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Ron Slate

04-22-2013

Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

Ron Slate

To The One Who Hears Me

In the fifth year of friendship
he asked permission to tell his secret,
suggesting we go to a donut shop nearby.
Grand theft, drug dealing, a year on Rikers Island.

Now I have hustled you to this other spot
without even a cup of coffee to offer
nor for that matter to take you
into my confidence.

The great felons exceed the petty thieves
in intuition, the greatness unmeasured
by the size or value of what is removed,
but rather in the shuffle and the shift.

The shock was not in the details,
the carjacking of a famous quarterback's convertible,
"actually his wife's," but my realizing
he recognized the level of my listening.

This intimacy -- all to help him appear to grasp
the vexing source of manic energy
agitating everyone on the job.
In the telling, he in his suit became a white man

selling crack out of a red Saab
with the top down just three blocks north
of MLK Boulevard. His former roommate, the quarterback,
helped spring him early with a personal appeal.

He was saying: Make use of me,
all my skills are now at your disposal,
trust my boldness, and when you discover the way
into your fortune, take me with you.

We sat in the shadow of our office tower
and he knew whom he was talking to.
Just as I am speaking to you now,
not exactly waiting for your reply.

 

Cocoanut Grove

My life began with the fire,
glimmering in the birthwaters.
Beyond my bedroom wall
voices murmured a memory.

My father's mother died
with her sister in the ladies' room.
He said: If she had escaped to Shawmut Street,
been saved, nothing would be the way it is.
How is it? drifted over my route to school.

I stared at a wire service photo
fixed with brutal light, a firehose
snaking through soaked debris,
faces slack with shock, bodies
on the sidewalk covered with sheets.

How compelling for a family
to have such a story to relate.
Nothing would be the way it is.
To speak of a desirable world,
the listening boy leaning in.

November in Boston, women
collapsed waiting for their coats,
the ceiling's satinette billows
crackled and melted and were drawn
into their throats. A shoe
wedged in the revolving door.

A face pressed against glass.
The fireball: bright orange,
or bluish with a yellow cast,
or a blistering white.

The nightclub burned in minutes,
in 1942, with a sibilant exhalation.
My grandfather, sworn in, testified,
but a single night evades judgment,
bloated with unassignable blame.

Corrosive worm of remembrance,
allure of the lurid past,
the nozzle's snout regressing
down the smouldering street.
Adoring the damaged world,
we abused it, we refused
to let the seawind clear the smoke.

So now it's time to decide how to move
within spaces on the sites of catastrophe,
how to gaze and regard the atria and the lobbies,
even as the alarms sound,
evacuations rehearsed, the streets
filling with imaginary survivors,

just as the boy, surviving boyhood,
said so that's how it is, just before
sleep settled on him like asbestos.

 

Khrushchev's Foot

Looming before us is the pale, tender,
child-like foot of Nikita Khrushchev.
Size 7 or 8, "like a boy's" according
to Sergei, his son, on the lecture circuit.

A shoe meant a lot to a Russian foot,
something you'd tug off a frozen corpse.
A shoe meant a lot to a British head of state,
to tap a shoe on the rostrum in Parliament
expressed the highest degree of obstruction.

So when Khrushchev slammed his shoe on a desk
in the U.N., it meant megatons to us
but just a parliamentary flourish to him,
designed to make P.M. Macmillan, orating
unmemorably, feel at home.

Such a delicate foot, veined and moist --
it makes me want to reveal a secret,
an expendable one, declassified.

One night, when I was seven years old,
my father woke me at three A.M.
to scan the sky for the coming
of the satellite, Khrushchev's star.
There was nothing to impede the view,
not a wisp of cloud. So small and sharp,
bristling with speed, and gone -

it was then I knew I wanted to be
something to admire. Maybe to fear.
Of course, the massing of mistrust
between father and son,
our standoff in the Divided City,
had something to do with it.

