Much of writing is a tug of war between the universal and the particular. The vague world at large and the individual in their high-definition specificity. Writers of course, have long agreed with Joyce’s ‘in the particular is contained the universal’. But what if one did not need to be in service of the other? Can poems do both, directly address abstract ideas of love, war and death, alongside distinct moments of colour, sound and touch? I wasn’t quite sure about this until I came across James Ragan’s first poem in this set. And then, the answer was so simple, so elegant, so gentle, I’m not surprised it hasn’t been discussed before. It lies, of course, in the relationship between the title and the body of the poem.
The title ‘A Killing During Occupation’ references Great Events. The poem (almost) ignores the weight of this context and proceeds to detail a small farm scene and its everyday choices. Death makes an appearance but the poem (almost) places it within the routine of farm life, making it as ordinary as it is brutal: ‘She knows the old country, how it forgives.’ The combination of title moving in one direction and the poem-body (almost) moving in another, creates a layering that might have been lost if the two simply echoed each other.
There is more, of course. This note could have easily chosen to focus on Ragan’s endings or the aptly anxious momentum of his lines — one sentence finds its way across four verses. But I must leave those happy discoveries for you.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
A Killing During Occupation
At the family chicken farm in Kiev,
a widowed mother twines the rope in her sack,
thinks how quick the spokes of the hen’s neck
will snap, tighter than the braid wheat spins
in the barn’s souring chaff. She smells
the air’s sifting hay, and says, the seeds
the chickens peck are fevered, and recalls
walking, hunched down along the trough,
beneath a rib of light, lasered through
the slatted roof along the rafter’s coop,
how all morning, her shifting eyes
had feared the course the earth might take
to shake the sun free, once the tanks
had occupied the city square. And what
difference would it make, she thinks,
if in the killing of a hen that August noon,
her lone child running a pigling,
roaring through the goldenrod, discovers
a new mourning— a wreath of feathers
sickled from his favorite gilder’s breast?
She knows the old country, how it forgives.
She knows the earth could never move
faster than the night stars, and the hearts
of lovers she still keeps safe in the warm
shawls of her memory will never again
beat to her crippled smile. She knows.
She halts. Her sudden eye is caught.
She clutches the noose and swift
as the half-sign of the cross, strangle-
grips the cackler’s craw, as if to silence
her own sobbing fear. The right hand
not knowing the other, cycling the knot,
has shucked the whimper off.
He no longer walks his sack, hands
wet along the park bench where he sleeps,
with hunched back, beneath a page of late news
and a piddling hat, the odor of bird stains.
His clothes fit any season, hand-outs
like his umbrellas, patched with oil cloth
and grease to keep the rain out,
to give the hope of living long
his talk pitch at each door,
where for a dime, he begs to show his art
of spinning parasols, of blowing up
the ribs without a hitch or leak.
To widows his wares are free.
Umbrella man of a dying breed, his marble
handles are pure antiques and well preserved
like saddle hide in ambergris.
Tonight at Mercy’s Cancer Ward
he prays for the raining in his joints
to leave his double back, for a soul’s
embrace with a last-chance nurse
who once, for a scone of bread, he bartered
the seduction of her affection, with hosiery
for her feet— and a parasol, spinning hues
of rainbows without a hitch or leak.
Visiting the Cemetery of the War’s Unknown Dead
These are backward years.
. Dogs are not always dogs
or what they seem
. to drunks or graveyard walls
who, merged in sleep,
. pose for low whimpers
of midnight’s soft wind.
. Dogs, like grave diggers,
hunt bones for reunions.
And whales are not always whales
. or what they seem
to fish or fishermen, who’d rather
. see them spewed aground
like hunks of meat,
. beached rot-backs,
spawning worms with instinct.
. Whales, like worms,
control the spot they breed.
We over-estimate our powers
. of memory, the mind’s
dark tree, hatchet, wind, stump,
. the swift slice
of a brain cut to size.
We leave such little proof
. of ourselves.
Unless by taming dogs or whales,
. sonars of intelligence,
we can teach the weight
. of rumps and knees
and riders, cocked like triggers,
. teaching death.
We thrive on amnesia, forgetting
. that power breeds
in the minds of despots,
. no matter what they seem
to all themselves or privately.
. Even gods lose their minds
like children’s toys
. and are misplaced as simply
and as often
. as they seem to matter.
Image credits: Giacomo Ceruti, Still-Life with Hen, Onion and Pot. Wikimedia Commons.
With poems in 35 anthologies and 15 languages, James Ragan Ph.D, is an internationally recognized author of 10 poetry collections, including The Hunger Wall, Too Long a Solitude, The Chanter’s Reed, and poems in Poetry, Los Angeles Times, NAR, Epoch, Bomb, World Literature Today, Pratik, etc. With 3 plays staged in the U.S. Athens, Moscow, Beijing, he has read for the U.N, Carnegie Hall, PBS, BBC, and for 7 Heads of State, including Vaclav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev (along with Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney) at the 1985 Moscow Int. Poetry Festival. Honors include 2 Litt.D’s, 2 Fulbright Professorships, NEA Grant, Emerson Poetry Prize, 9 Pushcart Prize nominations, the Swan Foundation Humanitarian Award, and runner-up for the Poetry Society of America’s Gertrude Claytor Award, Walt Whitman Center Book Award, and London’s Int. Troubadour Prize, among others. He is the subject of the Arina Films documentary, Flowers and Roots, Ambassador of the Arts, awarded 18 Int. Film Festival recognitions, and Platinum Prize at Houston’s Int. Film Festival. He directed the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California (25 years) and currently serves for 26 summers as Distinguished Professor of Poetry at Charles University in Prague. web: jamesragan.com