A Voice in Transit: the Poetry of James Ragan
For James Ragan, a poet’s ultimate commitment is what he calls “the nobility of conscience.” Tradition is to be carried generously, written and spoken. Poetry travels and makes an impression wherever it lands, an intimate, powerful one. It moves boldly, like the river in the imagistic poem “Hanger Wall” that James Ragan recited to the President of the Czech Republic and 500 guests in a castle in Prague, in 2008. And it moves gently like “a kite, sipping in a breeze,” daringly like the Everest quivering “into an avalanche of cloud,” wisely like the Dalai Lama’s prayer, and the “cry of a generation.”
James Ragan’s lyrical, transient poetry reaches out. He likes to tell stories, keep photographs of all special moments and people he has read with and shaken hands in understanding. As an ambassador of poetry, he has traveled the world, has read at the United Nations, and for six head of state in Eastern Europe and Asia. In 1985, he read with Seamus Heaney, Robert Bly and Bob Dylan at the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow to an eager audience experiencing Perestroika for the first time.
But it’s at home, with his family, that his poetry reveals yet another – tender – layer of consciousness. The videos that accompany the poems presented in this section will show you more of the person behind the poet. You will find here a selection of poems that delve in to his history, a video interview, readings (including a poem by his daughter Tera Vale Ragan and a performance of original music by his son, Jameson Ragan), and a speech from the heart: “The Artist and the Nobility of Conscience”, by James Ragan.
Poems to Prague
The following poems were performed by James Ragan from his books for the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, and 500 guests at Hradcany Castle in Prague on November 5, 2008:
IF FOR EACH OF US
a rope could swing us
long and light across a widening trough
of all that fails us in our lives,
I would want to land upon the Isle of Echo,
lush with repetition, green with being
original in birth and twice the twin
a wave might dance along the skerry.
I would want a canyon tall for hawks to carry
long the deep tattoo of voices on the air.
I would want an ear to hear
what words to read again to memory,
what verse to carol, thoughts to root
before the sparrow’s flight the mind has taken
comes to rest on truth. I would want to hear
a vowel repeat in consonance
with alliteration’s frothy throat.
And should the landing fail its footing,
I would want to know what inspiration
in shorter flight one syllable might repeat
as in the swash the flat-stone makes
to skip across the light in water
or the voice a wind gives to birch and linden.
I would want the distance to all understanding
to narrow just enough to fail at failure.
I would want a melody of chances
to learn to love again what first I dreamed,
free as wonder, soft as touch,
and of all things simple
to care again for them as much.
(from TOO LONG A SOLITUDE, U. of Oklahoma Press)
THE HUNGER WALL
After walking to the bridge at Karlova,
we found the river where at dusk the swans
dipped their beaks into the falls for sanctuary.
The trees closed in for shade. We gazed
through willows to the opposite hill, a single
light from a room growing thick with sadness.
Solemn smoke now cooked the evening meal.
We were just about to treat our hunger well
when, out of sunlight, undeclared,
a shaded mass of stone began to stretch
its neck along the slope.
It would scan the water for a quarter hour
before the foliage rubbed its throat,
some internal hunger now assuaged
for only moments, then again, the impulse
thumbed like whalebone on a drum.
The poplars began to rustle. A hawk
spiraling, like an aspen deep in chatter,
betrayed its nest to block the sun.
The dam below rose up to boulder water
as if to show how easily wars are won.
They feed the hunger wall, the waitress points,
the fingers in her skirt rubbing coins
her hands are shoring up to feed the past.
I don’t want the poor to endure me, she says
King Charles said to those he paid, as he watched
their faces, building borders, hunger for a wall,
as she faced the smoldering Vltava, watching hunger well.
(from THE HUNGER WALL, Grove/Atlantic)
THE ASTONISHMENT OF LIVING
I saw beneath the spreading elm
two talking girls weaving rainbows
in their eyes. I saw their lives
on opposite shores of the Vltava River
yield up their buckets to the falls.
Every drop was bathed in the fragrant
shawls of eglantine. Every leaf, in wind
rising up to comb each branch,
sent a whisper out along the slopes–
let go. Let go the breath in rain
and every strand of light in fog.
Let go of the tongue’s crow
until it sings along with rocks
and runnels as if it were divine.
Let go of honored sky and earth.
Let go the horizon in between.
Lose all the sunlit undulations
of the season’s wheat. And sing!
Sing out to seeds to grass, to all
that breathes into the pores of stones.
Let go the sovereign moons of space,
the celestial lulls of aureoles,
breathing out a planet,
pulsing out its days.
