Friday, 25 March 2011

Rip Van Winkle: A Review.

Tomorrow, we will live here. Ryan Van Winkle.

'RIP VAN WINKLE, known to all as a harmless, drinking, shiftless lout, who never would work, but roamed about, always ready with jest and song-idling, tippling all day long.'

Ryan Van Winkle is certainly not the doppelgänger of Rip Van Winkle, but I'm sure he shares some of the personal qualities that this American fairy tale character has. If to be a Rip van Winkle, is to awake suddenly to profound changes in one's surroundings (Thank you, wiki), then Ryan awoke suddenly to a profound change in his personal literary surrounding - that is - he awoke to the publication of his first poetry collection. And so, the dormant literary allusion of his second name has become reality.

(Rip Van Winkle Statue)

Ryan Van Winkle arrived in Edinburgh in 1999, from USA, working in bars, cafés, and the Forest Café. He's came a long bloody way since that beginning. Jesus, I barely know him, but what I do know is he's a pro-active, tireless encourager and organiser, and fair poet

The Crashaw Prize is an international annual prize for a first collection of poetry. It is judged by members of Salt Publishing company. Ryan Van Winkle won the Salt Crashaw Prize for poetry in 2010. 'Tomorrow, we will live here' is the result of that win. Congratulations on that. Winkle is from Branford, Connecticut, and this collection pays homage to that heritage, with a mix of poems from domestic America, memories of private boyhood awakenings, older tangles of love lost, and a host of striving characters (a fat boy/a deviant pastors son/a murdered child/a knot of relationships that need unpicking).

The poems are plain spoken and full of quiet discontent. Throughout there are images and phrases that are unexpected and surprising: 'scrub himself birth pink' 'brother the deer' 'the muscled hills' 'the day is pink meat' 'the ocean is a lung' which always make me stop to reconsider with intrigue. And there are sharp and unusual images that arrive in almost every poem:

'I got a girl up in the attic

the summer I turned ten. Her shirt went damp

and we played a game where I'd strip and she'd slap

my calves with my dead grandma's cane.'

(From; Everybody always talking about Jesus.)

'it was best, what happened. I never

like those buildings: their shadows

froze everything. Mornings, walking

into their long trench coats, was like

walking into slabs of ice.'

(From; I Got Out When It All Went Down.)

In the first there is the unexpected image of childhood, verging on erotic, cruel play. In the second choice we have an image of the Trade Towers and 9/11. The images are strong, loaded with suggestion; the shadows of the trade towers are gangsters coats, the buildings themselves are cold slabs of ice. The poem of 9/11 does not reach for sentimentality or over-state its purpose, it reflects a distaste for the buildings, a spinal shiver directed at the entire event, while focusing on a certain 'Betty'. The unexpected imagery and plain spoken style reminded me slightly of Simic, in that they are minimalist depicted with sparse language, often say something using incongruous imagery. Winkle weaves small narratives throughout, most notably 'Cassella: The Pastor's Son' 'Everybody Always Talking About Jesus' and the five piece suite 'Unfinished Rooms' but it is best displayed, in my humble empirically unverifiable view, in the opening prose poem:

My 100-year-old ghost

sits up with me when the power cuts,

tells about the trout at Unkee’s Lake,
the wood house burned on the hill.

He says he was intimate
with every leaf of grass.

Wore one hat for Griswold,
another for his own field,

the possibilities of the century laid out;
an endless string of fishing pools.

But they never got ahead of my ghost -
he took them like cows, one at a time,

never lusted for the color of trout
in a pool a mile away.

He knew from the smoke in the sky
Mrs. Johnson was starting supper,

and, in March when the candles appeared,
he knew Bobby’s boy had died.

My ghost only ever had one bar
where the keeper didn’t water his drinks,

nor did he feel the need to hide his moth cap,
his potato clothes, or scrub himself birth pink.

My ghost tells me there was a time
you’d look out and not find a Dairy Queen.

You could sit on your porch a whole life
and never think about China.

Sometimes I see my ghost
bringing cut sunflowers to his wife

and it seems so simple.
Then, sometimes, it is dark

he’s just in from work and Griswold says
they ain’t going to raise his pay.

And even back then the power went out,
long nights when they had no kerosene.

And my ghost tries to sell me on simpler times:
the grass soft, endless

lampless nights,
pools of crickets singing.

I imagine the ghost to be a Whitmanesque romantic or Mark Twain creation, with calloused hands and tough spirit; it is a strong poem, it lifts you into its world of the ghosts nostalgia for a bygone community, told to the poet, much like a Grandfather might recount to his newphew, as they sit the front porch. I imagine frontier America, wagons rolling through the Appalachian mountains. The ghost is looking from the perspective of modern America, romanticising past America where the 'possibilities of the century [were] laid out' and 'a time you'd look out and not find a Dairy Queen' existed, or you'd 'never think of China'. I imagine dust bowl prairies, rural farmers in dungarees, hints of a Carson McCuller landscape, that entire lost romanntic America tarmacked over by hungry progress. I think it's one of the strongest poems in the collection.

It's a strong collection, it won't save the world, not that anyone claimed it would, but it might open a few doorways of conversation, exchange impressions the world made upon the poet. It has so many flavours: coming of age sweet, perverse sour, dark chocolate, mint fresh, scandalous meat, stale tobacco, wet paint, dust clouds, and graveyards. It must be said that there are some weak poems in here, but the sucessful poems keep the collection from collapsing into weightlessness. I get the impression from reading that some of the poems were written a long time ago, and you feel some still remain in that amateur setting, or have a certain sophomoric subject matter - parts of 'Unfinished Rooms' 'The Flood' 'The Day he went to war' (which is actually the most comical poem in the collection). Dare I sound like I know what I'm talking about, but there is a certain measured restraint in subject matter and plain speaking. I prefer chaos and psychiatric darkness, and a greater varied of subject matters, but it serves as a reassuring introduction to the developing voice of a Scottish-American poet.

'Tomorrow, we will live here' loosely suggests an optimism, a coming of age, of being comfortable in a a new place, inclusive even a new country. But feeling slightly mooncalf in my way, I thought the title would be quite fitting at the entrance to a graveyard, quite fitting, don't you think? But this book is far from dead.

Ryan Van Winkle is the reader-in-residence at The Scottish Poetry Library, and organiser of the meaty 'Golden Hour' at the renowned and, will-not-be-cut-down-and-shipped-off- as-lumber, Forest Café. He's hyper-active encourager in the Scottish community of writers poets artists, littering the streets of Edinburgh's fringes, and beyond. He's a moustachioed charmer. Aloof but not a loafer.

Buy his book, read or listen to more of his words here.


  1. Good gracious! You have a new place.

  2. Aye, one for the poems/stories, one for review/essay - why not!

    thanks for visitngX