Disclosed: the Premier told his aides
to place a shoe under his desk.
A single American penny loafer.
Agrarian reformer on a hot day in May,
he had walked into the General Assembly
wearing socks and sandals.

If a person's nature is harsh
and resolute, may it also keep us
vigilant and entertained.
Years later, the child may explain
exactly what the father meant to say.

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 Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

Click here to read an early draft of Cocoanut Grove

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Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

Ron Slate was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950. He earned his Masters degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973 and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He started a poetry magazine, The Chowder Review, in 1973 which was published through 1988. In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice president of global communications for EMC Corporation. More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers. He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.

The Incentive of the Maggot, his first book of poems, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. The collection was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize of the Academy of American Poets. The collection won the Bakeless Poetry Prize and the Larry Levis Reading Prize of Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Great Wave, his second book, was published by Houghton in April 2009.

Ron manages and publishes the website On the Seawall.

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Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

A Mini-Review of Ron Slate's poems "To the One Who Hears Me" and "Cocoanut Grove" by Contributing Editor Zach Macholz

After the resounding success of his first collection, The Incentive of the Maggot (Mariner Books, 2005)-which included the Bakeless Prize, the Larry Levis Prize, and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets-perhaps few contemporary poets' second books have been as highly anticipated as Slate's second collection of poems, The Great Wave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). Our featured poems this week, "To the One Who Hears Me," and "Cocoanut Grove," demonstrate Slate's remarkable talent for blending past with present and telling stories in a way that blurs the line between the interior self and outside world.

The first poem, "To the One Who Hears Me," is the opening poem of the collection. Comprised of eight quatrains, the poem features a speaker who moves between being told a story, reflecting on that story, and commenting on the story in conversation with a second person, likely the reader, as happens in the second stanza:

     Now I have hustled you to this other spot
     without even a cup of coffee to offer
     nor for that matter to take you
     into my confidence.

Though the first stanza teases us with his friend's "secret," which included "Grand theft, drug dealing, a year on Rikers Island," that story is not what is remarkable in the poem. While a white man in a suit "selling crack out of a red Saab / with the top down three blocks north / of MLK Boulevard" is certainly an intriguing tale, what's remarkable here is the speaker's ability to listen, truly and deeply, as his friend tells the story, to pick up on the subtext of the conversation: "He was saying: Make use of me, / all my skills are now at your disposal."

This ability to become the intermediary between the poem's subject and its reader is so fluid that the poem demands multiple readings-not because the movement is in any way confusing, but because it can only be properly appreciated after some consideration. The poem's final two lines-"Just as I am speaking to you now, / not exactly waiting for your reply"- are, in combination with the second stanza and penultimate stanza, a thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between the poet-speaker, the story he tells, and the reader.

If the speaker's direct address to the reader is what most intrigues about this poem, it's the poem's syntactical line breaks and subtle use of sound that carry it along. Consider the second stanza above: the consonance of "have hustled" and "cup of coffee" are balanced by the assonance of "other spot," "coffee," and "offer." The poem's pacing is even and deliberate, giving the poem a softness that mimics the intimacy present in the speaker's voice and the speaker's act of listening to his friend.

In "Cocoanut Grove," the poet tells the story of his paternal grandmother's death in the infamous 1942 fire that destroyed the nightclub of the same name and claimed the lives of almost five hundred people. Again, this poem plays with and comments on memory and the telling of stories:

     How compelling for a family
     to have such a story to relate.
     Nothing would be the way it is.
     To speak of a desirable world,
     the listening boy leaning in.

The poem's other stanzas-mostly five lines, but some four or six in length-move between three temporal settings: the speaker's recollection of his childhood conversation with his father; the night of the fire itself, particularly through photographs; and the speaker's present, from which he reflects on the other two. Again, these transitions are made smooth by the largely syntactical line breaks and the neatly compartmentalized stanzas.