And where the stars ignite in showers,
let them fall. Recite the moment’s song
that tomorrow wind will bring in squalls.
Free the century’s melody as you would
a line or burden down a well.
Allow the astonishment of living
one reed or willow, feeding
swallows through a hungry night
until they weary of elation.
Let all buckets fill, all loss be light.
I saw two talking girls weaving rainbows in their eyes,
and daughtering in me their dreams, I grew
astonished by all conception,
by the frail grandeur of life.
(from LUSIONS, Grove/Atlantic)
A GOOD SKY
I show you a good sky.
It could hold a fleet of geese
above a kite, sipping in a breeze,
or foliate the wind
with leaves of cherry wood
Look. It will blanket your sleep
with mirrors of stars
in the soft undressing of night.
It will love you, solely,
through the Venus dawn,
rubbing your eyes awake
a moment before the day’s
light hangs its spars.
I show you a good sky.
It will rain its reflection
on your one troubled eye,
the one that blinks
each time a hawk rants by.
I am no one’s romantic.
No. I am the sky’s shadow-wish
writing this only
to breathe its light.
I show you a falling sun,
passing like a lover,
to be near you, allowing
no star, no bulb on a corner lamp
to possess you as you are.
Look. Here I am, the sky’s moon
down. I will shave
a horizon out of peaks
like none your memory
has ever carved.
I show you a good sky.
Its broad blue ribbon will wrap
its mind around your eyes’ imagination
and tease you into smiles—-
Now, be patient,
let your grieving rest awhile.
(from THE WORLD SHOULDERING I, Salmon Publishing, Ireland)
RILKE ON THE CONVEYOR BELT AT LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL
A rick of pages, it falls hardly noticed
into motion, and down the track, unspined,
it cycles time between a rucksack and laundry.
A book no thicker than a wallet or a comb,
it is the unworthy carry-on, newly bought,
colliding with a carpetbag and steamer
on the unlikely navigation into being
where it’s not. Each passenger has watched it
circle more than once, a bold intrusion
into the archipelago of things familiar.
There is no fixed point of concentration,
no laughter, no elation when the eyes dissect
the slow descent of baggage into orbit
as if in taking up an armstrap, each handler
slews a body to the spars of his shoulder.
Had Rilke himself fallen, unbound,
lying in united state, he would have passed
unnoticed by the baggage check or porter
who fail to think it odd or such a pity
to tag him at the lost and found.
How many miles had his words trespassed,
how many cities, alive, unread
among so many ports of authority, a gold leaf
of art so grand in the pall of memory
it gives the mind encouragement to survive.
Unless, unsung like a soldier’s duffel, duty bound,
fear spreads its tarp along the spine of language.
Creation can end this way, abrupt and final,
like travel to the ends of the world
with no intent, or vision, but destination.
(from LUSIONS, Grove/Atlantic)
Our arms and legs are full of sleeping memories of the past. — PROUST
Tugs the skin so hard in sleep
the limbs expand, as if
we could swing an arm out, width
and length-wise along the furniture
of a whole forest, and cull it in
across the vast moon of a field or planet
to our own small room.
In the high trees of imagination,
in our free breath, we tease ourselves
to crawl to the top of a pine, inhale
an aspen, stoke it in the sun,
its sweet aroma roiling in the fragile air,
and stepping down still
in the dark of our own sleep’s bed, we study
the mind’s way out.
At night in the ward-room practicing death,
my father, with owed breath tucked
in the bed of his lungs,
learned the punctual notes of leaving,
the dark that coal exhales
before the last grind of fire
whittles it to space. A railroad man
who toured the world-room in a Pullman,
he knew the blissful pass of the river for miles,
and would, when night burned out, stow
the moon’s tall flame in ash.
In memory he owed the dark
each splice of rusted rail or sagging boxcar.
Breath, as in the sleep of legs,
he saved for the mind’s departure.
(from WOMB-WEARY, Carol Publishing)
HITCHHIKING TO THE ARCTIC
Any floe will do, but give it a name,
the Pater Noster, for a start, or the Isle of Latitudes
drifting North of Iceland out of Hudson Bay
in seas as mixed as the Bering Strait.
Choose the ice that’s narrowed at each end,
the melting equal in duration, your little nation’s future
dependent on the center clearing
any final reef the change of wind might make.
And deny all possibility that you’re drifting
sunless and alone, that you’re deranged, confused
by the solo borne on the map you yourself have sewn.
And deny, above all else, the albatross
whose wings you’ve sheared as windshields to the eyes.
You have a great distance of trust to cross,
so little of it bearing on a compass or a star.
