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Tipping Point: An Inspiring Break From War
By rg cantalupo (reviewer)
by D. E. Ritterbusch
Tipping Point is not a book of war poems. As the author himself writes, "Collections that are heavily weighted with poems such as Interiors and Poem (i.e. two poems that do have graphic images related to war) are and have been dismissed or overlooked by readers preferring softer stuff." Despite that, many of the poems do feel like they were influenced by the author's war experiences and resonate with feelings of loss or grief.
Take a poem like Green Tea:
There is this tea
I have sometimes,
Pan Long Ying Hao,
so tightly curled
it looks like tiny roots
gnarled, a greenish-gray.
When it steeps, it opens
the way you woke this morning,
stretching, your hand behind
your head, back arched,
toes pointing, a smile steeped
in ceremony, a celebration
the reaching of your arms.
Or Been Awhile:
It has been awhile
since I've heard swarms of music,
summer full on with a blast
of heat that lasts into the deepest reaches
of the night. I can reach no further
and the song is one of repentance
or all the things I have not done.
Before the heat of morning takes hold
I note the shell of a cicada
clinging to the rough bark
of a backyard tree. It holds
that song, yearning for return,
a strong repetitive note, a hint of remembrance,
harbinger of what music next be sung.
These poems are gentle, soft-spoken musings that offer little epiphanies and grace to simple moments in life. There's a fine musicality and clarity to the language the author uses, and the poems evoke moments of simple grace.
Love also permeates throughout Tipping Point. The author often refers, speaks to, or engages a significant other. In The Lingering Flavor of Rice the author alludes to two different loving experiences and reminisces on how rice evokes each. "It was another time, another country,/ and the pleasures were so new." He then goes on to tell us how he always associates the lingering "fragrance of rice" with making love.
These associations from the past to the present offer the reader a sentimental journey through the author's life, from a young man's love in a foreign country to his present life. The poem offers a bridge between what the author felt once, a seemingly long time ago, to what he feels now. The "fragrance of rice" cooking is the connection between love in the past and love in the present.
Another beautiful aspect of Ritterbusch's poetry is the way he can evoke transcendent moments from the most trivial of experiences. In poems such as A Flittering Cosmology, he encounters a "crashed dragonfly…unable to lift" itself out of the water and meditates on how saving the dragonfly from sure death replenishes us all. When the dragonfly "launches into the quiet sun", the reader feels a kindness and caring that is rare among humans, especially when one thinks of insects, even one of incredible beauty like a dragonfly.
But here, it's best for the poet (or narrator) to speak for himself:
I scoop the dragonfly,
exhausted, from the water, a smooth
cupping of my hand beneath
brought up into that most familiar
element of flight. He rests
on my index finger, sunlight
quickly drying his wings.
The narrator then questions his "anthropomorphizing an insect", imagining the dragonfly bending his "head down…as if a kiss of thanks" for saving him, then dismisses the gesture as "nonsense"—"he thought my finger/ to be food, sustenance, replenishment—."
But the narrator is not done. He prefers another explanation:
both of us here but briefly,
a chance meeting, the day balanced
on a still point; it could all go
either way, spilling into the drink.
Ritterbusch ends the poem with this transcendent and benevolent notion:
launches into the quiet
sun, is lost against the tree line,
all of us replenished,
so resplendently sustained.
A Flittering Cosmology is my favorite poem in the book. The simple lifting of a dragonfly out of the water, saving it to fly away versus it drowning or being eaten by a fish, arouses our better angels and offers a beautiful moral insight into a cosmology of kindness and reverence. I especially enjoyed the meandering line breaks which seemed to reflect the gentle swaying of the narrator's canoe as he glided along on the lake contemplating the wonder of nature and this encounter with a strange and alien creature. It made up for some of the poems which were a little too abstract for me, poems which in my earlier life as a literature professor I might have called "academic" poetry.
But that was twenty years ago, and times have changed. Amanda Gorman is the Poet Laureate of the inauguration, and often what is considered to be "good" is what finds its way onto Tiktok and goes viral. As a reviewer, I defer to what resonates with me, and many of Ritterbusch's poems do resonate and inspire. And, even though I am a war veteran, I enjoy and value poems that have nothing to do with war. Considering what's going on in Ukraine, it's an invaluable break from a life that is deeply disturbing.
rg cantalupo (aka Ross Canton is a poet, playwright, filmmaker, novelist, and director. He served in the 25th Infantry Division as an RTO for an infantry company from 1968-69.