While there is, again, subtle sound at work in this poem, "Cocoanut Grove's," real poetic genius lies in the masterful turns of phrase and rich figurative language that is interwoven among the more straightforward narrative details. One such moment opens the poem: "My life began with the fire, / glimmering in the birthwaters' and, later, "The nightclub burned in minutes, / in 1942, with a sibilant exhalation." Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the poem, language wise, is the metaphor of the fire hose:

     Corrosive worm of remembrance,
     allure of the lurid past,
     the nozzle's snout regressing
     down the smoldering street.

Here, as he does throughout the poem and the collection, Slate successfully intermingles past and present in a way that emphasizes how closely they are linked- indeed, how they are at times indecipherable from one another.

Ron Slate's second collection, The Great Wave, offers poems that, like the two featured poems this week, explore and sometimes dull the lines between past and present, that often tell a story within a story or are in some way reflective, and that balance relatively straightforward line breaks and syntactical structures with language rich in metaphor, simile, near-rhyme, and alliteration. It is a compelling and substantive follow-up to one of the most heralded debut collections in recent memory, and leaves us waiting, perhaps somewhat impatiently, for his next book.

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Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

Ron Slate's The Wave Reviewed by Judith Harris for The Quarterly Conversation

Twentieth-century modernists asked whether the fragmented modern self could ever achieve an enlightened perspective on external things. Ron Slate’s new collection, The Great Wave, demonstrates that, in the face of those worries, he can create psychologically complex and well-crafted poetry that also addresses the realm of objects now increasingly virtualized by technologies of communication. The postmodern subject must contend with a sense of being submerged in the global world of instant communication as well as with the ideological systems lurking within that global world of communication.

Indeed, one of Slate’s themes throughout The Great Wave is how to contend with systems we depend upon for personal stability that are nonetheless generally illusory and, actually, as unstable as we are. Slate’s poetry demonstrates that we are thrown into identities that are masked, even protected, by the mediation of the computer screen. As we become more readily available to others, we are quick to compare ourselves to others: we’ve become a very self-conscious age of dubious Prufrocks, trying to reconcile our own idiosyncratic behaviors with those of society at large. A social poet, Slate is interested in those human connections and reconciling impulses they engender as well as the complex ways individuality differs from the status quo, whether on the small stage of family relationships or on the global stage of international relations.

The Great Wave is divided into two sections, each focusing on a world that is ordinary in the sense that the speaker is moving through family, corporate life, and international travel, yet is extraordinary in the manner in which the poet perceives and presents it. A poem by Slate takes time and history along with it, rather than the other way around. There is enough consistency to the voice as to suggest a novelistic character—a kind of reinvention of an “innocent” trying, and failing, to make meaning out of a hollow world in which communication has been thwarted by misunderstandings between nations and people. Whatever Slate loses in giving up his investment in conventional wisdom is more than regained by his genuine honesty. The result is not only intelligent and entertaining but also deeply moving.
A stunning example of Slate’s ability to shock readers with unconventional psychology is the poem “Cocoanut Grove,” which relays the aftermath of the famous 1942 nightclub fire. The speaker’s grandfather owned the Cocoanut Grove, and the poem shows the family coping with the subsequent trauma. The fire resonates with historical allusions to Holocaust, (ultimately ending with the flames of the crematorium chimneys) and dares to question the value of constant reliving of trauma, even in the service of memorialization:

Corrosive worm of remembrance
allure of the lurid past
. . . adoring the damaged world
we abused it
we refused
to let the sea wind clear the smoke.

Defined from birth by the event of that fire, the mature speaker considers the lost opportunity of allowing the “sea wind [to] clear the smoke,” and the poem ends with the boy surrendering to living inside the architectural memory of the night club, only to have it burn down, time after time, until “sleep settled on him like asbestos.” Throughout Slate’s poems, we find a similar psychological formula at work—the speaker chooses to live authentically despite the expectations of others. Throughout Slate’s poems, we find a similar psychological pattern at work—where the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and living that life passionately and sincerely in spite of—or perhaps in conjunction with—a sense of frailty at the very core of self.

