Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

A Retrospective Essay on His Work, by David Rigsbee

An Autobiography in Five Poems


After sleeping through my childhood and much of my youth, I awoke to the possibility that I might become a poet.  I had no role models, and poetry, aside from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "Sea-Fever," wasn't on any school menu until I got to college.  However, my father and mother had the grace not to stand in my way when I announced what I wanted to do with my life.  This was in college, my Chapel Hill days, when I had the good luck to wander into a vibrant group of literati.  Carolyn Kizer had arrived on campus and was holding auditions for her workshop.  I made it in and also began an extracurricular education, which consisted of walking to Carolyn's house after class to continue the discussion and to find myself in the company of visiting poets and novelists.  On any given day, one was likely as not to find Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Judith Sherwin, Reynolds Price, John Montague, Michael Hamburger, Robert Peterson, or Lars Gustafsson.  The English department took little notice of the steady trickle of writers who came by.   
         Yet the department had other stars whose interest in poetry was genuine and passionate.  Louis Rubin, Jr. the doyen of southern critics and himself a somewhat stumbling novelist ran an advanced workshop at his home on legend-haunted Gimghoul Road, which included not only students but adjunct-related and town writers like Daphne Athas and Doris Betts.  The smoke drifting from Rubin's pipe hung over the workshop and lent a serious and contemplative air to the Wednesday nights.  There was William Harmon, a polymath and poet, part Ginsberg, part formalist wit, recent winner of the Lamont Prize, who would typically wander the halls button-holing both colleagues and students with poetry exposés, such as the revelation that Merwin's change of style began with The Moving Target, which was moreover superior to The Lice, the book everyone else was reading.  There was Forrest Read, a speedy young prof who specialized in Pound's Cantos (he later published a secret "key" to the Cantos).  I took pleasure that his young wife would sit in the back of his class in modern poetry and take notes.  Carolyn's group included O.B. Hardison, poet and scholar, who went on to direct the Folger Shakespeare Library, Lou Lipsitz, a psychologist and political activist, whose work was published by Wesleyan, and Jerome Seaton, who taught Chinese and was at the beginning of a distinguished career as a translator of classical Chinese poetry.  It was a heady atmosphere, not to mention the fact that it was the late '60s and early '70s, when campuses all over the country were roiled by protest, and the counterculture set the tone.  I made it through with a long list of to-dos, not the least of which was to read every poetry collection I could get my hands on and to write every day, even if the muse was napping.  It's a formula I've followed pretty much all my life. 
         After the onrush of Chapel Hill days, I wound up at Johns Hopkins, thanks to the encouragement of Louis Rubin.  Strangely, I found the Writing Seminars at Hopkins to be less rigorous than the Kizerversity that was my daily experience at UNC.  The year settled into something along the lines of a comfortable residency.  There were few expectations, and the instruction, such as it was, came about as a result of class-bonding during which my seminar mates and I challenged each other and critiqued our poems and stories outside of class.  That worked fine for me, and the days flowed by, as I compiled my first serious, if inadequate, poems and translations of Joseph Brodsky, who was just about to land and take up a conspicuous space in the U.S., after his phony trial in the U.S.S.R. and subsequent exile to the Arctic.  The director and founder of the Writing Seminars was Elliott Coleman, a courtly elder and forgotten poet, whose main claim to fame was a long friendship with Anais Nin.  He also translated the Viennese theorist George Poulet, who at the time taught at Hopkins, and whose essays on poetry, particularly Mallarmé, became a touchstone for my thinking about the aims of poetry.  Otherwise Elliott taught, as it were, from afar.  In addition to literary and vaguely academic shores, including teaching comp to undergraduates, I had to find a job and set about doing so with random mailings until I landed a couple of interviews. 
         My first teaching job took place at Hamilton College in upstate New York.  I was to teach creative writing, that is, poetry and fiction, as well as a sophomore-level survey course in English Literature, and composition, as per the model based on the reading and discussion of classics:  Homer in the fall, followed by Virgil in the spring.  My preparation for these chores, not to mention the fretful grading of weekly papers and small-group tutorials, was hardly up to snuff when I arrived.  But by the time my first year had concluded, I was more confident in my ability to manage classes, which were stocked with mostly well-off young men and creative young women drawn to the newly founded Kirkland College, Hamilton's answer to coeducation, across the street.
