John Ridland taught English at UCSB from 1961 to 2005, publishing several books of poetry and translation. He and his wife, Muriel Ridland, wrote And Say What He Is: The Life of a Special Child (MIT Press, 1975), about their son John, who passed away. Their daughter, Jenny, lives in England and son Michael in Southern California. I recently interviewed John Ridland about his latest book, Epitome and Epiphany.
Epitome and Epiphany focuses on a time in your life that was both incredibly painful and yet full of joy — the six years you had with your special-needs son, John. Isn’t it difficult to revisit these events? Yes, it was difficult, but writing from outside of our individual points of view, which was what we had done in the earlier book, made for a further liberation from the sorrows. The joy in the writing sought to equal the “gay intensities of joy” in his life. Throughout both parts of the new book, the intensity of poetry lifted the personal difficulties of the subject matter aside.
The “Epitome” section of the book makes use of not only prose memoir but also poetry, your wife Muriel’s journal entries, letters, doctors’ reports, and the recollections of caregivers. How did this multi-genre approach help you to tell Little John’s story more effectively? In And Say What He Is, whichever source made the sharpest, clearest evocation of any given moment was the one to choose. If the original words in those forms you mention were better than a narrative summary of them might be, they stayed. In the “Epitome,” the narrative summary by a third-person, impersonal voice takes over, though still incorporating some of the other voices, which were too good to lose. For example, the young girl helper’s recollections, and the reaction of the scrap-metal dealer father of another helper.
Can you talk a bit about how “Epiphany,” the long poem that makes up the book’s second half, functions in relation to “Epitome”? I’m especially interested in your use of the concept of “Shipap,” which you describe as “an afterlife, something like Heaven.” Wallace Stevens wrote a lot about imagination and reality. “Epitome” presents the essence of the reality of Little John’s life, and our lives with him, through a mosaic of many tesserae, bits and pieces of reality, which combine into a picture of the life of this “new person,” who happened to be “special” — today’s “special needs.” The reader is entitled to believe that these things happened really, not fictionally, for which the previous book, And Say What He Is, provides the evidence.
A kind of “reality plus”? Yes. “Epiphany” steps over the threshold of a reality grounded on our earth into what imagination can make of “what comes after.” First, proposing a literal physical resurrection, which the voice of the poem then says is only “being thought into happening” — that is, imagined. As a result, images are constantly turning into metaphorical versions of themselves. For me, what was imagined is this poem. It is not reality.
In the poem, you envision what might come after a general resurrection: “the world … magnifies to / a higher power of itself.” That idea allowed me to imagine all sorts of literal impossibilities: The boy pressing God on his motives, the boy leading his stillborn sister to enjoy the sensory beauties of the world, someone tunneling from the built-over Las Tunas bunch-grass meadow to the Santa Barbara Cemetery and back. Finally, after a long period of mourning, the boy’s spirit is released by way of a Santo Domingo Pueblo “Song of a Child’s Spirit” to become a cloud. I imagine a small puffy white cloud in a bright blue sky, for the living to greet and be greeted — and thanked — by.