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New & Selected Poems/1975-2005
Robert Ronnow
The Barnwood Press
ISBN Number: 9780935306521

Reviewer: Alice Osborn

          Given the numbers of years that Robert Ronnow has been writing and publishing his poetry, it’s remarkable that New & Selected Poems/1975-2005 is his first comprehensive poetry collection. While poetry is his main creative outlet, Ronnow is also a jazz trumpeter, which makes sense given his use of lines that imitate polyrhythm, blue notes, and nontraditional forms. He doesn’t stick to traditional approaches, creating unique patterns and rhythms while inserting clever enjambments and stanza breaks. In lesser hands, these poems would be chaotic, but Ronnow is able to make the various disparaties coalesce.

          This former forest worker, non-profit executive director, hitchhiker, and freight train hopper published four previous books: Janie Huzzie Bows, Absolutely Smooth Mustard, Brother Death, and Belonging to the Loved Ones. Often experimental, political, sexual, emotional, but most of all surprising, the standouts from these books are included in this collection, along with new pieces. His titles are almost always evocative and engaging. Consider “America, the Seeing-Eye Dog,” “God is correction, feedback and bifurcation,” “Plate Tectonics Versus Gamma Ray Bursters,” and my personal favorite, “Polar Bear Mugs Wino.” He also enjoys stepping into pop culture by making references to such films as It’s a Wonderful Life, October Sky, Moonstruck, Star Wars, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

          Ronnow is equally at home walking the streets of Harlem or hiking along the edges of the Grand Canyon. Within his urban space, trains, subways, and kitchens are prominently featured, while within his natural world, the poems burst with his obsessions concerning death, bones, mountains, big skies, and birds. He has been heavily influenced by W.B. Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli,” which also attaches itself to bird and mountain imagery, as well as the philosophy of Jane Jacobs—that cities drive economic development. In many instances, Ronnow connects these urban and natural narratives within the same poem.

Ronnow and Death

          From his earliest published work, Ronnow displays a fascination with death. For example, in this poem, “This looks like jump to me,” from Janie Huzzie Bows, the speaker imagines the metaphysical travels of a kitchen cockroach, illustrating Freud’s belief that there are only two instincts, the will to survive and the will to procreate.

You are a cockroach

So you die. but now the big hands are gentle
and you receive a respite of thoughtlessness
and the garbage grave has warm chicken bones
and you don’t care what happens to you
or the oldest species of proud recalcitrant insects
or procreating it or foraging a grubby kitchen sink

for food. the joy of making life is new. let go,
and through the night be carried carelessly along.

          In “Late Summer,” from Brother Death, Ronnow mulls over what might be the best time to die. The speaker decides on late August as this timing would, he thinks, be the easiest on his wife: autumn could be for grieving, and spring could be for rebirth. Calculating, yet emotional, the poem gives a nod to the notion that funerals are essentially for the living.

I would choose to die in late summer.
So that my wife would have autumn, intense,
to grieve by,
snowy bandages with which to bind the wound,
and spring to reawaken into.
Summer to remember that she’s loved.

The Personal and the Political

          Ronnow frequently blends the personal and political in his work, often equating justice with greatness. In “Avoiding beautiful September,” from Belonging to the Loved Ones, the speaker ponders the circle of life, wondering if his individual actions matter in the large scope of things.


The personal is boring
as are my ruminations on the war.
What I need to do I can’t try:
wander without shelter in the backcountry.
Or go deeper into the polity,
join a committee or a party.


We take the long view
that as individuals drop
from sight, new enthusiasts
will associate. Legs
give out, lungs collapse,
but we do not let the circle lapse.

every merchant, traveler.
My sons will take on cares,
which toys are theirs,
as their parents grow
older. Slowness brings us
to our goal: do one thing well.

By that what is meant?
Don’t be a dilettante.
Not having found the greatness
of a single, clear description,
definition, the greatness comes in
doing everyday what’s known.

          In “The snail will get to Easter just as soon,” from Belonging to the Loved Ones (the title from a ballad by Eustace Deschamps), Ronnow merges elements from Wayne Gretsky’s line, “A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be,” and William Faulkner’s quotation, “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past” to come up with the clever line, “The past is skating to where the puck will be.” The poem is about the futility of man exerting his control over the universe.

No greater tragedy than the death of your children.
Yet you live on, eyes drained of color. Old,
you make plans. To know the names of every flower
in the temperate zone. Every bird by its song.
Just as you’re about to reach your goal, a tipping point
comes along: a nuclear detonation or it gets too cold.
The past is skating where the puck should be.

Poetry Matters

          In “Can poetry matter,” one of the new poems in the collection, Ronnow discusses publication versus the art of writing, and how poetry teaches us how to live in the world.

In the debate between accessible and difficult poems
Poets’ poems and poems for people
Only the single poem and private reader matter

Both kinds and anything between can matter or not
Solid or made of air, a vase or heavy clay ashtray
One word repeated or many like a lei

An acquired taste, like wine, and like wine
Not sustenance, yet men die with their miseries
Uncut without it, news and mere matter

I advise everyone to keep a personal anthology of poems that matter
Or not. Perhaps it should be novels. Stones, insect wings,
Feathers, Birds you’ve seen, People loved.

          Ronnow integrates his varied interests into his poems. He also seems to be a man and poet whose personal convictions and writing passion are not mutually exclusive. Ronnow follows the muse of his beliefs and instincts; he wisely goes where they tell him, as this collection illustrates.

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