One of the things I like best, as both a reader and writer of poetry, is poetry that takes off from the imagination, poems that lead the reader into imaginary scenes or situations, which is why this collection appealed to me as soon as I saw the title, and there’s nothing arbitrary about Ned Randle’s title, Running at Night. This is a courageous book of witnessing. It takes the reader through dark paths on fast foot. The poems are written with a sure hand, the images right, the word choice sharp, the line breaks masterful, as in this passage of “Misplacedˮ:
There are times when we misplace our hearts—
misplace, not lose like one might lose
his head in love or lust or anger.
Misplace—carelessly resting it in a place
it should not have been set
and then forgetting it like an empty cup
or pair of worn shoes until the emptiness inside the
forsaken heart aches, like the cup aches for the heat
of the coffee and the shoe for the warmth of
the friendly foot….
In it the boundaries between past, present, and future are permeable, constantly shifting, as in “Portrait of Rain in Septemberˮ:
Now within the faded fields
hardened yellow corn persists;
the long shirttail of summer
is tucked into the lap of fall.
Skeleton echoes of the past
picnics rattle in the hall
of thought and bring again the warmth
of shifting sun onto shoulders,
onto squinted eye; contrast
with the gleam of dampened windows;
your flowers are now soon asleep,
their dream of spring as vivid as
freshly painted falling rain.
These poems are mysterious and beautiful. It is a place where longing and resignation are mingled in poems like “Reply to the Invitation to Huntˮ:
I stare at you as you sit by the fire
reading your book through polished eyeglasses;
I am warm with whiskey and freshly cooked eggs,
girding to walk through the cold
morning to hunt the heavy fleshed mystery.
You see the words, you read the words, the words
are forgotten; I know, I have quizzed
you in your sleep. I kill the deer, I skin
the deer, the meat is eaten; it puts fiber
in my limbs. Where are your sonnets?
The poem has not yet been born with
the strength of a ten point buck.
It’s hard to pull off a collection of poems with so many shifts in tone, but Randle succeeds because the scenarios are so compelling, and because his language and images and references are so rich. The transformation of the commonplace—this phrase came to me repeatedly as I read this collection. Randle examines our relationship to that which is around us, investigating its solidity and strength and our personal reactions to it. In many of these poems, the speaker is trying to hold onto time and space, yet time and space are essentially unreliable and uncontrollable. The speaker is often sleepless, running in the dark, looking for light, haunting the reader.
These carefully crafted poems cohere into a meditation about our relationship to life that speaks truly about how we learn about ourselves and how knowledge transforms our lives. As we read these poems, we learn that there is no alternative to facing into life’s alchemy, that life changes you in ways you cannot predict, such as the title poem “Running at Nightˮ suggests:
An acid pain in lung and limb,
the runner is tired tonight.
The tap tap tap of rubber sole
shoes on the oiled road is a
peaceful monotone melody
compared to the restless rhythm
of the daytime indoor job.
It is a good solitude
after sunset running toward
the headlights on the highway
a mile and a half away.
He rounds the rose bush planted on
the edge of concrete and returns to
make pace with the selfless sounds of night.
It is hard to stop quoting from this book. On every page there is a passage I want to share. “Gravesideˮ is truly a tour-de-force, though I am partial to it, but to quote only part of it would not do it justice, so I’ll give you only one more taste to tantalize you to buy this book and read it from cover to cover for yourself:
Kneeling unsteadily near the headstone
he unfolds the clean cotton handkerchief
from his breast pocket and carefully cleans
the lenses of his eyeglasses, wiping
away the loess of their past life as fine
and dry as powdered bone.
The thought of her
under the freshly turned earth so weighty
that it bends time under its mass, curves light,
Surveying adjacent plots
nestling restless aroused souls close by,
nearly hip to hip and thigh to thigh,
pressing obscenely against her on each
side, ghostly frottage in a vulgar crowd.
He conjures up a prayer but lets it fall
unspoken onto the sod, into the
soil, jealously hating heaven after
death where strange souls are urged to love his love,
and briefly hoping for hell for her, where
no love survives the crucible, where she
melts in the heat of his lust forever.
While some collections consist of a series of closely related poems, with a common subject or theme or form, or a narrative arc that connects all the poems, others offer a wide variety of settings and subjects, where each poem comes as a surprise, where the reader finds themselves in unexpected places and new situations. The latter is what Randle offers us through winding directions, the darkest of places, the freshness of life.