Introduction to the Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles

by Gerald Nicosia


            They say all great poets have a signature voice.  Have someone read aloud a line of Keats, a line of Yeats, a line of Bobby Burns, a line of Walt Whitman.  If you read a lot of poetry, you will recognize them immediately.  Eugene Ruggles—“Gene,” as we all knew him in San Francisco—passes that test with flying colors.  I would recognize a line of his if I heard it in a raging snowstorm—which might even be the best place to listen to his poems.

            No poet I know—certainly none from contemporary America—imbued his verse with the force and feel of the natural world to the degree that Gene did.  Coming from rural Michigan, where the land and weather were hard to endure, hard to draw life from, and had to become one’s intimate friends if one were to survive, Gene came by his natural metaphors in a very real and direct way.  He saw man as a figure in that greater scheme of living things—no better, no worse, than anything else, and a fool only insofar as he tried to lift himself above the rest of the world or posture as something superior to the earth that had given birth to his species.  Gene recognized—in a poem I will always love, “Night Visit”—that a tiny gnat could put out a man’s eye (if only temporarily), and he knew that as a poet if he did not honor that gnat, he could hardly begin to honor anything bigger or greater.

            You had to have known Gene in person to know how much he valued the simple things: a warm flannel shirt, a cup of good, hot coffee, a warm, dry room, or the touch of a loving woman by his side.  But he also loved the greater things men and women were capable of—fighting for the truth, and showing one another kindness.  If I had to pick a favorite poem from this collection—in which I have so many favorites—I would have a hard time in choosing between “An Old Man on the Bum Sitting in an All-night Detroit Diner” and “Eben Dawson’s Gift.”  The former, “An Old Man (etc.),” is—to my mind—one of the ten or so greatest short poems by an American in the twentieth century.  Gene manages to portray a penniless old man confronting the challenges of staying alive through a brutal Midwestern winter with enormous compassion but without the least trace of sentimentality.  The old man becomes an absolute archetype of human need and dignity combined when he “raises with care/ completely with both hands./ the white warm cup/ like a breast and drinks.”  Still, I think I would have to choose “Eben Dawson’s Gift.”

            In that poem, Gene recalls a poor Michigan tenant farmer with nine kids, who spends every Christmas day out driving in his pickup truck looking for stuck or stranded travelers to give a push or a lift to.  “I would still run/ with the snow/ at the back of my neck/ to his truck,” Gene ends the poem.  And that is how I remember him, running to the aid of every poet, every lonely or wounded person, every social justice cause, that needed him.  Any time a worthy benefit performance was staged in the Bay Area—no matter how expensive the ticket price—Gene would manage to show up, often in a taxi (since he didn’t drive a car), with enough money to pay his way in, though he might have had to skip supper that night to make it happen.

            In another of his great poems, Gene wrote about “the courage to love … it must always be born/ anew with each breath you take. / it is to give all that you have / before you have it.”  Gene had that courage in spades.  He would speak his heart—plain, open, and frank—about what he loved, and what he didn’t.  That bluntness—for lack of a better word—earned him as many friends as enemies, though he chose to call his enemies “only … friends who are late.”  Truth be told, I think the man hated no one, though he was filled with fierce anger often enough—directed against those who would deny their fellow human beings a place to live, a plate of food, peace, or just the dignity Gene believed was a man’s and woman’s birthright.  His life—as I saw it—seemed to struggle always with the puzzlement of how beautiful this world was, how good people could be, and how bad—selfish, cruel, degraded—they often allowed themselves to become.  His poetry was an insistence that we must stay the course toward finding the angel and saint buried inside all of us.  Gene held to that course steadfastly to the end of his life, though the pain of such endless struggle took a heavy toll on him.  If he drank too much on occasion, if by his own account he “wasted” too many years (though a lot of us would argue that point with him), there was no one who could deny the difficulty of the task he had set himself. 

