Review by Keith Woodruff

by David Ray

Backwaters Press
3502 North 52nd St.
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN 0978578244
2006, 364 pp., $25.00

I like to think David Ray is somewhere making a poem about Sacramento’s tent city. By the latest count, it is home to approximately 400 families who’ve fallen on hard times. Having spent the last three months with Music of Time: Selected and New Poems, I think he’s the one to give voice to their plight. In a recent news report Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson says he can foresee making the tent city permanent, but not on its current site—the banks of the American River. “We need tough love, meaning we have to be compassionate to this population. I am very committed to it. I feel we have a moral obligation.” No doubt with a heavy sigh, Johnson cautions the city must eventually adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to the river-side campsite. Or maybe Ray’s putting together a sonnet around AIG’s breathtaking cupidity and this sickening bonus orgy. I think these folks, who Dubya once called “the haves and the have-mores,” also need some tough love. Some zero tolerance.

Coming in at just over 360 pages, Music of Time: New and Selected Poems draws on Ray’s 15 other collections and includes a section of uncollected poems. The book is evenly weighted with political polemic and anti-war poems, as well as deeply personal poems that spring largely from Ray’s painful childhood during the Great Depression. I have not read his memoir, The Endless Search, but reviews of it on Ray’s web site ( tell us his childhood was filled with distant, unloving parents, followed by an almost Dickensian cast of abusive (sometimes sexually) guardians.

Not surprisingly, Ray writes with great compassion about victims—victims of war, social injustice, abuse, poverty. And while much of his poetry deals with family and relatives, the reach of his art and empathy go beyond our country to embrace the histories and present day hardships of others. Look at the poems in The Death of Sardanapalus and other poems of the Iraq Wars, for example, or Kangaroo Paws: Poems Written in Australia. Rather than preach, Ray often lets the emotional and mental scars of war speak for themselves through victims. Take the closing lines of “Survivor.” The poem is from One Thousand Years: Poems of the Holocaust and takes place during a dinner party. “Survivor” turns dark when a woman is stricken by painting she sees on the wall.

But this woman went pale as the snow
until I assured her that the scene
was a cowboy in charge of a roundup
in Montana, 1943. The horseman
as not a guard, but only a cowboy,
and the photograph had been printed in Life,
which was only a magazine.

from One Thousand Years: Poems of the Holocaust

As in the poem “Survivor,” Ray shows us the effects of war in his snapshot poem “Fourth of July.”

My uncle,
great Norman,
whose legs was full of
Finest German steel,
broke three chairs and a table
when the kids
set off firecrackers
on July 4, 1946,
just after apple pie.

from X-Rays

That tick of sarcasm at the end with “apple pie,” calling to mind other clichés of the American way like hot dogs and Chevrolet and baseball, is the closest the poem comes to commenting on its subject.

Ray, who lived through the Great Depression as a child, spent much of his time doing without. Here are two poems, the first playing straight man to the second, which talk about his experience and his take on a couple of “customs.”

Doing Without

‘s an interesting
custom, involving such in-
visible items as the food
that’s not on the table, the clothes
that are not on the back
the radio whose music
is silence. Doing without
is a great protector of reputations
since all places one cannot go
are fabulous, and only the rare and
enlightened plowman in his field
or on his mountain does not overrate
what he does not or cannot have.
Saluting through their windows
of cathedral glass those restaurants
we must not enter (unless like
burglars we become subject to
arrest) we greet with our twinkling
eyes the faces of others who do
without, the lady with the
fishing pole, and the man who looks
amused to have discovered on a walk
another piece of firewood.

from Dragging the Main

I admire the work that “discovered” does in those closing lines, how it evokes the idea of grand finds such as treasure. Of course, a piece of firewood’s good as gold because it is what you need to survive. Across the page from “Doing Without” is its companion poem.

