the domain of prose, and that's true. One of those devices I think is the lengthening of the line for a couple of syllables beyond the standard pentameter. For instance, I've not done a precise count, but I think that in "Written in the Guest Book at Thoor Ballylee" the lines generally run from 11-13 syllables. Once Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell were in the same room and Jarrell was going on about Hopkins and "sprung rhythm" and all that, and Frost just said something like "Oh Jarrell, it's all just 'loose iambic.' " I think I've written a fair amount of loose iambic. But as to your question about the stricter forms, do I find the form or does the form find me, the short answer is: we find each other in the dark. Sometimes I have to go more than halfway toward the form. Other times I can relax and let the form come more than halfway toward me. If that sounds faintly erotic, it's meant to. I think of Seamus Heaney's beautiful command toward the end of his poem "North." "Lie down in the word-hoard." The liaison between the OED, that great neutral hoard of words, and the sonnet, that small selector and refiner and enhancer of words, is a conjugal one. More pedestrianly, I admit to having at times set out to write in specific forms. When I was at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan in the 1980's, I felt the need to work in short forms, so that when the time came for my three-mile afternoon walk into McGinn's pub in Newbliss, I might have got something at least sketched out from start to finish. So I worked on sonnets. I'm happy with a number of poems that came out of that ritual, but I'd rather, under ideal conditions, which never of course exist, have crept up on them more stealthfully. One of my friends who plays in the Irish sessions on Sunday afternoons, a former English teacher at West Point, has expressed a special fondness for my poem called "Session Beginning in Sunlight," since he says he loves the way it becomes a sonnet. I'm not sure if that's true, but it pleases me to think so.
Colwell: A question about compositional process: the book moves across a real geographical landscape, but also across an emotional and temporal landscape of connection, love, friendship, discovery, loss, and aging. How did you choose the poems and the arrangement of the collection? As a reader who knew many of the poems from earlier books, I was particularly struck by how their voices harmonized in this new arrangement. Did you try several different formats or did this one seem to arise organically out of the journey that the book itself takes?
Ruark: Choosing the poems themselves was relatively easy. I just gathered up all the poems I had written "out of Ireland" over four decades that seemed up to the mark. A handful didn't make the cut, sometimes because of quality, sometimes because they seemed out of tune with what the book wanted to be. The arrangement of the poems was more complex in conception, if not quite so difficult in execution. I think my primary or at least initial inspiration was a book I have loved for years, James Wright's Moments of the Italian Summer, first published as a beautiful limited edition by Dryad Press in 1976. That book, by the way, has beautiful black and white drawings by Joan Root. When Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press was designing The Road to Ballyvaughan with his son Daniel, he had no way of knowing that Wright's book had anything to do with mine, and yet he and Daniel chose seven beautiful photographs to precede the book's seven sections. The cover photograph is by our old friend Moira Haden and shows the stone-filled road along The Flaggy Shore in North Clare after a terrible winter storm. Moira and her husband Peter were the owners for years of the elegant Gregan's Castle Hotel up the hill from Ballyvaughan, and when Peter saw the mock-up of the cover, he said, ever the hotelier, "I like that, but what about the car rental people?" So, you can tell without my saying that I have as deep a personal investment in this book as in any book I ever published. But I'm talking now about the look of the book, which certainly contributes to its shape, and not the choices I made in arranging the poems. The first choice was to arrange it geographically, so I assigned the bulk of the poems to the four counties in which they are set. Occasionally, as in the case of "To a Countryman from Riverside," there was some question as to which county the poem belonged in, but I usually settled that by putting it where it started, even if it wandered. "Newbliss Remembered in Newquay" is mostly about County Monaghan, but it begins in Clare, which is where the speaker is talking from, so it goes in Clare. That left me with the five poems in the middle section, which I have given a title which would suggest the movement from the Knocknarea poem to the Newgrange poem. At some point the question occurred to me, if the book is to have a geographical movement, in which direction should it move? Since the conventional movement, which is of course the movement of life, is from east to west, from sunup to sundown, I thought it might be more interesting to go the other way. Then I thought of putting a one-poem section at either end, with the titles Departures and Arrivals, like the signs one sees in airports. The opening poem would be set at Dunmore Head, the westernmost point in Ireland excepting the offshore islands, and the last poem, if it has a setting at all, at least begins in an airplane on the way to Dublin on Ireland's east coast. But of course, it's a sundown rather than a sunup poem, being about aging and a fifty-year marriage, so the book is going two ways at once, which poetry so often does.
