Jack Ridl: Ordinary Obscurities

I'm a very serious, sad, silly, delight-loving guy. - Jack Ridl
"My wife is at the computer. The cat / is sleeping across the soft gold cushion / of my chair. Last night there was a frost. / I am practicing to walk like a heron." During my junior year at Aquinas College, I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading by Jack Ridl, as a part of Tony and Linda Nemec Foster's Contemporary Writers Series. After reading the title poem of his new collection, Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, in a poetry class, I had an inkling that this particular poet had a penchant for the delightfully obscure, and was unafraid of the unabashedly silly. Hearing the poem in his own words only furthered this perception as Ridl, confident yet unassuming, read the piece in a gentle cadence, and carefully demonstrated the "heron walk" that had inspired the poem. "I lift my right leg within / the stillness, within the languid / quiet of a creek, slowly, slowly, / slowly set my foot on the dog haired carpet, pause..." Laughter ensued from the audience, and reminded us that poetry, in its many forms, remains an expression of the simple moments, the in-between, and the often forgotten.
Ridl's new book, named for this characteristic piece, revels in what are often unnoticed moments: the long, anxious wait in the doctor's office, the lazy rained-out afternoon, the married couple's practiced routine. When asked if "Heron" summarizes a particular message for the collection, Ridl answered, "...it, for me, is a definition of composing a poem, it embodies being silly, it embodies what one can never accomplish, it is about joy, it is about awkwardness, it is about the fact that one is always practicing, and it embodies a central aspect of the collection—empathy." The carefully arranged pieces of the collection remind the reader of poetry's ability to capture the nature of the human condition: to pause, to ponder, to fret and reflect. Ridl summarized it best when he continued, "I just don't feel able to write about the huge, the dramatic, the consequential. I lived my childhood 'backstage'—be it that of a circus or my father's basketball team. There you learn to attend to the often overlooked." In the majority of the poems, even in the "Circus" section, in poems such as "Clown," the poet offers a window into the anticipation, the boredom, and the revelation of identity and everyday life.
My favorite poem of the book, "Take Love for Granted," perhaps illustrates this concept best. In writing somewhat of a lesson for the starry-eyed readers of poetry, Ridl addresses the complexity of the romantic relationship. Instead of struggling to maintain that intangible "spark," he muses, "Don't try / proving your love / is bigger than the Grand / Canyon..." Try, for a moment, to "Take it / out with the garbage," to fully let live in simplicity. Only here, Ridl tells us, can we "Be glad," "Be glad," "Be glad," for the little annoyances that amount to the genuine admiration of a significant other. In a local poetry reading shared with former student and poet Chris Dombroski on April 3rd, Ridl explained that we often attempt to create a larger space for love and feeling, to exaggerate beyond hyperbole to the point where the tiny tokens of love are ignored. Here, he once again reminds his readers that, in relationships as in poetry, the small moments—the tiny turns— are quiet and subtle, but never inconsequential.
In his new book, Ridl also reminds his readers that, despite a practiced and professional pen, he faces the same struggles and distractions of any writer. The first poem of the collection, "It's Hard to Know Where to Begin," illustrates the frustration of the blank page, and the thought process required in creating and moving forward. The piece thus fully develops the idea of magic found "under a tree outside / my grandmother's kitchen window," "over here / by the couch," or "maybe upstairs under / the bed or even in the basement..." Here, Ridl demonstrates once again that even the smallest particles contribute to a poetic, intangible whole. Again illustrating his emotional accessibility, Ridl allows for vulnerability in this poem with a moving and nostalgic ending, " Or maybe just here, / where an old man from when / I was a kid came up and asked / if I would look at his hands."
Heron, in addition to reveling in the everyday, utilizes nature as a jumping point for metaphorical expression. Here, Ridl demonstrates the slow, effortless rhythm within which he composes long, flowing lines and complete, grammatical sentences. "On I walk, / the heron's mute way, across the / room, past my wife who glances / up, holds her slender hands / above the keys until I pass." As he utilizes what scientists call "anthropomorphization," in poems such as "It's April and it Should be Spring," and "Raking the Duck Weed," Ridl once again gives voice to nature, and ties his lines to the "meditational tone" of the seasons. "I think we should just listen to the trees," Ridl comments as he grins, "We used to believe that everything had its own language to learn. Now we take biology." However, despite notions once attributed to Robert Frost of being a strictly nature poet, Ridl argues, "I simply see nature as something that we are always with. It's there. We're there. We're all nature. Nature is us... I think we are empathizing, being with,
Jack, whether practicing to walk like a heron, or interrupting typical life patterns with the noise and excitement of the circus, dwells in the ordinary obscurities. Though sometimes misunderstood due to his playful demeanor, delivering lines while resting casually on a desk top or acting out the unique movements of the graceful lake bird, his poetry successfully forces a closer read between the lines of everyday moments. Poems such as "On Going with my Wife to the Doctor" demonstrate this careful fusion, and reveal the poet's "deep belief that the comic and the tragic or the joyful and the sorrowful or the silly and the serious are always walking with one another." Comic or tragic, the poet casually introduces a small moment that compels his readers to take a second look, and revel in the ever-shifting atoms of the human condition. As Ridl comments, "I get misunderstood a lot because of that sensibility, some thinking I don't take things seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm a very serious, sad, silly, delight-loving guy." The poet's new collection, Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, rests comfortably in these dichotomies, and is a delightful read.

Works by Jack Ridl

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