A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old
By Kirsten Clodfelter
John Rybicki opens each section of When All the World is Old, his third poetry collection, with excerpts from journal entries written by his late wife, the poet Julia Moulds. Her voice echoes in brief flickers so that as we move forward into Rybicki’s own language, we hear her still: “I worry again and again about him losing me.” The weight of that loss—of knowing what trauma is coming before it’s yet arrived, and then, when it finally has, of learning how to navigate a way through it—is explored with candor and power in his stunning writing. Rybicki honors Moulds by building this book not just to her or for her or about her but also, in using her voice in the pages, literally of her—ensuring that his devastation becomes ours as well, a burden that weighs us down as we read, but maybe, in the tiniest way, is also one that we can help shoulder.
My mother was 41 when she died, just a handful of years younger than Rybicki’s wife, but they prepared differently. For my sisters and I, there was no tender last love note, no post-bath, steam-written secret message, no treasure to decode across the mirror or window or anywhere, later, no matter how willing we would have been to “place our mouths close to the glass” and “fog it with our breath / after she is gone.”
Rybicki writes about the kind of day-to-day living shaped by the long-shadowed awareness that the minutes we have left are diminishing; he admits, “It has been too much for too long and we know it / is time to take hold of the lightening and let it kill her…” and it’s cruel, the way we are tasked with somehow being our best, or happiest, or most loving selves in that final interim before the goodbye—if we are lucky or unlucky enough to have that kind of warning—while at the same time facing down the very worst things we can imagine. Rybicki asks, “Why can’t I say yes to the laughter in my chest?” But of course we already know why. It’s because we understand, as Rybicki understands, that his “wife is the center of it all. Everything grows / from her.”
So Rybicki does not laugh, but he does put on his bravest face. At her request: “Keep me safe,” he “is on his watch,” is “trying to smuggle her / out of a burning city,” careful to offer his reminder gently, “…Whatever you do, / love, don’t look back,” the way we might pull a blanket over the folded body of a person in our care when we find that they’ve fallen asleep on the couch. But Rybicki cannot shelter us from the truth—even the most impressive love we are capable of giving is not always enough to keep someone from leaving, and in the pages of this book we are asked to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rybicki and look back with him as the city smolders, to bear witness to the depth of his adoration and anguish, watching for the moment when he finally feels ready to “stand in defiance / of our parting and go to war to make you live again.”
In the months after her diagnosis, I used to catch my mother sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom. Smoke would leak through the door when, after wandering through the entire house, I’d finally think to crack it open and look for her there, interrupting—in the sudden and unceremonious way that children are always doing—her meager attempt at disappearance. She would fan her hand in front of her face frantically—the worst fucking magician you’ve seen in your life—and after the pinched, “Shit, shit,” and the tell-tale flush, she’d study me slyly and say, “Don’t tell your father.” Maybe in those moments she was thinking of our history, of the innocuous secrets we already shared and also of all the ones we wouldn’t, the things that at some point she must have realized she’d now never get to know—the first time I kissed a boy, had my heart broken, screwed up a friendship, found my footing and felt sure of the way forward, fell in love. Her voice was always very serious when she’d say this, or maybe it only appeared that way because of how easy it was by then to see the bones of her face—but those words weren’t a warning, they were a plea.
At ten, I was too young to understand why I should have been outraged to find my mother layering this extra poison into her body—cigarettes on top of radiation on top of chemo on top of cancer on top of cigarettes, but then, by the time I was old enough to reason that this action was selfish or ignorant, I was too young to understand that sometimes these little rebellions are a small pleasure, an anchor. When you’re dying, there are still things that need doing. There’s milk that needs to be bought, litter in the cat box that needs changed, lunches to pack before school, math homework that needs checking. So from time to time she snuck a cigarette—one of only a few choices she could still control, a type of ownership of her body’s betrayal. Who cares?
It’s the smallest things that we gather into our pockets and carry with us as daily reminders. In “On a Piece of Paper You Were About to Burn,” Rybicki recounts his desperate missing in glimpses and asks us not to look away: “You rock on the kitchen floor hugging your own legs, / weeping and kissing a face so tiny / you could cover it with a penny.” He’s seeking an answer, “How do you hold the dead,” and we don’t know either, so we keep reading to figure it out with him.
My daughter, 20 months old, loves to stand beneath a certain picture collage in our living room and hold her hands above her head, calling, “Up, up,” so that she can be lifted to honk the nose of each subject in the photographs, proudly naming us as she points, “Momma, Dada, Bebe.” When I am the one doing the holding, she is the most interested in pictures of her father, and I offer tiny, sing-song consolations, “Daddy’s at work,” “… at the store,” “…will be home right after nap.” But I am capable of imagining, in a different circumstance, the exact way it would break me right open to hear the squeal of this question each morning as we looked at those photographs and not have a single way to explain that Dad won’t be home at 4:30 or with hugs or groceries or ever again, and to think of it always leaves me in tears, the pain of that loss—just the idea of it—fresh and immediate and real even when my partner is in the next room watching television or asleep beside me in our bed.
In a collection that easily calls to mind other aching and beautiful homages to the way we survive after loss, like Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and Donald Hall’s Without, John Rybicki’s poems in When the World is Old force us toward these moments of consideration with urgency—a reminder, perhaps, to keep our perspective or practice gratitude for the collection of small, warm moments we are gifted to share with others, because eventually the people we love are going to leave us—and no matter when that is, no matter how long we’ve had to prepare—it’s going to be too soon.
John Rybicki, When All the World is Old, Lookout Books, 2012: $13.50 (direct)/$16.95.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo