Angels, Love, and Old Men: A Quick Review of ‘Heavy Lead Birdsong’

In honor of National Poetry Month, I have tried to offer readers a few options for poetry that I believe is worth reading.  Obviously, this is a very subjective kind of thing, but I have tried to suggest poets who I admire, who are interesting and touching, and who may be somewhat accessible for the general reader who is perhaps not ready or not interested in more complex, dense poetry.

The poets I have mentioned so far (Stephen Vincent Benet, Adrienne Rich, and Hugo Williams, along with a couple others in passing) are all older, established, well-known, well-loved poets.  However, today I would like to suggest one of the U.S.’s new poets – a poet who will, I believe, one day be as well-known and well-loved as the others I’ve discussed.

His name is Ryler Dustin, and his book of poetry, published in 2008, is Heavy Lead Birdsong.

In favor of full disclosure, I should tell you that I know Ryler.  He is a student in the MFA Creative Writing program at University of Houston, where I was in the MA Literature program (and will soon be in the PhD program).  We have taken a few classes together, and know each other enough to say ‘hi’ in hallways and on facebook occasionally, but we are not, strictly speaking, “friends.”  Nor did Ryler ask me to promote his book in anyway (I don’t think I ever even told him I BOUGHT his book).  Therefore, this recommendation is based purely on my belief that Ryler Dustin is a fantastic poet who is worthy of your attention.

Heavy Lead Birdsong is about many things – love, family, religion, death, desperation, the things we leave behind and the things we hope to leave behind when we’re gone, art and beauty.  It is at its essence a song cycle to life – every part of it, the beautiful and the ugly.  Ryler moves effortlessly from the joyous, to the elegiac, to the whimsical, to the hilarious, and back again.  He manages to speak from his specific life experiences, while simultaneously speaking from a place that is recognizable (sometimes painfully so) to everyone.

The poems of this collection contain deep, often heavy, layered metaphors.  Yet the overall effect of these poems is one of openness, straight-forwardness, and clarity.  Ryler does not try to obfuscate or over-complicate.  He does not simplify what is rightly complex, but neither does he turn the simple things into a tangle of dense, cerebral language games.

I am not stating it too strongly to say that Ryler is one of those poets I wish to God I could be – he speaks of things that I feel, that I too have experienced, but he relates them in ways I could never hope to.

I think providing a few examples from the collection may be the best way to win you over, however.  So I’m going to hand the rest of this blog over to Ryler’s poetry.  Two of my favorite poems from this collection are too long to quote in full here, unfortunately.  “Blackbirds” is about angels; the narrator states:

“If I ever decided to believe in angels,

I’d believe in street wanderers

watching us from alleyways

and the sides of greasy dumpsters,

They’d communicate with each other

through the curling graffiti

that most of us assume is the work of some gang

They’d be fighting with shadows like schizophrenics.

They’d be sending us desperate blessings

from barrel-fire séances…”

And in “My Old Man,” the narrator tries to keep control of the old man ‘love’ that’s inside him:

“I took away his typewriter because the keys

     kept me up all night.

But now he scratches poems on the inside of my tongue.

     I don’t know how he gets up there.

He writes poems to strangers

     just to fuck with me.

He’s more like a leprechaun than a cupid.

     He falls in love with buildings.

     He falls in love with what people leave behind them:

         new hairpins and old architecture and apple cores.

     He hoards apples in my chest

         and now my chest is full of apples.

                My chest is growing into a tree…”

Finally, here is one whole poem for you.  The second-to-last poem in the collection, and one of several “birdsong” poems.

“Oak and Sunlight Birdsong”

When they cut me open,

they’ll find whole novels I swallowed too fast

so I could go back to playing video games.

They’ll find too many mirrors,

some filled with my face,

some with the reflections of strange birds,

most of them filled with the faces of girls

who have deep circles under their eyes.

/

Maybe because of my mother, overworked women

have always looked beautiful to me.

/

Inside the back bedroom of my spine,

they’ll find a lopsided movie projector

replaying a game of tag in a trailer park.

/

In my skull they’ll find a chair

by a sunlit window

and a bottle of spilt win

pooling like a black eye.

/

They’ll find a field beyond the window

and a book left fluttering on the sill.

/

They’ll never know if I left before finishing it,

or if I was just going back,

reading over all the parts in the story I loved.

It’s probably obvious by now that these are not the kinds of reviews you’d find in a literary journal, or even in a newspaper.  For one thing, in keeping with the brevity preferred in blogging, these “reviews” aren’t really long enough to do the books justice.  Second, I have tried to avoid all the usual sorts of philosophical and literary theory lingo one usually finds in a review, particularly because this blog is not really meant for an academic audience.  So, I worry that as “reviews” these posts have been somewhat useless.  However, I hope that my personal appreciation for these poets, and the inclusion of some of the poems from the collections, have done you some good.  In the end, I’m not trying to offer a critique, I am merely hoping more people will read the poets I love.

I hope this leads at least some of you to go and buy this book and support a young, new, hopeful, struggling poet who really deserves the chance.

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3 thoughts on “Angels, Love, and Old Men: A Quick Review of ‘Heavy Lead Birdsong’

  1. I thought I could say something confirming for anyone reading what you’ve said. It is a rare thing when somehow the distance between people is taken away. Especially just using words on a page. I never really got poetry before. Maybe I still don’t since other poetry doesn’t feel as good to read.

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