The book’s first poem, “To the One Who Hears Me,” reflects our accessibility to others and shows how easy it is to shift blame from ourselves to other people who are willing to hear us. It superbly exemplifies the complicity of the reader’s subjectivity in any reading of a poem. The poem opens in medias res, as if the conversation between these two people has been going on in the background as the reader opened the volume. In this speaker’s world, there are no beginnings or endings, only floating scraps of the mind woven into the situation at hand. It begins:

In the fifth year of friendship
he asked permission to tell his secret,
suggesting we go to a donut shop nearby.
Grand theft, drug dealing, a year on Riker’s Island

Now I have hustled you in this other spot
without even a cup of coffee to offer
nor for that matter to take you
into my confidence.

The great felons exceed the petty thieves
In intuition, the greatness unmeasured
By the size or value of what is removed,
But rather in shuffle and the shift.

The shock was not in the details . . .

The confidence that, in theory, lies at the heart of friendship becomes, in the second stanza, a request for the reader’s confidence. Yet any emotional stake readers have in the speaker’s fate is really uninvited, since the reader can’t be truly taken into the confidence of the speaker anymore than the “he” in the poem can truly take the speaker into his confidence. Judgment can’t be avoided any more than bias can; confidence is a constructed paradigm, and a ploy.

The third stanza establishes yet another rhetorical interloper, beyond the reader. Here is the voice of the speaker cloaked in the language of public discourse, acting as ventriloquist for the world. Here, Slate is questioning tradition, in the sense that literary tradition (with the exception of dramatic monologues) regards a poem as a platform for truth, not prevarication. The poem then expands its reach yet again: the friend (a doppelganger of the “I”), confessing, becomes representative of all transgressions. The speaker can now use him as material for his own fiction, even as he pretends he is shouldering his friend’s burden for his friend’s sake, and not his own.

The speaker and the reader are left to wonder what is to be done with this knowledge. In a sense, the convict gets away with his crimes and goes free—just as for Coleridge’s ancient mariner, the burden of one’s personal guilt is transferred to “the one who hears [him].” “What do we do with poetry?” the speaker seems to ask, since poetry makes nothing happen—it can’t support or deny a person’s innocence. It can only confide something when the actual “crime” or “event” is no longer relevant. The postmodern poem regards the mediating ego as fragmentary and incomplete—necessitating that something outside the self that is itself made of language be added on to create a comprehensible story.

Transgressions, of a more minor sort, also mark Slate’s “Four Roses,” in which he meditates on family relations and the interweaving of natural instinct with values, such as trust and law, jeopardized as they are by human foibles. Irony is the heart of any tragedy, and here Slate pays homage to a father who may resemble Willy Loman more than a son would like to admit; yet this is a father who tries to nurture a son as he would a blossoming yard, knowing that sometimes the best thing a father can do is defer to fate:

So quiet and undeveloped, the sadness of the father,
Like wet porcelain clay in a closet, organic and alert.
He drives to work in the Dodge with the back seat removed
To transport cases of liquor and wine
Between his two stores . . .

A paradigmatic incident is related, in which the son has been stopped by a patrol car and the cop “escorts [him] to [his] father’s store” and turns him in with a conscientious retort: “I figured you’d want to handle this yourself.” Forty years later, the speaker tells us how inconsequential these laws and violations seemed to his father, who had his own way of dealing with indiscretions.

