This Much I Can Tell You. David Rigsbee. Black Lawrence Press. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 2017.
This Much I Can Tell You is a curious cat. You wonder/wander about within the comfortable environs of superbly constructed poems, almost formal in their elegant narratives, and almost Chandler like. Yet within the same narratives The Cure might purr their particular nectar or Richard M. Nixon may stroll through to cuss the cat.
Today's book of poetry is clumsily trying to say that David Rigsbee is an excellent juggler. Rigsbee has no problem with holding three or four disparate ideas together with nothing between them but air, brief moments in time, and slight of hand. Being the craftsman/old-pro poet/juggler that he is Rigsbee brings it all home with an astute and gentle logic.
This Much I Can Tell You
Sometimes it feels as if the mind
will seal itself up and you can go
a great distance without ever seeing
those who ever spoke your name.
You hear everything from cacophony
to a symphony played on instruments,
provenance unknown, stored out of sight
long ago. It is a closed system
but vast, and time unfolds there too,
unrelenting, nothing in abeyance,
like animal eyes suddenly appearing
in the roadside weeds and fields,
through which the highway plunges,
and on it a car traveling, not speeding,
not hanging back either. This much
I can tell you: there is smoke
beyond the mind, to which the mind turns,
as to a burning house, flames raging,
spurting from the second story windows.
Shouldn't you be running up the lawn?
Shouldn't there be, in truth, more fires?
More fires. Rigsbee people's his poetry with every character from a racist southern Governor Wallace to the German philosopher Hegel and Roy Orbison singing all the high notes and Paul Valery not singing at all. Frankie Avalon and Lou Christie both sing falsetto, they are both clamouring for the bright light and worrying about the front of the stage until Pavarotti saunters in to take his natural place center stage.
Singers and philosophers litter Rigsbee's poems like touchstones. You might think that these characters are distracting but in fact Rigsbee uses our knowing these names and their stories to access a vaster recess in our curious brains. This Much I Can Tell You coils around these associations and our prior knowledge. David Rigsbee has a bigger plan than we first see, this discourse is in search of truth and joy.
I used to crank up that Toni Braxton song
when I drove through the mountains of Virginia
at night on my way to a certain apartment
on a hill. And I used to find my edge
at the tip of my finger, some unbefitting
thing, some toy Rubicon, and press Enter.
I was one inch above the law, above
public order and good behavior, but,
I could argue, within the standard deviation.
Meantime, I was this other person too. Now
the part you have to believe, since unbelief
has been my downfall, is that I put the truth
out there unvarnished, yet weirdly shining,
like some creature just discovered next
to a volcano vent at the bottom of the ocean.
I put it out there to be examined, named,
prized maybe, then put appropriately away.
The way we do. The way scientists do
because as some point they have to get
home. So much is going on in the ordinary
there's no need to track the specimens.
There are containers and labels at the ready
for that. As for home, the man finds love
in the trivial urgencies, the flotsam and small
change, homework, bills, dishes, whatever,
and later that night the husband drapes
his arm over his wife and covers her crotch
with his big, plain hand before the first dream
is even finished, and she, also dreaming,
covers his hand and tenderly pulls it away.
This Much I Can Tell You sets a firm tone, Rigsbee has important stories to tell us and wants to present as a stern advocater of history's firm lessons. But ultimately hope and joy tip the scales.
Our morning read was held under ominous winter type clouds. We had Coltrane playing in the office this morning as his "Alabama" seemed an appropriate silver lining for this grey, grey day.
The King of Thebes
There were the barefoot girls in see-through dresses,
and she had been one of them. She pauses to let that
sink in. Just then a house wren flies up to the window,
looks in curiously and darts out of the frame.
He knew them too, so many summers back, so many
towns-with-a-square ago. His were different beaches,
some with bunkers that spoke of an even older time,
all with the rippling seas grass, as if people leaned
against a cordon, waving to their favorite movie stars
who stepped from limousines, faultless in tuxedos
and furs, and made their way to the premiere.
She speaks in a low, conclusive voice across the table,
opens a fresh pack of cigarettes and selects one
from the back row of the pack, like a magician
choosing a helper from the back of the nightclub.
There are no more birds now, and the window frames
her head, the new hair not as glamorous as the old.
Then there is the whisky, which has been sitting on the floor
by her chair, named after a man, himself silhouetted
on the label. She speaks of the first husband, now dead,
how he had squirreled away boxes of porn, even
as he descended into Hades with his memory wronged
by the ghouls sent to pick through his remains.
Pity rises in his mind, though he knows it doesn't belong there.
She pushes the cigarette pack in his direction,
but he only remembers, for a moment, his father hunched
and terminal, and then all those other men
who fought so bravely when the war crashed ashore.
They are small figures now, punctuation marks that guide
the mind across its terrain. He knows the girls
on her beach; they too wish to be accorded a name,
but he can't come up with any. He may have slept with a few
once, but birdsong leaves everything winsome and vague.
She means to say there is greatness abounding
in small amounts, blowing smoke that the screen catches
and directs outside. His pity is abstract to her,
like a ceremony where presence is a placeholder, when men
in suits stand silently by women in dark gowns,
having discharged the obligations of the outside
to the inner force that drives the bridegroom to unite
with the sailor. But she is a friend to such sacrifices,
and she deserves the bottle at her foot, the whisky
she sips from a cup, as though it were the King of Thebes
who offered up a toast, lest the war be forgotten,
lest it be turned over to the bird, still audible
above the angry traffic, the horns, and the jackhammer.
David Rigsbee's instantly accessible narratives burn brightly. Along the way he forges out a voice that knows what Mishima knew, explains it all like Auden.
How good is that.
ABOUT THE AUTHORDavid Rigsbee is the author of 21 books and chapbooks, including seven previous full-length collections of poems. In addition to his poems, he has also published critical works on Carolyn Kizer and Joseph Brodsky, whom he also translated. He has co-edited two anthologies, including Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry, a “notable book” selection of the American Library Association and the American Association of University Professors and featured on C-Span Booknotes. His work has appeared in AGNI, The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, The Ohio Review, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review, and many others. He has been recipient of two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a NEH summer fellowship to the American Academy in Rome. His other awards include The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown fellowship, The Virginia Commission on the Arts literary fellowship, The Djerassi Foundation and Jentel Foundation residencies, and an Award from the Academy of American Poets. Winner of a 2012 Pushcart Prize, the Vachel Lindsay Poetry Award and the Pound Prize, he was also 2010 winner of the Sam Ragan Award for contribution to the arts in North Carolina. Rigsbee is currently contributing editor for The Cortland Review.
BLURBS"Another name for this book could be The Museum of Life As We Know It Today. From public figures like Mishima and Nixon, from musicians like Frankie Avalon and Roy Orbison, as well as the Cure and the Everly Brothers, Rigsbeewalks us through our past and present even as he points us toward the future. The world that awaits will be a beautiful one as long as it contains poets and poems like these."
"For decades now, David Rigsbee has crafted poems of a bracing lyrical intensity that is both refined and tough-minded. His new collection shows him working at the height of his considerable powers: these are poems of heartfelt retrospection and surprising associations. Above all, they celebrate the blessings and consolations of a cultured life, one that can honor Auden and Roy Orbison, Faust and one-hit Doo Wop groups. These elegant and lovingly constructed poems deserve to be read and—more importantly—reread."
Reading for The Cortland Review
Video: Cortland Review
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