         Kirkland was modeled on Bennington, which meant, among other things, no grades.  Its faculty was as bohemian as Hamilton's was old-tie.  There was of course some patronizing among the Hamilton faculty towards their Kirkland colleagues, but for the most part there was more than a minimum of harmony.   When spring came, I had my first creative writing seminars and became friends with my Kirkland counterpart, Naomi Lazard, a poet who commuted from New York City and was famous as Bill Knott's muse.  Naomi was a literalist when it came to poems.  Twice-weekly we would sit down in my living room near campus to discuss new work.  Naomi would say things like, "Why do you say 'the farm'?  What do you mean by that?"  It was good training, and I learned to withstand, in Cornelius Eady's handy phrase, the war against the obvious.  There were weekly student readings and monthly readings from area and national poets.  The students were devoted, and the atmosphere was often as festive as it was serious, in an academic setting kind of way.  One thing that was in our favor was the climate and isolation.  Winters came early and lingered well into spring.  Late spring was the season of mud and summer an L-Dopa awakening, before the inevitable relapse to chilly mornings.  Midway through my time there, I got wind that Naomi was fed up with commuting and that a split position would be replacing hers.  This turned out to be Tess Gallagher and Michael Burkard, who were hired as a married couple sharing one job, but who arrived in town having newly separated.  Tess and I became both co-institutional colleagues and drive-around friends.  She had published a chapbook and was about to have her first collection published by a new press, Graywolf, recently founded in Port Townsend.  Quality small presses were emerging in the Northwest in the 1970s.  Burkard briefly moved in with me, and we would both go on to publish volumes with L'Epervier Press, which managed to publish 44 collections before closing its doors.  Joseph Brodsky, who had become a friend, recommended my first collection, Stamping Ground, to a new press in Ann Arbor--Ardis--for publication, and I shortly received a letter that began with the welcome words, "There is a phrase that begins, I am pleased to inform you..."  I began to spend summers in Ann Arbor house-sitting for Joseph, who preferred his summers in Italy.  Being around the Ardis group led to my proposing an anthology of young American poets, which would include such poets as Linda Gregg, Michael Waters, Tess, and Billy Collins.  Years later, I would submit my collection, Your Heart Will Fly Away, to Graywolf.  Founding director Scott Walker wrote me that it would come down to a choice between my collection, or Ward Just's novel, Stringer.  The nod went to Stringer after Scott left his post there, but I consoled myself that my manuscript, named after the 1958 Tommy Edwards song, found a home with an early pioneer of the small press movement, The Smith, in Brooklyn.
         I had always been fascinated with what nowadays we would call liminal spaces and moments, those invisible lines that separate this from that.  The forms of poems are also liminal, marking the difference between the poet's inner reach and outer expressiveness.  Seamus Heaney speaks of "John Keats's notion that poetry surprises by a fine excess, although it's worth remembering that by 'excess' Keats did not mean just a sensuous overabundance of description. What he also had in mind was a general gift for outstripping the reader's expectation, an inventiveness that cannot settle for the conventional notion that enough is enough, but always wants to extend the alphabet of emotional and technical expression."  Heaney's comment implies that Keats' "excess" amounts to a procedure whereby the poem is a move beyond the reader.  One such liminal moment for me was the equinox. 
         The fall of Tess' and Michael's arrival found me driving around town and out to the countryside in Tess' VW.  We stopped at a cider mill, a converted barn.  On entering we were overwhelmed with the fragrance of apples and the sounds of their "tumbling" (Frost's term) into the hopper beneath which was the press.  Gallon jugs of cider lined the walls.  Not long after, I had the draft of a poem, "Equinox," dedicated to Tess, and sent it off to Ironweed.  The editor, Michael Cuddihy, accepted the poem, adding "Except for one line it's a perfect poem."  He didn't happen to say what line that was.  Like seasons, the poem is divided into four stanzas.  The poem considers separations first at a micro-level, beginning, "A slow burn.  And then, even the cells/ whisper goodbye in a slow, vegetal loneliness."  From there the poem widens to fields.  Of course I had the imagery of Keats' unavoidable "To Autumn" in mind.  At this point a strange image appears:

