Ruin and Light by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky
(Anabiosis Press, 2015)
reviewed by Nancy Takacs
Danielle Beazer Dubrasky’s Ruin and Light is a stunning sequence of poems, like a body of water with many inlets, each shadowing natural images such as stones, leaves, fish, shells, constellations, and skies, in a patient cadence. Each poem reveals bits of a story in a non-linear way about two young people who form a relationship that metaphorically and literally traverses wild places, and can never be forgotten. Although this is a chapbook, its depth and beauty allow it to seem like a much longer book, one that should be read again and again.
The book is addressed to a male “you.” A story is told back to him, even though he is a part of it. There is a “she” in the relationship, possibly the poet’s self. Imagery, symbols, and references to myth throughout the sequence allow the reader to feel the couple’s losses, their epiphanies in their attraction to, and need for, one another, and their mystery. The fact that the story is told back to him suggests that he may not be aware of some of the events in the way the poet wants him to be, while also indicating that his side hasn’t been told: “Only one of you is telling this story. / No one will ever know / who is body and who is shadow.”
In poem three, after the young woman has revealed her story, which the you “hold[s]…as if you could never burn,” and begins to carry her “sorrows between your fingertips,” she goes into detail about her scar, and how in her mind it brings them together:
She carries a sundial shell in her hand, its tip a gnomon. Libra’s scales follow the day’s journey on a sundial—
the scales that were derived from the scallop Venus rode to the strand, the only shell that crosses oceans, clapping two valves through spume,
a hundred eyes on its rim. St. James fell into the sea and was buoyed by mouths clinging to his clothes.
The scallop-shaped scar on her cheek is a pilgrim’s sign as if she has traveled to the groove in your palm and all her days were held in one moment she glimpsed out the corner of her young eyes while collecting shells
when she saw her own life’s helix curl into a carapace to land at this morning’s shore.
In her shell-collecting on a shore that reminds her of Venus, through the telling of her story to the you in the poems, the young woman is able to begin to cast the weight of it, lose the “carapace.” It is key in this poem that the poet not only uses the word shell to mean self-protection, but skillfully allows it to radiate into fairness, sacredness of the body and sexuality, the birth of love, the plight and also strength of a woman, the connectedness to a groove in the man’s shell as his own scar that she recognizes instantly because she feels imprinted herself with all of the myths and meanings of “shell.”
Although some of the poems suggest the couple are in their teens, they seem to also have a history as children: in the anaphoric “the children who have never heard rain,” and in poem four: “You treasure marbles, matchbox cars, old maps, / stray fishing flies you unhook from reeds. / […] You give her what you value most— / a mayfly nymph broken off someone else’s line.” Likewise, these childhood memories arise in poem 17: “You were her mirror—a blue sea in which she found not herself / but a boy looking up at her window, who memorized maps by flashlight / and followed a strange road to her cul de sac.”
Experiencing their intimacy, as the poems build, is tantalizing, as in poem five:
You taste sweet water when you drink from her lips,
she tastes snow and a thousand blackberries.
When she becomes your lover, she hears the notes
in your voice’s flame—moths playing wildly with light.
When you become her lover you are bound
to someone always searching for ocean.
And in poem seven:
Deer tongue fallen apples, haunches taking shape in the dawn,
the only sound: soft mouths nudging open ripe skin.
She rests her hand on your navel where your first hunger was nourished
and touches that scar where you were cut and released.
Dubrasky has a unique way of allowing images to surface, as if they are tossing in the waves of the couplets themselves, eventually washing ashore the intimate moments of the relationship as the couple wanders together and then apart.
These images pulse through the sequence, with the repetition of words like “deer fur,” “map,” “acorn,” “train,” “ocean,” “shell,” “river,” “scar,” “swan.” This repetition shows transformation as the relationship intensifies and shifts. Deer fur is tied into fishing lures by the male character, which are used repeatedly. In poem seven, he is depicted as casting a fishing tie to lure the female character, “to catch her hair once, her fingers twice, with deer fur…” In poem 13, after she leaves him, she pictures him calling her back “to the strands of deer fur” she imagines he is still tying into flies as if he is unaware of the relationship’s ending, believing she will come back to his “mirrored world.” In poem 17, the image of deer hair surfaces again after it is clear she is not coming back, and he “unlatch(es) a box of deer hair” and feathers, but the speaker imagines him choosing from pheasant and peacock, instead of the deer fur that was only tied for her. Dubrasky intuitively places these images, showing the character and progress of the relationship, as well as the man’s character, with the resonance of this gentle image to lure her, but with the sinister sharpness of the hook that is beneath the “iridescence.”
The images seem culled from the depths of the poet, revealing how nature, too, is deep and timeless, just as the relationship, not without its troubles, has been for them.
Recurring constellations and maps reveal their importance when his “father chart[ed] Cygnus in the August sky” or in a later poem when he “touch[es] the past on vellum / in a constellation of vanished cities.” In the last poem, “Cygnus appears in the stars over the rusted tracks” as the poet shows how she imagines he must be leaving his past behind.
Likewise, she reveals how he has been influenced by the relationship he has had with her: “What she has given you is a way to pilot the distance / between memory and a river of roads.” Water remains important for her. She floats, enters waterfalls, plunges into rivers. In poem five, she
swirled in eddies, dizzy beneath stars;
she became its break and took in silt,
she became its eyes and saw minnows, trout,
deer fur skipping the surface.
And in poem 10:
Your stories join on a shore where freighters
cross a lake that makes its own weather—
lifeguards muscle rowboats against the tide
beyond bathers plunging into choppy water.
The above poem foreshadows their unraveling with the “choppy water” as well as the line he speaks to her “I am memorizing you already, you say.” The next several poems suggest more unraveling, with trains cars that become unbuckled, “flowers and rain on the willows / [that]call her back to the river,” while he looks into a pool, wondering who “is behind those eyes, that mouth—”
In poems 15 to the end, the poet casts more light on their mystery, though shadows remain, fluttering or rising to the surface, as “Moths tap inside the lampshade, spiraling the wrong way home” for him, and in one of the final poems:
She looks for you behind mirrors as if the river could break open
the rooms where you held her in quiet breathing.
The mirror shows only one face with eyes that haven’t slept for years—
she wanders past closed windows, stares at the alcove of your locked door.
She looks for you in stories of an old father weeping over his bound son
before he finds the ram in the thicket between leaded panes.
When did the water freeze to glass?
The boy still lives in your hands,
The reader feels the poet’s tenderness for their story, despite what has happened between them:
You can take her back in the darkness, she is not a dream—
her body against yours, her hair, cheek, lashes brushing your arm.
Don’t open your eyes she whispers and you both drown in a braided river
but as your drown you rock each other as if you are riding a train
through a place no one else has entered.
You listen to the note only you have heard on the sinews of her voice,
a vibration of music so exquisite you must open your eyes—
your fingers hold moth wings burning in starlight.
I was lulled by the undulant feel of these poems, by Dubrasky’s boldness with language and its subject, and stirred by the images and symbols that seem to converge and break apart in other worlds and other myths. This sequence masterfully gathers the story of the relationship in Ruin and Light, and unfolds its own myth—dark at times and dreamlike, but wholly alive.