Wide and Deep

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt
One of the great things about being a blogger is that you can shine a little light on work you admire. Today I’m going to direct a fat beam on two very different poets, John Rybicki and Louie Skipper.

Rybicki’s poetry is new to me but I have followed Skipper’s work for a number of years. (We both had books in a series published by Sandra McPherson’s Swan Scythe Press.) Rybicki is Associate Professor and Writer-in-Residence at Alma College, teaches poetry writing to children through the “Wings of Hope” hospice program and lives in Denton, Michigan. Skipper is an Episcopal priest and college chaplain who lives in Montgomery, Alabama.

I heard about Rybicki’s work from a young poet-friend named Kate. Kate told me about his latest book We Bed Down Into Water (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2008). She was very enthusiastic about the poems, and so the next time we saw each other she brought the book along and left it on loan.

But let me start at the beginning with some history. Kate had a young friend who died very recently of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Rybicki’s book is about his wife’s sixteen-year battle with cancer, and so Kate had ordered a copy as a gift for her friend’s wife, hoping it would help. It did. (Rybicki’s book also helped Kate, whose husband spent ten months being tested for advanced metastatic melanoma before his doctors concluded the suspicious growths “probably” weren’t cancerous.)

Cancer seems to be all around us these days—our own, a spouse or partner’s, a relative’s or a friend’s. (Just this weekend we had a couple over for dinner. She spent the last eighteen months fighting breast cancer; during that period he was diagnosed with a resistant form of prostate cancer; they in turn told us about someone they had given a party for last summer—dying now from a brain tumor.)

We Bed Down into Water is about Rybicki’s marriage to the poet Julie Moulds Rybicki, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and their sixteen-year travels through the medical underworld of hospitalizations, chemotherapies and bone marrow transplants. But Rybicki’s book is not gloom-filled. It’s feisty, tough, and full of love. It is wildly passionate.

“Beauty is the beginning of terror,” Rilke said. The poems in Rybicki’s book live on the precipice between ecstatic love and mortal fear. They are lyrical, eccentric and so suffused with what Dylan Thomas called “the green fuse” that they rocket straight to our own hearts and shake us to the core.

Here is “Me and My Lass, We Are a Poem,” which is the third poem in the book. (Throughout the book Rybicki calls his wife by the exuberant pet names “Dame” and “Lass”; she calls him “Dude.”)

    Me and My Lass, We Are a Poem
    We tangle our hair in the moon,
    then she coughs and I have no net
    to catch the cough so I make her hot tea
    with honey. I call her my coughing alarm clock,
    but she’s warmer and smoother than our oven
    for waltzing with.
    When we travel in our covered wagon,
    she’s in the bathtub splashing her way

across the prairie, singing Bo Diddley songs.

    Any drop she spills
    the prairie dogs lick them up.
    That’s the kind of poem she is.
    When we lie down in the earth,
    we’ll need coffins with holes bored
    through their sides: we’ll each have
    ne arm hanging out
    so I can take hold of her
    hand, even while we’re in the dirt.
    Some nights our bed floats through
    the bedroom wall. We’re on our bellies
    laughing and rowing with one arm.
    When we get tired, the stars
    make nice pillow for our heads.
    The wind is what wakes me,
    blowing so hard I watch my love’s skin
    flake off: a whole storm of her
    flutters away from me until all that’s left
    inside her is a tired old woman

holding her spine like a candle.

[You can find Rybicki’s book on the Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press website: http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/Title/tabid/68/ISBN/0-8101-5186-3/Default.aspx You can also hear Rybiciki talking about and reading from We Bed Down into Water on the Library of Congress audio webcast at: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/poetpoem2.html ]

Louie Skipper also lost his wife to cancer several years ago. His Swan Scythe Press book The Fourth Watch of the Night, is about the long vigil that began when she found a lump in her breast. (“ …Stephanie places my fingertip/ against the world that appears/ firm and round under her left breast.”) Like Rybicki’s book, The Fourth Watch chronicles and confronts what follows.

But I want to focus here on Skipper’s more recent (fourth) book The Work Ethic of the Common Fly (Settlement House Press, 2007). Equal parts Donne and Neruda (many of the poems seem patterned after Neruda’s Book of Questions) they are, as Carolyn Kizer said of the earlier collection, the work of a “true metaphysical poet.”

I’ve read the poems in this collection several times now, and I find them, like Rybicki’s, exuberant, quirky, full of passion and also erudition. In the tradition of Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, they are a poet-man-of-the-cloth’s intense (and sometimes darkly funny) grappling. They remind me  a lot of Thomas Merton’s poems too (in fact, Skipper’s book got me thinking about Merton, so that will be the subject of my next blog entry.)

Here is the first (untitled) poem in the second section of The Wok Ethic of the Common Fly:

    In the lore of plagues
    Camus describes victims
    thrown into graveyards in anticipation of their deaths.
    They are remembered copulating.
    I understand the fear required
    to no longer think them living,
    as well as the hopelessness
    with which they turned to one another.
    At the end every sense is left alone to suffer.
    These words I write
    are the last testament of the child
    who still lives within me,
    the one who asks only
    that you remember him as he was,
    not as I am.
    We are all in this together,
    the way a woman weeping to herself
    pulls the rest of us in after her.

There’s an authentic taproot in the work of both these poets—each so different in style—that spreads wide and goes deep.

You can find Louie Skipper’s book and more about it on the Settlement House Press website: http://www.settlementhouse.us/books/common_fly/

He also has another brand new (2009) book there, It Was the Orange Persimmon of the Sun. Check it out.

And if you’re interested in the work of Julie Moulds Rybicki, whose poems are very much alive on the page, you can read about her and find her book at New Issues Press: http://newissuespress.blogspot.com/2008/04/in-memory-julie-moulds-rybicki.html

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