                                     for miles the orchards shrink
to gristle and joint, and propose to carry the white load of sleep
like watchmen in the knife factory.[1]

There was in fact a knife factory in nearby Utica, the nearby town about which my department chair had once remarked that "It never recovered from the Depression--of 1893."  The image of knives being manufactured in a depressed, mid-sized town suggested to me those opportunities for slicing off the past and its heaviness from present necessities and smaller pieces.  In other words, the knife factory seemed to represent another kind of liminal space.  I should mention too that I was just recovering from my first divorce, my ex-wife having cut her own ties to return to her home in New England.  She had been, among other things, my culinary tutor, and we always had a fine set of cutlery lying in wait to carve more manageable portions.  Some years later, in another town and another poem, I brought the image of knife blades back in view, this time with the additional meaning of cleaning ("Cleaning Vegetables"), as the vegetables were cut under a faucet's running water, their peeled rinds and skins swirling away in the sink.  But what about the watchmen in the knife factory?  They are neither symbolic nor allegorical, but they do suggest that the knives, now asleep, are guarded over by mysterious stakeholders.
         Exactly midway through the poem, at the beginning of stanza three, I arrive explicitly at the occasion: 

It is the equinox, and today I feel
the thrall that reconciles the animal
and the hole, cloud and lake, the sexes...

The point of reconciliation is the point of the reversal of fortunes, the positive and negative features of the time of year are pronounced, even though they are framed within the dimensions of a single day.  But that day finds the poet able to say that the two are equivalent:  there is no recourse to hope; neither is there an elegiac patina for what is about to begin its plunge into its opposite.  So it seemed to me appropriate that the farewell that the words make in their "sequent toil" becomes a different gesture, the poem itself becoming a gift to a colleague:

Negative eloquence, it has all returned,
if deep withdrawal is the return to self,
is why the fire saves nothing, discards nothing,
and old blood shifts from red to black,
why maple ignites like jelly in the frost,
root, trunk, branch, and here, your leaf.

The leaf, poised to depart from its tree, is also the poem, with the secondary sense that the poem will find itself at length in a precarious state.  It too embodies a form of naturalized meaning.  It will drop.  It will begin, like the apples, its tumbling into the great rotation, finally to be pressed into something else.
         Most of life has no conscious memory, although living things embody impressions as part of their physical existence.  It was not for nothing that Dante greeted Virgil in The Divine Comedy as "master of the memory of earth."  So it is hardly surprising that we speak on behalf of others, including others who are not aware of our speech.  In Book IV of The Confessions Augustine writes, "And even thus is our speech completed by signs giving forth a sound: but this again is not perfected unless one word pass away when it hath sounded its part, that another may succeed."  Augustine's point was that "speech will not be whole" until each of its words has passed away.  The paradox of wholeness and expiration has occupied many poets and thinkers.  I decided one day in the early 1980s to hold a mirror to this puzzle in a little poem called "Crickets," where just those sorts of creatures who don't make meaning, paradoxical or otherwise, nevertheless make a contribution to meaning, albeit without undergoing anything that they themselves commit to memory.  That said, it may be that memory's last outpost is instinct.  Minus memory, these creatures engage in aeons-old behaviors to which evolution has assigned them.  Philosophy, resorting to abstractions, doesn't get to them well, but poetry does.
         In the early '80s I had accepted a teaching job at LSU and moved to Louisiana, after a satisfying stint at UNC-Greensboro.  My wife and I rented a modest but convenient house only blocks from the university and within sight of the levee, where we would often walk and sometimes picnic.  Because the house was situated in a flat landscape that extended to the levee (and was prone to flooding in spring), it was constantly humid.  The books in my library begin to grow mildew and in one or two cases, mushrooms actually began to appear on the inside of the spines of books.  One December I was visiting my grandparents in the little house where they had settled in sleepy Mount Olive, N.C, after decades of hardscrabble farm work.  Although cold had set in, I could hear cricket sounds in the house.  I asked my grandfather about this, and he took me to the furnace, alongside which a towel had been placed.  He pulled the towel back, revealing five crickets.  He told me he kept them there near the warmth so that he could hear their music in the winter.  One day, the poem suddenly came to me, and I wrote it complete in just a few minutes.  It didn't need revision, and the next day I sent it off to The Georgia Review, which accepted it.  The poem begins,

They are without memory, making up
the night's story continually, like
Scheherazade.  They are the old men
who pull the wool caps down
over their brows after the fashion
of railway baggage clerks.

