I was chaining my bike outside Literary Life, our local treasure of an independent bookstore, and was delighted to run into Rick and Brenda Beerhorst, our resident neighbourhood artists and activists who have been catalysts for redemption and joy right here in the southeast corner of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were all there to enjoy a reading from a local poet who was unfamiliar to me. Rick, with a hint of desperation in his voice, was leaving a series of messages for his friend John, but I was eager to get inside for the reading, which would begin at any moment.
Just before I excused myself, a wiry, somewhat gnarled character made his way up the sidewalk, his white T-shirt a mess of dirt and oil. Rick seemed to sigh in relief. “Where have you been?” he asked, perplexed and just a little perturbed. And pretty soon I realized I didn’t have to rush into the reading: here was our poet, John Rybicki.
This image of the poet-as-auto-mechanic is indelibly inscribed in my mind when I think of John Rybicki’s work. Indeed, it is the perfect context in which to hear him, for the connection and contradiction is embedded in his oeuvre as well. Consider, for example, “Tire Shop Poem,” in his marvellous collection, We Bed Down Into Water (with a cover graced with a Rick Beerhorst engraving). The poem ends with a flourish of lyrical delight that pulls holiness from the middle of the workaday, finding the music in the mundane (do yourself a favour and read this out loud):
I catch his dare and rubber roll
a tire up my calf and pop
the center cap, clamp and spin,
hammer lead weights onto rim
after dizzying rim. I lug nut smash
and flick the pry bar from one hand
to the next. Fred Astaire in a
tire shop, where we slap our boots
across all that slop to outdistance
fire, outdistance that burning bush
that follows us everywhere.
I say “contradiction,” but should perhaps speak of paradoxes, or productive tensions—the way catgut strings pulled taut by opposing forces can generate a Bach cantata. This collection and his most recent work are riven by his wife’s cancer, torn between lament and eulogy, resistance and dependence. This dynamic was stunningly present in a new poem he shared that evening, “On a Piece of Paper You Were About to Burn.” Overwhelmed by it, I almost staggered to John afterwards to thank him, and he graciously passed along the crumpled copy to me. On it were the words to a poem written in the wake, not of Julie’s illness, but her death. And the second person address won’t let us escape the sorrow.
How do you hold the dead
when they’re hammered into a room
so flat you can pick your teeth
with one corner of the picture? When you were the one
at that moment aiming the cheap camera at her
wanting to fold her light
into a square locket of time.
The poet recounts how the photo brings to mind the background music playing at the moment of the aperture’s capture: the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy, Take Me Away.”
But now that she’s a crumb inside the earth,
the song punches little whispery nail holes
in the bottom of your boat.
An entire world has been reduced to this, flattened and frozen in this cramped frame. And then the poet, putting us right there in that “you,” names exactly how we’d expect to find ourselves in the wake of such a loss:
You rock on the kitchen floor hugging your own legs,
weeping and kissing a face so tiny
you could cover it with a penny.
You repeat the same prayer to her over and over,
as if your heart were the governor on death’s engine.
How could God smash a room flat into a photo
and do it over and over again?
But Rybicki doesn’t ensconce himself in sadness; indeed, romance regularly reveals itself. What’s so heartbreakingly remarkable is how many of these poems of lament and protest break into love songs without falling prey to the self-help drivel that besets our death-denying culture. In “Me and My Lass, We Are a Poem,” constantly haunted by his wife’s mortality, Rybicki somehow hymns their love without hiding from death.
When we lie down in the earth,
we’ll need coffins with holes bored
through their sides: we’ll each have
one arm hanging out
so I can take hold of her
hand, even while we’re in the dirt.
It is a sign of Rybicki’s provocation that I find myself asking the question: is every lament a backhanded longing for love?
But I don’t mean to reduce Rybicki’s genius to his themes. Space (and copyright law) leave me only pleading with the reader to go find Rybicki and read him whole, for the real enchantment of his poetry is the almost surreal play of words and sounds that can only be appreciated out loud. Those who like their poetry straight-up and prosaic will be a bit frustrated, but who can fail to sit on the edge of their linguistic seat when he opens “A Song for Kay Mullen” with fantasias like this:
The flaming balls float when our hands
are busy elsewhere.
Juggling’s easy: first, study hypnosis
and rock your finger
metronome in front of a cross
on the highway. Go back
to that day when one alphabet devoured
another. You have two animals
with their brights on, their eyes following
the ticktock rock of your finger,
so the cross with the dusty flowers
around its neck evaporates
under a mother’s pillow.
This is poetry for tongues and ears, not just minds.
Rick and Brenda eventually escorted John into the bookstore. From somewhere they rustled up a clean T-shirt and pushed him up to the front where we all waited quietly to hear his poetry. John launched into a lyrical apology laced with passion and pain. I thought to myself, “Wow, he’s doing this poem from memory” and then realized that this wasn’t a poem—this was just John talking. The delights of his poetry were only intensified in his everyday speech. And it struck me that this embodied a lesson I learned that day: the delights of art are not sequestered in Manhattan or Los Angeles. The aesthetic is not the property of the cosmopolitan. To the contrary, the arts are alive and well in neighbourhoods that never get noticed by the New York Times or Art in America—in local collectives of provincial labourers who are creating works of praise and lament right around the corner, while we pine away feeling sorry for ourselves because we’re stuck in some Midwest town, longingly reading The New Yorker.
I’m reminded of Eugene Peterson’s whimsical translation of John 1:14 in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” Those of us who take special delight in the arts, grateful for the multitudinous gifts of our Creator, might adopt the same incarnational approach and look for artistic treasures right in the neighbourhood.