Review of Running at Night by O. Victor Miller

Love’s Alchemy

Review by O. Victor Miller

Running at Night: Collected Poems 1976-2012

By Ned Randle

I don’t read much poetry anymore, never write about a living poet, never would’ve discovered Running at Night by Ned Randle without a personal connection to the poet, his wife Rita, his niece, his deceased sister Carol, to whose memory this thin book is dedicated and whose final year of life taught me what I know of dignity in death.

These poems caught me by surprise, not just because a friend had written them, but because anyone had. They followed me from my desk to bedside table, then to my hunting camp downriver, where a shaggy boar hide on a gambrel hook tacks with breeze assailing seasons. These urbane poems of 40 years of love delighted me, and I found good company in a kindred spirit, fellowship of “educated” men grown Too soon old and too late smart, summing up and looking back, cursed and blessed to alphabets and words, shackled hand and foot to human folly– old Prufrocks gagged in neckties learning self too late to change a goddamn thing but how and what and whom we choose to honor.

From the river where my parents’ ashes are, I recalled a visit to his suburban home outside St. Louis, between Huck’s Hannibal and Cahokia Mounds. I whipped a fly to lazy fish in shadows off his subdivision lake where feral geese too fat to migrate south shit chalk on topiary shrubs and tonsured grass. In the basement game room themed in  Rock ‘n roll, I clacked billiard balls and plundered hardback titles in his  study – the “Durant Williams Bellows Tate”– where open books fall like “acorns cracked and emptied”  when this copyright attorney home from his daytime job to  basking in old denim snug against November’s freezing cold. In his two car garage I straddled the incongruous motorcycle hidden from his aging mother and sat with Rita home from teaching children. At her kitchen bar I ate her famous cookies, enthralled by what I’d learned and fantasized of their Byronic love affair: the driven pharmacist, who studied law at night and seduced the Catholic girl predestined to a nunnery. On the living room carpet I held the dimpled grandchild, namesake of sister Carol, and visited the cemetery plot where his people lie beneath gray tombstones gnawed by acid rain and where I watched my love, his niece, in lieu of plastic flowers, pour a can from a six-pack on his father’s grave while toasting him and drinking one herself. This is the venue the poet/lawyer “cannot leave” for all its “savage” love and “corpulent youth,” ground zero of the heart and everything my river is to me – the setting of his poems, the prairie subdivision tamed by too much plenty, the ground zero of the heart, the place the poet “cannot leave” or where we orbit back from idiotic wars and ocean odysseys to roost slap full of indigested carrion.

Among my whip-poor-wills, I heard his urbane songs, poems fresh with haiku spontaneity, burnished bright as “a gypsy’s glass eye,” seasoned with maturity of vision and understated beauty–a friendly scholar’s voice with tongue a little in the cheek, never sentimental, never giddy, never cute, yet seasoned with self-effacing humor and a somewhat jaundiced eye, the “saddest eyes” one young woman ever saw, seasoned by 40 years of  memories gathered up in “burlap bags” or raked in piles for “boisterous boys” to romp asunder.

From my larval sleeping bag, I concocted yarns of “blooming” madness, scaled convent walls into forbidden gardens, where cloistered nuns sing to flowers, “blessed is the man who never touches me.”  I gloried in his promethean filch of fiery-haired Rita, the bride he snatched from God’s own holy harem. From my flotsam of wives and scattered children, I envied his monogamy, coveted his muse, and found a fellow poet acquainted with the night, with the lovely dark and succubus of  “sleeping snow,” of  magic plundered from the  commonplace I’d fled, that came again to me beneath the twist of campfire sparks and smoke into the winding galaxies of night, a place where frigid “crystal winter” days drive “little migratory birds too cold to fly” into the predatory dreams of yawning dogs, where an octogenarian neighbor shoveling snow drops unloved and dead “straight into his shadow.”

