On the Poetry of David Ray

David Ray’s is a voice with poise and spiritual subtlety, while remaining direct and engaging. There is a strong metaphysical element to his verse that is rendered approachable and, at its most challenging moments, even vulnerable. Ray’s poetry is about the human condition, and above all else, shows humility and respect for difference in people. He manages to highlight relationships between people and place that many poets don’t even glimpse in a lifetime’s writing. He uses his own experience, his own sense of growth and familiarity with the landscape he was brought up in, his relationship to his father and through his father a relationship with the land and the ethos of “dust bowl” America.

There is real pathos fused with the respect in his work. It is this tension which heightens metaphor, making high poetry out of the colloquial. He is readable and yet never compromises himself technically. His poems are beautifully crafted – working narrative voice and lyric into vignettes, tales, and “paintings” that work through and against each other. A Ray poem can be read individually; it can also be read against all other Ray poems and against the traditions and cultures that inform it and them. These include not only the folklore and speech of the plains, but the legacy of Thoreau, of European art and thought, of Indian mysticism, of settlement cultures, and an overwhelming sensitivity to the dispossessed and colonised.

What is especially rewarding about this interactive oeuvre – so beautifully captured in the selection here – is the movement between different locales. Be it Greece, Australia, India, New Zealand, or Iowa, Ray is “at home”. His camera is not out to steal the soul of place, to colonise and reinvent it for the “folks back home”, but rather to engage with it as a discerning and concerned eye that recognises boundaries and marvels at what forms these; how much they invite – or reject – crossing. This translates into the “spiritual subtlety” I mentioned. There is a sense of spirit in all Ray poems, no matter how much sadness or loss. And his voice moves from profound elegy to elation and joy – almost rapture. “Loss” is constantly being negotiated; the poet feels obliged to find joy when darkness threatens.

Ray is also a master of irony. Not the in-your-face kind, but the wry sideswipe, the gentle dig, and stoical acceptance. Critical it can be, but always recognising that to err is human. Those tensions again. A beautiful poem, on the nature of memory and loss, that illustrates these tensions is “The Buffalo Waiting Room”.

Another hallmark is Ray’s sensitivity to childhood. From terror to delight, he remains open to the translation value of memory as one grows older, and is able to reinvent his voice through examining his relationship with the past as it changes through recollection. A biting poem in this vein is the title poem; another masterful piece is “Chiggers”.

I first came across David Ray’s work during his visit to Australia in 1991. Resident for a few months at the University of Western Australia, he quickly became an active part of a poetry community very concerned with the issues of isolation and what constitutes an independent poetic voice – the language of place and identity, especially vis-à-vis an international community. The issues that concern Ray in his poetry were immediately available and of interest to poets in Perth – among the most isolated capital cities in the world, if not itself the most. Also a community polarised as “they”, or the “other”, within a vast nation in which the real “centre” is the Eastern seaboard, specifically the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne. These in themselves are cities of the fringe in relation to the power centres of London and New York.

Here was an “international” poet translating his concerns into many different geographies. The peacocks of HeartStones are peacocks I know well from the University of Western Australia – interesting in themselves, but also symbols of exoticism – “imported ‘objects'” – and the relationship between the creative spirit and place, between the self and the external world – “One more day we are close, you and I/ while I fretfully prepare for my departure.” Here we have codes and translations from the fringe. And elegy is never far away. Neither is his father’s barbershop.

One is given the overwhelming impression through his poetry that Ray is not a materialist. It’s true, there’s an aesthetic at work here, but it’s in the production of beauty through the natural and spiritual worlds. Without seeing it as an end in itself, Ray can recognise the beauty of the “thing”. It’s all interconnected. Take this magnificent book – it contains a fine selection of Ray’s material from 1965 through to the mid-nineties, and is also an objet dÕart. This is not gratuitous. The pleasure that we obtain from touching the paper, of engaging with the physicality of the text – the font working with rather than against the eye, the comfortable leading and use of the curatorial space of the page – draws us closer to the very human and spiritual concerns of the poems. We ask ourselves whether this is complicity, or something finer – possibly an aesthetic dynamism?

The artwork found throughout the book engages not only with the text – the poems – but also with the materials and layout of the book. The paper creates a particular texture, as a canvas, as the surface of object/s being photographed. Once again, there’s the interaction between the artists, the subject, and the curatorial space – the place of presentation and viewing. This is the key to Ray’s poetics, and is found over and over in his poems.

We see it in a poem like “Reply From New Zealand” with its epistolary style, its tone of confession and meditative rumination, of ethical and spiritual consideration, and above all, interaction with place – with the map, with the zodiac, with the exact and the expansive. Van Gogh is mentioned, as is the map of New Zealand, and “As for miracles, last weekend across the glittering bay/ we saw an albatross nest.” The photograph that accompanies the poem is sublime in its starkness – black and white, somber, signposts to a No Exit, to Murdering Beach, to Purakanui 6km, to Long Beach-5km, it leaves us with a mass of contradictions. The light is overwhelming – bright but tinted with grayness. It’s simple but full of ambiguities, almost contradictions. And this is the stuff of great poetry. The picture is also a poem. It is a stilled metaphor.

The variety of artistic work in the volume is appropriate, given the range and interactive nature of Ray’s poetry. And irony is one of the features of Richard Farley’s work that balances its surface nostalgia. Read the same in the Ray poems. Take “Custer’s Last Stand” as an example. Endre Rátkay is a very different artist whose work appropriately illustrates Part II, “That Fantastic Space”. The work is iconic, prophetic, and haunting in an “orthodox” way. A synthesis of Christian and pagan mysticism creates a tension so often explored in the poetry. Take the illustration on page 80 and the poem that accompanies it, “On A Fifteenth-Century Flemish Angel” – “That you are dealing here/ With a down-to-earth angel,/ An angel whose wings belong, organic/ As a birdÕs: not like those Greco Angels, sour-faced and grim with doubt.” The colours are stunning. This is an illuminated manuscript and the precursor is William Blake!

Heartstones is a prophetic book. It’s spiritual and physical, it’s a book of the everyday, and of the “cloister” – the meditative space. It is of geographies seen and unseen. And it is a book of friendship and communication, of love and loss. The line from William Stafford that drives the fine poem “Variations On A Line By William Stafford” is germane: “the darkness around us is deep.” David Ray is someone whose voice does not live in isolation, but brings warmth and light to the darkness that we all feel at varying distances from our lives. His poems see, whatever the quality of light.