Ronald Perry: A Remembrance
I never met Ronald Perry, though I feel I knew him very well. Several years ago when I was writing a "Poetry Chronicle" for The Hudson Review, I came across a collection entirely unlike the other forty volumes piled on my desk. The book was Perry's Denizens, just published in the newly inaugurated and otherwise disappointing National Poetry Series. Never having heard of Perry, I was surprised to see four previous collections listed under the author's credits. How could I have missed his work until now–I thought, though later I was to learn that his seemingly impressive bibliography was very misleading. The poems in Denizens were technically brilliant but in a quiet, undramatic way–rather like a violinist playing through an enormously difficult cadenza triple pianissimo. Likewise although one could occasionally see a touch of Auden or Stevens in his poems, they were also highly original, continually surprising the reader by taking an unexpected turn. Having just read though several flat and featureless new volumes, I was also particularly impressed by Perry's sophisticated sense of verse music. Here actually was poetry composed, as Pound demanded, "in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." I did not know then that the author had originally hoped to be a composer rather than a poet, but one could not miss his concern for the tone and timbre of words. Some poems even seemed to be written solely for musical and imagistic effects, a sort of poesie pure that hearkened back to the beginnings of modernism, as in "Nocturne":
One night, these dreams, as black
As horses, will surely
Overwhelm us—the terminal
Troops, parading superbly
To the sound of the bells
Splitting the sides
Of the churches, the lost
Of the trumpets, the last
Vestige of all that we have had
Stripped, crashing in cymbals
All around us—
What shall we say then
to those we have left
Disarmed, defenseless, behind us?
Denizens was also distinctive in another way. It was extremely subtle and complex. Although contemporary poetry is widely held to be innovative and uncompromisingly difficult, most of it–ask any honest reviewer–is quite simple and formulaic–even cozy. Perry's work, by contrast, made fewer accommodations to the reader. The sound was always beguiling, but the sense was intricate and sometimes elusive. His poems did not lay out every step the reader must take but demanded his active collaboration in making connections, especially in thinking through the full associations of his metaphors and images. Perry also liked to play with degrees of ambiguity in his work, purposely leaving out some important detail (usually the specific place or person addressed) to force the reader into keeping open a range of possible meanings. This deliberate ambiguity makes Denizens a difficult book to read, especially for the first time. Many readers, I suspect, will give up on certain poems, feeling they cannot follow their full meaning. Ambiguity is a dangerous technique in poetry. When it works it can create mysterious and haunting poems. When, more often, it fails it results in pretense and obscurity. Denizens had its share of both outcomes, but its successes more than compensated for its failures.
Finally, there was an astonishing sense of sensual excitement in reading Denizens. What landscaped it described! What images evoked! One had to go back to Stevens to find another poet so fascinated with the gaudy and the exotic. Although the book ranged from the desolate Pine Barrens of the Bahamas to jungle mountaintops in Laos with stops along the way in Mexico, Hungary, and Hell, Perry's imagination returned habitually to florid tropical scenes (which unlike Stevens, he knew very well first hand). Even his titles revealed his love for the bright and colorful–"The Guilt of the Gold Flower," "Tiger-Balm Gardens",–or his selection of animals in his small bestiary–the peacock, phoenix, hawk, and centaur were hardly offset by one ordinary goat.
All of these virtues, however, did not make Denizens a perfect collection. It contained some uninspired poems, and others which, although touched by brilliance, were vitiated by ambiguity and secrecy. I was also troubled by the lack of a unifying voice through the volume. In some ways it seemed like an anthology of widely different poets rather than a collection by one man. But, although he had some faults as a writer, they were his own failings, not those borrowed from his contemporaries. I was obviously captivated by the book and wrote a review which tried to communicate its special fascination.
Several months after my "Poetry Chronicle" appeared I received a letter, forwarded to me from The Hudson Review, with a return address in the Bahamas. I had no notion of what it could be but upon opening it I saw Perry's signature. It began:
This is something I've not done before, almost certainly won't do again, and will undoubtedly continue the propriety of even whilst I'm about it. But "Wot the Hell," as Mehitabel to Archy on another occasion. I liked your "Poetry Chronicle" in the current Hudson a lot, including the review of Denizens, so why not tell you so?
I wrote him a short note thanking him for his letter and assumed that would be the end of it.
Another few months passed when suddenly a long letter from him arrived asking me if I would be willing to read the manuscript of a new book he was preparing for publication. He was somewhat isolated in the Bahamas, he explained, And had to rely almost entirely on the advice of two old friends, Donald Justice and Lawrence Donovan. Would I be willing to give an outside opinion? I was somewhat astonished by this request but "Wot the Hell." I said to myself, and told him to send me the manuscript.
