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Book Review: Pumpkin Days by Ronald Ray

February 18, 2012

I use to believe confessional poetry was just an excuse for writing dull verse. It seemed that absolute honesty could only eliminate the emotional tensions from which interesting rhetoric develops. But Dorothea Lasky taught me that when sincerity pushes far enough, it comes upon the limits of the poet’s own self-knowledge, and figure re-emerges, stranger and brighter than it was before. My schooling continues with Ronald Ray’s Pumpkin Days, a volume of poetry that opens with a blunt statement of the poet’s grief and ambition, “I write to keep her memory alive,” referring to the passing of a spouse. The next sixty-plus poems give us no reason to doubt that confession. At moments we may catch glimpses of hope in our peripheral vision, but the center of the narrator’s attention is always on that pain.

Very often, when a writer repeats something they said in a new context, it is to subvert what they said earlier, to turn the poem against itself, to keep the reader re-evaluating the meaning of the work. Not so with Ray. He orbits his grief and repeats himself to offer a different angle on the same thought, as in the poem “Empty:”

What an empty world.

What a lonely world.

What a dreadful world.

And throughout the poems a handful of words are repeated almost obsessively. My guess is that the most frequent adjective is grey and the most frequent verb wait. These two words build up the narrator’s understanding of his sadness, an understanding that at moments looks frighteningly close to a kind of worship.

Light and dark co-mingled, grey exemplifies the confusion of binaries. And so with the oft appearing ghosts who are both living and dead. Similarly, in the poem “The Clock Is Ticking” the narrator cannot tell the difference between the permanent and the impossible: “Forever and never are the same in the schematics of life.” All of this points to memory. Memory both allows a loved one to continue living inside of us while conversely being a painful reminder of that person’s death, feeding into our inability to understand ourselves in a world in which that person no longer lives.

This brings us to the concept of waiting. The narrator is disjointed from time. Will is no longer will. That is, desire has lost its ability to influence the future. What is to be done is known and unimpeded by the outside world, but still it is not done. From “I Live Here:”

                                                         I’ll
Smash the window one day soon
Shattered glass stirring the dust and blazing
Light at last shining all around

The narrator is waiting, but only for himself.

What does this all amount to? A series of figures that mount a crisis and ride it someplace new.

Certain philosophers have taught us why certain birds screech: To extend the scene of a threat. When these birds hear such a noise, it is the same as if they had seen a predator. And so when the poet makes his noise, we hear the threat of not knowing ourselves, the threat of not know the relationship between self and community, between self and a changing world. But if that noise can reach the pitch of resonant metaphors, it can build those very relations and so save us from nihilism.

Pumpkin Days certainly makes progress in that regard. Pain has once again led a writer to beauty. You can buy the book over at Lulu. I hope you do. You can also find Ronald Ray over at deviantArt.

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2 Comments
  1. Ronald Ray permalink

    Thanks so much for your very thoughtful review.

  2. What a fantastic review! I have two of his previous books, and I shall certainly order this one as well. Your review only makes me more eager.

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