I’ve read other collections of poetry about death. In fact, I’ve read other poetry collections about a poet/husband who memorializes his fellow wife/poet after death in a series of elegies. One of the most famous of this mini-genre are the poems written by former poet laureate Donald Hall about his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who succumbed to leukemia at the age of 47.
His collection Without is heart wrenching. Raw, precise, and confessional, the poems are narratives of grief. I read the book and tears streamed down my face. For him. For her. For their dog, Gus. Coincidentally enough, a dog (but he seems to be a spunkier sort of dog) also appears in When All the World Is Old, a new collection by John Rybicki about the death of his wife, the poet Julie Moulds.
And even though by topic the collections have similarities, the poems themselves are quite different. Like Without, the poems contain domestic scenes and hard-to-witness hospital stays, but the poems are ecstatic and highly charged, as if the prospect of death makes living all the more precariously glorious.
“When you are in danger, the adrenaline quickens; your senses are heightened. You realize, I am not dead yet, but I could be soon. And each day means more than it ever has…”— this is from the journal of Julie Moulds. Her journal entries are presented throughout the book as an accompaniment to her husband’s poems. In fact, we see this journal entry first, before any of the poems. They give, along with his poetry, an indication of how they lived.
One gets the sense that the couple was giddily, happily in love. In the poem “Julie the Valiant,” Rybicki recalls their wedding day: “Julie with her legs wide behind me/ So her pedals spun freely. We’re posing on that hillside afterward,/ with the “Just Married” signs/painted on cardboard and hanging from each set of handlebars…My lass in her vintage wedding dress.” In another poem, he writes about Julie vigorously waving good-bye out a car window, yelling, “I love you, Dude, I love you, Dude,” her voice/ always softer the second time with distance.”
Some say a poem is an extravagant riddle/ puzzle pieces in a white box…” This is from Rybicki’s poem, “A Mother Is a Living Blossom.” I have waited for someone to describe poetry in just this way. Indeed the best poems are riddles — designs of words that can be interpreted a number of ways. Although I enjoy poems that are immediately accessible and do not like poems which seem to confront me with an annoying “poetry elitism,” my favorite poems are the ones which I understand the first time I read them, but which take on more meaning with subsequent readings.
Rybicki’s poems are of this sort. Poems about a wife dying of cancer could be reduced to an anemic combination of melodrama and mundanity. Instead, these poems are strangely beautiful. They dangle before the reader — loose threads (an image that reappears in this collection) barely tangible, ready to float away before the reader even grasps what is going on. But I need to backtrack here. The poems often do begin with Moulds’ cancer and the sheer horror of chemotherapy, hospital stays, etc. However, as the poems continue they lift and divide, creating a duality between heaven and earth, health and sickness, hunger and weakness. As the poems continue, they implore for the impossible — for attachment, for Rybicki and his wife to somehow become one being.
He writes “…Can I catch my love on my tongue/ after she is gone…” and “I would bloom/and take Julie inside me, keep her/ safe…” Rather than succumbing to fate, Rybicki rails against his wife’s dying. When the nurses gently suggest that Rybicki should encourage his wife to let go, he cannot get to that point. He wants her to stay with such a ferocious love, an eagerness that is both understandable and poignant.
In his urgency, his poetry brings to mind the famous Thomas Dylan poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Rather than leaving this earth, Rybicki asks a mysterious God for more time, for his “lass” to stay regardless of her condition, regardless of the fact that time is running out. He knows that time is running out, yet he doesn’t want to know this. He clings to his girl, wanting to protect her from the unknown and even when she is gone, he believes that she survives somehow in the very air, in the echo of her breath.
The “God” in Rybicki’s poetry is uniquely Rybicki’s own and God is mentioned a lot. God is spoken of as if he’s a curious, yet almost “regular” bystander. So Rybicki chides God for not having a heart as in the poem “One Wish,” a six-line poem which ends with, “in the night sky over her head,/ where God’s heart should be.” In another poem he mentions a “flask close to God’s hip,” and in another he refers to God as the “great head clopper.”
Rather than pushing God farther away by imbuing him with human foibles, in Rybicki’s poems God feels very present, as a sort of staggering watchman who fails just as we fail. Religious imagery abounds in When All the World is Old. There are actual church scenes such as in the slyly humorous “We’re in Church the Day Before Her Bone Marrow Transplant,” which recounts a moment when Julie’s straw hat topples over and a young child scurries to fetch it and there are allusions to Julie’s religiousness when Rybicki describes the Virgin Mary pictures that Julie keeps.
But just as the poems about a hospital might morph into a strange tableau mixing real and imagined images, the poems about religion also have an underlying macabre feel.
Some of the poems become trippy, but in a good way. At one point, Julie begins hallucinating. In Rybicki’s poem, he recounts it this way: Julie says, “It’s the morphine, Dude. I keep seeing things that aren’t there. / Yesterday there was a river of blood rushing in the hallway.” In another poem Rybicki imagines their bones layered together in a casket. Bones, muscle, the swell of the ribcage all coalesce and converge in these poems, dissecting the body and then releasing the soul in an ecstatic play of words and images. In one poem Rybicki even imagines they are actors in a violent movie.
Jane Kenyon’s pet name for her husband was Perkins; Moulds called her poet/lover/husband “Dude.” I love that. The poems are infused with Dude-isms, bringing the sometimes other-wordliness of the poems right back down to earth. Just as Kenyon implored Perkins to be with her when she died, Moulds wrote a love letter to Rybicki: “Dude, if you’re reading this and I’m gone, you are my world.” Raymond Carver wrote a similar poem to his wife, the poet and fiction writer, Tess Gallagher. I go back to Rybicki’s line: “Some say a poem is an extravagant riddle…” I would slightly torque that phrase: Some say love is an extravagant riddle.