(Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2014)
Imagine lying under the covers in the chilling winter dusk, feeling blissful in the comfort, yet, perhaps also finding it disconcerting to think of the freezing temperatures outside and how cold wreaks havoc on this earth.
But the warmth enshrouds you. You could lie there for your entire life and be content, you think.
No— you know that’s not true.
Wrapping yourself in your comforter, you venture out your back door for a walk in the darkening woods; an attempt to experience both cold and warmth simultaneously. Your Moon, Ralph Angel’s newest collection of poems, is like this stroll—a familiar path chilled by the shadows of nightfall. Looking down, you are surprised to find yourself holding hands with your beloved.
Angel’s poems both trouble and comfort the reader. They are foreign yet familiar. Each one is a revelation, as Angel intuits love beside him—“All night long/ the faint outlines of faces you’ve loved.” In the opening sections of the book, Angel’s abundant images are challenging, as in these representative lines: “The long exhalation. Of baskets and flutes.// Of bracken. Of reed. Of cypress and olive, pelvis and spine.” Yet as the poems unfold one from the last, comprising a long meditation on a hazy emotional territory that is held just out of reach, each new image begins to reveal its uncanny context. In “Three Figures,” Angel acknowledges his desire to keep the difficult emotional plain at a distance:
I’ll never tell you
about the time I suffered most. What’s most painful
is most hidden, even from me. Anyway, there’s
nothing I can do about it. It emerges
here and there, I’m sure, and you could find it
if you want to.
In the more lucid poems of the final section, he discloses the burden: losing his wife. In “Skin,” for example, he tells us, “When/ you died/ I became/ you.” In retrospect, the reader can see that Angel has been alluding to this loss throughout the entire collection; it is the deep underlying sadness that has been challenging to define. Still, always alongside that loss, Angel’s affection is present. As intriguing as the poems of the first three sections are, the works in the final section, with their weight and focus, are unparalleled. These latter poems are controlled and direct in a refreshing way, even among the heightened sadness. Of course, much of their power relies on the fact that they follow the somnambulant poems of the previous sections, and one is grateful for each moment of the strange journey Angel has woven through the first two-thirds of the book.
When the final line is read, and you become aware that you are still standing in those frigid woods, you realize it is Angel’s hand you have been holding. And, adoring ambiguity so, Angel seems to discover in his frequently undefined you’s that perhaps, in some way, you, the reader, are the one beside him, and he has loved you his whole life.
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Jake Bauer is an MFA candidate at Ohio State University