Jack Ridl & Chris Dombrowski
A poet and his student
by Keith Taylor
I'm not sure what other people expect when they read a writer and his or her teacher. Maybe they think the influence will be so great that it is overwhelming. I, on the other hand, usually think that the student will try so hard to get past the teacher's influence that the work will bear little or no obvious relationship.
Jack Ridl and his former student Chris Dombrowski both have new books out from the same press (Wayne State). Read side by side, it's evident that they've found a middle way: while Dombrowski shares concerns and a genre with his former teacher, his diction and line are completely different.
Ridl, professor emeritus at Hope College, was for many years one of the best-known teachers of writing in Michigan. He has won awards for it, including being named Michigan's Professor the Year in 1996 by the Carnegie Foundation. He has published poems, anthologies, and textbooks over the years. He seems to be taking good advantage of retirement by writing more poems--wonderfully direct, plainspoken poems that approach the big subjects of life but always at an oblique angle. As in earlier works, in this new book, Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, Ridl never beats his reader over the head but lets the power of the poem creep up slowly. He can be comfortably nostalgic if the poem calls for it. "Growing up in a Small Town" begins: "In the summer, the pickup / games start by nine or ten // in the park or the field / behind Mrs. Wilson's. / They go on all day." Just eight lines later the poem ends: "If it's winter, the walks are all shoveled. // If sometimes one isn't, by noon someone / will notice and clear the way, tap on the front door." It is both reassuring and ominous.
Dombrowski, now one of the writing teachers in the innovative creative writing program at the Interlochen Arts Academy outside Traverse City, shares the
domestic concerns and the sense of familial continuity that occupy his former teacher, yet he often puts his words in a challenging syntax that forces the reader to stop and reevaluate them. His new collection, Earth Again, has several long and ambitious poems. "Not Knowledge" is a complex poem that directly challenges Keats' sentence "Memory should not be called knowledge." It begins "My mother's brother's friend: so tall in her memory / he seems as she talks of him like memory itself. / He walked her home a time or two, his brown corduroys / coming together at his knees, the wales scratching out / a sturdy rhythm near her ears ..." And then Dombrowksi has an eight-line parenthetical moment in his mother's voice, before returning to the same sentence. Even the word "wales"--which I had to look up to see what it was doing in this context--forced me to step back a moment from the action the poet describes. Yet the force of Dombrowski's poems is always directed toward the questions of continuity and the place of the poet in the natural world. There is a continuing seriousness of purpose he may have learned from his former teacher, Jack Ridl.
Both poets read from their work at the downtown library on May 18 as part of the "Made in Michigan Mad Lib" event.
[Originally published in May, 2013.]