Jeffrey F. Barken writes about the serendipitous series of events, spanning Ireland to New York and several years, that led him to connecting Ryan Dennis and New York State Senate hopeful Leslie Danks Burke.
The last time I saw Ryan Dennis was in Sligo, Ireland, 2006. Gone abroad to study writing, we’d set out on a weekend trip to the northernmost Republican town of Malin Head. Lonely Planet teased a poetic roost: Rough North seashore, coastal green bluffs, crumbled stone scarp. There, puffins nest, their flocks take rest, on precipice—autumn southbound.
To get there on the main road, we’d have to cross through Northern Ireland. Good Friday eased—border disarmed—we arrived in the UK without hassle. Our stop in Londonderry, however, spelled misfortune. Hard way to learn the local buses never run past four. We stood thirty miles out. Charmed sun showers, rainbows spanned clouds spun, despite the dimming day, we were undaunted. Overzealous in the spirit of Kerouac, we fancied ourselves rucksack wanderers and decided to trek through the night.
Along the way we spoke of our ambitions. Ryan hailed from Canaseraga, New York. He represented the third generation of farmers in his family and was set to preside over a 500-acre tract of hay and cornfields. The pastoral impassioned his pen and he sought to devote his writing almost entirely to matters of agriculture. We were both readily at home in Ireland. The lilt, the land, the music, even the rain was a paradise for budding novelists.
Dusk soon dampened spirits as the way turned treacherous. I remember my dew-soaked sweater—that brown hand-me-down my grandmother had knit for my father when he was in college. By 2:00 a.m., the woolen weave stretched to my knees, sponged every dive through heath, as cars swerved speeds reckless in mist and mire. Midway, footsore, chilled to our cores, we slept an hour on stone benches in Carndonagh. Come dawn, someone tossed a firecracker to shoo us vagrants from the park.
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Together, we fled to the ends of town. Famished, the warm scent of baking bread lured us to the local SuperValu. They didn’t open until 6:00 a.m. We shivered outside awaiting rolls—oven-fresh sustenance. Afterward, we gave up hope of ever reaching Malin Head on foot. Arms went out to thumb kind ride. If only we’d thought of hitching sooner. Within minutes we’d arrived.
Malin Head glistened céad míle fáilte. There was a bed and breakfast bearing vacancy. Quaint casement opened sea breeze, we gladly paid for the attic room—two antique cots with patched-quilt coverings. Downstairs, in the cupboard kitchen, we boiled eggs, sliced cheese, and stuffed baguettes, a budget feast. In town, we found green knoll and relished eats, but we were not to see the puffins. Noon sun steaming soul and drying sweaters, that’s when I received the phone call from my parents. My grandmother had passed away overnight. I suppose it was wrong of me to have ventured to such remote corners. She’d been gravely ill for some time, and I’d need to go home whenever the end came.
Of course, our board at the inn was forfeit. I felt badly for having dragged Ryan along on an ill-fated trek, especially when each dear euro cost near two dollars. Never mind the waste, in light of our overnight ordeal, Kipling would count us comrades. Ryan offered to accompany me for a portion of the return journey. Another mad plan: Via Sligo, early taxi, Shannon Airport, New York by three. Arrived in Yeats’ country, we spent the night in a barracks hostel. There must have been twenty men stacked bunks. Some drunks snored; others hacked coughs. Drowsed wee-hour farewell, as I gave Sligo the slip, I forgot to ask Ryan his last name.
We lost touch for fifteen years.
Over Christmas, ’21, Ryan’s profile appeared as a suggested follow on Twitter. “I found you!” I wrote at once. A few days later, he responded. He sent a grainy mobile photo, snapped of me in Sligo.
Ryan had since immigrated to Ireland, but still returned to the States twice a year to tend the family farm and lease out tracts. Our reconnecting was timely, if not fated. époque, an English press, had published his first novel, The Beasts They Turned Away. We eagerly ordered each other’s books and promised feedback.
Ryan has fulfilled his dream. His debut work deploys a weathered voice and succinct prose style to reveal an intimacy with land, machines, and animals that is otherwise foreign to anyone who hasn’t spent serious time on a farm. Through lyrical prose, he captures rural angst and rancor spurred by encroaching cities, corporatization, and regulations that undermine small family farms.
With Ryan’s book on my mind, it seemed equally fated that I should meet New York State Senate Candidate, Leslie Danks Burke, this past May at a campaign event. Seated in my neighbor’s parlor, here was the daughter of farmers, relaxed yet inspired. In her closing remarks, she spoke of the sexism her mother encountered when only a pretty dress and fresh baked cake could win her a man’s help repairing the bolt that connected the cultivator to her tractor.
Leslie’s anecdote was demonstrative of the resilience and sense of purpose that informs her long-term approach to politics. This is her third run for this office. Despite disappointments, the public service inherent in Leslie’s campaigns has been the refreshing way her consistent character and genuine speech enables her to forge trusting relationships with unlikely constituents. “You have to use what you’ve got and meet people where they are to find common ground,” Leslie says. Stories connect when candidates commit. Leslie has spent almost a decade listening for mystic chords in what has been an overwhelmingly gerrymandered district.
Leslie Danks Burke
When asked what Senate appointments she seeks, Leslie is quick to answer. She desires a coveted spot on the Agricultural Committee. In this role, she can be influential building partnerships that bridge rural and urban communities; paving the way for a greener future. “We have to recognize that farmers are stewards of the land,” Leslie says. She will make that acknowledgement the basis for progress in Albany.
Writers and politicians alike seek inspired leaps of faith from everyone they meet. When the poetry is right, ideas get built, inaugurating change that can distinguish epochs. I called up Ryan and asked him, how soon could he be in Ithaca? Luck was with us, schedules aligned. He was due for his summer visit to the farm and could easily make the trip in three weeks. Some phone calls later, he confirmed his ability to ship the books from England in time. Next, we set a date with Leslie. June 24th, at Argos Inn, we’d host a conversation titled “Bundled Rhythms.” Lines derived from Ryan’s book prefaced a conversation exploring the crossroads of art and policy as they pertain to contemporary farming.
I called Wayne Gottlieb. The Pelotones could play! Never mind the distances involved, our proposed leap of faith just might work. People would come for the music, to hear Ryan read, and to join both him and Leslie in thoughtful discourse. The event promised pandemic relief and a chance for the community to begin to refocus on the immense task of implementing Ithaca’s Green New Deal. These themes all breathed renewal on the 24th.
“A field is a lifetime,” Ryan writes in The Beasts They Turned Away. This early passage in his novel gripped Leslie as she read, prompting her to muse how time slows down on farms. “Time is measured in years and sometimes decades,” she said, contrasting urban and rural rhythms—the gaps in lives that reunions awake. She’d been dizzied by Zoom calls most of the day and now lines scrawled on the walls of the Argos annex seemed to frame the plea Americans are making across the country.
“We will not go back to normal,” poet Sonya Renee Taylor is quoted. “We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” The conversation Ryan and Leslie shared this summer hints at what may be that honest pace.
Leslie Danks Burke and Ryan Dennis