Music Of Time

Book Review by Martin Tucker

David Ray. Music of Time: Selected and New Poems. Omaha: The Backwaters Press, 2006.

For a poem, one starts at the end. The experience is lived, and the poem begins at that point, aided by the poet's grasp not so much as something beyond the experience as deeper into it. David Ray has been writing poems all his life, it seems from first glance at his treasury in this beautifully rendered and handsomely produced collection. Each of his meaningful experiences has occasioned a complementary poem. Some writers-poets and otherwise-need, or find, only a handful of experiences to make up a lifetime of observations. Others seek a multitude of experiences that fit neatly (or not) into a thimbleful of repetition. Some writers come home from the exile of experience to the world of the familiar (and familial), while others continue to find freshness in the stimulus of novelty and freedom of movement..

Ray's poems span the polar growth of the familiar and the foreign, of childhood and parenthood, of exotic places visited and of places never occupied for lack of daring or of having taken the wrong (or right?) step. The richness of his poems stem in part from the poverty of the childhood he remembers so vividly and the cameo portraits mixed from wishes and desires of long ago; they also flower from his many journeys round the world in search of observation of place he can turn into perception of human, and inhuman, behavior. In this sense he is much like one of his literary heroes, D.H. Lawrence, a vagrant never quite at home and never away from it in the core of his shaped manhood. Like Lawrence, he is both angry and hopeful in the face of despair; indeed what often makes him more angry is the lesser evil of complacency. In the face of tragedy Ray's poems ring with sober resolve; in the rear of incompetence or venality he bellows with savage humor.

Although his subjects are often lamentations, his poetry is choral at heart. He is the outsider looking in the window of self-satisfied burghers, but he is also a part of them as they are a part of the universe of alloyed humanity. It is curious, but not incomprehensible that he can feel alien in the midst of plenty, an honored guest who believes he does not belong in the invited midst. Compare these lines: from "The Hundred-Year-Old Scotch in Rajasthan":

When I drank the hundred-year-old Scotch

we were sitting at a long table on a terrace

and were much admired-the turbaned Rajputs and I-

by the villagers gazing over the waist-high walls.

We were well-served and expansive, having eaten

our fill more than once and already

paraded through the streets to the joyous accompaniment

of everyone who could move, whether on crutches or not….

.…I was proud, of course,

to be for once with the winners, the aristocrats.

It must have been clear to all that I was the honored

foreigner, and I was aware that it was not,

so to speak, personal. Any foreigner would do.

In the same realm of psychic journey Ray yearns for the insistent, seeping warmth of his childhood-- it had at least a mother, even if she was uncaring, and a shack in which to wash and hang his overalls; even if the father was absent in the farthest reaches of the soul, he would appear from time to time in the living room. Compare these lines from "Hymn to Aunt Edris":

Aunt Edris, your great swinging breasts

were pendulum of time too I see now, but then

this small boy wished to press his cheeks

against you, and couldn't tell you,

and you were young, though I didn't know it then,

laughing that [Uncle] Henry's toes were cold,

…..On the floor

we children threw cockroaches from us,

the only ones who loved our bodies,

and heard your giggles, tickles, guessed

at your rolling movements, tried to ape them

on our flat bodies….

Tracing Ray's poems from his first published book to his newest uncollected poems will provide an enriching puzzle that may be resolved in the fittings of several themes. There are, of course, the poems of childhood and of the stark starvation of the soul through grinding poverty and devious irresponsibility that he witnessed as an abused adolescent; there is at the same time, the counterpoint of his unyielding will to survive such blows. Even in poverty, or perhaps because of it, Ray finds a way to take a step ahead; even as he stands still in frightful obedience to adult overseers, he moves in his will beyond to a world filled with the poetry he exalts and to which he will provide his own witnessing.

There are the poems of his lifelong commitment to social activism, the poems and broadsides he wrote in protest against the Vietnam war. (With Robert Bly he edited the famous collection of poems in protest against the Vietnam war.) In this collection Ray also includes several poems from his recent volume of poems, The Death of Sardanapoalus and Other Poems of the Iraq Wars, his denunciation of American imperialism at work in Iraq and the misguided military campaign that threatens the lives of thousands of American service men and women. There are as well the poems of satire, of humor that can be both light-hearted and resonant of meaning beyond a curled smile. It is a wise thing Ray has done in this collection, the gathering of light loose-ends of wit--they pale beside sober anthems of duty to one's native land through the ammunition of peaceful protest but they also add color to the currents of his poetry.

Ray's choice of title is significant, for he calls the book "Music of Time" rather than "The Music of Time". The absence of the initiating grammatical article suggests not only that he is not finished with his music-gathering, his gift of melodic ode and satire to his readers, but that his subject matter is open-ended, a flowing river rather than a controlled dam. The music of life's experiences goes on, flowing in its way, as Ray's poems continue in their lyrical way. The poems of youth become not the ones written in later life, for time has a place in the observation of a psyche looking at his fellow mortals. The place for daring lies with youth, the place for stark, sober rendering lies with youth as well, while a more forgiving, more accepting, perhaps a more compromising stance lies with the poet well along in his journey. This may explain the less consequential poems at the end of the chronological ordering of the book, though here too the issue is filled with contradictions. For Ray has just published-a year ago-his savage and enthralling document of poems against the Iraqi war. He is near his seventh decade now, and he is still able to summon the dedication of intensity to a social/political cause.

Perhaps then a better way to understand Ray's way is the illustration on the book's cover. It shows three people trying to hold up, or hold back, a huge rock that threatens to roll down the hill. The allusion is clear enough-to the myth of Sisyphus. Ray seems to be suggesting that the course of human nature, and the poetry that follows it, is a never-ending task of holding back the rock that threatens our lives. There is no end to the task, for the course of human nature is a running battle with the rocks that refuse to move from our pathways.. What can lighten the way or give resonance to human struggle is the music of time that poetry sounds out to its readers. Ray's poetry is just such a concert with moments of exaltation and forgiveness of the magnitude of human error, not the least of them the repetition of prior error.

Ray's book is a timely, and timeless, one. Its craft is sturdy, its content a moving one.