For the son, however, the father has failed to live up to an ideal by allowing external things to undercut his own interests. This is an authority figure who is fatalistic, yet willing to waste time on trivialities: “He kept watering/the one rose bush with the sparse blossoms, adjusting the nozzle to a finer spray.” Slate allows skepticism to float subtly above conventional wisdom. The father does not go out of his way to restore the bush to health but simply lowers his expectations and adjusts the spray to the spareness of the bush. At least in this instance, less growth requires less energy. The chasm between father and son cannot be closed by analysis or by the kind of judgments that the speaker feels society calls on him to make. Instead, he forecloses on his wishes for ideal parents and, without sentimentality or regret, reveals the situation of many adults who are still trying to find loving parents who won’t disappoint them.

In many ways, Slate’s protagonist reminds me of Camus’ Meursault, who can no longer decipher the cues of the ordinary, habitual world in its social forms and thus can no longer participate in its cloying initiations, anniversaries, and memorials. The speaker is an outsider, adrift, interested in impersonal, even encyclopedic, themes, as he or she tries to make sense of the social codes that govern him. Trivial concerns are married to profound discoveries of the world’s “moments” and, to Slate’s credit, such seemingly unconnected “moments” can be assimilated together through the temperance of language and poetry’s music. Slate is indeed endowed with a perfect pitch and a distinguished metric. The very disjunctions of life can make the lines hilarious, when the fractures are set and melded together:

I witnessed the deliverance on a silent television,
my fingers disquieted a bowl of almonds,
a librarian called to say Constantinople was on hold.

If we expect poetry to tell us how the natural world corresponds with our moral world, how the epiphanies of a rose’s opening and closing mirror our own paradoxical existence, we would be unlikely to turn to Slate. If we expect poetry to resemble our psychologies so much that we can identify with a speaker’s emotional life—and somehow breathe through that speaker’s pores—we will be disappointed: Slate offers no glimpses into human interactions that can be practically worked through. Most interactions between human beings in these poems are totemic, conversations between the speaker and the world at large. They offer little or no comforting resolution to our sense of our own fragmentary existence.

But how much of experience is actually intact, coherent, and manageable? Is not our image of ourselves as knowing ourselves that is the most illusory of all? What is left to human territory are the boundaries we form, especially those that distinguish self-presence from the presence of others. We are made out of the social fibers of language that we share. In Slate’s work, there is no secure meta-place where the reader can imagine the speaker at home, or in nature, or interacting with objects. A reader of Slate’s poetry should look instead for the kind of pleasure one finds in exploration and for the insights one gains from being fully immersed in a dramatic monologist, who is, by his very being, a commentator on the social world. He conveys the wisdom it takes to give up one’s easy grasp of the things of the world—what Stevens might consider taking life for granted as a habit, rather than being fully present in it. He is a cerebral poet, and thus he offers readers something most poetry can’t: a means of understanding our human dilemma. If he can’t instruct us on a way out of our paradoxical condition, he can bear it for us.

 

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Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

An Interview with Ron Slate by Steve Davenport

Steve Davenport: Of the three poems, only “To the One Who Hears Me” employs stanzas with the same number of lines.  Four.  Why four lines and why this poem? Why utilize stanzas of an equal number of lines in one poem and not in another?

Ron Slate: “To the One Who Hears Me” is a ‘lobby’ poem, a doormat. It sort of sets the terms of engagement with the reader.  The “he” in the poem exploits situations.  At the end of the poem, the speaker identifies with him.  It’s a too-careful poem, specifying relationships and their limitations.  All but one stanza has an end-stop, a complete unit of argument.  Lawyerly, neat, no loose ends.  A tight organization prepared for rebuttals, therefore implying the mess it’s trying to negotiate.

SD: I was taught as an undergrad that stanzas indicate a lyrical movement in a poem whereas a single stanza tens to represent narrative. I’m wondering if you would agree with this statement at all or what you think he might have meant by this. I ask because I’ve never found much evidence that this is the case, but I think this speaks to the larger question of what stanzas do and how we use them…

RS: Stanzas are units of dwell-time.  Spaces between stanzas are blinks.  Japanese scientists recently presented evidence that blinking resets the brain, nano-moments required for refreshing our encounters with what’s happening. Necessary breakage.  I have no idea what your teacher was driving at.