From this point on, Ronald began writing me with increasing regularity. Soon I was receiving letters and packets from his two or three times a week. It almost seemed I couldn't open my mailbox without finding a thick blue envelope covered with extravagant Bahamian stamps and stuffed with poems. There was no way I could keep up with this steady stream of correspondence, but he repeatedly urged me not to try. I wrote back as often as I could. I sensed that he often content merely to have an appreciative reader out there. Under usual circumstances one might grow to resent so much mail from one person, but how could I not be charmed by Ronald's long, witty, and intelligent letters (sometimes six or seven pages typed single spaced)? And the poems! I was amazed both by their quantity and quality. He was onto something new and for once had the time and energy to pursue it wholeheartedly. Of course the work he sent was uneven, but here and there were splendid individual poems as good and sometimes even better than anything he had ever written before.
In early July, he wrote me that he was about to come to New York on a holiday. Could we meet? I wrote back setting the date and made plans for our evening together. Meanwhile I acquired some old Hudson Reviews which contained some of his early uncollected prose which I thought he would enjoy having extra copies of. A few days before our planned meeting I received a package in the mail. It included a note confirming our date along with his only copy of Donald Justice's first book, a rare little pamphlet published by Preston Dettman's Pandarus Press in Miami. Why would he give me so valuable a book, I wondered, especially one by so special a friend? I meant to ask him about it when we met. The morning of July 14th, I phoned his New York number to ask what time we should meet for dinner and was told he had died suddenly of a heart attack the night before.
Ronald Perry was born in 1932 in Miami, Florida, then a smaller, more Southern town than today's teeming Hispanic metropolis. Most of his childhood, however, was spent down in the Keys, especially in Rock Harbor, a small settlement on Key Largo where his parents owned and operated a commercial fishing lodge. He studied at the University of Miami where in his sophomore year he met and began a lifelong friendship with Donald Justice who was a young instructor there. In 1954 he left the University having completed an M.A. in English Literature and History. Perry then spent two years in the Army as a cryptographer–an experience one suspects had some influence on his poetry. In 1956 Perry was discharged from the military to accept a writing fellowship at the University of Iowa, but left after only six weeks, having begun only one course in Anglo-Saxon. He claimed that returning to graduate school made him realize that he did not want to teach for a living, but privately in a letter he also confessed how much he disliked the arrogance and eliteness of the other writers in the program. He felt his own writing could be done much better outside the academy.
Returning to Miami, Perry found work as an airline reservation agent. About this time he published his first "book," The Fire Nursery and Other Poems, a handsome pamphlet of four poems printed in a small edition by his friend Preston Dettman, in Miami. Perry soon began a period of traveling in which eventually brought him to Vientiane, Laos where he worked as a secretary for an engineering firm in the uneasy years between the French withdrawal and the American occupation. Laos made a profound impression on Perry's imagination inspiring his longest prose work, a series of traditional Laotian tales which he freely adapted into English. It also inspired what is perhaps his finest poem, the haunting sequence, "After the Lao."
In 1959 Perry published The Rock Harbor, his first full-length collection, brought out by the indefatigable Alan Swallow in Denver. A few months later in early 1960 another letterpress pamphlet appeared, The Pipe Smokers: An Eclogue for an Unspecified Occasion, once again printed by Dettman in a limited edition. About this time Perry moved to Nassau, Bahamas where for the next eleven years he worked for Outboard Marine International first as a bookkeeper, and then, having been promoted against his will, as Director of Advertising and Public Relations. He published one more pamphlet, Voyages From Troy, a strange mythological sequence, with the Mariner Press in Miami in 1962, and then gradually lost interest in writing. A few more poems and Laotian tales appeared in magazines during the Sixties, but by the end of the decade he had stopped writing entirely.
When Denizens appeared in 1980, Perry was a largely forgotten writer. It had been eighteen years since his last small pamphlet had been published and twenty-one since his only full collection. His books are out of print; his work in no current anthologies. Living outside the academy, he had no students or colleagues who championed him. Whatever reputation remained was among a small coterie of friends centered in Miami. Denizens itself was published by Random House only through the intervention of Donald Justice who had been asked to choose one the five initial volumes of the National Poetry series. At first Justice and Perry planned a retrospective volume, but inspired by the project, Perry suddenly began writing again, and the final Denizens contained mostly new work.
The publication of Denizens brought Perry's literary career back to life. It put him in touch with other poets and reminded editors of his existence. Most importantly it filled him with the confidence to continue writing. Now retired from his business career, Perry threw all his energy into poetry. Within a year of Denizens' publication he had written enough poems for a new collection. This new work was in a different style from his earlier poems. It was more open and accessible. Its structure less musical and more narrative and dramatic. Whereas the work in Denizens sometime seemed to lack one cohesive voice, these new pieces were all recognizably his own.