From the edge of dawn and night our inspiration comes in respites half obscured in shadow, whispered vespers in the “fertile minutes just before sleep arrives,”  “wet ashes” of aborted poems “diluted” in the  morning light, when roosters  “pull us like worms from barnyard apples”  into the “pantheon of tedious/ And tiring art of living.”  We leave Endymion dreams for matins of a busy sun that chides us out of Dionysian dreams to Apollonian duty, goads us off the couch and out into the light to drag a little something home.

From flotsam love affairs, abandoned wives and scattered children, I envied his monogamy, coveted the muse.  When not his limelit subject, she resides ubiquitously in periphery of nimbus and shadow. She is his “diamond,” her “keen facets” reflecting all he is and all she isn’t. She is his mate, muse, teacher, lover, even mother, “taming savage frenzy.” She is the quiet Madonna sleeping in her bed, the breast he longs to “cup like the egg of a whooping crane to kiss goodbye” when he sorties out from nest and den past sunsets into night. She is his aging “friend,” grown fondly mute across the table, caught in machinations of reminiscent lust. She is “savage” love and “corpulent” youth “grown quiet together,” their “unspoken bonds” grown muter still in “rich thick air between” them.  “Now,” he says to her, “we simply do not speak.”  He is her incubus singing “rainbow lullabies to steal her babies,” her castrate Abelard shunting concupiscence for wider, deeper love. She is his alchemy, the catalyst that weaves his common straw into golden tapestries, the helpmate building sandboxes for their grandchildren on frontier deserts of eternity, where they are mated mortally as wolves or geese, “infinitely alone together,” their “self-destructive cells of life” revived in progeny.

From my miasmal river swamp I gazed with him through “brackish night” into the dawn of “alien coasts” where “night parts day,” the ebb where “opposing forces of the sun and moon” mirage a “foamy neap tide of the heart.” We rocked in cradle motion of the mother sea– “the rise and fall, the rise and fall” that compromises shore and ocean. Outside the lunar blister of my tent, I read these poems aloud to owls that chided rain and solitude:

Who cooks for you?

Who cooks for you all?

And snug from storms beneath the bat-bone groins of tent, I squirmed in his cathedral pew, chilled by his angst of easy faith, of absolution bought, of “cold coins dribbled into the collection plate” and fumbled wafer on a filthy carpet. I felt the vertigo of “fractured reason,” the disorienting heave of the very earth “shifting under foot,” poles reversed like a  “Christmas snow globe, misaligning the very sacred into the sacred.”  I knew the terrifying faith in faith alone “paradoxical redundancy,” when doubt is all we know of living grace, false prophecies of tribal Gods demanding blood and sirens’ suicidal call into the blind abyss.

On predatory stalks of lacy moons, I listened to the muted tap, tap, tap of his nocturnal runner’s rubber shoes on asphalt paths, footsteps that follow us like hounds of heaven, flushing nightingales from streetlamp shadows. On sinuous trails that wild hogs print through river sallow, his drumming heartbeats brought to me “good solitude” into the “selfless sounds of night.” From common shade I glimpsed my muddy Caliban with his pariah crowned in a “grimy hat.” Twin gargoyle antipodes of who we think we are, my savage Hyde in tandem with the “snot monger hawking his wares” together lurking hip to haunch and  “least of these” faith calls on us to love.

Aging poets winnow in the final quarter what’s to winnow, sifting hearths for crystal splinters of glass slippers, raking dust for rusty nails beneath a cross, foraged scales of tarnished armor sloughed beneath a windmill’s hacking shadow past just past the cul de sac of Sisyphus, on the downside slope of Hubris Hill.  What’s left for us to do but make preposterously lovely lies in shadow shows from incandescent tents or jogging silhouettes on floodlit lawns. Confined to alphabets and narrow compasses of human hearts, these are the hammered words that drive us cursing to our blessings, the dangers passed in urban sprawl or shrinking wetland, the ray of fragile Faith that doubt implies, the viper under autumn leaves, scorpions coiled into the toe of bedroom slippers.  What we leave is what remains, the best and happiest dregs of brainpan sludge, peace made with worms encysting yellow rosebuds, the spinner maiden flights on iridescent wings to urn and lovers tomb. For all of this I praise a newer friend with music sweeter than my own, a more productive life, a muse more constant.


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