Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Spring 2003

Ha Ha Tonka by Ryan G. Van Cleave  


Ha Ha Tonka: a book of rune
Ryan G. Van Cleave
Higganum Hill Books, Connecticut
72 pp. $12.95
For info: rcdebold@connix.com




Ryan Van Cleave shows all the markings of an up-and-coming poet to be reckoned with. One of the poems in Ha Ha Tonka is titled “Isostasy,” which is the “general state of equilibrium of the Earth’s crust, with the rise and fall of the land relative to the sea.” A particularly apt subject, since one of the distinctive qualities of this collection is the balance between plain story, meaning, and intense imagery. Van Cleave has a talent for packing in arresting images without overloading lines and slowing the pacing. His most successful poems (and they’re all successful, relatively speaking) have a rare quality—a communicative thread of thought or story woven together with image and language into a veritable blanket of meaning. This is of course the general goal of all poets, but so few achieve it without some note of didacticism or forced art. Van Cleave’s gift comes cool and smooth in Ha Ha Tonka, and one has the sense of a young, masterful poet just coming into his own. The prospect of future works by this eloquent poet should be cause for anticipation in any lover of verse.

Van Cleave’s influences are obvious—in no small measure because he features them prominently in his work. We see poetic allusions and/or direct references to such disparate figures as Li Po, Neruda, Robert Frost, Bukowski, John Berryman, the Great Oz, Marilyn, various fixtures from Greek and Roman mythology, and numerous others.

His use of language and device is almost as varied. A few poems like “Westward Ho, or The Migration of Guilt”, “In the city Where Lovers Fall Head over Heels ...” and “Two Angels Fighting Over Dante’s Soul” have a definite flavor of Ginsbergian Beat to them with their muscular, uncompromising language. One poem, “The Widow Mrs. Chung,” distinctly reminded me of Gregory Corso’s “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway” with its smart-ass poetic banter and killer koan response (one worthy of Basho himself, I might add). 

The influence of Li Po and the Oriental mindset shows itself in a minor way in the aforementioned poem; in many others, however, it comes to full expression showing Van Cleave’s grasp of the poet and his influential folkways. From obvious nods like “Li Po Responds to the Nuclear Age” to others less obvious, he shows a  gentle assured understanding and employment of the Zen sensibility--that “stand up, turn around, trip, fall, hit your head on a stone, see the moon” way of looking at the world that absolutely breathes substance. Some of his found poems are wonderful examples of this.

He also engages in humor (poems about monster-suit actors, movie dialogue as haiku) and some relatively straightforward storytelling, conjuring up comparisons to Frost and even Twain. His story poems are uniformly interesting and subtly moralistic—a strange counterbalance to his Oriental-flavored and flagrantly-textured work. But again, that’s really the hallmark of this collection: the poetry ranges far and wide in many ways. We’ve already mentioned the scope of influence at work in the language and approach, and there’s a similar thematic scope. Some poems illuminate childhood traumas and family relationships; others, pop culture and cinematic matter; still others, nature and reflection. Some are ruminative and thought-provoking, others humorous and poignant, others slightly homespun.

On the back cover of Ha Ha Tonka, editor Arthur Wensigner refers to Van Cleave’s “many voices”—again, apt. But whereas a lack of consistency in poetic voice is usually a liability for a poet trying to establish literary credibility, it is Van Cleave’s stellar command of multiple voices and styles (perhaps unified on some subterranean level with a Li Po undercurrent) that makes this a worthy collection. Not many poets could produce a single work of this range and make it work. Van Cleave does it with panache and ease. Highly recommended.