I first stumbled upon Ryan Vine‘s poetry a few years ago when I read some of his Rule poems. I think the first ones I encountered were in The Greensboro Review (available @ VerseDaily), but there was a voice that wouldn’t leave me alone, that kept whispering in my ear at night when I was trying to go to sleep. The voice was hilarious, but dark at the same time. Before I knew it, I was ordering Vine’s 2005 Weldon Kees Prize-winning chapbook Distant Engines, and I devoured it within hours of its arrival. That’s when I first fell in love with Ward.
Vine, in the tradition of Kees’s Crusoe poems, Berryman’s Henry poems, to some degree Yeats’s Crazy Jane poems, builds a series of poems around a central character as a means of investigating both interior and exterior contemporary realities. Often Vine announces Ward’s name in the titles of his Ward series; however, in “CONVERSATIONS ON A DECK,” we encounter a different kind of Ward poem altogether:
The title prepares us for outdoor conversations, implying that more than one person will be present. But the opening lines blatantly suggest that our beloved Ward is alone. “It was too late” begs the questions: “what?…what was too late? too late for…?” Though the opening lines may at first come across as flat–we have two “to be” verbs–Vine’s using this tone in order to settle us into the mood, or the atmosphere, of the poem, which is ultimately somewhat somber. Why else talk to the darkness on the hillside? Though the sentences are very straightforward, Vine’s careful and skilled enjambs (linebreaks) suspend the tension of each sentence’s meaning across the breaks, creating a pulsing web of double entendres. Look at the way we don’t discover the true nature of the second sentence’s meaning until we’re five lines from the end of the poem. The final three words of that sentence, “let him down,” not only reveal Ward’s state of mind, his loneliness, his feeling of betrayal, but they heighten the feeling of darkness introduced in the third line.
Not only does Ward confront the literal darkness on the hillside, but he’s looking back at his life, reflecting on all the dark moments, the people who’ve betrayed him. Once the speaker introduces that idea in general terms, he goes more specific: “Bitch, / he said to a woman / he once loved.” The dramatic irony here plays itself out in a strange way. The poem’s use of the third person removes the voice of the speaker from the voice of Ward himself. We can see what Ward says, but at least within the scope of this poem, we have no direct access to his inner monologue. So the irony is at play because Ward’s the only one who doesn’t seem to know that he’s the only one talking. But because our speaker/narrator tells us “he said to a woman,” and also he calls “an old friend” a dick. We gain a brief glimpse behind the curtain of Ward’s interior. The third person works well here to create not only a level of remove and distance between Ward and the speaker, but in doing so, enacts the very difficulty Ward experiences in life: rejection, isolation, distance, removal. We need to hear Ward’s voice in this poem–it’s absolutely necessary to see him standing outside on a deck in the dark talking to people who aren’t there–but the third person allows us to witness him in that setting instead of hearing directly.
I mentioned the seemingly flat language earlier in the poem, and I want to take a brief moment to point out why it works so well. The simplicity of the language in the poem not only torques against the enjambs (linebreaks), but it also establish a steady tone that lulls us just enough so that when the poem veers at the end–when the distance responds–we’re jolted awake with greater power than if we’d just wandered through a linguistic pyrotechnics display. The straightforward tone doesn’t prepare us for the distance to respond, but when it does, it makes the poem satisfying for a number of reasons: one, the way it alters meaning forces the title to suddenly make more sense (because it’s no longer just one person speaking anymore), and two, the distance speaking back to Ward just echoes Ward’s insult, highlighting the degree to which Ward’s projecting all of the frustrations and anger he has with himself onto other people (and even abstractions like darkness and distance). The end startles me the same way I’m shocked when suddenly realize I’m being narcissistic, which is, ultimately, what I take away from the poem. A little warning to avoid dipping into self-pity. Don’t be like Ward, this poem says. Ward’s throwing a little pity-party, and even he knows he’s a fool. We all know the distance doesn’t really call him a fool. He’s still projecting–even if he’s being more honest with himself in that moment, the poem reveals the disconnect because the realization seemingly comes from somewhere else.
I love this poem because it tricks me and fools me and teaches me a little something about blame in a way I’m not anticipating. I think at some point we’ve all been a version of Ward, and it’s good to know, that even in our worst, most pitiable & pathetic selves….we’re not the only ones. The poem calls out via a scene of a man confronting solitude and darkness as if to say: you’re not alone. Funny sometimes how that works. Deep down I love Ward because I want to love even the less likable parts of myself, or at least learn how to try.