review by José Angel Araguz
One of the things I admire about Ruth Danon’s Word Has It (Nirala Publications) is how the collection brings together via short lyrics and prose poem sequences a vibe of being a spy of language. I say “spy” and mean specifically a sensibility able to evoke the range of curiosity, intrigue, and vigilance that is associated with the heightened awareness one might associate with a spy. In “Floridian,” for example, we have the following lines:
Unseasonable chill in the palms.
Fronds I mean, and also the cold
fingertips that touch them.
Here, the wordplay that occurs across the punctuation and line break on “palms” of the first line, and the addition and jolt of the second line’s “Fronds” emphasizes both the human and plant double meaning in the words as well as the speaker’s awareness of this connection. It’s a pun of sorts rendered in a tone that is intriguing, as the formulation of “Fronds I mean, and also” have an air of nervousness as the lines continue back to the original human sensory association of “cold / fingertips.” This back and forth of sensory and conceptual perception is engaging for the way it creates an air of heightened awareness which has us in a different place than expected given the title “Floridian.”
This engagement with the unexpected continues throughout the book. In “Domestic,” there are three moments that riff on the concept of a shot of whiskey around which the poem is developed. Here are the opening lines:
“Shot of whiskey,” she thought, from
nowhere, not because she ever drank
the stuff, but because it seemed the kind
of random association one might have at
the end of a long day.
These lines are effective in the way they intellectualize associations around taking a shot, using phrases like “drank / the stuff” and “the end of a long day” to ground the poem in a heightened sense of the familiar. This familiarity is then riffed against in moments like the following:
“Shot through with light,”
was an expression she liked. Radiance or
the idea of glowing from within seemed
a worthy aspiration.
Here, the word “shot” from the start of the poem is repeated but changed from noun to verb. This change evokes the sensibility of the “she” being described who has gone from the poem’s opening “random association” to this aspirational one. It is a moment of hope, in a way, where the interrogative tone is left for a moment. This moment is short-lived, however, as the poem quickly narrates how “Unruly she was,” and then takes us to the ending where “She looked ahead, steady / on her feet, or so she thought.” The charm of this poem is how the established heightened awareness takes the idea of a shot of whiskey at the start and through the poem’s development gestures towards inebriation as a state of being due to overthinking.
There’s a moment in the sequence “Divination” that presents an encapsulated version of this idea of heightened awareness:
Consider now that the birds scrawl their
messages and you are too far from the sky to
read their words.
It is in asking “What then?” after the logic of birds scrawling messages we can’t read that the heart of the collection pulses. The human spying we do of language, so to speak, is frustrating work. At the end of the day, we don’t know the world through words, we know only words and persist with our vague sense of the world. The act of writing in Word Has It is imbued with a charge of responsibility and need despite this frustration, however. In “Birding” (below), the poem’s play and progression of thought show how much can be seen in light of having our “stupid eyes closed.”
So listen, let me confess, I do not live in a world
that lends itself easily to description or evocation
or adoration. In my ordinary life I face one brick
wall on one side and another brick wall on the
other. I do not even have words to distinguish
one brick wall from another and if there are
windows in yet another wall they give over to a
wall on the far side of any small opening. I envy
those who stand quietly on shores and watch
plovers. I do not know what a plover looks like
and I do not know if it makes a sound. The word
contains the word “lover,” and also the word
“over” and that is yet another brick wall. I
believe in the power of birds, but I do not know,
not for a minute, how to describe their quivering
hearts or their flights or the mad plunge of
herons into salty marshes. A little while ago I
washed my face in clear water. I plunged right in,
my stupid eyes closed.