On A Passable Man
"The dedication to 'Boy at the Plate,' one of the first poems in Vermont poet Culver’s striking debut full-length collection, reads 'for my children, and for my parents.' The sweep of that exemplifies
Culver’s approach, which looks back and forward at once and engages with moments and rites of passage that endure from one generation to the next, always pinning down, with rare precision of language, fresh insight and feeling.... Culver’s ripe, rousing considerations of life quite naturally encompass the carnal, the painful, and the complex space between where so much life is lived.... always in resonant, accessible, unpredictable verse that emphasizes meticulous observation."
—Starred review, BookLife by Publishers Weekly
"Ralph Culver’s first full-length collection, A Passable Man (MadHat), gives the feel of a fire outside at night — something warm and smoldering in the cold, something flaming, and temporary in its burn. We are alive right now, these poems seem to say, and that will not always be the case. Culver, who lives in Vermont, aims his attention on the push-pull of the fiery present, its quotidian joys and pains: a woodpecker at the suet, new ice skates on fresh ice, mending with thread, and the losses present and long-gone that haunt in their various spoken and unspoken ways. “We gather / in the space of our flesh / to witness/ what never can happen again, / not ever,” he writes. In one poem, a boy finds a rotting corpse of a dog, detaches its head, mounts its skull on a stick and walks to a playground. These are physical poems, attuned to natural rhythms and those rhythms’ effects on spirit and body both. “The fire cannot feed without eating its home … the wave craves the loss of itself.” Quiet wisdom, which is the best kind of wisdom, lives in his lines."
—Nina MacLaughlin, The Boston Globe
"Culver's collection presents a quiet symphony of imagery.... His poetry is satisfyingly elemental; natural forces blend with the movement of one's mind.... A sensual earthiness permeates many poems, and Culver is confident as he expresses his ideas economically without losing their potency.... A powerful collection of contemporary poetry that's both carnal and full of regret."
Ralph Culver’s is a poetry of great precision, almost delicacy, and of subtle power, deployed in poems that dwell in the ordinary and bring with them a sense of the extraordinary. If poetry is, as Ferlinghetti said, “an urgent knock on the door of the unknown,” Culver is a real poet, not an essayist or polemicist; what lives between his lines is the shadow that haunts us all. In A Passable Man, he interrogates a life in five parts: “I could not keep from turning/ to check, mid-step,/ the footprints strung behind/ in the climbing snow” (from “Prelude”). This is a life shadowed by loss and regret, moved by “the common fear, the common love/ he fell out of, now into…” (from “Boy at the Plate”). The man in these pages is “passable,” in the sense of being human: flawed, and full of care. The book is much more than passable; it earns my highest marks.
Ralph Culver’s lyrical narratives in A Passable Man unfold elegantly, brilliantly, with an effective admixture of antique and contemporary diction. With an eye that works in close concert with his intellect, Culver pierces his subjects—“the last catamount,” misunderstanding, bargainers, camping alone—with self-delighting insights that cross over generously to his reader, as in this short poem, “Koan of a Sort”: “The sounds of water as she rises from her bath/ while I slice bread in the kitchen:/ how can I still feel sorry for myself?” Although striking deeply personal notes in these poems, Culver resolves his reveries with universal conclusions. “If we open ourselves to quintessence rather than particulars,” he writes in “Resolute,” “we gain in clarity, the way a bee does not recall a flower/ but does its purposeful gavotte to point the way/ to an abundance.” A rich “abundance” swarms in A Passable Man with both “purposeful” pointing and rewarding discovery.
What to say in short compass of a book so rangy and compelling as A Passable Man? The collection raises so many themes and issues that brief commentary feels futile. At one point, Ralph Culver writes that
despite our meddling,
holds doubt in check.
May everything be true,
and truth direct.
His truths, brilliantly revealed, are direct, to be sure, and often stark; but the poet also witnesses to the grace that has favored him with uncommon insight and all but matchless powers of speech.
"The poems [in A Passable Man] ... perform the act of looking back, observing the traces, ephemeral as they may be, left by the poet as he has moved through this life.... Culver's poems ... attempt to walk that high wire without pitching over into easy nostalgia.... Memory in Culver's poems is not simply a matter of self-examination. When Culver writes 'I suddenly feel a memory / fall through me' in 'Taking Bluegill at Lake Seneca,' he is speaking to a Proustian sense of memory .... [which] can also be understood as the fuel that language burns in the creation of Culver's fine poems."
—Kristofer Collins, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Ralph Culver
In these luminous and sensory (and sensuous!) poems, Ralph Culver hits notes rarely hit: the notes that help us endure and exult.
The poems have a stunning precision of language that follows a complicated tangle of thought and feeling, keeping the movement jewel-like and clear. The poems themselves are marvels of compression. There is nothing wasted or superfluous in them.
(On the chapbook collection So Be It) Brilliant from start to finish.
Wonderful poems that reach with the finest, unique language for intelligent expression of life as richly lived and examined.
His verse… draws in everything from cold spring air to solitary red-winged blackbirds to grimy chrome ashtrays to the smell of gasoline to create tense, introspective poetry that grounds the reader in a landscape. While that landscape is Vermont’s for the most part, there are no passive cows or sweet scent of hay to be found here. Culver opts instead for skidding tires on slippery March roads and “slanted sunlight over a stream in late autumn” …the blue veins visible beneath the skin of a hand…. [T]he poems… are by no means comfortable or comforting in their subject matter or their tricky phrasing. In works that frequently take Vermont as their physical setting, this crisp and complex viewpoint is refreshing.
—Sadie Williams, Seven Days
Culver reveals himself as someone remarkably observant, enchanted by the world around him, and inspired by natural beauty. ...(H)e focuses on the natural world and people around him and shows reverence for even the smallest details…. The tenderness in Culver’s observations of the everyday… gives small moments great power, making the seemingly quotidian beautiful…. Even when faced with a seeming catastrophe, Culver insists on survival…. the poet recognizes the darkness and death in the world and yet nevertheless accepts it with open arms…. In this modern era—which sometimes feels dystopian, with suffering seeming like the most predominant force—(Culver) reminds readers of the power of beauty, joy, and love in nature, relationships, and even the tedium of our daily lives.
—Despy Boutris, Entropy