In this volume of thoughtful, reflective, lyric-narrative poems, David Rigsbee's deep psychic engagement with perception, memory, culture, and the politics of human interaction, in all their expansiveness and limitation, is on full display. The poet's sensibility—guided by compassionate reflection and seared by loss—discovers its way forward through the inland waterways of memory to reach for difficult epiphanies. Lyric immediacy alternates with reflective expansiveness and melancholy, and with economy of diction and startling appositions of image and interrogative, Rigsbee breaks open the factual planes—the faits accomplis of events, of names and dates—to re-construe the connections between them. There are poems here that recount, in sinuously rendered anecdote, the scene-stealing exploits of operatically melodramatic poetic mentors ("Shum"); the unwitting cruelties of politically conservative relatives blind to their own presumptions of entitlement ("School of the Americas"); and the egotists of all stripes whom the poet has encountered across the decades ("Heresies of Self-Love," which opens with this bombshell: "I have known more narcissists / than is healthy for a man my age").
Rigsbee's gift for dramatizing the moment of insight along the lyric-narrative spectrum draws us always toward the human, particularly as it refracts through the literary, as in the Pushcart Prize-winning poem, "Russians": the "frenzies [that] have passed into something like the memory / of a good novel." But unlike the larger-than-life characters in nineteenth-century Russian novels, whose melodramatic and often self-destructive gestures can remind readers (ruefully!) of youthful excesses that most of us have thankfully survived, Rigsbee is a poet willing to "face the vivid memory / of errors committed when the face was hot." Schooled both by deep reading and intense living, Rigsbee's capacity for self-awareness and reflection is one of the great pleasures of this book.
The probing humanity of the speaker’s voice holds readers in willing suspension to receive nuanced aesthetic allusions as well as psychic jolts—which, in this case, enact the shock and anguish of Rigsbee’s younger brother's suicide—a theme that resonates throughout the poet’s more recent work. In "The Slug," for example, while the police go about "discovering other evidence," the poet holds the "eerie dispatch" of the brother’s suicide note up to a mirror and "[reads] it like Leonardo’s journals." Only when the body is moved is the missing bullet located underneath it, and then the cops crowd "around the slug / like miners around the Hope Diamond, / for whom . . . there / was no profit to be had from finding / such a conspicuous, untradeable treasure." The juxtaposition of references to priceless artistic legacies and the heartless, futile particulars of the brother’s demise underscores the poet's own raw emotions in the face of such a loss. The raw, direct gaze, bolstered by the metaphorical apparatus of literary references, creates the strategy that permits Rigsbee to respond in poetry to the psychic chaos and devastation of his brother's death.
The poet's intellect, moving over the face of psychic depths, makes connections with history, with literature and philosophy, but never forgets the human figures (and their inherent pathos) who have engaged his imagination, empathy, and love. In "Gil's Sentence," for example, the poet in his youth reads aloud his "serious, inadequate verse" to a graduate poetry workshop's competitively "assassinating queries" and "bitchy conjurations" determined to "out-Plath Plath." But as he is being verbally savaged by his peers, an imposing but heretofore silent and seemingly marginal classmate rises to defend him. This defender's marginality is partly due to the fact that he is Gil Scott-Heron, African American musician and performance poet, best known for his 1971 recording of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Scott-Heron's musical career flourished in the 1970s—thus he was already an established, though troubled, countercultural icon when the events recollected in this poem took place. His sentencing for drug offenses, a couple of decades after this classroom encounter, generated the occasion for the poem and the double entendre of its title.
But in the narrative present of the poem, Scott-Heron comes across as the older student with a life and perspective far beyond the classroom, who rises to his feet to pronounce his disdain for the petty quibbles of student poets: "Intention is / the moon I follow," he proclaims. He continues to exert his distinctiveness after the workshop, when the grateful younger poet Rigsbee sees him in the apartment building elevator and tries "to ingratiate himself." But this was in an era "when justice / was poetic." What about decades later, when Scott-Heron is subject to another sentence, another kind of justice?
Employing politically-charged multiple entendres to enact this moment of human nexus and distance, Rigsbee portrays his aloof defender as a man who dwells "in his / other world with his band, his other means." The (seemingly) younger poet acknowledges this other world of streetwise music, hard living, and "menacing Afros with shades"; and (in a sly allusion to another of Scott-Heron's most provocative recordings, "Whitey on the Moon") Rigsbee honors the fact that this "large black man" has a very "different view of / that white moon out in the alley, / beyond my place, beyond where I got off."
Although a life of reading and reflection may seem, in our frenzied and distracted era, like a retreat, such a life—as experienced through the prism of this poet's sensibility—keeps us actively engaged with subtle internal transformations, apprehended with the most finely attuned of psychic antennae. These internal shifts mirror the human connections and ruptures in the external world: the manner in which, for example, in "Yes Way," the poet’s artist friend paints canvas after canvas in order to "bury / over and over" her selfish, domineering, deceased father, until the paintings’ storage racks "[groan] instead of the psyche." The shifting dynamics between human possibility and human limitation, psychic compensation and triumph over circumstance, interact here to limn the relationships between art and life—which for this poet are always close and always fraught with ambiguity. Meanwhile, subliminal images of the random and unforeseen serve as a sort of crawl at the bottom of the screen—the photogenic "President [who] goes nowhere / without the man carrying the football." Nevertheless, as with Rigsbee’s poetry through all of life’s vicissitudes, "the work / would go on, as it did, from there."
Carolyne Wright has published nine volumes of poetry, including Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire (2005), which won the Blue Lynx Prize and American Book Award; A Change of Maps (2006); and Mania Klepto: the Book of Eulene (2011). A poem of hers first published in TIR appeared in The Best American Poetry 2009 and in The Pushcart Prize XXXIV (2010).
School of the Americas
Pittsburgh: Black Lawrence Press, 2012
$14.00, paperback; ISBN: 978-1-58838-231-3