Not to have memory, is, you might say, not to have sorrows--no lacrimae rerum for them.  And yet I wanted to humanize them, first by associating them with the archetype of the storyteller, Scheherazade, whose nightly tales maintained her life by postponing death, a kind of daily immortality.  Secondly, I wanted to give them a common appeal:  the old men, the railway baggage clerks.  There is a hint of transport even in the performance of a service.  As it continues, the poem takes on a darker tone:

They limp, paying no mind
to a missing leg.  They crawl
in the bottom of bait buckets
knowing there is no exit.

While they crawl in the bottom of bait buckets, they have no idea that they are bait.  They only know they can't crawl or jump their way out.  At this point, they are the antithesis of Scheherazade, i.e., all mortality and loss of control.  In spite of these problems, they persist.  But persistence isn't all they manage. At this point, the poem takes another turn, beginning on the ground, then rising and widening in its implications.  It becomes something ancient joining in generality, literally harmonizing with a song of which, while it makes "music," can make no memory. Rather, it's catalytic.

When the grass grows thick
as the pile of a Persian rug,
and intoxicated with rain,
bully with heat, they are there
picking their way through tropical
forests.  Then when night comes
and with it desire, and with it
love, and with it love's decline,
and with it death and the second death,
the take their place in the orchestra.

I would offer several observations here.  First of all, it's possible to overstate the meaning of this poem.  It's a small poem, after all, and its purpose (if it could be said to have a purpose) is to record and offer an experience that sits on the other side of language.  I am a southerner, and like many, I grew up with a natural soundtrack that included crickets, cicadas, frogs, and birds.  The "orchestra" of which they are a part is the orchestra of this soundtrack.  We might not be aware of them, but becoming aware, it's clear that composing such a soundtrack is one of their characteristics.  Both are related to mating too, of course, and unlike our experience of their sound, this is the reason for their audible exertions.  A decade later, when tragedy struck, I remembered their sound, the nightly accompaniment of childhood in its bright unknowing.  And it was a memory that reminded me that, as Kunitz said, life "is in the layers."  I hardly need to remind you that death is also found there.  It doesn't take a Whitman to recognize the fact:  it's a paradox where many poems find their uncanny energy.
         Either the world hangs together or it doesn't. The question seems fundamental to me.  If you believe in the latter, you are in good company, but it helps to be aware that such a belief doesn't alter the fact that made things can themselves almost always hint at the former, at least metaphorically.  The "limited aesthetic whole," in Iris Murdoch's phrase may stand for something it can't bring about, except in the imagination.  Which is to say it's a kind of wish-fulfillment.  But that's a caveat too.  I often think it's desirable to collapse the difference between being and seeming.  A poem may be a wish-fulfillment, but it's real too. You don't have to add a depreciative modifier, an "in its own way."  As Bishop's Crusoe memorably said, "Homemade, homemade, but aren't we all?"  My belief that it's possible to live inside a poem was put to the test in 1992.
         I was teaching at Virginia Tech and at the same time getting my doctorate at UVA.  It was a time of alternating schedules, scrambling to be in one place and then another.  The course load at VT was not ideal for an instructor, nor was the salary.  However, the students were curious and smart.  Moreover, the beauty of the mountains around Blacksburg and the area's cultural self-awareness were both moving and historically deep.  The local writers felt like a band of amiable strivers, and I found myself in a poetry group that met every Sunday for several hours of sharp and helpful critique.  It was comprised writers from a kind of de facto consortium of area colleges:  Virginia Tech, Hollins, Radford, and Roanoke College.  The on-and-off-again members included such poets and fiction writers as Eric Trethewey, whose house near Hollins served as the base, his wife Katherine ("Bonnie") Soniat, Grace Bauer, Ed Falco, and Gillian Connolly, usually converging at Rick's and Bonnie's house outside Roanoke.  In addition, I had made friends with Nikki Giovanni, whose pheasant-under-glass celebrity had at first caused her to be treated with patronizing skepticism by some of the other tenured faculty, mostly of the male persuasion, as I need not detail.  I found her confidence a balance to the usual self-doubts that accompanied so many of the conversations I had with local poets.  She could be biting, but she was also generous.  I worked with her in a workshop we organized at a home for the elderly and saw the emphasis she placed on the representation of voice, especially among aspiring writers for whom voice had often been met with indifference.  She was an ally, and I admired both her self-possession and realism.
         On December 1, 1992, in Brunswick, Ohio, my brother came home at lunch time from his work as an EEG technician and didn't return to the job.  Instead, he leafed through some papers, wrote some notes and, after consuming three beers, went to the bedroom.  There he took out a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson and shot himself in the temple.  When his wife returned home from work, she found a note on the stairway that began, "I am upstairs, dead."  No one really disclosed the events leading up to this, but apparently a patient had made a complaint. The forecast for the area the next day called for a snowstorm.
         I was teaching Hart Crane that day and was humming with Crane's strict perceptions and tight compression.  I had not been home long when I got the call from a stranger, as it turned out a neighbor of my brother, who called with the news.  At the University of Virginia, I was aiming to study the elegy as my specialty, with a special emphasis on the "postmodernist elegy," that is, one for which traditional modes of consolation--religion, tradition, art--are unavailable.  I went on to write my dissertation on the elegiac poems of Joseph Brodsky, for whom exile, both physical and temporal, was second nature.  It was later published as Styles of Ruin:  Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodern Elegy. You might say I was prepared for my brother's erasure, but of course that would be cruelly disingenuous.  In fact, I was close to my brother and had spoken to him a little over a week before the event.  He had called to invite me and my partner for Thanksgiving, but as my partner's law school exams were right around the corner, I politely declined.  A week later, the call came.
         I phoned my mother and father and delivered the heartbreaking news.  As for funeral plans, my mother had asked me if I would deliver a eulogy, but I was at a loss and so was unable to write anything resembling consolation or a life summary, let alone finding meaning for a life so suddenly and viciously undone.  That fact is one of the reasons I decided in the weeks following to write a poem that would make up for my silence.  Years later, when the poem came out in The Southern Review, I told my parents that I would read it to them and explain what I was trying to say, this by way of trying to mitigate my embarrassment at having nothing to say at his funeral.
         I was visiting my partner in Lexington, Virginia, when I listened to Richard Strauss' last composition, Four Last Songs, a lush suite for soprano and orchestra, and it occurred to me that this work could provide a scaffolding for an elegy.  The first three of the songs are based on poems by Herman Hesse and had been written shortly before Strauss' death in 1949, the year I was born.  James Wright, whose poems I admired, had ably translated them.  The last was a poem by Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff.  Reading these poems, I began writing my own poems in response.  What emerged was an interlinear suite, which I also called "Four Last Songs" and dedicated to the memory of my brother.        
         Structuring the "songs" around the four poems sets up an inner dynamic between the original poems, whose lines are in all caps and my "commentary," which is the response.  For example, the first section begins,

