Friday, September 23, 2011

Eugene Ruggles


I’ve made the argument elsewhere on this blog (as for example here or more reasonably here) that there exists an alternate poetry style in California and on the West Coast which, embracing realism and narrative simplicity, derives probably from Kenneth Rexroth and from translations of East Asian poems that started to appear here in the 1930’s.

I think that the work of Eugene Ruggles (d. 2004) with its heightened social polemic backgrounded by nature is directly related, and I wanted to include here a couple examples. I didn’t know Gene personally, but recall him as an affable presence in North Beach 30-40 years ago. He always looked sort of outdoorsy and seemed red in the face from alcohol, as I thought.

The Fire at Midnight

                   — for my son Adam

A mile west the Pacific
pulls at the load of moonlight
lifted overhead.
Inside our potbellied stove
flame is praising a log. At times
like autumn untying a tree.
We live in a small place
miles from anyone in these woods.
You are nine months tonight.
Just half the length of time
when your mother and I held,
for an instant, the force
spinning through us.
That takes our breath away.
And that later
when the walls had returned,
was rubbing your lungs together
like two sticks, until they caught.
Now from the wooden crib
that I built last spring
you are crying and reaching
toward me. And all I know
is the glow from the fire upon you,
that lovely,
you release the light from me.
Outside the great trees
toss and stamp in their stalls
eager with green even at night.
I rise and go toward you
and reaching down, with the wind
bending branches in my back,
lift your beautiful heat upwards.

Walking down an Alley in Detroit
on the Lower East Side

Beneath a lean-to of shadows
four black checker players have drawn
a crowd beside a rusted barrel lifting smoke
around a coffee pot. October
circles easy in the alley, inhales,
is lined with old heavy clothing.

A few blocks down a Chevrolet
factory shifts into its second gear
of human bodies. The bottle of wine
climbing from hand to hand
leaps once more, and refills
as it sinks beneath the ashes.

When an old man reaches out
his dark face packed with scars
and clears the board in one move,
laughter opens against the brick
like a match, like iodine,
burning along the Detroit River.

Both poems are from Roads of Bread: The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles. Edited by Delia Moon, Petaluma River Press, 2009.

See also and, which has a really good video.


1 comment:

  1. Nice to see this, Jim. Like you, I didn’t know him, and though I had heard of him, and even though he was out there in the 70s in the Bay Area, I don’t ever remember reading of any his work until now. Although I’m a nonbeliever, his collected poems are like a prayerbook for me. Gaia is here, and the best kind of history—source.

    I seldom take to narrative but this is different—“narrative simplicity”—as you say, but also with beautifully unique imagery. I believe there’s something wrong with any poem that’s difficult to read—a mouthful of spit and swirl, colliding abstractions, intentional or unintentional obscurity. A good poem uses simple words that can ride any wave, be it real, sous-real or surreal.

    There’s only one other poet I can recall offhand whose narrative is as strongly felt and honest: Vytautas Pliura. I had an extensive correspondence with him, mostly from June to mid-October, 2000, when he suddenly dropped out of the world. I have no idea when he died, but I knew he had Parkinson’s Disease. I found one blogger who wrote a memoriam to him, but with no year of death given nor even the year of the posting. In case you or your followers are not familiar with him, this link is a good read about him, including the customer reviews:

    Thanks too for the link to your post on Luke Breit, still somebody new for me to discover, and having read a few lines, I didn’t have to be told he was inspired in part—I think a good part—by Ruggles.