Colwell: One of the things that I find remarkable about this collection is that you speak in the voice of the traveler and also the voice of the native-born resident. Your poems have a traveler’s love for the names of places and an acute sensitivity to the details of the landscape and customs. However, the poems also capture the genius of the place, and that bespeaks, I think, a deep spiritual connection of someone who “belongs” to the land. Can you speak to the idea of Ireland as a personal and poetic landscape for you?
Ruark: If I can be said to "belong" to Ireland in even the smallest way, it's because of the extraordinary welcome of those Irish who became my friends and still are, if they are on the planet. The landscape and the history and the artifacts and the music all mean a great deal to me, but I would not have been returning for nearly forty years were it not for the people. I was lucky in that the first Irishman of any stripe I met was the splendid Benedict Kiely, writer, broadcaster, raconteur, all-round man of letters. We met when he arrived as a visitor at the University of Delaware in the spring of 1976. Many people, even in Ireland, don't recognize my name as Irish. Not so Ben Kiely, for no sooner had we been introduced than he recited lines from a poem by Mangan: "O'Ruark, Maguire, those souls of fire, their names are shrined in story-" It turned out he had been assigned an office next to mine. We shared a phone, made a few sorties to the Deer Park Tavern, and began a friendship which lasted until his death in 2007. We said what we couldn't know would be our last farewells on an October afternoon in 2000, when he was laid up in the bedroom at the back of his Donnybrook home, suffering from a back injury incurred while playing football as a boy in the streets of Omagh, but fully enjoying the occasion and the wine and edibles provided by the lovely Frances.
To make clear how lucky I was that Ben was the first living Irish writer I encountered (I had met many dead ones, both great and small, among my books), I'll give you a brief account of the second Irish writer I met. I was on my way back through Ireland on that abortive 1978 trip, and on Ben's recommendation was in Charlie St. George's bar across from the Limerick train station. There was a fellow there in a rumpled topcoat damp from the rain and carrying a battered and bulging briefcase. Shortly after he heard me tell Mr. St. George that Ben Kiely had told me to call in, he sidled over and said, "Do you know anything about contemporary Irish poetry?" I had the presence of mind to say "No," and the next thing he said was "Well, I'm it." It turns out he was a certain Munster poet planning to take the next train to Dublin to see his publisher. When I left an hour or so later, he was calling for another pint and planning to take the next train. This was three years after Seamus Heaney's breakthrough book North had prompted Robert Lowell to call him "the best Irish poet since Yeats." I confess that I scarcely knew Heaney's work at the time, and I may be the only American poet in my generation to own three books by Kiely before buying one by Heaney. But all that was to change. Ben gave me Heaney's address in Strand Road, we exchanged a number of letters and finally met at Bryn Mawr in 1982, when he wrote in my book, as he had doubtless written in the books of many admirers, a treasured bit from Shakespeare, "Our poesy is as a gum which oozes from whence 'tis nourished." Later that year he would meet my mother(!) at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo and write beneath a poem in a magazine (How very like him): "Gib - I know that name from your mother's lovely accents!" We met again on Bloomsday 1983 in Dublin, when I was taken on a memorable twilit tour of the sites and pubs. The next afternoon as the Holy Hour approached in his favored snug in Doheny and Nesbit's, he asked what I might like to do to pass the time between pints. I suggested that we might go out to Glasnevin to see the Jesuit plot where Hopkins lies. He had never been himself, so we went, and thus began a ritual for visiting poets that lasted until at least 2009, when he told the poet he had taken there that he did not want to go back. He came to read for us at Delaware in 1984. By that time something between us was ratified; we met off and on over the decades whenever the Atlantic and his impossible load of obligations would permit, and we last saw him in September 2012 when we waved goodbye to him and Marie as they headed home in a cab from Leeson Street Bridge.
It was when I was with Ben or Seamus that I felt most at home in Ireland. They were friends with each other, of course, but the three of us were never together. The Road to Ballyvaughan is dedicated to the memory of both of them.
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