            Eugene Ruggles left us a legacy of poetry—no matter how much it cost him, and make no mistake, it cost him a lot—that would forever inspire people to be better than they are, and better even than they thought themselves capable of being.  The beauty of his words, of language straight from the heart but with an Irishman’s magical, musical tongue, shines like a beacon of what we all can and should aim our lives toward.

            “Don’t give up on your blessings,” Gene sang in yet another of his great poems.  And indeed, the poems he left us are proof enough that our life is blessed.  Gene Ruggles was a walking, talking blessing—and the beauty of it is, he is still with us through this book and everything he wrote.  The prodigious power and energy of the man are now preserved, by yet another miracle—like one of those mighty storms painted by Breughel—in black and white on the printed page.



by Richard Silberg

Roads of Bread, Petaluma River Press, P.O. Box 146, Bodega, CA 94922, 2009, 230 pages, $22.00 paperback;

Eugene Ruggles shines in singularity. The feel of his genius is rough-hewn, homemade. You could call him a cross between Dylan Thomas and Philip Levine, and that would be useful, clever, but nowhere near the full truth of his writing.

He published only one book in his lifetime, The Lifeguard in the Snow, and its title poem is probably his best known work; indeed it was the only one of his poems I could bring to my mind's eye before reading this collection

It seems the snow is falling deeper than God

as I walk through it along our end of the ice,

it drifts between my legs like it was breathing.

The sweat hits in my back as I start to climb

the first white dunes that save the trees from ice,

I open my coat and hear snow inhaling the lake.

There is the raft I couldn't reach it's still there

frozen in ice like the last scream in a mouth.

Watching those children all last summer

has folded this black sunburn through my chest—

a small girl water carved out of my arms forever.

That's the complete text of this powerful small poem that shows off many of the characteristics of his writing. Maybe the most obvious is what we could call his surrealism, the difficult, alogical quality of his imagery, here maybe less the raft "frozen in the ice like the last scream in a mouth"—because that image becomes 'logical' in association with the child's drowning—than that "black sunburn" "folded" through his chest. What a pure stroke that is, so strange and "god" like as it combines with the last line, the payoff that gives the poem its meaning. And we could think further there, too, about the moving alogic of water 'carving'. But Ruggles's imagery is never chosen purely for effect. It's not a portal to the 'marvelous', no spigot for the 'vesicles of the unconscious' as with Breton and the boys. Instead, his images are more like the deformations, the scars left by powerful emotion, and typically they look outward rather than inward, as here, the burn of grief for a little girl he couldn't save. Ruggles is a huge, open heart. It's the depth of his yearning, the reach of his embrace that give him his power and importance as a poet.

But in at least one way "The Lifeguard in the Snow" is atypical for Ruggles. I'm thinking of its finished, unified quality, the foreshadowing, for instance, as the snow 'breathes', 'saves' the trees, 'inhales' the lake, the 'frozen scream' of the raft, the subtle step up in tension as the "sweat hits" his back. "The Lifeguard in the Snow," we might snidely say, is workshop approveable. But Ruggles would have crashed around a Creative Writing course like a guttered bowling ball. His poems are heedless, passionate and headlong. Here, almost at random, is the complete small poem, "After Peace," from The Lifeguard in the Snow:

My country, here, take

this package of gates from me

and walk through them


they say after this flood

only the tears will be seen floating,

tears that have been hacked in three parts

and sewn back together again

too many times,

tears that leave dents in the air

we call graves,

the black tears that just go on they never stop

pulling the light down

in their mouths

and the red tears that can only dry

on the crust of a heart

here, take…

for you are good at it,

my country,

my life.

There's a lot to question in that poem, a lot to cavil with. But—and this is true of his work as a whole—it's physical, kinetic. It's propelled by its thrusting verb, "take," at beginning and end, by the "tears" that act as an anaphora. And the drive of its rhythm is flawless. Look, especially, at the lineation and phrasing of its last four lines: "here, take… / for you are good at it, / my country, / my life." The poem has tremendous power, the raw joints of a jeremiad, and when it comes to its end it draws blood.

