JUNE 6, 2019
CHRIS DOMBROWSKI TALKS a lot about “the gone” in his new book of poems — the gone being the dead — but he’s still here. These wonderful poems ask why, and how durable he might be, faced with so much trouble. Which is not fully enumerated in Ragged Anthem, but we understand from the photo of the red-white-and-blue car door on the cover that we all own it, and we’re all invited to bring whatever we’ve got. There is specific trouble, like deaths too intimate and suicide too tempting, and then there is the recently refreshed, universal disquiet about ourselves as Americans, the trouble fellow Montanan Thomas McGuane identified when he wrote the opening line to 92 in the Shade: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic.” The difference being we have a pretty good idea now. We are all living there.
An anthem is somewhat impossible at this moment, so of course it would be ragged. “Listen,” he says in the final lines of “I’m working on a building,” “the good dog at the back door is either whining or / you’re crying to yourself. The start of a song.”
It’s our song, yours and mine, but the details are Dombrowski’s and they reveal a rural life that defies and transforms the assumptions we bring to the countryside. He grew up fishing and hunting in Michigan and now lives with his wife and children in or near Missoula, where he teaches and works as a fly-fishing guide. My own father used to delight in referring to the University of Montana there as the “dance school,” redrawing the same hard moral lines between things that are useful or rooted in the earth and those that are urban and thus frivolous (like poetry, I guess), but you won’t find any of that in these poems. Here is an excruciatingly familiar contemporary life of parenting and regret and questions about one’s own sanity and behavior. The images of river and grassland and pheasant-flavored wind which pour through these poems are gorgeous, and frame a place and an idea so beautiful that people would defend it with their last breath, but they also display our madness in wild relief like a city can’t.
For what heaven are we living, or to what, as they say, do we return? “There must be rivers there,” Dombrowski writes in the poem that anchors this book, “Going Home,”
rivers strewn with moonlight and discarded
shopping carts, mouths of springs choked
with forget-me-nots, long slavering rills
threading rusted culvert grates, rivulets
splitting thickets, and boulder-cured cataracts
pocked by sewers pissing virulent strains of Time —
It’s America The Beautiful with a bad case of the blues, and hasn’t it always been? The republic is full of trouble and so are our personal lives, with the dead demonstrating the flaws in the system. Everything that has been torn open and exposed in this current America has been here right from the very start. Dombrowski pulls the shock and disappointment and love into sharp focus as a teenaged love suddenly develops a brain tumor. A father-in-law is in hospice. An acquaintance’s body found in the Grand River, but his head found in a tributary, the Red Cedar.
He’s visited repeatedly by the famous dead, such as the poet Ted Roethke, whose line he borrows, highlighted in italics — “In a dark time, the eye begins to see” — and brilliant and uncompromising painter Mark Rothko, who makes return appearances. They come because the narrator of these poems can hardly bear the pain he owns but is also reluctant to share it. In one of the finest poems in the collection, “Poem in Which I Lose My Wish to Drown,” the ghost of Rothko blows into the poet’s body and tries to claim for his painter’s brush the “orange translucence” of the salmon roe spilling off his knife into the bottom of the boat, but he can’t fully claim it, we quickly realize, because he is dead and the current writer is alive. As much as that is a condition governed by choice, the poet sees he is blessed to have this roe, to have the experience of the roe, and comments: “This voice calling mine / to carry, then melt into a blue he invented: / god that he was, I lord it over him and the gone.”
God that he was, we are alive, and we can lord it over the dead. This is a turn that occurs over and over in these poems. The way his one-year-old daughter says the word “moon” on a lakeside walk is proof there is love enough to carry on. His son, a runner, agrees to help butcher a pheasant for dinner, but declares, “I’m sorry. But as a runner I cannot cut the legs from another animal.” That is a teaching, the writer reckons, that must be pursued “far beyond the limits of pursuit.” The world, as it expresses itself, keeps transforming the terror into a song of wonder. In “Grove,” he writes:
Day’s great seed
flowering, as light quits the meadow,
all at once: You, once banished, again belong.
Marriage, we gather, was threatened by the narrator’s troubles, but seems to have formed a kind of island where the two of them can celebrate belonging. It’s not mentioned much except for the profoundly moving “Nuptials,” which begins by borrowing a construction Valéry used about poems themselves to say that love is a fruit found on the ground, and marriage the tree from which it grows and reproduces. He makes it clear that he’s done and said things that would kill that tree, yet during a trip together to Chile he says that if he would have knelt down and offered a new ring she would have said, “maybe, probably, not no.” Love can respark from trouble, and after his wife sings songs on a borrowed guitar comes another of the miraculous endings that characterize these poems:
The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs, the littlest birds …
The broth chock-full of celery, onions, lentils, bones.
Walking late that evening we spooked a fledgling
quail. It hovered and fell into the tall grass. Sudden as a plum.
You have to be alive to find new fruit on the ground. The songs only exist when they are sung. Dombrowski acknowledges the poet’s unique relationship to song in the italicized lines in this book, which are mostly quotations from other writing or lyrics from songs, such as No Depression rocker Richard Buckner or Elton John singing in falsetto, “Hold me closer, tiny dancer,” or the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues” — songs making sense of the trouble and the darkness and the horror, transforming it mostly through the simple of act of singing. Song and the wild music of the nonhuman can see us through.
O you who break us like the bottle
in which you hold our tears before sweeping
the shards skyward, yours is a perilous
radiance, about which the single passerine grasping
the beetle-ridden spruce above us
is more equipped to speak.
— “Early June, Missoula, Year of the Sheep”
The “ragged anthem” of the title turns out to be song called “I Hear Them All,” sung at a concert in Missoula by alt-country genius Dave Rawlings, with its fiery, hopeful, inclusive, revolutionary lyrics calling out for change, the only really overtly political message in the whole collection: “So, while you sit and whistle Dixie / with your money and your power / I can hear the flowers a-growing / in the rubble of the towers.” Amid the trouble in the land, voices human and otherwise call out for renewal and love, and if we’re mindful and open we “hear them all.” Reading these poems, we’re grateful to renew our relationship to the world once again, like the concert-goer who “raises his face to the crowd, one tear falling down his face like a bright stripe on an old flag.”
Dean Kuipers writes on the environment, art, and politics and is the author of the new memoir, The Deer Camp. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, the Los Angeles Times, Outside, and many other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.