As he turned fifty in January in 1982, Perry was excitedly planning his literary future. Denizens had received excellent reviews. His new manuscript, In the Smoke, was with his editor at Random House, and Perry was nervously planning the first public reading of his career–at his alma mater, the University of Miami, where he was to take part in a poetry festival with Richard Wilbur, Dave Smith, and William Empson. Anxious about his debut, Perry scripted his entire reading, preparing and compulsively revising a twenty-nine page typescript of poems and commentary. Much to his surprise, he enjoyed the event and was eagerly planning another reading on National Public Radio.
He now entered the most productive period of his literary life sometimes writing out four or five new poems a week while frenetically revising half a dozen others. "I feel like a factory again," he wrote in a letter. He had almost prepared enough work for two volumes– a drastically revised version of In the Smoke and a dark, premonitory collection of Bahamian poems–when he died suddenly of a heart attack in Nassau on July 13, 1982. The police reported he was writing at the time of the attack. An unfinished poem was found in his typewriter.
Letter to the Bahamas
for Ronald Perry
Here in the North
The woods grow
dense with underbrush,
and the cardinals,
strangely absent until now,
flash in dappled light,
weaving the heavy air
between the heavy sycamores.
And you, dear Ronald,
as you had promised.
You've gone off again
leaving no address
and now who knows
where we shall meet.
Neither in your
old home nor mine.
Instead I hold the phone,
heartbroken by a stranger's voice,
and hearing of your death,
where you have gone to and on what
we shall find you.
- Dana Gioia
The Old Kitchen
Fires have been lit many times here before–
A charred hearth, the scarred stump of a chimney,
An ancient iron canted at an impossible angle
But still hooked to hold a glowing iron pot
Over someone else's burned-out memory
Of smoldering ashes, three blocked-up windows
Which must at one time have let in a glimpse
Of the morning, or afternoon, or evening light.
We haven't kept the ashes glowing, copper bottoms
Polished, wicks trimmed on the cut-glass lamps.
In fact, we've tried to turn the old kitchen
Into a memory peopled with a family of ghosts
Other than our own. Haven't of course, succeeded,
Vines grow there, as before, exotic palms sprout,
Fishtail dances with plumbago, carissa laden
With arms full of scarlet fruit still wounds anyone
Approaching too closely. But we don't live there.
For us, the old kitchen is only a part of the garden.
But for those others who once called it home,
Feeding the fire, hanging the iron pot on its handle,
Waiting for the white sauce to finally thicken,
Listening across the lawn to the ladies' gowns–
Taffeta, starched linen–the voices are as real
As mine at midnight, talking to myself about nothing.
- Ronald Perry
You won't believe this, but a time came once
When we actually thought we might be hearing
The footsteps of ghosts–peevish old men with sticks,
Gaunt young ones eaten by unfashionable passios,
Sea-captains wives on their high empty walks.
This traffic didn't begin until the whole house
Had gone to bed, closed books, put out the lights,
And lay awake in its moonlit square of garden,
Listening to us listening. Then it began–
A rustling of dry stalks, whispers, a cough.
That first morning after, we clambered uneasily
Into the attic, examined plaster and plumbing,
Peered carefully around corners, found nothing
But a few ancient owl-bones and the stub of a candle–
No sign of a door into the hollow over our beds.
The walls were shut. This part of the house
Had been a later addition. If ghosts walked here,
Hobbling on canes or trailing frayed lace, they came
Through new walls. They trod on raw boards
And stepped in dust that hadn't been stepped in before.
Next night the same. In the dark the old men's sticks
Sounded like straw. The click of the ladies' heels
Was louder and more urgent than ever.
"Footsteps going where?" we asked each other.
Sitting up, switching on lights, summoning the dog.
And then sat high against the headboard, listening
To the sounds which came down from the air–
Dry grass heaped, muffled cotton softly gnawed, the last
Frantic scramble of the tree-rats over the laths
In the hollow dark, building a nest over our heads.
The mystery solved, we called in the exterminators.
Carpenters shut the cunning hole under the eaves
That had been entrance and exit. Poison bait was laid
Along ledges and limbs, on the curled split edges
Of all-spice and sea-grape leaves. The rats departed.
For the first time in weeks we slept soundly.
Heard nothing but ordinary night sounds–the distant
Hooting of owls, the air-conditioner's opaque hum,
The familiar screams of late night traffic,
Ring-doves returning at morning. Then it began.
- Ronald Perry
© 1983 Dana Gioia
This memoir was published in Letter to the Bahamas: Remembering Ronald Perry (Abattoir Editions 1983)