I'm using that word "jeremiad" advisedly, both because of the protest quality in his writing, above anti-war and later in the book for racial equality and about conditions of work and general living conditions, but also because of the prophetic, religious fervor of his poetry, maybe less Judeo-Christian than shamanic.

And like any good shaman, Ruggles had his 'falling sickness'; he was a serious drinker. There are a few traces of that in Roads of Bread, particularly the poem "Lines from an Alcoholic Ward," which gives us an opportunity to look at Ruggles in a mood of quiet interiority, of self-questioning to the brink of despair. This is the poem's ending:

A man comes this far without courage

until he opens himself

to find he's a door between two winds,

facing a space that's draining,

that he's come nowhere,

and unable to close.

Though I wrap myself thick

with more Roethke and Blake,

behind the pails of coffee

it's cold in sleep.

Now there's only the moon.

A full November moon. Nailed

in the corner of a barred window

and my hand a yard turning dark.

It's as if, perhaps, when he found himself removed from an outward caring, an outward striving, he was forced to look at an emptiness inside. Yet how strange and beautiful these lines and images are. A door between winds, "unable to close," and the final image of his hand as a 'darkening yard' is as alogical and unexpected as anything in his work; still, such an effective diminishing cadence to end on, lonely and blinking out. It's interesting, too, to see the names of poets he was reading, the only such names I can remember in the book, these writing brothers, Blake of visionary intensity, and the surreal flame voices of Roethke.

But, as I've said, quiet interiority is rare in his poems. His meditations, the motions of his soul, reach out to a world of lack and suffering. Here, still from The Lifeguard in the Snow, are lines from the title poem of this collected, "The Roads of Bread":

The bread I'm lifting to eat

already has a mouth

clinging to it.

Just a mouth with some bone

a tongue and lips,

nothing else.

I fold the bread over it

and bite into them,

and it is not bad

as we say.

I am very late in this place

yet I am always fed.

Why is this

my God

each day I am eating

the mouth of a man

with his bread

still in it…

Not 'dog eat dog' but man eat man. How quietly he says it, and how painfully—eating this other mouth—as in a ghastly dream, yet leavened with sardonic humor, "and it is not bad / as we say," which makes the pain more keen.

In addition to The Lifeguard in the Snow there are two unpublished manuscripts collected here, "From Spending the Sun" and "Enough," that he was working on when he died. A number of the poems in these manuscripts, especially "Enough," are written in a much less dreamy, more realistic, even reportorial style. They come at this man eat man theme from a daylight, social direction, labor poems, racial poems. Here's a slice from "The Unemployed Automobile Workers of Detroit Prepare to Spend Christmas Standing in Line":

A black man comes in to cash his unemployment check.

He's at my right elbow, looking down, signing his name.

He has four children to feed, today. He turns to ask

if I want to shoot pool. We flip a coin

to see who breaks. He wins. I was born around here,

forty-two years ago today, just before Pearl Harbor.

The last of five children from parents who never sang,

they broke their lives over each other until they ended.

The snow never stops looking for men in Detroit.

It spreads out through the suburbs and small towns

to the farms up north looking for men…

There's a wide-angle approach to that poem, a sense both of the everyday and of history, of working-class need and hunger and motion. Here, in a similar mode, is a quote from another poem in that same manuscript, "A Machine Shop Foreman":

             …I opened the steel door and there he was.

A short man, about five feet six, and thick.

He extended his arm to me like a bar

of iron with a wrist and a hand missing

half a thumb, one forefinger, and the third

of another finger. This was the right hand.

I put my smaller one into it. The left hand

was in a dirty cast holding an oil can.

Can you start today; sure, Goddamn, my first job.

He gives a feel of his work at a press "as large as a freight elevator"; the workers are mostly black, the foreman Polish, "…All day Detroit exploded before me." That evening he quits, and the foreman takes him and two black workers out for beers.

