Exploring the shadows in Plato’s Cave: ‘Tricks of Light’ by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Detail from the book cover of Tricks of Light. Hands cast shadow rabbits over the face of a real fox.

How do we know what we know? When will we be sure? Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Tricks of Light (2020) explores these questions in poetry.

There are a number of themes in this book, which contains over 80 poems. One theme is human connection. Rutkowski admits to not having many social needs, though he finds it important to keep friendships alive so they don’t dissolve into memories (“Drifting Apart”). He describes becoming an empty nester and having no need to fill the space with a pet (“Empty Nest”) and of sometimes wanting to get away from even himself (“Being Alone”). He leans into the subtle distinction of accepting a hug or reciprocating it (“Personal Space”). An animal, too, he notes, reacts to the way it is held (“Holding the Chicken”).

Some poems describe a sense of otherness, as when he is asked if his dental work was done in another country (“Foreign Fillings”), or no one has heard of his small hometown (“Where I’m From”), or other people of color don’t seem to accept him (“Nothing in Common”), or he’s asked to perform a domestic task on the Jewish Sabbath (“God Will See”). In our lives, more generally, we encounter so many situations in which the conflicting expectations of two people are juxtaposed, and this type of situation, too, is brought up. Who’s encroached on whose lane: the motorist or the bicyclist (“Close Call”)? Who’s suffering culture shock: the tourists or the locals (“In the Valley”)? For that matter, how do we even know when we are inhabiting our own words and not merely someone else’s interpretation of them (“Owning My Speech”), especially when a word like “afraid” cannot encompass everything we feel (“Compulsion”)?

Loss is a common theme in literature. Words, after all, are shortcuts to recall what we’ve once known. But loss is even more primal than language, as even a turtle wordlessly remembers her eggs that were taken (“Brief Life”). Almost anything can remind us of a loss, big or small. When we break a glass, we are upset not so much about the glass but about being reminded of something else that has broken (“Glass and Tears”); similarly, the name “mourning dove” is assigned because the bird’s call is a sad sound to our ears, though the bird itself is not sad (“Farmers and Dove”). Such illusory losses can be confusing, and we may have to wait for an answer. Like fishermen, often we don’t know whether we have caught something or nothing at the end of our lines (“Man Fishing”).

Tricks of Light includes musings on money. Rutkowski keeps track of his own pennies and spends them on candy, yet he won’t bend to pick up a penny, an act that somehow feels different to him (“Pennies”). He is willing to give away money, but he recognizes that someone must first give him money before he can pass it on to someone else, as money flows in a circuit (“When Will I Get Something to Give?”).

And, yes, there are mysteries and tricks: of sound (“Seal Sounds,” “Noise to My Ears,” “Beef Brisket”), of light (“The Speck,” “Lights in Darkness,” “Moon and Airplane”), and of velocity (“View from a Bridge”). Sometimes we simply do not know whether we are looking at a snail or a wad of gum until we lean in closer (“Mimicry”). This kind of sensory illusion gives the book its title. But the idea of “tricks of light” is also, I think, a more general commentary on knowledge. A great deal of what we think we know, whether from direct experience or otherwise, is illusion—shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

Understanding our being in terms of our place: Poems in ‘Rift Zone’ and ‘Last West’

“What is being?” Philosophers often ask this, but when the proposed answers are shrouded in jargon, the effort may cloud more than it reveals.

We already know in our bones what being is because we are. “To be” is to exist in a place, to grow, to break off, to feel how this ties you to what has come before and what is still to come. That’s why I often turn to poetry. It’s both sensory and intellectual. It awakens the personal core to new ideas, or to old ideas perceived from new angles, and it freshens the question of Being with a sense of immediacy.

An old-fashioned car in the California desert. Black-and-white photo. Image from Tess Taylor's poetry book Last West.
Detail of a photo in Tess Taylor’s Last West.

Tess Taylor’s new poetry collection Rift Zone is titled after California’s geological fault lines. “Continents are milk skin / floating on cocoa,” she writes. (“Preface: Pocket Geology”) Next, she homes in on “a radiolarian outcrop / of Jurassic limestone” near where the Golden Gate Bridge is today, where one may find “Hidden in a cave, Ohlone petroglyphs,” the site of a town eventually populated with a “bowling alley, Wild West Gun Shop.” (“Song with Schist & County Line”)

Taylor remembers girls who, in high school,

Decorated each other in white reindeer lichen.
Recited the Tao Te Ching. Had sex on a cliff.
Reindeer lichen was the revolution.
Our new breasts in rain were revolution.

