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The title of John Rybicki’s third collection of poetry, We Bed Down into Water, partly deceives. These poems will not cool or be cooled. The collection boils around Julie, Rybicki’s wife, suffering from cancer. From the bone marrow unit to home and back, the voice in these poems is ravished by fear, rage, love. Rybicki’s work is hyperearnest, each stanza building a residence where the bed sinks but poetry circulates like blood.
There is no tenderfooting around cancer, here: “2:15 am and her breasts fall out.” The barbaric treatment and the barbaric disease seep into the romance, and vice versa. In the long, luminous “Her Body Like A Lantern Lying Next To Me,” the poet watches without flinching his wife’s belly “pregnant with cancer, / more like a little rock wall / piled and fitted inside her / than some prenatal rounding.” In other poems he is all flinch: “I’m worried that writing about cancer, / thinking about cancer / will start cancer / growing again inside her” he writes in one.
Romance is the force exploding in Rybicki’s work. Julie is Dame, Lass, and World. Their home is transformed by her voice: “Dude, I’m still here, she says at last, / then the sound of her / stretching her branches, and from them / the rain falling thick through our house.” Rybicki’s housekeeping is steady work, full of powerful feelings unfettered by any fixed self-consciousness about his heartbreaking and staggering endeavor. Hair, lanterns, boyhood, light, hollows, holes: Rybicki’s charms recycle. Even the moon gets gently used but its reappearance doesn’t deflate what he is making.
God is here, too, calling to mind Donne even as the texture of the poems points to Whitman. In “Fire Psalm,” the poet knows a tree “where you can snap a child off / by his head” and taunts God with it: Here you go, God, you light / junkie, bite into this.” As his heart is battered, Rybicki switches to the softer “Lord.” The choice creates another layer, another kind of singing in the station we’re listening to. “Let the stars sip / on my fires / like tea,” he asks. The fires in the poems temper but the boiling never really leaves the work.
Alan Shapiro talked with The Atlantic Monthly in 2002 about his choice to write poetry about his brother’s death: “I needed poetry then. I didn’t need prose. I needed song. I needed art at its most elevated—as elevated as I could make it, anyway.” A personal need to sing drives Rybicki’s work, as well. The wonder is how we are invited in: shored up so close to grief, a very private house is thrown open. It’s Rybicki remaking the domestic space, throwing curveball after curveball at all our glossy images of home:
My love’s trying to stop the chiming,
her fingers so singular
since that one dark bell of cancer
is ringing in her neck.
I hollow this house while she sleeps,
take my time and chisel
the proper curve so our canoe
cuts easy through rough water.