When I left he shook my hand for a long time,

as though he wanted parts of it. But he didn't.

As I walked from the bar that night three white cops

were bending over in an alley playing soccer with a pair

of black testicles. In the dark young black women waited

for a john or the cops that came by every night, they could

either go downtown or go down on the cops

in the nearest alley. I watched as the cops drove them back

from the nearest alley. The women all had brothers and fathers

and uncles waiting at home. This was the early sixties. On one side

of the Detroit River, Newark was also waiting at home for her daughters,

and on the other side of the Detroit River, Watts was waiting for hers.

All the while beneath many other rivers young black women

were waiting to breathe.…

Again that sense of reach and empathy, of black and white, of men and women, workers, gathering towards some imagination of freedom, of justice. There are other similar poems in this manuscript, "You May Do That," for Rosa Parks, "Busing Justice Through Freedom Summer," "You and Rodney King."

Ruggles is a big poet, angular and awkward, who had grown unfashionable, who was mostly a quaint legend by the time of his death in 2004. But this is a major American writer, in his passion and yearning, the size of his heart and the force of his imagination. Anyone who reads Roads of Bread will see that.

He or she is likely, as well, to sense the sadness in Ruggles's life and something of paradox there. Here was a man empathetically wedded to humanity, a poet of work, a poet of human beauty—as he writes in "For a Young Vietnam War Widow in Toledo, Ohio": "oh night after night after every // night // her perfect breasts for all / breasts are perfect / have parted"—as he writes in "Last Note to My Children" at the end of "Enough": "the most sacred word / I can leave you is community." Yet there's a palpable solitude that runs as a deep harmonic through Roads of Bread, solitude, we might conjecture, of the shaman. Here, from "Enough," is the short poem "Amputee":

I feel strongest alone.

Removed, late at night.

The fire burning down

beneath my ankles,

touching nothing I've known.

I listen to the dark

healing between us.

When it has finished

covering the last opening,

where the skin belongs,

I empty into sleep,

into many. A crutch, the oar

of a pencil tied to my hand

with rope, growing back

toward all of you.

Ruggles was indeed a shaman, poetry his prayer, his spirit quest. Let's honor him and give him the final words here. Delia Moon, editor of Roads of Bread, took a poem, "Inscription for the Door," out of Lifeguard in the Snow and set it as a coda. These are its closing lines:

Why are those three strangers still kneeling

over their ashes? Invite them. Bring them in.

They can rest here beside the fire of meat.

Children sleep in the corners, taking notes.

A woman is dressing in the room overhead,

her footsteps are tablets I open to sleep.

The new wind is full of branches tonight,

leaving no holes in this darkness.

Around us, we can hear the dead sing.

Enter. I have no enemies left anymore,

only some friends who are late.

Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His latest poetry is Deconstruction of the Blues. The Horses: New and Selected, is forthcoming in 2012. He won the Northern California Book Award in Translation for his co-translation of Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern. He leads Poetry Flash's Workshop, The Dialogue of Poetry.


From Publishers Weekly

This moving collection of poems includes work from the late Ruggles's various collections (The Lifeguard in the Snow; Spending the Sun; Enough) as well as a handful of unpublished and stirring love poems. Ruggles's oeuvre is shaped by his deeply felt, evolving experience, with poems ranging from the explosive "Eros" of the late 1960s to the more recent "Inscription for the Door," in which he acknowledges no enemies, only "some friends who are late." Ruggles was a poet of the people, and his early work set in the Michigan farmland of his youth reflects a deep pathos. In "An Old Man on the Bum Sitting in an All-Night Detroit Diner," he writes, "He lets the counter drift higher/ around his shoulders,/ and then raises with care/ completely with both hands/ the white warm cup/ like a breast and drinks." Impressions meld into epiphanies concerning war, the masses ("Who will speak/ for the simple and dumb/ with their voices/ in shoes and gloves/ all their lives/ hanging onto their homes"), and small, lovely moments between men and women. Ruggles possesses a compelling social vision and workingman's sensibility. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Eugene Ruggles: Poet of Hands 


“Here is to the five horses grazing at the end of your wrist.”