“Berkeley in the Nineties”

This immediacy and specificity is where we affirm and cannot argue against our being. These experiences are as far from illusion as we can get. What algorithm today can give us wild horses, “the rippling ponies / that roamed outside Fremont?” (“Train Through Colma”)

As a poetry collection, Rift Zone is split by personal markers of threat and survival: the killing of a classmate, a husband’s illness, the environmental risks inherent in homeownership, the protection of a newborn, an organized hate group…an elk skeleton. “Now ferns glisten, redwoods blacken. / Now cold buckeye seed & lemons come.” What of these redwoods? They measure the passage of time; they undeniably exist. “Each ring is still a living record; / a transitive, ongoing, / giant conjugate for being…” (“California Suites”)

We are tied to the place where we live, this place of “Blackberry, wild plum, all overhung” (“Song with Wild Plum & Thorn”) and also to other continents from where our ancestors came. “Our gravestones are signposts to everywhere: / Yun, Kobayashi, Menendez, Revere.” (“Song with Poppies & Reverie”) To be finally buried in one place forever is also to open up an imagined everywhere. “Our life is splattered star.” (“Song in Which We Yet Sidestep Disaster”)

Book cover: Rift Zone by Tess Taylor
Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

Another recent book of Taylor’s, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, is also rooted in California. It celebrates Dorothea Lange’s 1930s cross-country travel out West. After choosing to stay in California, Lange photographed migrant workers during the Depression and, later, she documented the internment of Japanese Americans. What Lange saw then is juxtaposed with what Taylor sees today.

It is a story of the “industrial almond fields” and the people who are “unhoused, / unsheltered also migrant / also escaping fleeing / or being moved along—” They work with the “hard rhythmic toss of kale; / & row by thorny row”. The detention facility for immigrants is “Surrounded by at least three gates. Four levels of barbed wire.” This, too, is a question of being; after all, it’s about what it means to “get treated as real people”.

When you live beside train tracks
you pause so much between the trains

it changes how you think.

In Inyo County, there are “mineral mountains / goldenrod & rabbitbrush. / Burnished creosote rusts away for miles—” Any of this natural landscape may be photographed, but “what does it mean to photograph home?”

Book cover: Last West by Tess Taylor
Last West by Tess Taylor

Part of poetry’s power lies in how it raises the question of being, reminds us that there are many words with which to describe our being, and helps us to feel our existence and thereby assures us that we are here right now.

The feeling of danger in ‘Shakespeare for Sociopaths’

Sociopathy—the lack of conscience or empathy—has long been a subject of interest for psychologists and criminologists who have defined and diagnosed it as a mental disorder. Philosophers, too, have their own discussions about how much of moral awareness is inborn and how much is acquired. And what do poets say…? Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths (Hedgehog Poetry, 2019), while perhaps agnostic on the definition of sociopathy, takes an entirely different approach: she examines what it feels like to interact with dangerous people.

Rag doll posing with a copy of Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths.

Garth’s sonnets are about poignant moments with unsavory characters. She depicts sociopaths she saw on the news; those she encountered at work (her jobs included “stripping and court reporting”); those she got to know in her neighborhood and in her bed; and those she invented as fictional characters.

One example from each of these four sections:

“A body wrecked requires the best of care. / Your mother with you, examination room, / he talks to her, his hands everywhere.” (“Expensive Leotards,” about a young gymnast abused by her doctor)

“A sting they call / the trap he’s tangled in. A reptile calm, / a predator who still has teeth and tongue.” (“Dora,” about a man who boards an airplane with a doll to bribe a young girl)

“Such faces, flush with heat and glimmer, clone / a sun’s salvation, sequence stretched to Mars, / but I pick you.” (“If the Star Fits…,” about online dating)

“one last acidic sip three letters reveal. / One word at bottom, tea all done. / in cursive, lavender, and it is ‘run.'” (“Insanitea,” about a threatening conversation over tea)

The ordering of the sonnets suggests increasing levels of nearness to danger. After all, a crime overheard on the news can be absorbed impersonally. Sociopathic behavior encountered in the workplace—even if it is part of the job—is riskier, and the sociopath’s presence is felt. A sociopath in the home is of course an intimate disaster. And, lastly, to find such a character in one’s imagination suggests that the bits and pieces of previous threats have been drawn so near that they have finally been absorbed and can appear in one’s own dreams.