You have only the dream of being lost a certainty,
that in the silence of the miles there will come
a conversation only you will hear. In that vast indifference
of the ice that drops its continents an inch each year,
you will survive on solitude each day or night
when even the moon your eyes betray
grows darker as you grow, and all around you
dance the petals of a sun burning in the cold blue of snow.
The light that draws you nearer is further than you know.
(from TOO LONG A SOLITUDE, U. of Oklahoma Press)
The Artist and the Nobility Of Conscience
The Keynote Address by James Ragan at the Word Literature Today Conference, Normal University, Beijing, China, October 16, 2008
It has been said that man’s innate proclivities for creation and destruction are so inventive and so apocalyptic that in their genius lies the “unwritten” testament to man’s future. It is to his art, however, to his prose and poetry, the “written” testaments of man’s place in his universe, that we turn for truth and understanding. If man is to survive such creations of his own undoing, as the threat of nuclear and chemical arsenals or the god-science of biotechnology, an entirely new creed of morality must be proposed, and it begins with the artist, who has in the past fashioned our most durable foundations of communication and, by extension, the primacy of conscience. It is in the environment of the creative mind that a new morality will inspire global communication designed to retard or arrest the technological advances, which threaten man’s already fragmented psyche and existence. The artist, by nature, must represent a standard of nobility, bound at the core of his being, by passion and compassion.
Our present goal as impassioned, free-thinking members of a community of artists is to return to our trust in literature, and to celebrate our freedoms to pursue the standards of the nobility of conscience. Like Descartes, we know that the mind thinks. However, we must face the truth that it does not necessarily improve—unless we choose to improve the environment of the imaginative and creative functions of the mind, afforded us by the metaphoric powers of language. Language with its mirror into the ecology of the mind has in recent times been debilitated by cynicism and political non-speak and is too long in recovery. I’m often reminded of the response Mahatma Gandhi once gave to a journalist’s question, “What do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi responded, “I think it would be a good idea.”
In America, from the sixties on, language has been in the process of “telegenic revivification.” Perhaps due to a post-Kennedy anti-intellectualism, the new life revived in a devolving language during the Nixon years was media-inspired, script-annotated and sound-simplified, suitable for television’s instant broadcast and mass audience consumption –and sadly destined for semantic collapse.
“Instant imaging” like TV’s political sound-bite has become the vehicle for instant truth and gratification. This telegenic impulse to immerse us, as Octavio Paz suggests, “in the now that never stops blinking,” to, in effect, “instantize ” or “formulize” the visual image at the expense of truth and “context” has provided the impetus for the public’s movement away from books and book reading toward an evolving infatuation with the modern new media.
The “instant imaging of truth” has also contributed to the misdirected goal of arresting or pacifying the imagination. It was Albert Einstein who once said, “Imagination is more important than intelligence.” It is the media’s rush to instant truth, without context, that has paralyzed our nation’s need for reflection. And art has always demanded context and reflection. Instead of the artist’s mandate to disturb the imagination on levels that metaphor has the power to achieve, today’s writer runs the risk of devolving language with an immediately recognizable, multi-visceral, cliche-bound vocabulary consistent with and suitable for the anti-intellectual and “dumbing down” trend in today’s society. We have become a tabloid culture. Thriving currently on the narco-narcissism of Facebook and twittering, we have stream-lined our collective identity as the “You Know?” generation – Like, you know?
For the “you know?” generation weaned on tabloid cynicism, television, video games, cyberspace, and the “me-me-me” rabidity of Facebook, the technologies of “instant imaging” and Tweet “short-handing” have supplanted the polysemy of the written word. We have ceased to become a country of ideas. The sterility of the computer screen has replaced the passions of spoken dialogue. We are data-basing ourselves into mental atrophy. According to one critic, we don’t practice repression in our society, we practice triviality. We need look no further than to recent Presidential political races. Only in a tabloid culture environment, where communication is reduced to the “cliché” denominator of social discourse can a presidential candidate’s elevation of language to the level of eloquence be criticized as “elitist” – while another’s “semantical” slaughtering of the English language is praised on the grounds that “he sounds like one of us.”
In 1988 as a guest of the Chinese Writers Association in Beijing, and more than a decade before Gao Xinjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times entitled “A Renaissance in Modern Chinese Literature.” In it I stated that “a new revolutionary rationale has infiltrated an old-culture consciousness. China is in transition—economically, socially, and politically—but nowhere are the changes more dramatic than in its literature.” This potential remains still to be realized.
