Featured Poet: Ralph Sneeden, Exeter
Ralph Sneeden's first book, Evidence of the Journey, was released by Harmon Blunt Publishers in April, the title poem of which received the Friends of Literature prize from Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation in 2004. His work has also appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, POETRY, Slate, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Witness, Poetry Daily and other magazines. He has been living in Exeter and teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy since 1995. This winter he'll be the Bergeron Writing Fellow at the American School in London.
Of his poem, Ralph writes:
“Cow's Neck” (1988) is an important poem for me because I wrote it at a time when I lacked faith in my own experiences to drive narratives; it was safer and more interesting to turn to the scanty images and fragments I had sifted from what my father had told me about his experience in WWII, which had always intrigued me. But the challenge of writing this poem was negotiating the consciously evoked intersection of my father's story and my own. I was not only determined to tap into what was mythic and monolithic to a war-free young man writing in his late twenties, but to evoke -relevantly -- the eerie and violent natural environment of that part of South Fork of Long Island where I had spent a lot of time as a child. Until “Cow's Neck,” I had done plenty of evoking, but with little insight or substance, my attempts more like preliminary sketches for decorative water colors than poems. At that time, I had also been reading a lot of Dave Smith's work, so some of the line-texture, syntax and diction, certainly gained some confidence from my being inspired by certain poems in The Roundhouse Voices. I am heartened by the paradox of what happens when we mimic the poets we love, finding our own voices by parroting others'. I also admired Smith's treatment of setting (tidewater Virginia). It was his voice that carried me along. But I don't write like this anymore, and as the years passed, my inclusion of “Cow's Neck” in the book MS became more and more tenuous. It first appeared in The Sycamore Review at Purdue, in looser form. After finally deciding to include it in the book, I tried to tidy and trim the lines into blank verse, hoping to coax out some subtle music that was buried in the earlier draft, to give it a voice that would not seem too blaringly out of tune with my other work.
“It isn't easy to turn your back on the past. It isn't something you can
decide to do just like that. It is something you have to arm yourself for. . . ”
V. S. Naipaul
With a bucksaw raised above his head
in surrender, he waded from my view
to where waves chewed the ankles of driftwood
mountains. He'd turn the stumps to lamp
bases, rip the planks to picture frames,
gifts for relatives, but most of it stayed
a dusty knot of bleached and broken trees
in our garage, something that could reach
and grab you if you were small, keep you from
the bike or shovel, the clam rake or net
you really needed.
In '65 I wouldn't
follow him to shore. Instead, I'd wait
in the bow, paralyzed, struggling to watch
him work between the intermittent backs
of lurching waves, sawing and dragging the limbs
to his pile. He set the tangled rafts afloat
then heaved them to the pitching rump of the boat
until I could barely see the white skull
of the engine cover beneath.
the downed pilot, sprung from Baltic stalag
to wander a strange road home through many
kinds of freedom: the bodies bulldozed down
to common graves; the blanket-swaddled soldiers
staring from cold benches out to sea --
Atlantic City boardwalk rattling with traffic
of wheelchairs, the legless on crutches, the crazed
and shuffling whole.
Why did we return
each year to the horrible point of land
where the beach was choked by interlocked arms
of rotting pine and eroded oak? Why
use days of vacation to dismantle, import
that refuse to our home, hide it in rafters
or in the corner by a broken mower,
posthole digger, and the rest? His burned,
wet back and shoulders still whirl away
from me in foam and confusion, in water
mean as memory, cut, drifting, liberated.
The poem “Cow’s Neck”: reprinted with permission of the author from EVIDENCE OF THE JOURNEY, Published by Harmon Blunt Publishers, 2007.
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