––Eugene Ruggles


By Zara Raab



         Eugene Ruggles had an intensely expressive gift for opening his mind to vivid imagery and apt metaphor. It’s a powerful, hazardous gift, a rapture that could be deadly and certainly led in his case to misjudgments and occasional ruin. It was as if he made and lost himself in a single gesture, like a waterfall. It is no accident that water(s) occurs twenty times in The Lifeguard in the Snow, fifty-eight times if we include cognates like river, sea, and rain. The place that holds the water even as it falls is a pair of cupped hands, making Ruggles the Poet of Hands. Though he is often described as a poet of the heart, but in a closer look, he becomes the Poet of Hands, in a contest with hearts, Ruggles’ hands (mentioned thirty-three times) win hands down. Even in poems that do not explicitly mention hands, their gestures are integral to the poem, as in “A Simple One,” in which the poet imagines lying in his coffin beneath the ground “looking up at a wooden sky/with the rest of the immigrants/my friends the roots//waving—“ [32].

         Ruggles finds and expresses his meanings in the simplest physical gestures, often though not always involving hands. The gestures of kneeling, folding, covering, guarding, protecting, occur again and again in Ruggles’ poems. In “Beginning Again as Morning,” we are instructed:


Kneel down with the insects

where the sea has been folding

a scarf for you,

open her leaves of water. [44]


         Ruggles’ presence in his own body, and his awareness of it is palpable in almost every one of the thirty poems in the remarkable Part I of The Lifeguard in the Snow.

Stretching as far as I can

As though to hear through my forehead

Like a snake come down to drink

My mouth pressed against the weeds

                       [5, A Poem of Weeds]


This presence extends to the elements in physical contact with him, the weather, the land, the quality of light, the time of day, seasonal affects:

She has placed the wind about me

like a shirt without a seam,

and told me that the words

like men, should have weather in them.

                       [14, The White Goddess]


As with powerful actors like Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, or Anthony Hopkins, it doesn’t matter so much what is said. Alec Guinness is eloquent by his very presence. A person can speak with his entire physical body and mind. So Ruggles writes in the title poem of The Lifeguard in the Snow:


Watching those young children all last summer

Has folded this black sunburn through my chest—

A small girl water carved out of my arms forever. [6]


It is the way we speak to ourselves, in incomplete sentences, unmindful of grammar, when we feel something deeply.

         Ruggles’ descriptions of the body are fresh, original. An old man’s arms are “thin as oars/buried in the sliding daylight” [23]. A man’s “dark face” is “packed with scars” [24]. The lover embraces the beloved, his “arms like the rain about [her]” [27]. Ruggles’ understanding of the world is derives from his physical body, his very words brushing “against/the ancient drawings on the walls/of the mouth [28]. In “Love I Have Kept You Poor,” the lover withdraws “this last breath/from the bank of your thigh” [31]. Ruggles’ bodies are part of a seamless fabric of living things. A logging foreman sleeps alone in the woods where, “after a few hours of sleep/there are small movements in the dark/hollow where he has lain,/as when you roll back an old log/in the fields” [25].

         Of the twenty-nine poems in Part I of The Lifeguard, all but the final poem have at least a few, often several, of the cognates for weather––water, rain, snow, wind, light (or sunlight), and various cognates for the physical body––body (bodies), hand, thigh, arms, bones, earth. In The Lifeguard as a whole, body and its cognates—bones, heart, eyes, fingers, shoulders, stomach, ankle, waist, skin, thighs, chest, face, arms, hair, blood, and especially hands, occur an astounding 263 times.