Contemporary writing and writers must reflect once again an imagination and eclecticism that has distinguished previous generations of authors, devoted in their verse and prose, to the pursuit of a global conversation in the arts. Indeed, the balance of wit and form offered in their works is met with the counterbalance of colloquy and reform. What is not lacking in either is imagination and the articulations of a global vision. A diversity of traditions was AND IS an unspoken mandate.
In 1985, as one example of a globalization of the arts, I was honored to be invited to read alongside Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan, and Robert Bly in Moscow for the First International Poetry Festival, hosted by Mikhail Gorbachev. We had read for 8,000 people in a hockey stadium. I’m reminded of what a poet said to me after the celebrity of our reading. “James, he said, now that we’ve become national monuments, look out for the pigeons.” His admonishment to beware of our detractors had not gone unheeded.
Where once there existed a systemic starving of the intellect for an entire generation of Soviet artists, glasnost had served for them to free the encumbered spirit. I began the performance with the assessment that one of the still sacred powers of the artist in any period of intellectual recession is the ability to move and shape the minds of kings (world leaders), who in turn move and shape the minds of society. While sadly, at times, it appears there are few kings (world leaders) with minds willing to be moved – or, perhaps, writers seem no longer inspired by that intention– it still remains for the “artist,” that beleaguered and irrepressible shaman of image and language, to persist in the pursuit of universal truth, to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted, no matter how irascible or anti-cathartic society remains in its response.
It is the hope that with a collective call for the globalization of a literature of conscience, with its renewed devotion to artistry, one will be inspired by the verve and compassion with which the poets and prose writers had, in the past, informed their art in order to, in turn, move and shape the hearts and minds of a seemingly dispassionate culture. Indeed, even if one lingers on their poetry, prose, plays, or films for only moments, there will lie over these moments what Rainer Maria Rilke called “the dimensions of gigantic intentions.” In the convening of this International Writers Conference, I am inspired by the many authors who in their best work continue to reflect the “dimensions of gigantic intentions” currently being published in climates of political cynicism and oppression, during this, the first decade of a new millennium.
Each in his own way has weathered the shifts in the literary topography to remain steadfast in his or her own search for artistic identity in a period in which the culture and the temper of the times are so distinctively in flux. Each continues to look forward beyond the merely safe and familiar. Each continues to evoke the prophetic and the universality in all experience. The artist at the beginning of this century, most suited to being called nature’s prophet, is one who sees the past and future as the unifying factors of all art and one with whom nature and human nature share in the prophesy and the expedition. This is the sense of the best work in all literary periods and traditions, in all languages, and in all cultures.
Wallace Stevens reminds us that the great poems of heaven and hell have already been written; the great poem of the earth has yet to be written. With this in mind, the new “young” generation has become obsessed with the experimentation in new forms as they explore both the “consciousness in nature” and the “conscience” of human nature. Their works seek only to speak in their own language and with their own sensory responses, and in so doing, they reflect through the “conscience of the eye” the diversity and multi-culturalism of our times.
In her essay, Until Taxis Dance With Daffodils, Virginia Woolf asks us to immerse ourselves in the most profound and primitive of instincts, the instinct of rhythm. “All you need,” Woolf says, “is to stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, open and shut, boldly and freely, until one thing melts in another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all these separate fragments.”
Woolf and Stevens agree that one of the primary concerns of the writer is to rediscover and reshape language, for, indeed, it is the word that has seemed to fail us in this “telegenically” inspired culture of the literal-minded, the narcissistic, the greedy and the mentally atrophied. Here, then, is the key to appreciating the writing of so many of the distinguished authors in this assembly. The astonishment of experience, as alluded to by Woolf leads to an astonishment of “insight,” so necessary to the advancement of free thought and to the formation of conscience. Indeed, one is reminded of Robert Frost who was fond of saying, “How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?”
In conclusion, the 1987 Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky stated that the artist’s vision is one of “exercising prophecy and perpetually redefining individuality through his loyalty to language.” Literature is a conversation, Brodsky says, “and in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness.” In this convening of voices in World Literature Today, let us enjoy the universal astonishment of insight as we engage in the true democracy of literature’s global conversation. Let us continue to write, in order to “live out loud,” passionately, and through the expansive and compassionate reach of art, achieve community through a common language.
THE ALEUTIAN FOREST
It fails to grasp the predicament,
to be named a forest–a lone spruce,
digging into the rock’s rigging
for nourishment in snow,
when all around it, stones are rootless,
and scurfs of ice tumble through flight.
It shares no iris fields to walk about,
no shade, no arbor’s neighboring bark.
The ice, now gutted where the trunk
has hunkered down to seed its cones,
shods the whiskered stiles,
a grand ensemble for a bland horizon.
