London Grip Poetry Review – Ruth Danon

Poetry review – TURN UP THE HEAT: Charles Rammelkamp explores a new collection by Ruth Danon

Turn Up the Heat
Ruth Danon
Nirala Publications, 2023
ISBN: 978-81-957816-4-5
84 pages   $18.00

The guiding lights of Ruth Danon’s intriguingly cryptic new collection are the 4th Century religious figure, St. Anthony of the Desert, noted for his valiant warfare with the devil (the cross and the pig, a symbol of the devil, are associated with Anthony) and the 16th Century Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy. Indeed, the two epigraphs to the collection are quotations from Bruno. They have to do with light and heat, which, as the title of the collection suggests, are key metaphors throughout the book. “All day we have been talking, / one way or another, about heat,” Danon begins the title poem.

“Against Nostalgia” is a poem that takes place in Sardinia at the festival for St. Anthony, which culminates in a huge bonfire the townspeople of Galtelli (‘Usually unseen, usually hidden’) have set up around a hollow tree.

I watch the flames rise higher, then
surround the hollow tree.
Hours pass, revealed to me:
expired wood,
                                      still warm,
twisted, blanched and white 
as Bruno’s bright and brilliant bones.

Saint Anthony also makes an appearance in “The Gamble,” “Saint Anthony Prepares for the Desert” (‘When I meet / the devil / in his dirty cave / will I spit / or will I chew?’), “Saint Anthony Speechless” (‘And so Anthony / holding a stick / hiding its fire, / calms the pig / comes out of the cave, / brings heat to the world’), and “St. Anthony’s Fire,” which likewise takes place at the festival.

	In Galtelli, in the center of town
	     they light the fire slowly
	it starts to burn      one side bright
	     one side shadow
			        always and in 
	all things     one side bright and
	     one side shadow

Bruno likewise makes an appearance in “St. Anthony’s Fire.” As well as in “Against Nostalgia” and “St. Anthony’s Fire” (‘living tree bare of branches / proud as / Giordano Bruno’), he features in “Small Town Zuihitsu” (‘Giordano Bruno knew there were an infinite number of stars, each one circling around its very own sun.’ – the very heretical belief that got him burned at the stake.).

The zuihitsu, a Japanese form that’s like a lyric essay, loosely linking connected fragments and ideas in a haphazard order, provides an insight into Danon’s method of composition, which often seems disconnected or free-associative, her canny, subtle way of making her point. Subtitled “(The Aim Is the Illusion of Spontaneity)” the poem moves ahead by its own logic. ‘I am training myself to see,’ she writes. ‘To see implies action and a willingness to leave the boundaries of my own thought.’ After this she proceeds to muse on the difference between deductive and inductive logic, with reference to her students. Then Bruno makes his appearance, and Danon muses about the stars and the sky, while also considering her logical options, which she ultimately dismisses –

     A false binary. Rather, say simply:

     night, sky, stars, limit, solitude 

And then back I am where I was at the beginning,
alone in my house as voices on the street fade away.

“The Temptation,” which appears to be in the voice of St. Anthony, might also be read as a kind of manifesto. She writes:

 What ill-gotten gains will come from what I imagine or conjure? Poker-
faced, I, holding no cards, reproach only myself for false premises. In this 
desert I give up longing. I come with claw hand and cloven feet. In this 
desert the false and the true, the angel and devil, stand equal. It remains to 
be seen how tall my tales will get.

Like the zuihitsu, this suggests something unpredictable, a sui generis kind of logic. “The Narrative Frame {revised}” is another quintessential Danon poem that suggests the same logical leaps. It starts:

 Let us say, for argument’s sake, that life has no plot.
That is to say, there is a certain beginning; I was born,
etc.) and an uncertain end and the rest is continuum.

She then introduces a skittish striped cat who finds comfort resting on a towel and obtains happiness. ‘That, in a plotless life, is what we live for.’ The observation is wise at the same time it is random. It’s puzzling at the same time that it makes perfect sense.

Poems like “How We Live Now” (‘Don’t you think these are strange times? We are wearing our masks indoors’) and “One More Thing to Worry About” (‘No doubt, I say. No fucking / doubt,’ she wearily observes about yet another obscure looming threat) are both funny and reveal an underlying existential anxiety that’s at work throughout much of the collection.

Words themselves inspire Danon’s thought. In “The Frame” the word she riffs on is “repair”; in “Astray” the word is “bruise”; in “Domesticated” it is prepositions themselves – “over,” “near,” “with,” “of,” etc. “Against Theory” obsesses on “the” body and “a” body. ‘I don’t trust words as much as I love them,’ she writes in “Romance.” ‘I trust instead the one who, unasked, cleaned out / my refrigerator.’

The short prose poem, “Confusion of Tongues,” begins ‘When I said “constellation” my friend heard “consolation” and my friend was not far wrong.’ Danon explains the connection and then concludes: ‘Thus: light and heat, heat and light, light and air, water and light, fire and light, air and light, light and light.’

Similarly, the short poem, “Made Not Born” starts with “compose” and neatly ends its clever wordplay in “composure”:

 to compose to gather 
oneself to calm down
after turmoil a turn or
a swerve a look up and
our the window see that 
bird carrying a bare twig
in its mouth landing on
the drastic porch light
attempting a nest this too
a form of composure. 

A revered teacher, Danon’s tone occasionally sounds as if she is offering instructions. In poems like “Hawks” and “Romance” she spells out directions to her readers. ‘Name the elements….’ ‘Pair the hawk with the sky….’ ‘Read until the white sky turns grey, until everything blurs.’

Ruth Danon’s poems are quiet and meditative. They make you think. Like Saint Anthony, she wrestles with her personal devils, turning up the heat.