The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles

Friday, August 7, 2020

ROADS OF BREAD: The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles (edited by Delia Moon; Petaluma Press, 2009)

The one and only time I met Gene Ruggles was in the Fall of 1982, when we gave a reading at the Intersection in San Francisco. Ruggles was in his late 40s and was best known for his prize-winning first book of poems, The Lifeguard in the Snow, which had been published in June, 1977 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Several hundred libraries purchased copies, and Ruggles seems to have savored his success with alcoholic excess. I knew nothing about him other than his book when I agreed to read with him. I remember that I read first, and that there was a constant undercurrent of loud conversation and personal bantering between Ruggles and the friends he had brought along to the reading. When I asked Ron Silliman afterwards why the reading was so noisy, he informed me that Ruggles was well known for bringing a rowdy crowd along.

I didn’t stay in touch with Ruggles, who apparently hewed to a path of inebriation: “the demon of heavy drink” was the phrase used in a newspaper article about him shortly before he died. As he aged, he found himself surviving on disability, and by the late spring of 2004 needed a walker to get around. By 2004, he had a one-two punch of open-heart surgery and eviction from his hotel room in Petaluma, California, which he had occupied for 15 years. According to a newspaper article, his landlord had given him several weeks to find new accommodations, but within less than ten days after the article, Ruggles had died.

Five years later, ROADS OF BREAD: the Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles was published by Petaluma River Press. In addition to reprinting his one and only book, this volume includes two subsequent manuscripts. I cannot speak of how much effort Ruggles made to get these manuscripts published, but perhaps it gives some indication of his indifference to po-biz success and acclaim that one of which was found in an abandoned cabin in which Ruggles had once lived. On the other hand, it may be simply a case of someone who believes that one book is sufficient to establish oneself as a worthy poet, and that one’s life need not be spent striving for the panorama of whimsical reputation.

At some future point, I hope that an anthology of poets who lived and worked for a significant amount of time on the West Coast will be assembled by some dedicated editor. Perhaps the project should wait for another 20 years, so that the book encompasses a century (1940-2040). Ruggles will not be the only poet who will be in danger by that point of being forgotten. How many people can say that they are familiar with the work of William Witherup, who also lived a picaresque existence, and who also wrote with a vivid imagistic brush.

ROADS OF BREAD includes the work from two unpublished manuscripts as well the final drafts of a few unfinished poems. It is likely that this writing would not have become available to readers unless Delia Moon had made a fairly heroic effort to get this book out. It deserves to be in more libraries, if only to demonstrate that there were poets for whom the politics of race stayed central to their imaginative inquiries into social power. When Ruggles was writing the poems that went into his final manuscript twenty years ago, few other poets were concerning themselves with DuBois’s”problem of the color line.” One could read several of Ruggles’s poem within the current context of Black Lives Matter, but we should remember that Ruggles did not have that context to encourage to write such poems as “Busing Justice Through Freedom Summer” and “You May Do That,” which is dedicated to Rosa Parks; and “You and Rodney King.” Nor is he an outsider to the community of the disaffected and marginalized; he, too, has waited for the meager share allotted to those without a claim to property:

The lives of the poor and the sick
are recorded in the history of lines.
So many millions upon millions have gone
to their deaths in lines, waited for bread in lines.
You will not find the names of wealth
and power in the history of lines.
(“The Line at the Social Security Disability Office in Santa Rosa, California”)

Ruggles is more than a poet of stark, direct protest, however. There is most certainly a critique in poems that come out of his experiences working in the merchant marine:

Overhead the moon
has thrown open a sack of tides
and the waves reach upward,
this wind tied to their backs.
The ship falls between them
running in a. thick underbrush
of spray and salt.
Her propeller turning
without a footfhold of water,
trying to climb what moves
toward us like a landslide.
Beneath her cuts of rust
are tons of oil.
Remembering a long body
and pouring itself at a steel cave.
And the sea has our smell.
(The Chase – Oil Tanker in a Storm”)

Ruggles retained a skill with figurative language throughout his life as a itinerant poet who eventually washed up near the Petaluma River. That this book has salvaged work that might otherwise have gone lost, and the book is worth your effort to find it. Imagine a version of James Wright who lived outside of the academy, and who associated with poems aligned with the Beat movement, but was not himself a Beat or of their kind, and you have a hint at the poems that await you. If Ruggles’s poems are not part of the avant-garde, neither can they be accused of being complicit with the school of quietude. He earned his place in the anthology of major mavericks, and I can only hope that a future editor cultivated the friendship of those who have long memories.

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Note: The newspaper article depicting Ruggles near the end of his life can be found online. “A room of one’s own / Pioneer poet Eugene Ruggles faces hard times with illness, search for a new home” by John Geluardi, Special to The Chronicle Published 4:00 am PDT, Friday, May 28, 2004