High above the thorny wreath
no terns assemble, no wind has crossed,
no echo of a fallen branch
has caused the cliffs to shudder.
No storm has passed. A fence leans near
to give the silhouette its silence,
to square it into comfort, a society of one.
How should it behave for generations
to live the life of boundaries
in the company of none?
How for recreation, should the sealskin
for its part, wet like peat,
surround and play inspired ground?
And should a feather fail to fall
from the egret’s wing, what will give it song?
(from TOO LONG A SOLITUDE, U. of Oklahoma Press)
WAITING FOR THE BUS AT MIDNIGHT
A lamppost of finger-streams,
the moon puffs a cloud
past ghosts of autumn, slips down
in a moment’s cue and kicks
its muddy shoes and dusty bottom
dry of the night serein.
The act begins. A willow
sags to the steps, kneeling
where the town hall clock whispers
sermons to the monk, drunk
with Sunday talk. Crickets lying
in the mist settle to their pillows.
Only the car wakes, screaming
as the dog wags its tail
along the center stripe; bitterns
brag indifference to the star
and teenage lead, wearing slacks
too tight and dreaming
who sometimes, when she tiptoes
up to meet his tongue, stretches worlds
apart her buttocks, round, hypnotic.
She does not hear my breathing
but lips her lines so boldly
spinsters in bough-tressed windows,
like tramps, crippled by the cold,
see the smile, the rippled silhouette
of forms at rest, yet do not hear
his swoon stagger through the sweat
beneath her breast. I strain
to watch the drama hands unfold
and kiss her neck, its naked moles
like speckled dunes or shadows
stippled on the moon while he, flipping the coin
heads and tails, saddles the bench like Brando,
vacant, and overplays the role.
(from IN THE TALKING HOURS, USC Figueroa Press)
THE RIVERS OF PARIS
While the rain of your bones falls,
and your laughter and marrow fall down,
you come flying.
It is raining and the boulevards of Paris
are breast-deep in bones. It is usual
for images in the rain-lay of April
to merge like ascending elms
down Saint Germain or Saint Michel.
The boulevards are the rivers wind owes
to the eyes’ reflections, light
to the panes transparent
in the domes of air wind weaves
along Sacre Coeure, the sphered
mirrors in the belly-up
of imitation louvred upon the water
the lone gull skims, antiqued
in its art of flying.
Down the Seine all troves
of antiquity have bones,
the fluid and the permanent,
the rock, the sea’s seed,
the hunk of air
swinging between two trees
along the banks of Quai Voltaire,
the wheeze of wind
in the clochard’s lung,
shelled and fractured
by screams in the night air.
The bones of leaves along Pont Neuf seethe
when spearing the unpredictable
sheers of grass growth.
The bones of Baudelaire
have bones, timeless weights,
looms of ochre in their bethel’s shapes,
poem-shadows like Norse runes
or punctuations, splintered
by the bones of spiders’
In all our streams of consciousness,
the rivers of Paris run
down the escarpments of imagined time,
their portmanteau of images
falling, boned together
like language or bat wings
aspiring to inspired flight.
In the single dying of a stone’s
last breath there is progress
we will all come to
in time, falling, each of us,
through the rain of our breath,
imitations of the Dantesque,
fused by the body’s currents
down the chutes of Montparnasse,
birth-wet and river-deep
in bones descending.
(from WOMB-WEARY, Carol Publishing)
THE OLD ALLEY
It has found the nights in Paris
swaggering tiptoe up a stair,
a taste too rich for browsing, and prefers
the simple lit barometer of a match
igniting the wet silk of an Antibes moon
into trellised strips above a drainage grate
or a vine curling about the window irons.
In its day it might have lured Picasso
in a Spanish mood, or lounged like the Maya,
spine-still, in the haze
and greening laughter of the leaves
or the rose shade of a stain-glassed sill
rising high into cathedral vaults.
When it wakes, it likes to round its shoulders
into each sleeve of a garden wall,
groomed with moss and wild asteria,
and leap into a conversation or a photograph
for the rest of a day or night or year.
(from TOO LONG A SOLITUDE, U. of Oklahoma Press)
I was told to stake a knife in the ground,
and bees will lathe to it, as if to persimmon.
You can lift it with bare hands,
tens of hundreds, layered like brass
grape croppings on a cup.
Is it the unseen eurythmia in its metal
or the wind’s fragrant undulation
on the spurred blade that keeps them still?
Is it the shimmer of sun that teases so many
of one mind to settle? Or the hour?
This is the lure they would die for
to know one sting’s pleasure? Is it a wonder,
so many in war will leach to it
for one brief lay with power
(from SELECTED POEMS, Varrak Publishing)