Garth doesn’t inquire academically why it’s wrong to treat people like playthings, nor does she interrogate the details of the crimes. Instead, her poems focus on the feelings that the interactions produce. Even though (and perhaps because) she has been hurt by such people, she draws these images romantically. She shows us the aesthetics of the dance. Some poems focus on the predator; others, on the prey. To be entranced or ensnared by a sociopath is to lack a simple path out. “Run,” indeed, if you can.

That may be a shortcut through much psychological and philosophical musing on this topic: Revel less in the bewitching “reptile calm” of the adversary, and focus more on how you feel and what you’ll have to do to escape.

SS: Letter from Laura

As readers will know, Laura is a contributor to the Blog, who has written for us several times, and who has been missing for a time. But, she is back! In her moving and important letter she explains her short absence and offers some wise suggestions for us all.


Dear Bob,
You don’t know what you have until is gone. That is the idea I want to explore here. How is that possible? And what is to know that I have something? And why does it matter? I think I’ll start with the last one.   I’ve had a tough year of cancer treatment. Before I was diagnosed I was riding my bicycle, eating fairly well, although eating too much sugar perhaps.  Those bikes rides in the backcountry were so energizing, so pleasurable, so refreshing. I miss them. I miss being fully mobile and strong. I keep thinking that the day I am able to ride again I am going to savor the journey even more. But I will savor it more only because I’ll have the memory of being impaired and how terrible the feeling of being sick is. As with other things, I think that a person can live not appreciating enough what she enjoys moment by moment. But I appreciated my rides before. It is only that I miss them because I love riding free. It is like a wine lover having a glass of nice wine after a long period of abstinence. His pleasure level will be higher than before. Now think of something much simpler. Every day I wake up, get up and walk. But I can’t say I enjoy these actions as I enjoy riding a bike, so it is a different feeling, a deeper one. What happens when I am sick in bed, with a bad backache or healing after surgery? That day I miss my capacity to get up and walk and it just dawns on me the complexity, perfection and wonder of moving to stand up position and how the body holds itself and stands there with no pain or difficulty and then starts to move legs and arms automatically with such a beautiful synchronicity and grace, without pain or difficulty. Every basic function my body has is terribly missed when for some reason it can’t perform. I miss them so dearly simply because I understand all these things are part of being human and being able to move and explore. And as I gain this appreciation, then I care more and I feel more in tune with my body. Not so much before and even less when I was a teenager. Does it matter that I really comprehend what nature has given me and what I have now? Yes. It is important to have this connection just so I live more deeply my moments on this planet and I take better care of myself and others.   By saying that it is important to really comprehend what nature has given me and what I have now means that that understanding is not so straightforward. You can ask a healthy 6 year old whether he can hear and he would obviously answer he can. So he evidently knows what capacities he has; same with me. So it is not just awareness. To know you have these amazing abilities is something beyond the mere realization one can perform some action. The thing is, you gain something to add to this simple awareness when the capacity is taking away. You marvel and realize how miraculous (not in the religious way) is. And in that moment of enlightenment you say, wow! I have it!. But it is this going to the nothingness what makes knowledge complete and perfect. I wonder, though, whether this fleeting moment can leave a permanent print. Or will I go back to take things for granted? I want to keep feeling the glory of what my body does and how it lets me move and experience. Routine, I guess, is what could take me back to the old not knowing what I have. The job is to do anything possible to not lose that knowledge.     I wake up feeling so happy that I can stand up. It is real happiness. Living the moment is what matters now. I want to be always thinking deeply about the want of simple abilities and the joy of having them.  Because I want to know well what I have before it is gone.
Laura.

Poetry as a Way of Knowing -2

john [301712] john m [301711]

John Marshall was a student of mine in the first year of Malaspina College and is (in spite of that?) still a friend. When I think of him as a student I remember his creativity and a tendency to “kick against the pricks”. In first year English I assigned a research paper. John wrote a long poem. He worked on the college publication “omniverse” and got us both in trouble with the administration.

One of the benefits of having a poet for a friend is the quality of the birthday cards one receives:

Birthday cardOf course, we are both older now and less likely to get in fights in pubs or peddle bibles on the mainland. But let me say this, John is my friend and he used to write some kick-ass poems.

A Ken Cathers’ poem

poetry

sons

[click on the title for a properly formatted version]

my  father left
no words

to relieve this
emptiness.

a quiet man
from a silent
country

he left no stories
to grow on
no dreams
to believe.

my sons
I come from a
dark settlement

know only the music
of cries
& whispers:

                       a sad inheritance.

my sons
I have spent
a whole life
rebuilding

constructing a shelter
of words
against the storm
I cannot escape

part of everything
you have
so easily
left behind.

sanctuary