IN HOLLOWS GOING TO DUSK/ I DREAMED A LONG TIME
                  
                   Once more I got up and put on the CDs;
once more, hunched in a blanket, I remembered
                   the gold-grieved crickets
had disbanded, retired to the silence
                                     I wanted this music
                                               to iron back the hush of that...

         Although I have always been of two minds about Charles Olson, I found the swirling "field composition" of The Maximus Poems gave me a useful model for the recursive self-consciousness, with its corrections and questionings, as in this passage:

I tried to remember spring.  And now music's (dis)consolation
                                                        creating a back-wave to memory, its wind
                                                                           gathering the green up                
                                                                                    and letting it down again
                   (es zittert durch all meine Glieber, in the words
                   of Hesse = you, deaf, moved by the same)

         and so I tried to read... because to read spring
                                               was to read the other,

                            was to address the other who stood

                            SHINING IN THE FLASH FLOOD OF LIGHT

         All elegies are in a sense self-elegies.  The subject of such a poem is dead and so cannot be addressed, except in the sense of being "addressed" metaphorically.  Yet memory means that the dead person remains in some virtual sense an interlocutor, whose "response"--silence--invites the poet to speak on the dead's behalf, rewriting and trying to make sense out of a life that has been discontinued.  That the discontinuance was intended adds a special urgency to the desire to make sense.  That, in a roundabout way, is the subject of the poem.  It is also a poem about identity, and that means it's a poem that wants to claim significance in the face of insignificance. 
         All my writing life, I have been haunted by Seferis' "The King of Asiné," in which the poet asks what the last trace of significance may be when it comes to persons.  In Seferis' poem, some tourists go in search of a king included in Homer's list of combatants in the Trojan war.  They know nothing more than the dry mention ("and that uncertain") in The Iliad, but something drives them to go and find at least a vestige that will keep the King of Asiné from slipping utterly into oblivion, or as Seferis puts it, "the void."  When the poet--the tourist--encounters a mask in the dirt, he realizes that behind this image is nothing of the king, just the void.
         My purpose in "Four Last Songs" was roughly to find an identity through my own means for my lost brother.  Of course he would have known little of the routes down which I traveled to concoct a literary identity for him, but in my world it was a tenable variant, and I wanted to suggest the way that music figures, in its percussions and melodies, its language-less alphabet and changing tempos, of bringing emotion and intellectual plausibility through a means of delight.  It's not often that delight figures in an elegy, but when you think about it, the formal means and conventions of addressing the dead in poetry are themselves rooted in our need for beauty and order, especially as we course our way between our life dates.  As a result, I also point out this or that feature of Strauss' moving songs and even mention the difference between the Jessie Norman and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf.  Incidentally, I noticed at one point that the names of these divas placed at the ends of their respective lines produced a kind of eye-joke:  Norman/ Schwartzkopf, the U.S. General in charge of the Gulf War in the 1900s whose face and swagger lit up the TV screens of American viewers who watched the war unfold in real time.
         It wasn't just the music to which I turned.  I wanted to draw him into my literary world, and I began to borrow phrases and tags from poets who have formed my pantheon.  A few years after the poem came out, Carolyn Kizer was visiting me at Hamilton, where I was teaching again as a visiting professor.  We sat in my living room and read the poem together.  We discovered dozens of echoes and references to poets we knew.  "Four Last Songs" was a construction at whose intersections were to be found elegy, nostalgia, music, perplexity, and wonder, but busy as it is, the poem ends, as it must, at "the wall of silence."
