So Be It by Ralph Culver
WolfGang Press, 2018
chapbook / Amazon
“And this hunger. How it goes on, and tomorrow, and always, / blazing up in the body, torching the years to ash,” poet Ralph Culver writes in the title poem of his second chapbook, So Be It. In this collection, Culver reveals himself as someone remarkably observant, enchanted by the world around him, and inspired by natural beauty. In this chapbook—where the poetry itself spans only nineteen pages—Culver’s primary role is “observer”: he focuses on the natural world and people around him and shows reverence for even the smallest details.
In the first poem, “Taking Bluegill at Lake Seneca,” Culver writes of fishing with family. He makes even the description of dead and dying fish sound beautiful:
eight bejeweled beauties
aligned on the edge of the dock,
the first five utterly still,
the two next murmuring at the gills…
The poet seems to recognize the fishes’ sacrifice, grateful of the sustenance with which they will provide him, and this compassion and empathy continues throughout the poem at large:
shudders his length to the tail,
the caudal fin taut and quaking,
and I suddenly feel a memory
fall through me of what it meant
to consider surrender, remembering
swimming for shore on a dare,
our rowboat out too far
and the sound of thunder nearing.
Culver, too, has experienced breathlessness—the sensation of drowning, whether in water or in dry air—and he pays the bluegill homage by giving voice to its final moments.
The tenderness in Culver’s observations of the everyday is the highlight of the collection; he gives small moments great power, making the seemingly quotidian beautiful. In “Tableau,” he writes: “A boy lies on his stomach on the floor, head propped up on his left hand, drawing in a sketchbook with his right—so far, only a line or two, just a suggestion of a shape.” Again, small images hold great weight in “So Be It”: “Some kid’s upside-down skateboard, the wheels still spinning. // Bordering the marsh, an empty field.” Culver values the world and his life beyond the purely great and celebratory moments. In “Fill Up,” he demonstrates his ability to find beauty no matter what: “the air bends out above the hood, the way / a snake sends itself across the surface of a lake.” Later, in “Digit,” Culver writes:
how the slashed crosshatching of late-autumn branches
explodes in a boiling mass of spooked birds at the same moment his hand
trying to catch the sill of the window goes through the glass…
Even the chaos of dozens of birds flying away is an image of beauty to the poet—this moment is so wonderfully animate that he has to try to catch himself on the windowsill, overwhelmed by the sight of it. Even sand is animate to Culver in “Resolute”: “Spinning under the blows of the sun, / helpless, the dazzling white sands ablaze beneath my feet.” Sand, which may appear unextraordinary to many of us, is “spinning,” “dazzling,” and “ablaze,” such a powerful force to Culver that it appears almost alive. In this collection, everything is important and beautiful to Culver, and he gives voice to even the smallest details.
Culver reveals himself to be an optimist in So Be It; for him, despite pain, the beauty always wins out. In “To March,” he writes, “…return to the comfortable heft of the knife, the kitchen sweetened by steaming broth / and promise, another seeming catastrophe survived.” Even when faced with a seeming catastrophe, Culver insists on survival. As the chapbook’s easygoing title, So Be It, suggests the poet recognizes the darkness and death in the world and yet nevertheless accepts it with open arms. He not only finds beauty despite death but in death itself: even struggling for air, the bluegills are “bejeweled beauties.” “Boy at the Plate” describes Culver’s son’s fear during a baseball game. Though the poet acknowledges his son’s struggle, Culver concludes the poem with the idea that this fear is an essential part of life and something that holds meaning:
in time, perhaps while
watching his own and shaken by
the glory of it that it is,
he will see for himself
the common fear, the common love
he fell out of, now into,
and watch, and love, and be thankful.
Culver, too—like all of us—has felt fearful and knows that life cannot exist without it. With fear, though, also comes love—for a parent, for a partner, for a child—and Culver hopes his son, too, will one day recognize and value the two emotions’ coexistence.
Culver is a poet—and therefore he is an observer—and he sees the world’s beauty along with its suffering. “Dancing Down Broadway with My Bottle of Brandy” examines the negative effects of alcoholism and yet concludes with the importance of love: “love, / there is never, never enough.” Here, Culver insists on the power of love, but he also recognizes that there is not—and there never will be—enough in a world where suffering also exists. Like the black “mass of spooked birds” who, at the end of “Digit,” “already have resettled in the trees,” darkness never strays far and can always return. Aware of this fact, Culver becomes even more concerned with the fleeting moments of beauty.
When a reader’s only complaint about a collection is that it is “too short,” it is clear that the writing is powerful. I had never encountered Culver until today, and now I want to find every poem he has ever written. With optimism similar to Mary Oliver’s and Mark Doty’s, Culver’s poems weave together the world’s light as well as its darkness, and he finds that the light ultimately wins out. In this modern era—which sometimes feels dystopian, with suffering seeming like the most predominant force—So Be It reminds readers of the power of beauty, joy, and love in nature, relationships, and even the tedium of our daily lives. Culver writes, “it is a world of joy, […] large as it is.” This collection serves as a welcome reminder that there is joy in the everyday.
Despy Boutris‘s work has been published or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, The Colorado Review, The Adroit Journal, Prairie Schooner, Palette Poetry, The Raleigh Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and more. Currently, she teaches at the University of Houston and serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast.