“Falling Apart, Radiant,” by Mary Jane Ryals

Mary Jane Ryals

Mary Jane Ryals

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

In her newest chapbook, Falling Apart, Radiant, Mary Jane Ryals offers us poems of resiliency which resonate with tenderness and intimacy about what it means to live, suffer, get up and do it all again.  Ryals invites her readers in for a close look at her fight against cancer, but don’t think these are poems just about surviving a serious disease. They go deeper, much deeper, and embrace life with a wisdom and heartfelt enthusiasm that rebounds from poem to poem.

Writing in free verse, and with a keen, sensitive eye toward sound, smell, touch and taste as well as the visual, Ryals shares both her natural world and her personal one. One delightful poem explores the taste and smell of her grandmother’s pound cake, along with a sweet family story about her grandmother. Other poems vibrate with lavender salts, vanilla and mandarin orange, buttery bread “with the joy of ants / on white sugar” and more. The sensual delight in her poems at such tastes, sights and smells bolsters the triumph of “For I am alive to witness, to smell coffee / and hear rain on the roof and to feel / chilled spring air…” Ryals also displays a talent for conveying the complex in a single, simple line of contrast: “One white toe / in rich black earth.”

The official Poet Laureate of the Big Bend of Florida, Ryals offers readers nature poems about northern Florida which recognize the beauty and the importance of this region and how our humanity is linked with the wild places and wild things. In “St. Marks Wildlife Refuge,” she writes:

because we believe water is holy,
We carpool down
to wood ducks,
pine forests and red-breasted mergancers
who float too near diamondback
rattlers and alligators

We baptize ourselves in gulf waters
and spring green, the chichadeedeedee
and the honk-honk, the swoop of blue-black
grackles who sound like drunk witches.

Ryals discovers healing in these wild things and places as well as stark appreciation. For example, in “Nocturne,” she finds herself alone where her “house in the woods lights the dark.”  But beyond the “haunted unknown, / of breast scars, / of chemical and radiation burn,” she hears:

Hawk, spider, frog and turtle.
Everywhere their sound! Time,

The impulse to survive,
is tock, flutter, splash, weave,
breath of breeze in the pines.

In these poems too, there are biting, painful jabs. In “Lazarus,” she writes of “…her son and daughter, / already grown, but too young for dead / mothers.” Or in “The Worst of Me,” she writes of a “girlchild who’s not yet / thought about femininity’s many cages.” And yet, there is also the sweetest of love and romance. Also in “The Worst of Me,” a tribute poem to her husband, she writes simply, yet movingly:  “I love you. / And it’s when you say it back that I believe.”

Ryals, who recently retired from teaching on the main campus at Florida State University but still teaches in its International Program, also captures the magic of travel in such poems as “Florence and (late) Middle Age,” from which the title comes:

It’s summer in Italy, and the best neighborhood
market still thrives a three minute walk away,
… It’s a balance—I’m falling apart,

and I’m radiant, even as my organs sometimes
betray me, …
And so what? I can still taste a warm peach…

This is a small, but worthy collection of poems, which in the end are not about cancer but about what it means to love and celebrate the world one lives in. Sensual and wise, these poems will touch readers with their sheer honesty and vision. As YellowJacket recently closed its door, readers can acquire a copy of Falling Apart, Radiant from My Favorite Books and Midtown Books in Tallahassee, or by emailing the poet at: mryals@business.fsu.edu.



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