         Someone once asked me how my poems had changed over the years, and I replied that they had become more superficial.  What I meant by that facile remark was that my poems had moved more in the direction of understatement, the direction of Amichai, Cavafy, Milosz, Carver, Gilbert, and Gregg.  Reynolds Price, the novelist, who was also a poet, has an essay on the effects of understatement versus full articulation.  The latter, he suggested, was essentially baroque, manipulating the reader by verbal plugging and nailing.  The effect was a subtle manipulation of the reader, whose imaginative participation was narrow.  As an example, he offered John Milton.  At the other end of this scale was the example of Hemingway, whose pared-down prose invited the reader's imagination to fill in details.  My own early inclination was toward articulation (which is also to say wordiness).  My early influences included Berryman, Lowell, Sexton, Hecht, Merrill, Walcott, and Brodsky, but at some point, I began to resist these models.  I had gone to hundreds of poetry readings and gave many readings myself.  One of the things that struck me was the person who came up after the reading to say something like "I really liked your reading, but I'm going to go home and reread 'X' or 'Y' because I didn't really get it all."  "Getting it" sounded to me like an issue:  I was wrapped up in the language, and my poems were more baroque than they needed to be.  So I began thinking about the advantages of flatness, of moving the poem away from the capturing effect of high style, of rhetorical awareness and fussy diction.  I realized that both of my mentors, Kizer and Brodsky, were poets inclined toward literary language, of poems like Corinthian columns, but I saw another way to get at layers and nuance that didn't require the ornate, which was often simply turgid.  After the death of my brother and the writing of "Four Last Songs," I started turning toward rhetorical simplification, understatement, and the image, to let the poem evoke, rather than sculpt the language down to the last detail, rendered in the spirit of le mot juste.  Writing a master's dissertation on Wittgenstein, I began to see that the scale from understatement to overstatement was too rigid.  Rhetorical poetry can seem hollow, the language, in Linda Gregg's phrase, "tap-dancing."  What I wanted was another kind of force, one that allowed poems to feel more elemental.  While I still admired the poems of my early influences, I began to turn at first toward more hybrid models like those in the late work of Robert Penn Warren.  There was a powerful engine there capable of toning down formal temptations while still going for metaphysical reach.  But my greatest instructors were Cavafy, who eschewed even metaphor as vulgar, Milosz, whose poems struck me as forcefully flat yet embodying the dignity of the plain, and Carver, whose best poems, always in the demotic key, showed how a single image could be the door to a new, unexpected worldview.
         In the mid 2000s, I was on sabbatical and living in Seattle.  It was, as I had hoped it would be, a productive periodTwo things happened.  The first was a coda to my own rhetorical bent and brought me back to the first poems I had written under Kizer, which all happened to be sonnets.  Carolyn wanted me to learn form, so she suggested I write, like the psychiatrist and Fugitive poet Merrill Moore, a sonnet a day.  When I moved on, I did so pretty much in rebellion to these exercises, first at Johns Hopkins and later in upstate New York, where poems of the "deep image" school popularized by Bly, Wright, and Stafford kept me close company. 
         I can trace my present sense of how to frame matter to two summers spent in Italy in the 1990s.  My collection, Two Estates (2009) began an understated approach and style that was to culminate in the annus mirabilis of 2006-7. By the time of my sabbatical, and by way of finalizing, I wanted to see if there was anything left for me to say in strict form.  I had been following the work of Derek Walcott, especially after the publication of The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979) and The Fortunate Traveller (1981), but it was the appeal of The Arkansas Testament (1987) where politics and race came under strictest classical measures, that caught my attention.  I wanted to try my own strength of compression in the form. I wrote two sequences that year:  one about a food processing plant fire that had killed 25 black women in North Carolina in 1991 and another reflecting on the recent death of my mother.  These were published as Sonnets to Hamlet (2004) and Cloud Journal (2008).  After these, I put strict form aside again. 
         I offer as an example of the kind of poem that is indicative of the poems I have been writing since then.  This poem was written when my wife Jill and I lived in a cliff-hanging beach house overlooking the Puget Sound.

