NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Dear Good Naked Morning by Ruth L Schwartz
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2005)
“Dear Good Naked Morning” is Ruth L Schwartz’s fifth collection and it won her the Autumn House Poetry Prize in 2004. She is the recipient of over a dozen national awards including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Astraea Foundation. Schwartz has taught creative writing in a number of Universities and Colleges including Cleveland State University, Mills College and California College of the Arts. Most of the poems in the present collection were written when she was teaching at California State University-Fresno.
The poems in this collection amount to a powerful affirmation of life whatever the circumstances. They speak of the hunger for love and for joy which is sometimes found in the darkest places. This is the central message of the book. The poems are written with a passion and an honesty that can only be a force for good.
The rationale behind Schwartz’s philosophy is set out in the opening poem, Come With Me, where the reader is taken on a journey to the city. It is not a pleasant trip. Life in all its guises is to be found there:
Come with me like the junkie poundingon the window of the pickup,If you love me, open the door.If you love me, open the door.If you ever loved me, open the goddamned door -
until I think she must be right, the door itself is damned.
and then there is the tenderness of the poverty-stricken woman searching among the dustcarts who uncovers a whole Big Mac, still wrapped:
I watch her hand it to her manthe way a bride forks cake into the mouthof her new husband, in the kind of light which livesbetween two faces, and refuses nothing.
Near the start of this poem there comes the fact we can never escape from and need to remember:
There is no other worldfor us to love, only this one.
The recognition that bad things happen to people, that lives can take a turn for the worse, is honestly and bravely acknowledged time and again throughout the text. In Photograph Of A Child, for example, a moment of innocence is captured forever but with a dose of reality inserted into the lines:
You’re jumping barefoot in the grass, no one isstopping you; no one and nothing has destroyed you yet…
Sexual love is celebrated in a number of poems to fine effect. In Words, Schwartz illustrates how difficult it can be to find the words to express verbally a desire which is essentially beyond words:
Words mostly fail when you love someone.
In those hours of joy and touch,
we’d look at each other and say, “You’re, you’re -”
and find no way to finish the thought
except when one of us once stumbled onto,
“You’re God -”
though even that seemed just to hint at
more we couldn’t say.
The range of images and emotions in some of these poems is considerable. The above poem, for example, opens with a scene about a truck driver who wants to have sex with a fifteen year old girl and it ends with a vain attempt to find words which capture the marvel of migratory birds in flight.
In the very fine long poem Green Fuse a section dealing with child sexual abuse is handled sensitively with skilled, heightened vocabulary. In Ceremony, teenage yearning for love, physical or otherwise, is portrayed in language which is both frank and honest and in The Lost And Physical World even tender love is portrayed as being vulnerable:
The stalk of your neck was so tender, I bruised it,kissing you.
Schwartz’s powers of observation come to the fore in poems like Highway Five Love Poem and Grass. In both poems, scenery is described from the standpoint of a human being and an animal. In the latter, the calves, not being endowed with so many senses of awareness, ask the cows eating grass:
Is this all there is?And the answer comes back from mouths full of grassThis is all there is.
By contrast, the Highway Five Love Poem is full of praise for every living thing.
In her poems, Schwartz celebrates the small failures and the big failures. She embraces both the good and the not-so-good in a belief that
…we needthe difficult river, we need the absence of tendernessso love can come like shooting starsif it comes.
In another section of the long poem Green Fuse she addresses this issue again:
This world, if it understands anything,understands failure.
and she follows this up so positively with these words:
Do you know I love you still?
Do you know this despair
is just the beginning of love?
Somewhere, it’s still daylight.
The people we were once
are still alive,
are taking off their clothes and entering
each other, or the lapping water,
while the clouds watch them like cotton
and the sky says nothing.
We need poets like Schwartz. People who see forgiveness in everything and are able to forgive others too. People who have a realistic view of the world:
Love, let us try again,and, after failing, try some more.
In a powerful section of the same poem she asserts:
I wanted to believe the body was right.
That even the rapist and molester
carried seeds of rightness in some hidden chamber
of the wrong they did
I wanted to believe the body was right
but it was not.
(Neither was it wrong).
This is a collection which is worth reading again and again not only because of its depth and its insight but also for the beautiful way in which these thoughts and ideas are expressed. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).