Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Poet du Jour: Greg Rappleye

Greg Rappleye’s Figured Dark is a stunning collection. These are poems of clarity, complexity, and wisdom. Readers will find much to admire on a first reading, then more and more with each subsequent reading. And they will very much want to go back for those subsequent readings.

This collection satisfies with its rich variety. Rappleye shows a wide range of knowledge, moving comfortably from books to history, current events, the Bible, and art. The minor motifs—birds, dogs, trees, water, angels (the heavenly kind, fallen, and Blue)—add additional variety and subtly unify the collection. Rappleye also covers a variety of locations, for example, a field at night, the Gotham Book Mart, a museum, Pittsburgh, a homeless shelter, and a hospital. He includes a variety of characters, mingling a reunion chairwoman, crack whores, a butterfly collector, St. Paul, a radio talk show host, and the poets John Donne, John Berryman, and Gerald Stern. In “Sail On, Sailor” Odysseus mixes it up with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Rappleye also varies stanza forms and lengths. The collection consists primarily of free verse poems, all written with a clear mastery of craft and a formal elegance. And yet there’s a hipness to the poems, often revealed as Rappleye combines formal and colloquial diction. There are several ambitious multi-section poems and one terrific ghazal, “Lost-Love Ghazals.” In this ancient Persian form, Rappleye handles the pattern of repeated words and rhymes in the required couplets, yet manages to put his own stamp on the form by violating the rule that the poet put his own name in the last couplet. Instead, he asks, “Why bury my name in some final couplet? / Bereft of name, I will not love you anymore.” The poet, in spite of the predictability inherent in the form, also manages to take the poem through a series of turns and surprises. In fact, one of the virtues of the collection as a whole is its ability to consistently surprise the reader.

Another of Rappleye’s strengths is his gift for tone. The collection blends sadness and humor. A number of the poems focus on failure—failure of the body in “Biopsy” and “Glaucoma”; a failed relationship in “After the Divorce,” with its beautiful closing lines: “Winter soon. / A winter that is more and more / my home.” Rappleye fearlessly encounters the dark, but he also has an obvious fondness for humor as seen in “My Mother Thinks She’s Peggy Lee” and “Discontinuous Narrative,” a poem about the speaker’s vasectomy. And while God sometimes abandons Rappleye’s speaker, He also shows up on a road trip “programming all night radio for Knoxville, Tennessee.”

As the collection’s title suggests, many of the poems deal with dark subjects. Appropriately dark images undergird these subjects. But the darkness is counterbalanced by happiness and images of light. Yes, Rappleye seems to say, there is darkness, but there is also light. His poems offer us different ways of seeing both.

Here are two poems that give a good sense of the collection. Two more poems and an interview are also available at the publisher’s website.

Lilacs for Instance
What is the purpose of green or of blue?
—Rainer Maria Rilke
How I believe a time comes
when they will not bloom again
and later find it isn’t true.
Thus, the house down the road—
overgrown with flowering lilacs.
At night I walk a path behind it
coming up along the creek.
Framed in a second-story window,
a woman stands in a green kimono,
toweling herself after a bath.
The silk of her robe falls back
to expose the areola of one breast
and the shadow of her sex, lush
as the flowers that encircle
the house, her bedroom window
lit like a painting from Bonnard.
I pause in the looming dark,
tongue thick with the fragrance
of lilacs, until she turns out
her light. After which there are
always lilacs, and the sweet music
of a distant song.

At 48, Walking My Baby Past the Voodoo Lounge
“A few children for me of my own, is that excessive? No, . . .
It is the
right moment, just right.”
–Edgar Degas, letter from New Orleans to Henri Rouart
I wheel his stroller across Bienville,
turn left on Chartres, pause at the house
where Napoleon planned to brood
his final years. Carlos doesn’t care—
napping under a blanket I’ve spread
to keep him from the sun. The sidewalks
are sticky, the air—roiling with booze
and boiled shrimp, and the music won’t stop—
at every door, the chank-a-chank of zydeco,
or drum machines rat-tatting
into the street. I light a cigar.
We are men about town, me pointing out
the gaslights and balconies, the walls
brushed aquamarine, chiffon, or a sweet
sun-ripened pink. On Toulouse,
he spots two beagles, who, scampering round
their tiny yard, make him laugh, as they tumble
against an iron fence. I prop Carlos at the gate
and snap a picture, in which he looks
straight at the camera, smiling slyly,
like the smallest child in Degas’s painting
Children on a Doorstep—the light,
that same goldenrod—with a beagle
posed at a distance. You say
it’s crazy to have this new child.
You think even worse.
I only know that under the sign
“Famous Live Love Acts of New Orleans,”
I look at Carlos and smile.
And passing the Voodoo Lounge, I know
that no bad luck can touch us now.


  1. Oh my goodness!

    Thnak you for yor careful attention and kind words about my book!

  2. My pleasure! I hope my words will bring the collection some more much deserved attention.

  3. I just finished this book myself over the weekend and really enjoyed it. Especially "Lilacs for Instance" and the one about the Diane Rehm show. And others. Nice review.


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