Having too Much

shows in more places, not
only the face but the belly and
the polished leather. Wher-
ever you go, round every port
of call, folks who practice
this custom walk with cameras
knocking their knees and
genitals. like busybodies
they have so many friends to
look in on they never quite
catch up. They must use
boats, planes, rockets, upon
which they distribute
cigarettes like tickets that
will glow and take you
anywhere, even to the
moon when it opens up
for the season. What they
have learned is certain lessons
which they are fond of
citing, e.g. money talks
and they appear to be in despair
from never absorbing quite
enough electricity.

from Dragging the Main

I am not surprised to find praise from Studs Terkel on the back of this book. Anyone who reads Ray’s poetry might think of Terkel, especially Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, but also Working. Ray’s poems “Migrant Mother,” “Yarn Mill Photograph,” Tramp’s Cup,” “Poe’s Anvil,” “A Chat About the Miner’s Next Watering Hole,” and quite a few more poems all present portraits of workers.

Music of Time gives us poems that demonstrate Ray’s intense political and anti-war commitment. In an interview with Červená Barva Press, Ray says “no matter how regrettably our ‘creative’ intentions misfire, taking action is more honorable than evasion and paralysis.” Through his poetry and activism, Ray has always taken action, always been a voice of dissent. Along with Robert Bly, Ray helped found the organization American Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966. He also co-edited A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War with Bly.

More recently, in 2005 when Cindy Sheehan was in the spotlight, Ray wrote a poem for her and read it before the crowd at a Camp Casey rally. Regarding the event, here’s an excerpt from an article by grassroots media resource Arizona Indymedia: “After the reading, Ray said that he has been in a perpetual battle with the letters editor at The New York Times because he feels they don’t run enough anti-war letters in the newspaper. He said that his book of poetry The Death of Sardanapalus and other poems of the Iraq Wars is being censored because Barnes and Noble won’t carry it in their stores nor will libraries put it in their collections.”

There is a line in a Kenneth Patchen poem, “I am the world crier, and this is my dangerous career.” Such a line could just as easily be talking about Ray. He tells of having his life threatened more than once for his anti-war efforts. In his poem “Incident in N.Y.,” Ray describes a particular instance when he gets roughed up by two men at a tavern for saying he preferred that “we get out of Vietnam.” He knows the price of dissent.

The Way with Dissent
to Senator Morse

At the edge of town
is where we take the man who fights
For what he believes. We find the ditch
There among birches. We leave him.

But some of us wander on after
the day’s job of murder
And chance to hear some rare bird
On a tree. The bird sings with integrity.

Rare bird, waiting for a better time!
Singing as if he has no time or place
Or his own, to share with the whole town.

Some of us were born in the wrong land
To be war criminals.

from Dragging the Main

The “rare bird,” for anyone who needs a refresher, is Senator Wayne Morse. He was one of only two Senators who opposed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing Johnson to take military action in Vietnam without a declaration of war. In 1968 Morse lost his bid for reelection with the help of Bob Packwood who criticized Morse’s opposition to the war: i.e., challenged his patriotism.

I briefly mentioned Patchen. Ray’s life and poetry remind me of him quite a bit—without the picture poems. Patchen, though older at the time, was shaped by the Depression, was a strong anti-war voice and a blazing love poet. He wrote poem after poem to his wife Miriam. In Ray’s work, too, you find that mix of anti-war poems and wonderful love songs to his wife, Judy. Look at “On Reading that Napoleon Was Poisoned,” for instance, or this little poem:

At the Spring

And the sun on her back,
The water so cold. I have forgotten
To love her as I should.
Is there anything quite like the edge of a breast
–like a little moon–
Swinging out at a woman’s side
As she bends to the water.

from Gathering Firewood

“Gathering Firewood,” the title poem from one of Ray’s earlier collections, is among my favorites. Instead of firewood being tied to survival, as in “Doing Without,” the act of gathering firewood, with all of its ancient echoes, is softened and transformed into an act of intimacy. Here’s the poem, a companion of sorts to “At the Spring”:

This too is a way
of making love, saying
nothing, breaking the sticks
over our knees,
seeing that the green moss
of graveyards is the greenery
of our fire, mingled
eyes. The geese are white
as your blouse. These sticks
cannot be used to beat
us black and blue and tear
our image down all night.
We are breaking them over
our knees, once in a while

from Gathering Firewood

Music of Time is tough read at times and includes some of the most heartbreaking poems I have ever read. The collective, emotional punch of this book is a bit like reading the end to Of Mice and Men over and over again. I found myself taking a lot of deep breaths and thinking hard about my life. In “Hymn to Aunt Edris,” for instance, Ray describes listening to an aunt and uncle in their bed at night while Ray and his sister lie nearby on the floor.

