Review: Things That Keep Us from Drifting by Andrew Ruzkowski

Ann E. Michael, PQ Contributing Editor

Things That Keep Us from Drifting
Andrew Ruzkowski
Another New Calligraphy, 2014
88 pp., large format paperback, $18.00
In his writings, John Dewey mentions the phenomenon he calls “drift,” when social forces lose underpinnings or, more commonly perhaps, when some component of a social environment develops a rupture from rational foundations and becomes rudderless. While drifting connotes, on the one hand, a pleasant state of relaxation, too much drifting tends to signal a lack of purpose or motivation. We do not wish to drift too far from what we cherish, and that idea seems to be the salient image that connects the disparate sections of Andrew Ruzkowski’s collection Things That Keep Us from Drifting.
The book is striking in appearance—large (9×12), illustrated with botanical, color block prints (no artist credited), interleaved sections of heavy stock paper, bordered pages, unusual typography. The handmade aspect of the text is no mere decoration; the intention of both the author and the publisher is to celebrate the small, light, tactile, local art object. The immediate appeal of novelty here signals, as well, a certain risk. A reader may feel put off by the unexpected or daunted by the uniqueness of the format, but art always involves risks. In the case of this collection—which is really a sort of long poem segmented through typographical and visual compositions—the poetry is itself presented as fragmented, a series of loosely connected vignettes or less-than-vignettes, such as images, moments, fallen leaves.
Ruzkowski divides the poem into six sections or little chapters that go by the names Rock, Honey Locust, Apiary, Lake, Frame, and City. Each section tugs away from the central place of the poem, the locus of which is the urban environment of apartment buildings, boundaried parks, cemeteries, and the seasonal changes (moving into late autumn) the narrator observes. Initially, the speaker is “away from home” and viewing his neighborhood from a distance, but familiarity strongly enters into stream-of-consciousness noticing:
The shapes are sky-like and the blue-grays come from an erotic rainbow
just one block away next to the train tracks
next to the cracked sidewalk nest to the gutted building
Red berries
Tomatoes red and green
Girl on crutches
Yellow leaves
Reflective sign
The section titled “Frame” delivers the most obvious thinking-while-living approach to writing that usually gets termed “stream of consciousness,” and that’s the kind of poetry this entire book reminds me of: investigations into the process of the daily mind, which admits that “This thing is non-linear/elliptic.” A patient and open-minded reading of the text yields the distinct sensation of being inside the speaker’s brain, and therefore walking the city prepared to experience the change of light, the change of season, the swallow, the bee, the catalpa pods.
The book is tonally consistent, autumnal, evocative of reflective meditation. Within the irregular lines, there are moments of humor and irony; the white spaces on the page do their best to speak silent volumes, as if the speaker were pausing on a street corner to get his bearings. A few oddities arise—why the use of the word “thusly,” and more than once? Why end the poem on the image of stolen tomatoes? Yet the frequent recognition of light and windows seems authentic to the poem’s environment and mood. Riffs on urban diversity show up now and then, particularly in reference to foods juxtaposed with the jumble of observations: “Plastic bottle/Plastic crate/Glass bottle/Conical/Orbital/a pinch of cumin/Bird’s nest/Wrinkled palm/Saw palmetto….” and other lists of the inorganic and the organic until “A trip to the grocery store seems calming.” Such diversionary lines and phrases build mosaic effects that lead into curious and intriguing results, such as “The alphabet is a stem and the human becoming a sea turning syllables.”
Which brings me back to the concept of drift as a breaking loose from useful norms, an aimlessness. The typography and design, including the fragmentary nature of the poem itself, suggest that the damage has been done; yet the underlying narrative of careful observation and the attention to details of several relationships—to city, to a loved one, to plants and earth—make claims that say that the poem is pushing toward connection, not away from it. One way to keep from moving far from what we cherish is to write about all that we love, without explanation. This is what Ruzkowski achieves in Things That Keep Us from Drifting.