Review: The Good Dark by Ryan Van Winkle

The Abyss Also Gazes


The Good Dark opens with the reassurance “I needed to write you a postcard / telling you I am okay,” perhaps the only comforting sentiment in the entire collection but one Ryan Van Winkle cannot help wrapping in the memory of a lost love, regrets and never-were’s. It’s a considered introduction; these poems are about moving on but not forgetting the journey, about keeping eye contact with Nietzsche’s abyss when it gazes into you.

Van Winkle slides between ideas with dark, hallucinatory speed: heartbreak, ancient doors, battered hope, melting snow, ever-leaping salmon, families striving to show compassion but not quite hitting the mark.  ‘Snow Passing in the Night” shows so little of itself, it feels like an overheard confession, the shadow of Van Winkle’s ageing mother catalysing the realisation that one day he will feel loss for the feeling of loss. “Seasoning a Wok” is equally slippery, ‘Gerontocracy’ just as brutal, in capturing the tensions between people who live with but no longer love each other.

It’s when themes are packed tight, however, unexpected as black ice, that these poems truly catch you off guard. ‘Quarry’ starts by framing memories of a stillborn baby and undisclosed pasts with the idea of something to protect, then romance becomes an excavated and unrealised threat:

“If we saw a brown bear by the river

…You said you would name him Love

[…] they called for a flood. You said

you would call it Beauty.”

These moments of intense concentration, however, make way for airier poems in the collection. ‘I Look Up Again’ renews the moon, poetry’s oldest sweetheart, in a form that waxes and wanes, slivers of pop culture and memory lengthening to Joycean run-on sentences, including some bright-white turns of phrase, such as

“I know there is no honey or blood and no cheese nor face

begging for a flag

…I will lift my red nose up

in winter and beg to be told to tide whenever she is swollen”

While the surrounding lines might swerve dangerously close to padding for the sake of the conceit for some readers, they may propel others. ‘The Duke In Pines’ and ‘I Do Not Want Rain For Rain’ likewise achieve a conversational tone at the expense of arbitrary line breaks. No doubt when performed these hit their emotional mark, but on the page you wonder what kept them from being solid prose poems.

Yet, Van Winkle knows what he’s doing. One untitled poem channels a David Lynchian distrust of architecture, dreaming up a banal labyrinth in which he can “only find corridors – never the hard bush / of the hills or the wind of the valley.” To cope, he casts off whole swathes of himself until he realises: “I didn’t matter and I want / a glass of water now.” Is this a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s Creative Writing 101 in which the desire for a glass of water is the bare minimum character trait? Then again, the collection’s untitled closer is a rolling storm of lightning, glass, laceration and reconciliation, but its epigraph, “It was a dark and stormy night”, is goofily attributed to Snoopy from Peanuts.

As bleak and worrisome and sometimes loose as these poems are, knowing winks towards a conversation already in progress raise both poet and reader out of the doldrums, into something bigger, a more participatory irony. Proof, if were needed, that Van Winkle can see the melodrama he’s baked into the poems, can still laugh at the darkest dark – now that it’s past.

—Dangerous Beans.

Penned in the Margins, RRP £9.99, 72 pp