Reading Ryan Van Winkle’s collection The Good Dark (2015) I began to feel as though I had entered into a new world. The poems within are self-standing and distinctive, but together they create a harmonious vision of melancholia and reflectiveness that is so self-aware that the work presents an electric shock to the staid trends of lyric poetry, a genre which today is so often discounted as being apart from experimental poetry. Images are refreshed and renewed. The hackneyed symbol of snow becomes startling again in ‘Untitled (The Decemberists)’:
I return to snow
Like a salmon and like salmon I know
the agony of arriving. Is this any way to spend
a day, a life, ploughing snow? Maybe I should
let them be, let the crystals pile high, raise
the roof beams – maybe this week or next
I will place one rare flake in a cigar box,
leave it at your door by way of explanation.
Recreating symbols in this way—rain is also renewed to amazing effect, and appears throughout the collection—brings them back to life, not least emotionally, allowing us to feel snow and rain again. The Good Dark is, in a way, just another break-up album, but unlike most break-up albums it never relaxes into cliché or emotional simplicity. Instead, reading it is like encountering heartbreak for the first time, with all the visceral bittersweetness that brings.
Behind every work of art that commemorates a break-up there is of course a failed relationship, and the collection does not shy away from the tension between this origin in failure and the success of the artistic project it has bequeathed. The stunning opening poem, ‘The Duke in Pines,’ ends with this acknowledgement:
If I ever woke
with Ellington and pines you know I would not
wake you to say, would not write it on scrap
paper and leave it for breakfast. I’d just keep
Duke Ellington in Pines in my mind, walk with it,
take it to the pictures, buy it a pop, let it rest on my shoulder
during long journeys. I would smoke Duke Ellington
in Pines with friends and so I am today, smoking
Duke Ellington, wanting to pin him down, write him,
in pines, to you.
The collection is also undeniably sad, as this extract shows. There is romantic sadness (‘So,/I want to say sorry//for forgetting to hang/my shirt where my shirt belonged’ is one poignant example) but there is also the sadness of growing old, and of no longer being a child. This nostalgia, defined most usefully here as longing for a home that no longer exists, is conveyed by Van Winkle with the same precision that he conveys heartbreak:
before time was something we counted. Before the street lights,
after the street lights – everything changed.
The effect of this change upon the subject of the poems is also described in a few lines that exemplify the poet’s awareness of rhythm:
I was not always old
and stupid and mean. I was born
innocent. But the sun
made me brutal.
These two strands, of heartbreak and nostalgia, both so well articulated to the reader, make the collection into a kind of therapeutic space that remains artistically bold.
This is a sorrowful but cathartic collection. The Good Dark is painted with subtle hues of emotion that lead you, unprotesting and mesmerised, into the world within.
Ryan Van Winkle will be speaking at the SWC on the 2nd of August, at 7pm, in the CCA.
Words by Donald Marshall. The Good Dark can be purchased at http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2015/02/the-good-dark/.