Book review: The Good Dark by Ryan Van Winkle

Edinburgh-based Van Winkle. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Edinburgh-based Van Winkle. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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BILLED as an exploration of “what is found when love is lost”, The Good Dark is the second collection from Edinburgh-based but American-born-and-raised poet Ryan Van Winkle. In the wrong hands, a work concerned with picking over the remains of a failed relationship could be unbearably maudlin, but there is much here that’s surprisingly uplifting. There are no forced smiles, no if-it-doesn’t-kill-you platitudes – just a quietly optimistic sense that even the most painful break-ups can yield modest lessons, small positives.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of intense rawness. The shock of realisation in Untitled (Lynch) – “That night I knew you were no longer / in places I could even imagine” – hits home like a punch to the sternum. The Duke In Pines, meanwhile, is a wistful meditation on things left unsaid.

Like Yeats, however, Van Winkle has his emblems of permanence. In One Year The Door Will Open he considers a door he has seen “painted many things: / argument red, family yellow, divorce brown” and realises that in spite of everything they are both “Weathered, pale, / but still here”. Elsewhere, there are occasional hints of better times to come: traffic lights “twitch / back to green / after a long red”.

Most of the poems in The Good Dark feed into this narrative of loss and recovery on some level, but in the final reel, Van Winkle pitches an almighty curveball in the shape of Untitled (Snoopy) – a bewildering whirlwind that seems to smash everything that’s come before and then stamp up and down on the shattered remains. Channelling Bob Dylan at his trippy, visionary best, Van Winkle gives us exploding lightbulbs, giant waves, apocalyptic floods, fat flies in mason jars, a woman pushing her eyes into the back of her skull and a boy sending his finger into the sky on the back of a Roman candle. And then, just when it seems “the storm / will rise and swallow / everything” he brings us back to fundamentals: a man, a woman – and a parrot. n

Roger Cox