Word Has It
by Ruth Danon
Nirala Publications, 2018
On the subject of serial killers, poet Ruth Danon writes that they “leave notes, write in code.” They “grow increasingly impatient.”
“They hate the dark,” she muses. “They want to be found.”
So do poets. And Danon’s latest collection, Word Has It (Nirala Publications, 2018) reads like a series of notes dispatched from the brink of an apocalypse. Birds fall from the sky. Red-eyed people weep. There is blood. Dark, ominous omens of all shapes and sizes rain down.
Yet there is a surprise twist at the end; there on the back flap, the poet smiles out at the reader, with no hint of the grim visage one would expect from someone who penned an entire book of poems that seem to be written on the precipice tragedy. It drives home the fact that there is beauty in all these dark auguries. And it is a reminder that the Greek word apokalypsis actually means “the lifting of a veil.” It literally means seeing things clearly.
That we all live on the brink of calamity is the most exhausted trope. Its caverns were mined clean many years ago by writers from all corners of the world, who ventured into them to gouge out whatever artistic riches they could find. Like Seamus Heaney, they dug with their pens, long ago hauling away anything worth writing or reading about.
But Danon’s collection is only superficially about living on the brink of the end of the world. It’s not really about the outer world, at all. It is about the inner life of the poet, and it is about peering beneath a veil that covers the inner world. In these subjects, there are still un-mined riches, which is why “Word Has It” is a successful collection. It’s about the inner life of words and the people who wield them, and it’s about the way each and every day brings omens raining down upon any writer who engages with this world. It is meta-poetry; poems about writing poems, and it inhabits a place both frightening and comically absurd.
It was Heaney who once said (insert dulcet brogue here) that a poem “is some kind of housing of a moment, a snapshot of consciousness that can be looked upon by other persons.” That, more than anything else, is what “Word Has It” is. It is a snapshot of consciousness.
It is not about birds falling from the sky. It is about what someone sees and feels when birds fall from the sky. Sometimes it spells doom. Sometimes it is “a visible sign of angelic knowing.” Sometimes they carry avian influenza. Sometimes they lead you to honey. This is the world.
The book is broken into three sections, and the best portions follows a pattern. Danon’s path forward is blocked by foreboding, so she puts her fears into verse, writing in code from the dark, and then she is able to move on toward the light.
She calls this a time “before trouble” and says she is “adept at ruin.” She says she is foolish and afraid but has pretty hands, capturing the manic, nonsensical way we all see ourselves. This is an author who is suspicious of firefighters, thinking they might be spies running through the streets in heavy, stolen gear.
Near the end of the first section, Danon asks one of the book’s key questions: Who is art for? She tells the story of a woman who plays harp in the rooms of the dying. “It made a pretty story,” she writes. “But it is not clear to me who was most comforted – the dying one, fading out of consciousness, the harp player, or the person telling the story.”
It’s hard not to imagine Danon, pen in hand, mining for words in those dark caverns, a smile on her face, writing poems to comfort all those who will someday die, and in the process soothing the person telling the story.
- Poems in the Rooms of the Dying - February 6, 2020