Aunt Edris, your great swinging breasts
were pendulum of time too I see now, but then
this small boy wished to press his cheeks
against you, and couldn’t tell you,
and you were young, though I didn’t know it then,
laughing that Henry’s toes were cold.
Your bed sounded warm through the curtain
that hung between us. On the floor
we children threw cockroaches from us,
the only ones who loved our bodies,
and heard your giggles, tickles, guessed
at your rolling movements, tried to ape them
on our flat bodies….

The warm bed, the Aunt and Uncle’s embrace, skin on skin perhaps, is all juxtaposed with Ray and his sister’s experience on the floor where they’re “embraced,” if you will, by cockroaches. This isn’t the only poem where night is described as a time of suffering, longing and loneliness, instead of being a time of rest and comfort. In Kangaroo Paws: Poems Written in Australia, “A Note on Evil” begins, “What’s evil, we get around to asking.” Drawing on examples from the region’s history, Ray goes on to detail grisly examples of “what evil is.” Aborigine bodies being boiled down for skeletons so they can be sold to London museums. Blankets with cholera on them given to Maoris (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand). A Quokka, a wallaby relative, being thrown onto a fire and burned alive. Ray buttons up this litany of evils with a line that lashes out at his parents: “And evil was childhood, their not giving a damn/when we hurt so much in the night.”

Music of Time also contains 14 poems from Ray’s collection Sam’s Book. Samuel, Ray’s son, died in an accident at the age of 19. Like the poems “Tricks of the Mind” and “Another Trick of the Mind,” both of which explore ways of coping with such personal tragedy, the majority of poems in this section are those of a suffering father trying to work through his grief.

Brief Song

There will come a day
When you would have lived your life
all the way through,
mine long gone.

And peace will descend then,
such a great peace, like a breath
moving those pines, moving
even a stone.
And then, then I can let go.

from Sam’s Book

While Ray spent plenty of painful years doing without, the later poems of this collection suggest a growing acceptance of doing without, a spirit of gratitude for having just enough. This is voiced most clearly in a haiku sequence titled “Journey with Basho.” Here is one from the sequence.

This morning, damn it
I forgot to bless my shoes.
Basho, please forgive!

Like any other haiku poets, Basho wrote the poetry of mendicancy. Ray, too, writes the haiku of a wanderer, of someone who has gone hungry. Many of the haiku in this sequence speak to wealth or its absence: “no free tea”, “such wealth on this trip,” “rice will not be ready in time,” “someday they will pay for poems.” While tea and rice are all conventional haiku material, in Ray’s case we know these are not the words of someone merely working with convention but of someone with a deeper appreciation for what he has, no matter how little.

Music of Time ends with the poem “Carved Model of a Butcher Shop”— Ray’s nod to Yeats’ old rag and bone shop. But instead of circus animals, Ray speaks of his work in terms of meat: “blood sausage,” “chops,” and “haiku, ten to a string”—an apt metaphor for a man who has known hunger.

In all, this is one of the best collections I have read in a long time. A collection like this could be very instructive, too. Young writers learning their chops might consider how Ray handles his very personal material without sentimentality or self-pity, or how to approach political subject matter. Ray is also a polished craftsman, fluent in all manner of forms from free-verse and sestinas, to haiku, haiku sequences and sonnets like “Bophal, At the Washing of My Son” and “Music as Medicine.”

In the same Červená Barva Press interview, David Ray commented that “for all the flaws and faults of my work, mercy and lovingkindness are all I’ve aspired to share.” I hope it pleases him to know that these qualities come through in poem after poem. Reading the work of David Ray, poets who have strayed, who speak too much in instead of out, may be reminded of their duty. Fathers who grieve for their children, or anyone’s children, will find the warmth of a fellow traveler. The man who’s grateful for his shoes or other small comforts is moved to say so.


Keith Woodruff’s poems have appeared in Poetry East, Zone 3, Tar River Poetry and The Panhandler. His haiku and tanka have appeared in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Mayfly and Big Sky: the Red Moon Anthology. He can be reached at

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