The Great Wave
The poems in The Great Wave were written between 2005-2008.
“With linguistic precision and hard-earned objectivity, the poems in Ron Slate’s The Great Wave are, paradoxically, fabular and firmly situated in worldly reality. Slate’s inheritance is the history of catastrophes and the premonition of desolations. His poetic ancestors include Hikmet, Pessoa, Seferis, and Meng Chaio, the Tang Dynasty “poet of cold.” He is at once a realist uneasily inhabiting a staggeringly surreal universe and a sophisticated surrealist moving easily inside the ordinary life of family, corporate work and international travel, and interpreting his disjointed surroundings with gravity and clarity. When he writes, ‘How far I am from what I’d cure with words’ it is an insight into his profound aspirations and the stark universal simplicity of his griefs.”
— Gail Mazur
from Publishers Weekly:
The Great Wave by Ron Slate. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23 (96p) ISBN 978-0-547-23274-4
This second volume shows that Slate's Bakeless Prize–winning debut, The Incentive of the Maggot (2005), wasn't just hype: Slate, who spent more than two decades in the corporate world before beginning his poetic career, is a poet for whom long, wide experience really seems to have turned into wisdom, whose deft handling of syntactic changes and verbal ironies supports considered verdicts on the things and people of this world. Poems reflect intercontinental travel and corporate responsibilities (now ended); dealings with elderly parents and with grown children; and welcome, if melancholy, time alone. They also give compact, sometimes grim, and vivid advice: “Don't call out to the world,/ since it can't answer in one voice.” Another poem summarizes firefighters' training: “Far out on an island in the harbor,/ recruits rehearsed in burning rooms.” Slate seeks and often finds a classical simplicity, not to be confused with simplification: his deliberate pace, his mergers of disillusion with an almost (but not quite) religious poise and his interpolated travelogues might put careful readers in mind of Robert Hass. “How far I am from what I'd cure with words,” Slate says late in the volume—and yet, for all his regrets and self-chastisements, there are spiritual ailments for which such careful lines may indeed be the cure. (Apr.)
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Floyd Skloot's review of The Great Wave from The Harvard Review:
Ron Slate's first collection of poems, The Incentive of the Maggot, was chosen by Robert Pinsky as the 2004 Bakeless Prize winner. It went on to be a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Academy of American Poets' Lenore Marshall Prize, remarkable recognition for a first book. Equally remarkable was the collection's backstory: a debut volume by a fifty-five year old corporate communications executive -- once a promising poet, critic, and editor -- after more than twenty years of literary silence.
His professional background forged associations with Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot, Ted Kooser, Dana Gioia, L.E. Sissman and others who came to poetry from the world of commercial affairs. A businessman-poet! The long absence from poetry, and the relatively late arrival of his work, were also provocative elements of Slate's emergence. The prodigal returns! But the poems were not narrowly or autobiographically focused, and they were not at all apprentice work; their voice was fresh, strange, startlingly original and contemporary. Engaged with global matters but withheld, observant, cool, Slate brought both worldliness and literary sophistication to bear upon his experience.
Now, with publication of his consistently strong, provocative second collection, The Great Wave, Slate advances more deeply into his special territory, that zone where the global and personal, the present and past, the mobile and still, intersect. He writes: "The voice negotiates on its own/for a bodily place in an actual world." And his poems take us to Madrid, to Japan and the Borgo Sansepolcro, to Sao Paolo, to the Swedish Embassy in Washington or a garden party where an aged Robert McNamara is among the guests, to the concentration camp at Terezin, in Czechoslovakia, and to various seashores, to the United Nations General Assembly or aboard a cruise ship in the tropics or Hull Gut in Boston Harbor. They also take us into the poet's mind and memories, the personal and familial places that prove every bit as exotic and revealing as those other destinations.
What Slate does so well, and so paradoxically, is to blur the line between here and there, now and then, knowing that "all things in us occur at once." He also, and despite a dedication to capturing the details of scene, blurs the line external place and interior space because, as he reminds us, "we speak from a place/not so easy to describe as a location."
Having "lived in a larger world," having traveled internationally and dealt with foreign languages, cultures, peoples, Slate is intimately familiar with feelings of disconnection, of moving in a world where time is skewed, where surfaces must be assessed carefully because so much is hidden by being alien to local ways. He knows the difficulty and importance of grasping historical forces at work in contemporary interactions and he knows the strangeness, the layers, of verbal and nonverbal communication when nothing is familiar, nothing holds still. His mission, in part, is to make "the code manifest," to speak "the dual tongues of the present" that allow him to be at home in places where he is farthest from home, to translate, to make known what is most powerfully other. "There is no harmony/under heaven unless we accomplish the naming."
There is in Slate's poetry an avidity for experience and travel that remains beautifully poised against a yearning for home. There is also a compulsion to capture and explain what he sees that is balanced against an awareness that "between what I can see, wedged in this chair/and the explanation of what I'm seeing/there is a chasm." Though he knows full well "the vision of approaching disaster" and "the mechanism of catastrophe," though he has seen "The Great Wave" wreak destruction and understood that "the floodwaters would recede/with the violence of their rising," he also knows that such chaos and disintegration are not the only truth. For all the ruin, "the coherence amazed," the flaring of beauty, of connection with others, of love. This is a poet capable of "vanishing into the world's will" while holding onto his own.
The Great Wave, a book of thirty-six poems, contains at least three that merit inclusion in any anthology of early twenty-first century American poetry. "Cocoanut Grove" deals with his paternal grandmother's death in the notorious 1942 Boston nightclub fire and how the "corrosive worm of remembrance" and "allure of the lurid past" shaped his sensibility. "Four Roses," is about the poet as a young man working with his father, the owner of a liquor business, comes to recognize "the sadness in the father." And "Morbidezza," a poem about tenderness and the artist's ultimate challenge to balance celebration with regret, loss with gain. It is in "Morbidezza" that readers get a small glimpse of the poet's long journey to the place that finally let him speak, as it looks back to the moment" I rose from my chair, left my desk,/abandoned the art for twenty years./I took a job, traveled often, rarely alone." Having read the two books that followed Slate's abandonment of the art, a reader comes to see that the poet did this, followed his unusual path, out of love for poetry. He may have been a world-traveling businessman, but he was also and always a poet, allowing time to deepen his vision, to understand that "a world is here for you,/only for you, just beyond your reach." Instead of being frustrated by that, the time had come to celebrate it instead.