Dark Ladies & Other Avatars: Poems by Joan Roberta Ryan
3: A Taos Press, Denver CO, 2017, 97 pages, $24
The child of a painter and a photographer, I grew up in art museums and art galleries. I learned about the secrets of the body from crafted nudes, both two-and three-dimensional. An only child, I used to spend hours telling myself stories about the color plates in the art books on our shelves and as I drew my own. In her collection, Dark Ladies & Other Avatars, Joan Roberta Ryan reveals a similar sensibility.
The first section of her book is dedicated to ekphrastic work, explorations of Cranach, Titian, DaVinci, Caravaggio, De Hooch, and De La Tour. Ryan deftly weaves research with attentive looking in her treatments of these paintings. This section allows her the most reach with her rich vocabulary. Children “nimble” their way. Weavers don’t just used coloured thread, but strands of “Tyrian purple, / crimson kermes, blue woad, saffron, madder.” Abandoned wives cook “lamb printanier and blanquette de veau.” Some poems, like "Viola Revisited" and "Links to Lena" come with their own lists of words down the left-hand margin, in the former, seemingly a gloss on each line (abstemious / prig / elusive / aberrant) and in the latter a prompt for each stanza (rose of Sharon / gamine / inklings). In this section, along with mythical women, religious and secular, Ryan depicts artists and their models, and the wives of better-known characters, such as Rip Van Winkel and Prince Charming. Her female figures reveal complexities of ambition and desire.
The second section moves into darker territory, and yet for all that, remains buoyant. Ryan’s poems explore mental illness and physical decline. In the poem "To the Voices," the speaker asks, “Who are you—and why do you haunt / my sister, forbidding her to walk through the park / on Sunday, eat red berries or repeat what you say?” In the poem "My Father’s Hands," about a father stricken with Guillain-Barré, the speaker observes hands “suddenly as blind to touch as if / encased in leather mitts, indifferent / to command as a dozing cat, hitting / too hard, too slow—bereft of feel.” In Pentimento, she describes how her elderly mother, stricken with dementia, is losing her words: “larkspur, columbine, asters, / foxgloves, all withered to lovely flowers—” These poems trace our inheritance from family members—memories, keepsakes (many of questionable provenance), physical qualities like hair colour, and even ashes. The relationships that Ryan documents are complicated but serve, somewhat guilt-inducingly, as fuel for her work.
“To whom,” she asks in "Close Kept," “would I reveal / her secrets, dear reader, but you?”
The final section brings us closer to the poetic speaker herself—her relationship to her body, her sexuality, the landscape within which she moves, and her family—husband, children, and grandchildren. These poems are suffused with sensuality, as in "Barcelona," where the Cava-tipsy focus of the poem “blushed her way / back from the damas and / handed him under the table / a small damp ball / of black silk.” In "Past Meridian," she describes the transition of youthful desire to an older flame: “every oenophile knows, / raisins make a fine rich wine.”
In short, spending time with Ryan’s work is like luxuriating on a bench before a beloved canvas, pouring over a treasured photo-album, or like being a guest in someone else’s well-appointed home. You continue your day glad to be human.
Devon Balwit sets her hand to the plough in the Pacific Northwest. Her poems and reviews can be found here in The Ekphrastic Review as well as in The Worcester Review, The Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Rattle, Apt (long form issue), Tar River Poetry, Sugar House Review, Poetry South, saltfront, and Grist among others. Please visit her website at: https://pelapdx.wixsite.com/devonbalwitpoet
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