I first contacted Dale Ritterbusch, a Wisconsin poet, last year when I was seeking permission to include his poem in one of our poetry cards and braille booklets. Dale asked me if I had an additional card of his poem in braille. Well, I thought, that’s doable but the braille poetry booklets are usually 16-18 pages and unless Dale knew a braille reader he wouldn’t be able to pick out his poem. So I emailed a local friend Julie Woods, to see if she would mind transcribing Dale’s poem onto a single card which I could send to him. And as all things with Julie, aka that blind woman, no sooner said than done. At that stage we were still contracting the RNZFB to transcribe each card but after distributing 190 braille poetry booklets we’ve had to abandon this part of our project, due to lack of funds. May update – thanks to the Lion Foundation we’re back in business with the Braille poetry booklets!!!!
As Dale is currently in Colorado Springs his wife Patricia has been answering all my queries. She initially sent me one poem so an email flew straight back requesting more please!!
Dale Ritterbusch is the author of two collections of poetry, Lessons Learned (1995) and Far From the Temple of Heaven (2005). He is a Professor of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where he teaches creative writing and literature. He has served and is currently serving (until May) as the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of English & Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy, 2004-05 & 2012-13.
The more years I spend writing poetry the less I have to say about it—what it is, what it does, how it should impact the reader. Any definition of poetry falls short, revealing comic ineptitude like chasing a greased pig at the county fair—you almost grab it and then it squirts away. So I know that most poems are not, that a poet is lucky to write a few pieces that deserve that appellation, and that few pieces will endure. That is the mystery, the reason for writing, nothing more, nothing less, exactly as it should be.
SLEDDING WITH KERRY
for my daughter, age 8
There’s too much drag
on the runners of this sled
and the saucer, too, stops short.
We barely get to the bottom
when we’re abruptly stopped—
the snow heavy and deep.
Again, we trudge back up the hill
and dream of a faster ride.
She thinks of it first, the half
sheet of veneered paneling, slick
as a film of oil on water
and we try it, holding on
to the fence at the top of the hill—
I ask, Are you ready?:
when she says yes, I let go, and we fly—
clouds of fluffy snow explode
in our faces as we spin
between trees, too fast
to hold on and we roll off
airborne into a sea of snow—
she laughs, crystal ornaments of ice
catch the light in her hair,
snow deep down in our boots,
up our sleeves, like magic
all the years disappear
like the cold melting down my back.
WHATEVER EQUALS A FRAMUS
My daughter is learning
conversions—cups to pints,
pints to quarts, quarts to ounces—
“It doesn’t make sense,” she says.
Of course it doesn’t. It takes all the learning
you can learn just to know you don’t
know anything. So I explain, “It’s just arbitrary.
We could call a cup a framus: two frami
equal a wheezlenut; two wheezlenuts equal
a dandeedeat and so on. These are just
arbitrary names for quantities of liquid.”
And then I say, “If you were born in Europe
you wouldn’t have to know this stuff,” but
I can’t think of the metric equivalent
for a framus so I quit while I’m ahead.
We could call anything anything, just like
Adam naming this world, measuring out
whatever equals a full measure of everything.
“Everything is arbitrary,” I say. “And what does that mean?”
she asks. Arbitrary—how does one define
the first principle of disorder, the fundament
of the world? Again I’m stumped.
Everyday I ask myself the same questions,
hoping I’ll get smart enough eventually to answer them,
but nothing makes sense, except in an arbitrary way,
this framus filled to overflowing with questions, love,
a daughter’s laughter when I give up explaining
and tickle her knees until bedtime.
I learned asparagus
when I was only four,
was sent to the backyard
to pinch a few spears for dinner.
My earliest recollection
of work, a simple errand,
a joyful bringing
of goodness from the garden –
the good that is the earth,
the simple sharing,
the blessing of family,
a benediction of green.
Momma’s boy my stepfather said,
always running behind your mother’s skirt.
We got along that way for years,
a tension, sharp as a hunting knife
between us. But when the pretense was down
we’d play catch, usually at evening, after supper
when the sun left a lengthening shadow
across the yard. He’d throw them soft,
at first, maybe a little spin, a curve
that I’d misread, maybe a throw to the side
I’d have to stretch for. I’d wing it back,
and when I threw one wide and low he missed it,
had to run across the flower bed to chase it down.
The next few were the same, same speed,
same placement, setting me up for the stinger—
a ball thrown sharper, harder, with movement
that made me think or guess in the deepening shadows
of the setting sun. I’d take them hard
in the webbing of my glove—the speed,
the force, pulling my glove back, pushing it
into my chest, sometimes close to my face.
Then harder, where I’d miss it with the web,
catch it in the pocket where it reddened
my hand, bruising the bone, the stinger showing me
throw after throw what he meant: Momma’s boy
it said, burning my hand with each catch,
Momma’s boy as the sky reddened like a welt.
WHEN IT’S LATE
Sometimes, when it’s late
and the house is asleep
except for me
pacing from room to room,
I walk to the backyard,
look out across the ground
by a distant streetlamp.
I remember nights
in some Asian bar
drinking a few exotic beers
that sweat quickly
through the khaki’s
We’d walk out late
go back to the base
sleep off as much
of the war as we could.
When you were killed
I drank for days,
made love until I
anything but the hot
sun, the red dust
Now, this late
under the circling stars
I see you walking
in the shadows
of these trees
the backyard playthings
of my daughter:
You pick them up—
they are your daughter’s,
your son’s, you have a wife
the rest of her life
with you: It is
this love I see
lost in the shadows
of this night, my
mind turning back
with the chill
of late spring.
This is the loss, the love
I bury each night in the shadows,
turning a spadeful of war
over and over, and always,
in the vigilant spin of this earth
digging it up before morning.