SD: In the other two, “Khrushchev’s Foot” and “Cocoanut Grove,” the stanzas are of irregular length.  In both you begin with a four-line stanza and then move to five-plus lines.  Were those conscious decisions and what effect or effects are you aiming for?

RS:  Both poems use the stanza as a complete unit of thought or story.  The Great Wave is generally more reflective than my first book, especially in poems like these two.  It’s speechier. This was the impulse at the time.  Yes, consciously paced out. But there are also some things in the book that are more ragged and jagged.

SD: In all three poems, a narrator works with someone else’s material to organize a narrative: a friend’s in “To the One Who Hears Me,” a world leader’s is partly related by that leader’s son, Sergei, in “Khrushchev’s Foot,” and his family’s in “Cocoanut Grove.”  The lines “To speak of a desirable world/ the listening boy leaning in,” poignantly placed in “Cocoanut Grove,” seem also to resonate in the other two poems.  To what degree is it our job as writers, as poets, to listen, to lean in, to bring back material we can use to make or explain or “speak of a desirable world”?   

RS: They say memory is eternal, but I think this is said in bad faith.  Everything will be forgotten.  But for the writer, memory is a fountain or an archive of material. Short- or long-term memory – what else do we have?  We make new scenes out of the old ones.  But bringing-back-material in itself isn’t enough if the bringing doesn’t come across as necessary in some way.  I’m usually not satisfied with a poem that simply relies on its occasion, even if it contains an interesting memory or a piece of recalled narrative.

SD: There’s an unidentified “you” in  “The One Who Hears Me” that’s a little perplexing. Is this the poet speaking to the reader or the speaker speaking to some unnamed character in the poem? Why make this move?

RS: Yes, speaking to the reader, from the beginning, of course.  To the one who hears. There’s no move, just a blunt address at the end.

SD: “Cocoanut Grove” is an unusual poem in that it has this central, compelling narrative of the fire that has a great, imagistic potential but focuses, instead, on a more reflective, philosophical approach to its subject matter. Rather than grand images of flame and destruction, we get contemplative moments such as “To speak of the desirable world, /  the listening boy leaning in.” and “My grandfather, sworn in, testified, / but a single night evades judgment, / bloated with assignable blame.” What’s going on here?

RS: After September 11, 2001, The New Yorker published Adam Zagajewski’s splendid poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”  I love the poem, and somehow it triggered an opposing thought, namely that we can lavish so much attention on the damage that we make it a totem for a lifetime.  My poem vacillates in this regard.  It names the hurt and shows the burn. But it insists on a departure.  The latter results in what you call the contemplative.

SD: I like how “Khrushchev’s Foot” meditates on an object and explores that object in a poem that’s not really about that object. This is an exercise many creative writing teachers utilize in their classes. Where did this poem come from? How did you get from Khrushchev’s foot to “it was then I knew I wanted to be / something to admire. Maybe to fear.”?

RS: Nikita Khrushchev was the successor to Hitler in my 1950-60’s youth.  I’m from the “duck and cover” generation, hiding under my first-grade desk from his atom bombs.  This poem and “Four Roses” deal with my father and me.  So I just began with a few lines about my dad taking me out to the yard one night to watch Nikita’s Sputnick, the first satellite.  But I don’t indulge the reminiscing impulse too far.  The poem more naturally implied the difficulties between father and son as seen from the speaker’s adulthood.  Khrushchev, once a threat, had become the model of a worthy adversary.  I was seeing a German acupuncturist at the time who told me, in advance of therapy, that he would not work on a male patient who had not forgiven his father for any griefs.  He was serious.  This provided an additional incentive to finish the poem.

Click here to read Ed Carvalho's interview with Ron Slate

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Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews - Reading 

Click here to watch Ron Slate read "The Great Wave"




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