STAN RICE A Silenced Lamb BY DAVE OLIPHANT In 1960 Alfred A. Knopf Inc. published John Graves’ Goodbye to a River, a classic Texas work of meditation on a passing way of life a common theme in Texas letters. In 1992 Knopf has publishedso far as I am awareits first collection of poetry by a native Texan: Stan Rice’s Singing Yet: New and Selected Poems, a harrowing chronicle of the effects of a single passing awaya death in the family. Another beautifully designed and printed Knopf edition, Rice’s book features on the dust jacket a fullcolor reproduction of a painting by the poet: possibly a symbolic depiction of death raping innocence. This vivid and disturbing piece of art seems to relate directly to the central section which is in two parts subtitled “During” and “After” and concerns the death of the poet’s daughter from leukemia. An excruciating, moving and even heroic series of poems, this section of Rice’s book presents a situation and its impact on the poet that may be characterized by a phrase from the collection’s final section of rhyme into the slaughter house.” In many ways the poems from “Some Lamb” \(with its epigraph from William Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” out of the pervade and permeate the rest of this powerful book, one of the most important collections of poetry ever published by a Texan. Born in Dallas in 1942, Stan Rice was for many years at San Francisco State University as a professor and assistant director of The Poetry Center. One of Rice’s poems from the 1960s first appeared in the outstanding anthology, Quickly Aging Here tled “On the Murder of Martin Luther King” but is included in Singing Yet as “Whiteboy.” Section 3 of this piece recalls a practice from earlier years when, as the original subtitle has it, “The Young Texan returns to the Texas State Fair and sees the source of his racism sitting in a glass cage over a tank of water.” The object of this particular sideshow “attraction” was to dunk the “nigger”_ and “pay him back for his sensual blackness,” but he keeps “staring at you through the glass tank / like an animal that you can’t kill.” Section 2 of this poem was probably written before Rice’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, but it too, like the poems on her condition and its devastating effects on the poet and his wife, is about children, in this case “suave children black and brown” whose bodies are “full of echoes, / scary as Death in the ivy standing /knee-deep in the green ivy, / beating on the mouths of bottles with their palms, Dave Oliphant is a poet and lives in Austin. / grieving and smiling.” Despite the tragedy at the heart of Rice’s book, it contains writing that can bring smiles as well as grief, for this collection ultimately celebrates the fact that the poet is “singing yet.” A lighthearted piece like “The Skyjacker” is told in the voice of a cowboy movie star: “I am carrying a pillow into the cockpit on which is embroidered / I am Tex Ritter. Howdy. / A calm falls over the cockpit. / The co-pilot takes off his extra ears and I tell them, / Relax. … That this is not Eldridge Cleaver / This is Tex Ritter talkin / and … We are going to Havana forever!” More representative of the book’s black humor is “The Allnight Hamburger Stand in the Dangerous Neighborhood”from Rice’s “Texas Suite”: The Murder Burger is served right here. You need not wait at the gate of Heaven for unleavened death. You can he a goner on this very corner. Mayonnaisse, onions, dominance of flesh. If you wish to eat it You must feed it. “Vail come back.” “You bet.” But certainly even such sinister humor is the exception, for Singing Yet is the agonizing equivalent of “the bust of my dead daughter in marble” that is being carved by the poet’s fatherin-law in movement 7 of the “Texas Suite.” Many of the book’s central images and motifs are introduced in “Elegy,” the first poem in the collection. Written during the daughter’s illness, this piece is a very private acknowledgment that the speaker’s pain cannot be escaped but it is also an effort to face death through offering “Detail by detail / the living creatures.” Throughout Rice’s book there are wondrous poems on animals cows, cats, birds, a “tragic rabbit,” a “goofy gold, ever hungering” dog who complicates the poet’s life \(“I can’t move with you. / I can’t bear the guilt of getting rid of goldfish. In this last poem of the same title, Rice contrasts an oriental philosophy that sees death “as a continuity” with his daughter’s goldfish resisting it “like crazy.” The poet seems torn between these two views, faced as he is with the expected death of his own daughter. Much of the tension in the book comes from Rice’s constant struggle with two opposing sides, two incompatible philosophies pulling him apart. In “Elegy,” enigmatic lines only hint at pain or provide frequently a type of existential consolation: “If I bleed I must exist / Only hanging hogs get kissed.” Since the daughter’s disease is one THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.