Poetry exposes itself to the interpretation of the audience. More than any other written form, the poem turns itself inside out, deriving meaning and value through the reading rather than the writing. Through the specific, the personal, poetry seeks the universal. A successful poem pulls the reader from his own experience into the personal truth of the poet and then expels the reader into the universe to become part of a greater truth. The successful poet, therefore, must write from the intensely personal space of self without a consciousness of that self.
In his New & Selected Poems/ 1975-2005, Robert Ronnow’s greatest successes in the achievement of the universal lie in his most specific details. In “Sub-atomic Particles,” he says it himself: “Mustache, cowboy hat/ horse whisperer, gulag master/ Odysseus, King Lear/ salvation in the details.” Much of Ronnow’s work finds “salvation in the details.”
Reading through New & Selected Poems/ 1975-2005, one gets a sense of the evolution of Ronnow as an artist and as a man. His early poems, while specific and vivid in their imagery, are undermined by the sense that the creator of those pieces is a young man very conscious of himself and his place in the world. The sense of outside influence is also more perceptible early in the book. Stanzas from the first poem “Janie Huzzie Bows” practically scream e.e. cummings:
everybody looks. Janie Huzzie’s dressed in white.
naturally the crowd glowers i pipe up
winking in every direction i slither away
The consciousness of self intrudes upon the more sensual passages in Ronnow’s poetry as well. While his language is frank and earthy, certain passages left me with the sense, not of a celebration of the sexual act, but with the sense of a man bragging of conquest. Though in “The Canopy of Stars,” Ronnow confesses that “Women are not inspired to love me,” he then comments that “This/ must be an oversight on the creator’s part./ Even in my beard I’m built handsomely as other men.”
The juxtaposition of this commentary on loneliness against the next poem “Absolutely Mustard” in which he “remember[s] passionate nights with some of the women/ I’ve known” jars. Though both poems reveal the writer’s solitude of the time, the sense that the poet feels somehow entitled to the company of multiple women carries through both poems. Yet, the salvation is in the details. “Absolutely Smooth Mustard” begins with the delightful lines “There is absolutely nothing to do. Some people/ fall in love. I go have a cheese sandwich./ with mustard…” The banality of the cheese sandwich as an alternative to love is taken over the top into absurdity as the throwaway “with mustard” is tacked onto the third line.
Ronnow reserves his most lyrical and compelling lines for his descriptions of nature. In these stanzas, he paints with a fine brush, expanding the poems into the universal with minute details:
The crows have been
in conference, again.
A jay, blue, pokes
a hole through reality.
There I find the sumacs
fruiting and the male sex organs
of the Queen Anne’s lace.
These lines from “Under-sky sleeping, bone keeping” ground the reader in place. The specific sense of place – senses of place, rather, the stanzas are rich with sound and texture – allows the reader to feel with the poet that “…these mountains/ are my grave. A good grave/ to go to.”
Details ground the poems in the universal when Ronnow strays into the realm of the general. His explorations of death, love, and politics have the feel of someone striving toward a larger truth, but falling into the trap of general proselytizing. In “The Rwandan dead” the specific wrenching details of the “Rwandan dead/ bobbing naked at the base of waterfall…” are lost in subsequent lines that proclaim “…Peace/ is a great blessing. Fools/ worship war.” He resumes contact with the specific and saves the poem with the stanza
The Rwandan dead
had dalliances and alliances.
It is the indignity of their exposure
and the decay of their former lives.
How disposable, mere mulch, fertilizer
for wild vegetation.
I preferred his exploration of the human condition through the descriptions of the canyon dwelling Anasazi in “Blackbrush.”
then, shallower, dinosaur swamps
now, dry, rock gardens.
Explain the human history with water:
did the Anasazi visit neighbors
along the canyon rims and deep within…
Explaining the human history with water takes a detail seemingly specific to an indigenous, desert-dwelling people, and expands into the much larger reliance of history on basic human needs.
Ultimately, New &Selected Poems/ 1975-2005 deepens and grows more interestingly rich as it progresses, and one is left with the feeling that Ronnow’s development as both a poet and a man is ongoing. May this be said of all of us.