A Life Preserver

He watches the light move in and out
behind the evening clouds and listens
to the wild duck's long, sad cadence,
interrupted by crows.  He senses
the still air is indifferent
to these rituals.  For all that,
he knows the connections there
are the nodes of moments
already deep in the braid
of a rope, coiled and put
in a public place under lock and key,
a life preserver, in case of emergency.

         Amichai has a similar but even shorter poem about public contention ("people speaking in loud voices"), in which although the nature of the dispute is unclear, the raised voices speak past each other.  The speaker notices an iron door marked "Emergency," opening upon a "great tranquility," which he doesn't otherwise specify.  However, it's clearly suggested that the tranquility comes with a realization that we don't always work towards answers, especially if we're the ones offering them, but to the rhythm of questions and answers. It is a poem that hangs on the simple idea that one thing invariably leads to something else, and that something can rise into another, unforeseen dimension, an emergency.  My poem presents a man standing out in the evening in a natural setting.  The sun is going down, plaintive ducks eclipsed by crows.  That's it.  As far as settings go, it's pretty basic, and yet it leaves a lot of room for speculation, and it's hard to think there would be a "wrong" one.  What is the man doing there?  Is this something he does often?  Sensing that the air "is indifferent" to the surroundings, he is led to something that "he knows."  The object of this knowledge he sets against what he senses in nature, namely its inability to offer repose or relief:  but from what?  That much the man doesn't state, although it appears that it has something to do with the way--the angle--in, and with which he encounters the interrelated worlds.  On the one hand, there is the impersonal world of nature; on the other, the mind, which is both personal and cultural.  The latter sustains him as much as the former.  Not only is he in possession of his senses, but he also has backup in the form of history, of his past, of his family and personal connections, of what he knows, the figures of his imagination.  Wittgenstein notes that a rope is made up of individual fibers, not one of which goes throughout the length of the rope.  As for the emergency, why not say that each of us is bound to encounter a version of that?
         A poem I wrote in the early '80s wound up in The New Yorker.  At the time, I was addicted to the soap opera General Hospital and even maneuvered to get my class schedule aligned so as not to miss an episode at home during lunch.  My wife and I had separated, amicably, as they say, and so I was staying alone in the house we rented, the small, humid one.  We had turned into versions of ourselves that were at variance with the ones who had fallen in love just six years before.  She was depressed to find herself in Baton Rouge without prospects for interesting employment.  I was sympathetic to her disappointment and suggested she think about graduate or law school.  Doris, who went on to write poems herself, didn't go for the latter idea because, as the youngest of three siblings, she would be competing with her sister, who had clerked for Thurgood Marshall at the Supreme Court and had a history of academic attainment at Smith and later at the University of Michigan (J. D. summa cum laude).   
         One day, when I turned on the TV, I found, not General Hospital, but a western.  There were the usual horses bolting, cowboys firing, and Indians scattering.  I only watched the length of time it took to change the channel, but in that second I was struck to see someone among these B-movie actors who looked exactly like me:  I had glimpsed a Doppelgänger.  I have always been interested in what raises identity into a thought, the thing that enables a blowback of subjectivity against our common features and fates.  But the poem, "Autobiography," is first and foremost a poem about memory, and by that I mean memory as such.  It's not a poem about a particular memory.  Our memories make and store the components of our identity, but what if we recognize ourselves, even momentarily, as utterly other?  What if we see ourselves in a situation not supported by memory?  Indeed, what if this occurs in a preposterous situation of which we have no recollection, nor can imagine, since it's unsupported by fantasy.  To see ourselves in the eyes of others is a laudable goal, but to see ourselves from the outside and not to recognize the circumstances is a jolt.  The poem begins:

