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.

Island NO. 2

Years ago now Malaspina College created a literary magazine called simply “ISLAND”. The early ones were edited by two poets, John Marshall and Stephen Guppy. Over time several more Canadian writers offered poems and short stories for publication.

Because Bob was the Managing Editor I have chosen one of his poems from the second issue to share with you here. (with his permission)

No longer in print, copies are available at VIU’s library and at UBC’s library.

The team spent many hours working on the magazine – often at the Occidental.

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.

Review: THE DRUM THAT BEATS

Review by Bob Lane

“In The Drum that Beats Within Us, Mike Bond shares his deep love for our magnificent western forests, mountains and wild open spaces, and his profound expression of the joys and tragedies of love and of life’s greatest existential questions.” – from the introduction

An award-winning poet and critically acclaimed novelist, MIKE BOND has been called the “master of the existential thriller” by the BBC and “one of the 21st century’s most exciting authors” by the Washington Times. His widely loved novels and poetry depict the innate hunger of the human heart for the good, the intense joys of love, and the beauty of the vanishing natural world. The flavour of the book is captured by this quote: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” – Carl Sagan

The poems are beautiful and range from the long lyrical expressions of love and nature to the brief expressions of a moments insight into a sudden feeling, expressed with a few words that capture the moment and the feeling perfectly:

Our skin – is it the air? Our soles the grass?

Truly is the earth our heart, as from the earth we pass? – From “Leaving Indian Caves, Montana”

“the best words can do is say how we feel” – From I CHERISH YOU

I cannot touch/ what hurts me / it will not go away – From SORROW

“Nothing/ will always/ be true” – From NOTHING

One of the recurring themes is time and our relationship with it in our daily walk toward the grave. Internal time with its mind-oriented observations and contemplations, its deep feelings and yearnings, its love of the earth and of others; time past with memories of other poets and cultural heroes and the words they employ to assist us in our existential acceptance of life and death; external time which flows inevitably and silently and personally to an inevitable end.

“Homecoming” is a short poem which looks back at Ulysses:

Or, this moving poem about an ordinary event in an ordinary life in an ordinary place:

One of my favourites is CRAZY QUILT: A poem about scraps: a dead brother, killed in Vietnam, a pregnant sister, a rusted tricycle, scraps that make a pattern, a pattern that makes a life. And, of course, a warning about war and being honest:

And finally, a recipe for life here and now:

“Touch the earth, come together with the grass/ that mats the fields, understand the joy/ of emptiness” – From THE POETS AMONG US

Bond writes in the preface, “Despite multiple lamentations over its demise, poetry is still alive and well – especially in one of its most ancient forms: lyrics. In recent decades it has even reached new heights of cultural and artistic prominence, and is the backbone of the major musical and cultural evolution of the twentieth century.”

Get this book of poems. Read them. Consider them. Live poetically.

Bob Lane is an Emeritus Philosopher at Vancouver Island University.

Thursday’s Poem for Karen

Love Song: I and Thou
By Alan Dugan

Alan Dugan

Alan Dugan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing is plumb, level, or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage’s nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it. I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

Alan Dugan, “Love Song: I and Thou” from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dugan. Reprinted by permission of Seven Stories Press, http://www.sevenstories.com.

arrangements

A treat for readers today! A poem by my friend Ken Cathers.

poetry

arrangements

by ken cathers

1

she had no idea
it would be
this bad. the in-laws

against her
from the start
found nothing right
to like.

inadequate for
promises made
in some far country.

she has come
as payment, already
feels whispers weave

malice
into every sideways
glance.

what a maze
the world is.

no one told her
he would be
this cold. inflict

his blunt private
silence. he stands
apart, back turned

in a ceremony
unrehearsed.

2

on the plane
she pulls threads
from her dress

unraveling everything
left behind

will arrive in tatters
a new skin
grown like lace

will follow
her husband’s brother
through the first dance

at her own wedding.
the smell of him
as he carefully

steps on her feet
exacting a kind
of payment

& she thinks
there is no chance now
of getting away

never was


KC