Review of Ron Rash’s “Waking”

by Scott Owens

Ron Rash
Hub City Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781891885822

Just as “Resolution,” the epigraph poem of Ron Rash’s new collection, Waking, calls us back to the clarity of innocence (“Come here / where the water is slow, and clear”), so all of the poems in this collection are truly “waking” poems, calling us to one moment of clarity or another. The poems begin with the end of taking things for granted, with a child waking to a meaningful awareness of his surroundings, the sort of awareness that makes clear for the speaker that this is where he belongs and what belongs to him, that these things, this place, have value because it is where and what he is from. In “The Trout in the Springhouse,” this young speaker expresses an acute awareness of the symbolism of drinking water filtered through the gills of a trout

guarding that spring-gush,
brushing my fingers
as I swirled the water
up in my palm cup
tasted its quickness
swimming inside me.

The carefully chosen word, “quickness”, refers not only to the movement of the trout but to life and wildness and the spirit of the place the speaker takes inside him.

As the poems continue, that child become man, in a familiar but still seemingly contrary motion, reaches increasingly farther back as he moves forward in age, progressively waking to the values of history and genealogy, to the interwovenness of people and place, and to an understanding of similar waking of his ancestors to these same truths he has begun to know. And then, that man become poet reaches increasingly farther out to understand the waking of all those who “in-habit” the places he writes of: farmers and veterinarians, preachers and town drunks, miners and drowned girls. This revaluing of place, this reintegration of people and place, becomes the central theme of the collection as a whole. It is, as Robert Penn Warren taught us, and as Wendell Berry continues to teach us, an important element of our ability to value our selves, our lives and our world. It is an element that becomes increasingly important as fewer and fewer of us seem able to remember it. Perhaps Rash’s lyricism and mastery of the narrative will help him achieve greater and longer-lasting success in reminding us of these values than have others.

From a slightly different point of view, these poems, always wonderfully attentive to detail and richness in sound, are equally a waking to life and language and the close relationship of the two. If it’s true, after all, that we think in words, shouldn’t all our best memories, all our greatest epiphanies, be alliterative, consonant, assonant, internally and eternally rhymed? Rash knows what many contemporary poets forget or ignore: that the pleasure and effectiveness, even the sense of a poem, are as much in the sound as they are in the image and story. Perhaps he knows this better than most because of the resonant and resident music of the worlds he writes about: Dismal Gorge, Watauga County, Appalachia, the wilderness that still lives in the lover’s eye. In “Waterdogs” he tells us:

You can live a life without
knowing they exist if sky
is something glanced out windows,
clouds are spread out scrolls written
in a lost tongue.

Just so, the common separations of people and place, language and experience, self and source often deaden our perceptions to such lyrical observations, expressed through repeated s’s, long o’s, and long e’s as we see in “First Memory”:

A green smell simmers shallows,
where tadpoles flow like black tears.
Minnows lengthen their shadows.
Something unseen stirs in the reeds.

What a joy exists in these poems — a joy in the childlike timelessness of attentive perception, such that light “leaking in the one window” of a “Woodshed in Watauga County” becomes “moments / unmoored from time, and the world and sun” align and grow still; a joy in the practiced poet’s pleasure of language (“Dragonflies dip, rise. Their backs / catch light, purple like church glass”); a joy in place and detail and people and all the joy and tragedy inherent in living with the eyes and mind open and the hands reaching back and reaching out to cup more of life, and like the boy in the springhouse, taste “its quickness / swimming inside.”

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