Charles Ries takes us on journeys through both hemispheres as he traverses inner and outer terrain, searching for love and redemption in Monjé Malo Speaks English. His poems are peopled with an eccentric array of characters. Indeed, Charles Ries comfortably assumes such an assortment of personae that we’re tempted to ask, “Will the real Charles Ries please stand up?” He writes as a 95 year old man, a Latin lover, a younger brother, a Buddhist. As a gas company line worker, he describes the Friday night action viewed from his front steps:
“Sometimes I wish Elaine/ were Mexican. Hot, sweet and the ruler of my passion, / but she’s from North Dakota, a silent state where / you drink to feel and dance and cry.”
Here is one prolific poet who never runs out of things to say, the wry observer who cannot detach, but is always immersed in the predicaments in which he finds himself. He confesses to being unable to sleep because he belongs to the group with “minds as busy as New York City. / Even at midnight the city on our shoulders / does not sleep. Does not rest.” He takes up where he left off in his previous book, Bad Monk.
The perplexities he confronts appear immediately in the title, as he tells us in Spanish that Monjé Malo, the bad monk, speaks English. The title itself becomes one more layer of ambiguity for us to enter with him as he struggles for meaning in a world gone mad. Nothing is as it seems, and there are no easy answers. And so, we bumble along with the gentle, confused poet, sometimes numbed by scotch, frequently bewildered by love’s encounters. He admits to us that “my conquests are fictionalized.”
An essential part of these poems is a great tenderness. One senses an immense heart at the root of all his ruminations, whether he’s sailing the uncertain waters of male/female relationships, or charting the course of gender expectations. No subject is taboo. He uses a bullfight in Mexico to muse on the rage of the bull. It’s significant that he is presented with the ear of the vanquished beast. He hears the song of the bull’s life, and shares it with us, even as he salutes and cheers the bull, “who symbolized the burden of rage / and the insanity of being born male.” He also writes movingly as a dad who is informed about his daughter’s first period. “What should I do?” “Nothing, you’re the dad. / Dad’s aren’t supposed to know.” “Of course I don’t know about it. / Not invited into the Women Only Blood Club. / Staying clueless – the elegantly simpler gender.”
He has stated that he is working on a book about growing up Catholic. Even this much explored territory will become fresh in his hands. Catholicism is the religion which lies beneath Latin dance rhythms and voodoo. One feels both elements underlying Charles Ries’ work: an irrepressible joie de vivre arising in spite of, or perhaps because of life’s struggles, and a hypnotic otherworldliness, a compelling urge to go deeper under the surface, to what lies beneath. We see the poet acknowledging both a dark current and a desire to dive into the mysteries, swimming for his life. He weaves a spell with his many moods, casting a net of dreams that come back to haunt us. “Isn’t that why we dream? To have the impossible for just a moment? To reach / for things beyond our grasp during those times when falling and dreaming live / suspended above our kitchen sink, answering machine, and dinner table?”
Charles Ries can describe Jesus at the craps tables in Las Vegas and make it work. “He wasn’t the stuffy Jesus / I’d seen on the velvet paintings, but the smiling / laughing one with the windswept hair I had seen / pictured on the covers of New Age magazines. / Spreading his light around like a bullwhip.” He also describes visiting a church for a conversation with Jesus. “I leave the church grateful to God for taking time out of His busy / schedule to speak to me, and continue the work of fictionalizing my past.”
Monjé brings to mind the French word manger, to eat. Charles Ries makes us want to join him for the banquet, gobbling all of life’s experiences in great, gasping gulps. Writing as a 95 year old man, he tells us that these final years “wouldn’t be so bad were it not for / the famine that surrounds me. Emasculated / foot soldiers who traded the good life for the / promised land and a second home on the lake. / I called them squares. Because it seemed to / me the real world was a round rolling place / that we were meant to devour. So here they sit around me, my fading ancient / brothers and sisters waiting for a ride home on / the wings of an angel and a celestial reward for / a life half eaten.” Like Zorba the Greek, he pulls us along with his great zest for life, and he leaves us asking for more.
Charles Ries invites us into his world, and takes us along for one helluva ride. We witness a stampede of thoughts, a torrent of words that will not be stopped. Here is a man in a rush to get on with life. He makes us want to jump in the saddle, too, riding not behind, but alongside this great, big-hearted bear of a poet.
You may purchase Monjé Malo Speaks English at Foursep Publications’ website.