As soon as you leave, you enter
memory and that small emissary
of yourself immediately loses
its credentials.  No longer yours,
you can't recall it, or send it
instructions on tactical lying.
You may have armed yourself with
heavy qualifiers, been Henry James,
bu tun turn your back, it's theirs.

I am usually wary of second-person poems.  In the first place, they're often cover for "I."  In the second place, they're manipulative, assuming readers will allow themselves to become complicit in the scene of the poem.  However, in this case, it seemed the right choice because the speaker is after all confronting some version of himself in another person, and so he objectifies himself and then that second-person version confronts his Doppelgänger on the screen.  Identity becomes a hall of mirrors.  Having no memory other than his own, the speaker is forced to contemplate the dimensions of his subjectivity and to wonder what happens to this subjectivity when he brings it out into the world.  What he discovers is that even subjectivity is to a large extent what others make of us.  Richard Rorty famously offered the assertion that "there is nothing more to the idea of objectivity than inter-subjectivity."

Thus, memory.  And each fresh
installment of yourself, though
exquisite, is still lump clay.
Even the other tack, sincerity,
has zero chance because revelations
have nothing to do with memory.
Trapped, you have only the whim
they toss at you to put on.

It begins to dawn on the speaker that it may be the momentary image on the TV is as much him as he is to himself.  It's an astonishing thought, when you come to think of it (e.g., "the costume is absurd.  Not to/ mention the horse."). How to stop the propulsion of free association when the sense of subjectivity is knocked loose?  The speaker says to his alter ego:

You are a small being now, just

a fraction of the old self.
Your mother tongue begins to suffer
like an émigré's.  Plainly you
were the aggregate of what you gave
up.  Now you are suspiciously
plural.  What is happening to you?

What is happening is that "as soon as you leave" the speaker becomes a kind of Sorcerer's Apprentice, his identity spinning out of control, his memories overcome and replaced by the appearance of others:


Spilled change, their faces
turn to the you they obviously
can't see.  And the barbaric
shouts they make, this cast of
thousands swarming over the dust!

I wrote this poem when my own memories seemed to be proliferating and evolving into that of others.  I suppose it would be more positive to see it as an exfoliation of self during a period of change, both personal and professional.  I any case, I had dived down a rabbit hole.  Lowell wondered why he couldn't write something "something imagined, not recalled."  I'm sitting here years later, feeling the welcome breeze of a June morning, watching the brook at the bottom of the hill seek out the river, in this case the Hudson, and it's dawned on me that the distinction is probably false.  Of course there are facts--a TV image flashed on a set in Louisiana, a brother who guns himself down, a grandfather who makes a secret winter home for crickets.  There is no fancy that refutes the truth of what happened.  Yet what is recalled is made, insofar as poetry is the medium:  it's made into another thing that never existed before.  And it's made again when the reader encounters it and experiences it.  Hesiod told us that memory is the mother of poetry.  That was certainly a mouthful.  We want to account for our lives, to register how it was with us.
         It occurs to me that I could have written an autobiographical essay with a handful of other poems, citing other events and places, other poets and friends whose effects on the poems were notable.  That essay would have been equally true.  In fact, a proliferation of autobiographies tied to poems would be a set of true essays, and yet each would be different.  How to choose?  There is no outside reference from which to begin, and yet this version has plausibility going for it, and I can live with that because I have lived it.  I have also lived the versions that I haven't written, and their silence calls to me too. 



David Rigsbee, the author of over twenty books, has won two NEA literary fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, and an Award from the Academy of American Poets for his work.  His translation of Dante's Paradiso will be published in 2021.

The poems reprinted above are from The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems (Newsouth Books, 2010) and reprinted with the permission of the author.

 

[1] All poems quotes in this essay are from The Red Tower:  New and Selected Poems (NewSouth Books), copyright David Rigsbee 2010.
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