         John Updike, a far luckier man than working-class, last-of-a- gaggle-of-kids Ruggles, once famously described a television in one of his novels as a “warm fire.” For Ruggles, in “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward,” the television becomes, more vigorously, a raging stove into which the poet “shovel[s] [his]. . .  share of coal” [48]. The external world is not “out there,” it is fully incorporated by the experiencing, perceiving body. Ideas are in things, and specifically in the human body, the poet’s body: “I stand in my casket light and piss/through it” [63, “Deciding to Run for Office”). Describing the coming of night in the alcoholic ward, the poet writes:

Now there’s only the moon.

A full November moon. Nailed


In the corner of a barred window

[no stanza break]


And my hand a yard turning dark.

       [48, “Lines from an Alcoholic Ward”]


The poor in prayer are

ecstatic as the fingers of an old baker

of loaves who is brushing

the last flour from his apron.

                [64, “From the Coats of the Poor”]


In other poems, Ruggles sometimes stumbles, losing control of his image. In “The Poor Man moves through Washington, D.C.––Spring 1968” (one imagines at an anti-Vietnam war rally), the poet’s “vision [is] shaded by the scar tissue/above his heart. And he is bringing/a load of firewood in his arms./These are the different logs of his rage.” In this, and in the Earth Day poems in The Lifeguard in the Snow, written in 1973 and comprising the middle section of Lifeguard, he strains too much for a political statement. “Ending War,” for example, advises


Chain all pregnant women together

to form a circle in every town

and aim rifles at their stomachs.

Do not let the women know

the rifles are empty.

. . . .


Let every stomach hear the clock

from each rifle and then

release your woman [53]


In this poem and some others, Ruggles’ intellect, his ideas, do not harmonize with his own physical, embodiment. But even in the apolitical poem “Back Inside the Crowd,” he writes,


The two legs of the heart are longer

Through men and women than I ever realized. [51].


I am not sure what to make of this. Ruggles seems to lose his sea legs; ashore, he cannot quite make his way. There are remarkable poems in both Spending the Sun and Enough, the two unpublished manuscripts––“The Animal That Waits Beneath Me,” “Love’s Migration,” “The Room,” “Small Morning Prayer,” “The Unemployed Automobile Workers of Detroit,” “Homeless.” But some of the power is gone; the physical vigor of the earlier poems wanes all too often to the kinds of spiritual, political, emotional searching common to much of contemporary poetry since Lowell’s Life Studies half a century ago.

         Ruggles can still astound, even as he gropes for subject matter, once he returns to his core themes. “Amputee” is one of the later, unpublished poems we are blessed to have in this new volume. I quote it in full:


I feel strongest alone.

Removed, late at night.

The fire burning down

beneath my ankles,

touching nothing I’ve known


I listen to the dark

healing between us.

When it has finished

covering the last opening,

where the skin belongs,


I empty into sleep,

into many. A crutch, the oar

of a pencil tied in my hand

with rope, growing back

toward all of you. [156]


In “Amputee,” Ruggles returns to the archetypal image at the heart of “The Lifeguard in the Snow,” the collection nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1977 when the poet was thirty-eight years old. In the unforgettable title poem of that collection from which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, the poet narrator returns in winter to the swimming hole where he was the lifeguard on duty when “a small girl water [was] carved out of [his] arms forever.” An era of history can leave its signature in the emotional lives of a generation. In the times of Eugene Ruggles, with the Vietnam War still a foul taste in the mouth, and when to be a man was not to be a warrior, but still to guard and protect, the failure to do so could mark a life, a body of work, and perhaps an era, as well.


Zara Raab’s most recent book is The Book of Gretel. Swimming the Eel is due out later this year. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse and Spoon River Poetry Review, with poems scheduled to appear in Evansville Review and River Styx. Her literary reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Rattle on-line, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Roads of Bread: The Collected Poems of Eugene Ruggles

Petaluma, CA: Petaluma River Press, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-9819725-2-7

Paper, 215 pages