When people say they are not for or against something, we hear indifference. But, what if someone was for and against something? Is it actually the opposite of indifference? Kara Dorris interrogates this concept and many others in her collection of poetry, Have Ruin, Will Travel, released by Finishing Line Press. The duality of something that is both positive and negative simultaneously is especially fascinating, and Dorris brings these ideas to light with most of her poems—these poems have “[for & against]” before their respective titles. The other poems give the reader a window into the speaker’s mind and memory as the speaker travels with a friend. All of these poems coalesce into a journey of understanding, growth, and what all poets hope to achieve—a deep exploration of the human condition.
Dorris begins the collection with the poem titled, “[for & against] Living as Blowtorches.” What intrigues me about this poem—especially since it is the poem that introduces the reader to Dorris’ world—is that the reader is presented with the concept of duality in all things. Dorris writes:
You say the painting looks like a pink Valentine’s heart
left to the rain, know flooded hearts
in our hands make the best accelerants—
what chance does the canvas have? Oil paint, like us, acts
as its own gasoline, tempts flames
into waves; edges sear,
ripple like fingertips soaked too long in a bowl of water.
My friend, the painting reminds me of Rilke’s bowl of roses,
filled up with ultimate instances of being & bowing down,
that we can’t help but surround ourselves
with contradictions of isolation & intimacy. (1-11)
The speaker and the speaker’s friend see something different in the painting, as most of us do when we analyze and enjoy art. Dorris uses tight couplets and rich imagery to enact the power of the painting, and in doing so gives the reader an example of how we can’t avoid contradiction and opposition. The most important meditation in this poem, however, comes after these lines when Dorris writes: “When asked how to escape a summer day’s heat, // the Buddha replied, why not leap into a blazing furnace, / as in extreme escape, as in it could always be worse” (12-14). This moment in the poem brings us back to the title and the surrealism of living as an actual blowtorch—or embracing the fire. There is an acceptance here, where very literally summer isn’t as bad as a furnace, but there is a metaphorical acceptance of things, and perhaps even the acceptance of what is and what cannot be changed.
As the collection continues, Dorris pushes the reader to think about art and philosophy, and how a journey is more than just a trip. One facet of the collection that I found integral was the “Hour” pieces. These small, prose vignettes add another dimension to Dorris’ collection insofar that they provide insight to the speaker’s thought processes and to the greater context—they give us an overarching plot to feel grounded.
In “Hour 3,” Dorris’ work is at its best as the plot, philosophical inquiries, and imagery are all pushing the reader further:
Sara says all roads lead inward. The trans-Siberian train only leaves Moscow at night, the station domed like an inverted pool—when I was young, I stepped into a deep end, sunk, stood under & waited. The train is a waiting room of vodka, cocaine, & fortune tellers, compartments without locks so we can pass Stoli or read palms. I keep my palms clinched. Once I told my mother you think you should always be happy so you end up sad. Does she believe me? Sara says it doesn’t matter. That to get out of drowning you have to breathe, & that is how you drown—you open, you flood. (24)
Dorris begins the poem with reminding us of the speaker’s traveling companion, Sara, and how Sara has little nuggets of wisdom to offer the speaker—and us, really. We get the images of the train and surrounding areas in Russia; we get nuance like the “vodka, cocaine, & fortune tellers.” Just as we feel grounded in the trip, the speaker pulls as away in a clever but necessary way—this is all leading us to the connection the speaker makes to the mother. Just as quickly as this reflection comes, it’s gone. The speaker turns to Sara again, and Sara gives us reassurance. While Sara is our sage of sorts, we can’t help but wonder how the speaker views the advice and philosophies. We are forced to wonder if the speaker is in tune with what Sara is saying, or, in disagreement but not admitting it. We see a speaker who is hurt and coping just like all of us, which as a reader is all we can ask for.
Kara Dorris’ Have Ruin, Will Travel is a collection that gives over and over again. Sometimes a collection of poetry hits us, and then disappears like most words. However, Dorris’ rich prose and poetry invites us to read again—to experience the human condition over and over again. The sound of the words and the depth of the lines grip us, shake us, and force us to look again—to pay attention and embrace philosophy rather than run from it.
Adam Crittenden holds an MFA in poetry from New Mexico State University where he was awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, Bayou Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Barn Owl Review, Whiskey Island, and other journals. Blood Eagle is his first full-length book of poetry and is available from Gold Wake Press. Currently, he teaches writing in Albuquerque at Central New Mexico Community College.