Feather Punches

Despite a formal elegance, poet Judy Ray's latest book packs an emotional wallop

There's something in the way that Tucsonans David and Judy Ray transmute grief into powerful art that suggests they've endured things the rest of us can only suffer vicariously. Indeed, every poem in Judy's latest book, To Fly Without Wings, exudes the confident aura of someone who has experienced everything life has to offer—tragedy and comedy, darkness and light.

Like her equally adept poet husband, Judy Ray manages a difficult balancing act between fearless autobiography and strict formalism—like Plath and Sexton, minus the impulse toward aesthetic extremism and personal oblivion. Wings stands as her most consistent effort to date, and will likely cement her reputation as a poet's poet—a writer who makes other writers sick with envy.

The book begins with a section devoted to Ray's memories of her British upbringing. In the opening poem, she returns to her birthplace to examine the home she was raised in, the home her parents inhabited for more than 50 years. Memories dredge themselves up; emotional details boil over. And yet Ray presents it all matter-of-factly, like an ice-cold prayer:

I hear echoes of children's prattle, adolescent

awkwardness, work worry and weariness.

The seasons superimpose with summer fruit

bubbling into jam, a winter fire,

and spun-glass angels on a Christmas tree.

I see the glint of sewing needles in worn hands,

and candles moving like fireflies up the dark stairs.

This is just one stanza among the six that constitute "Returning to Great Allfields," but already I feel largely transported to Ray's childhood. And when the poet recalls other family-related moments—like Armistice Day in the '50s, when she and her sister "knocked on village doors / and offered poppies / to remember the nonsurvivors"—everything is rendered in vivid, palpable, you're-right-there language.

My new favorite poem is "Year One," in which Ray recounts her and her then-infant daughter's international travels:

An Italian boat took us from port to port—

you ate spaghetti, slept soundly in a cot

with netting sides. We sidestepped money-changers

of Beirut, touched ancient land of Syria,

watched frozen snails being loaded in Turkey,

bound for Marseilles.

It's rare that a contemporary poet so poignantly observes the world around her in order to reveal her own personality and passions. "Fearless" is the only word I can use to characterize the life Ray expresses in her poems, and her willingness to take on any subject, even if it cuts to the marrow.

Her poem "September" is a perfect example. Ray and her husband have both written sadly beautiful, moving poems before about their deceased son Sam, but this one is perhaps the most affecting. In it, the couple dread the anniversary of his death, trying to "seal tight the September well of darkness." But such a well is infinite, and when Ray's "razoring questions" open up old wounds, the black cloud of grief settles in once again. The way in which an owl perched in a cottonwood tree poses his own interrogative ("Hoo") is wrenching, especially since it's never really determined if the owl is mocking the couple or sympathizing with their unanswerable inquiries. It took me a few hours to shake off the spell of this poem.

Even when she addresses issues of which she has (I'm guessing) little firsthand knowledge, Ray is absolutely compelling. Her Hurricane Katrina diptych makes for powerful reading. A stanza from "No Safe Haven" sums up the tragedy rather nicely:

We construct subways as intricate as ants'

mansions and know we can blow them up.

We destroy the Monarch butterfly's diet

and cut down its sanctuary.

We can rain down bombs where there is no rain.

Whether composing a villanelle about seeking truth or constructing ekphrasis on the famous composer Beethoven's unstoppable imagination, Ray is singularly effective, making it difficult to put down Wings.

If you've ever been curious about local bards, let me urge you to pick up this book at Antigone Books. But please don't read Wings before sitting down to write your own poems; your mind and heart will be reeling for a long time afterward. It's the highest compliment I can pay a fellow poet—to have your imagination wiped clean by the skills of another.