Reading Ragged Anthem: Poems by Chris Dombrowski evoked the strangest feeling, and I’m not exactly sure why. Whether the poems were about time, or geology, or nature, or an old (and unsolved) murder, or a boy catching a tree frog, or St. Francis of Assisi, a thought kept recurring: Life is fragile, and the fragility is giving way. And this is happening in spite of a kind of personal resiliency.
This began with the first of the 52 poems in the collection, a poem entitled “Gentle Reader.” The narrator rents a room; he plays “Unaccompanied Suite for a Stolen Violin” in his head over and over until someone next door punches the wall, and still he won’t turn the volume down. He and the wall puncher eventually have an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff at the spyhole in the door. After reading the poem three times I think this narrator, this poet, is fragile; things are coming unglued; and he’s in a standoff with the chaos right outside his door.
I see this idea, or pieces of it, in virtually every poem in the collection. In “I’m working on a building,” the girl lying next to the narrator is unaware of her developing brain tumor; the narrator knows it only in retrospect or memory. In another poem, a paperboy is deathly afraid of a dog. In the poem “Dept. Meeting,” as the narrator listens, the attendees’ words and statements turn to wind. Life is transitory, and unexpected things will happen.
And then subtlety is left behind.
Poem in Which Morgan Freeman Narrates the Apocalypse
As many ways to get to Heaven
as to the pharmacy. Aborted
baby. Suicide bomb. The leper’s
feet, when washed, appeared
skinless. Soiled, grandmother
needs her bedclothes changed
again. On the schoolyard a boy
bounces a half-flat basketball,
the worn rubber rising almost
to his hand. Tending this pulse
he is one of the seven beings
holding Earth in orbit or he is
tardy for class. Likewise a syringe
shining beneath the hoop, left
by a man who’s very high if he isn’t
scrambling to prep an IV
for his wife who declined to wear
her blond wig today. Pockets emptied
he stands stymied as the ball,
lofted toward the hoop, rattles
chain-link net—but swish
or air ball, it’s hard to tell from here.
Dombrowski has published two previous poetry collections, By Cold Water (2009) and Earth Again (2013), and the nonfiction work Body of Water: A Sage, A Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish (2016). His essays and poems have been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He’s taught creative writing for almost 20 years and currently directs the Beargrass Writing Retreat. He’s also worked as a fly-fishing guide in Montana, where he lives with his family.
Ragged Anthem is a journey through the impermanence of life. It’s a haunting, unsettling collection that uses shadows filtered by light, an afternoon light. It does what fine poetry is supposed to do.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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