Monday, January 31, 2011

On Rane Arroyo's "White as Silver"

One of my literary heroes, Rane Arroyo, who died last year, gave his last reading at SUNY Brockport, where I teach. It was obvious that he was sick, but he made the trip with his talented poet partner Glenn Sheldon. (Within my next few posts, I’ll be talking about Sheldon's new chapbook Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads.)

In an earlier post, before I struck up a correspondence with Rane, I talked about how joy permeates his poems. In his eleventh book of poems, White as Silver, published after his death, it is obvious, if you read the poems autobiographically, and I do (and I’m sure Rane wouldn’t have minded), that the joy, even during sickness, was still present and thriving. Here’s an excerpt from “Even Tricksters Get the Blues”:

I have been sick all day and finally my body and house
are quiet. Is not quintessential a word that hides quills
to avoid questions? Saw a slow show about Whitman’s
vexed aging, read Ritsos’ last bitter poems and wondered

if Anna Akhmatova was forced to use her fire poems
as kindling in her last years? How quixotic I thought
Death was after I read the Romantics—before AIDS,
war(s), my friends stolen in broad midnight. Better

that I eat this banana bread my lover made or think
about not thinking, but not like in Buddhism. I do not
think this world is an illusion; I have eaten mangos,
have been transparent in a sudden cloudburst, and have

watched the doctors strap me down so I would not
loosen tubes by movement...

As in my other post about Arroyo, I felt queasy about offering a critique of his poems. Sometimes it’s better to leave the work alone. I offer this post then as simply an encouragement to sample his new book White as Silver. As in the work of Agha Shahid Ali, my teacher, Arroyo’s poems in their own way do very little wrong. Arroyo is a genuine writer: he wrote, and he wrote some more, and then even more. For me, I’ve always seen the prolific as the most generous: they want you to read them, and they expect you to pick and choose whatever you want; they allow you the opportunity discover the masterpieces among everything else. Rane never rested on his laurels. He just kept on going. That was one of the most amazing things about his trip to SUNY Brockport: he was sick, but that didn’t stop him from delivering hands-down one of the best performances from a poet I have ever seen.

Let's end this post, appropriately, with Arroyo’s “Poem To a Poem Written to One of My Poems”:

We agree there are poems
and scars. It’s that old
who came first: the chicken
or the cha-cha-cha? I’ve yet

to meet “innocent readers,
although once someone
wrote to ask me if I remembered
marrying her in a past life,

and I didn’t, don’t. What is
written astonishes because
most of the world escapes us
Then we find a poem and

a scar. Sometimes, there is
only one of them. I am “wrong”
often and why I have poems
and not just one. Like scars.

Rane Arroyo's White as Silver is available through Cervena Barva Press.

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