August 2007

David Rigsbee


David Rigsbee David Rigsbee is the author of five collections, including The Dissolving Island (BkMk Press, 2003). His The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems will be published by NewSouth Books in the spring of 2008. The new volumes Cloud Journal: Two Sequences and Two Estates will be published in 2008 and 2009, respectively. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Southern Review among many others.
A New Hunger: A Book Review


A New Hunger
by Laure-Anne Bosselaar
69 pages
Ausable Press, 2007

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It is no unkindness to say that irony is the compliment poetry pays to history. When the impulse to sincerity is pickled in experience, it becomes ripe for equivocations, puns, rhymes: all devices of ambivalence. A New Hunger, Laure-Anne Bosselaar's third collection, gets under way with the long-ago family catastrophe readers will recall from her first English collection, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: her banishment, as a young girl, to a nunnery. That parents connived in such an irresponsible deed is something that has been the object of a life's contemplation. It is not entirely unlike the situation of political writers who find the tragic suddenly fallen within their grasps long before the maturation dates that await all. Thanks to swift injustice, careers are unlocked, enabled.

The poet of A New Hunger tracks the continual aftershocks of that seismic event in brimming speech ("you went about your life without me"), ambivalent recollections ("that is all he needs—to remember the same"), and plain old double entendres:

that's what I sold my mother's
bed for. The one she died in. Sold it
for a song.
                                                   ("Garage Sale")

Yet her intelligence is such that she is in fact ambivalent about ambivalence, conflicted about multivalence, and hesitant about repetition, so often outed as mere sameness. After all, love makes us rethink the drag of duplications, for the acts of love are, more often than not, acts of repetition. To step away from love's rituals is to become, in a sense, a willing participant in time, which, like a mighty river, swirls into history. Yet, just as the impulse to tame the clock doesn't stop, neither does the act of making poems. Considering that painstaking craft invites the very pain it seeks to control, Bosselaar registers the distance between her abandonment and the present with consistency and patience. Hers is a wound that figures in the gap between Europe and the U.S. At the same time, way more time passes than does space, but since neither is finite, this passing is like a great treasury expenditure, not something petty, not easily dispensed.

The 14-page opening poem, "Against Again," is a backwards-looking memoir, in places reminiscent of the open-ended journalings of Charles Wright, but as willing to ride on the back of narrative moments as lyric ones. There are no under-clued surmises here, but queries of origin that grow less solicitous over the course of the collection. The narrative marches even-shouldered with the lyric, often overtaking it. Finding a sustaining love is like locating a narrative, an unfolding where ironies are subject to supervision, if not control.

A Proustian, Bosselaar keys on smells and tastes: "The only thing that clung to me was her perfume/ the first time she left me at a nunnery." Food is highly allusive. The atmospheric change from Chanel to cabbage provides the equivalent of a Fall, and the journey from swallowing to digestion becomes a grim, ironic pilgrimage. The European's preferences also run to trains—trains and buses, not cars. "Against Again" begins not at the nunnery, but on a New Jersey commuter train, on which she is aware of a man whose presence offers "transitory intimacy"—a thought not easy to defer or dispel. Indeed, it raises the question: can adult relationships replace what the parents took away? It's a question that trails many of the poems in this book. Working the Old World/New World contrast, she puts us in mind of an older (and therefore literary) mindset that poets of my generation—with notable exceptions—had moved away from. (And forget that we benefited from the Emersonian bargain, whereby what we lose in time's depths we gain in driving around space's exterior vastness.)

The feeling of sumptuous attention of Bosselaar's poems derives in part from this familiarity with discarded perspectives that for her calls up a non-disposable world accessible at all points as literature. This is what Robert Calasso speaks of when he writes of the gods that go into hiding in poems. And yet, the presence of the Old world and the old gods does more than haunt the contents of Bosselaar's poems. It is, in Linda Gregg's great phrase, "like being alive twice" to be able to ride the Jersey trains and speak of wimpled nuns, linden tea, and "barrenness." For her, riding and reading ("I don't open the book I hold in my lap: I'm reading faces/ around me"), the face and "facing" register as both reading and, later, "counting").

Not surprisingly, children prompt her attention and wake the ombudsman within, to say nothing of the present mother and forsaken child. Thus she moves from casually observing children to the thought of her mother. The move is both cinematic and, once reset, memoiristic. The mother's curls are "seductively set," a snare. The nun's faces, by dour contrast, are "without curls." "I spent my childhood clinging to an image of her face." This admission piles disillusionment on top of abandonment, and at a moment when "illusions" are favored because they "serve" (just as, ironically, handkerchiefs are one of the few personal items permitted by the good sisters because they also "serve").

As for the child, its value is that it stands to be fully vested—a presupposition her own parents denied in orphaning her. So in extending this status to other children, she does so to herself, retroactively, in acts of tentative (at first) and thoughtful (later) self-investment. It is auto-restitution, late justice, and Keatsian poetic healing all in one. Questions remain. Would one really want the work of a life, an artistic work, to be set in light of such abandonment? Presumably not, but the stone that troubles the living stream also bends the water, giving access to its deeps. The Sibyl's voice is indistinguishable from that of the inner girl. The small child's presence puts us in mind of the pressures under which innocence operates:

all she can see are legs. For her,

this train is packed with pants, belts, zippers, and

and look at her face: already courageous, defeated,
and old with it.

We are reminded here of Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," a poem about discovering that the very self is one of them. In a larger sense, it is about belonging and finding one's place in a world become Dickensian by virtue of denying us more conventional ways and means. Something of Miss Bishop's sensibility also haunts these poems in their questioning of origins (home), their Jack-and-the-Beanstalk kids among adult knees and in the bravado, the reverse of the lament, of losing. Although Antwerp's streetcars become New York's and New Jersey's commuter trains, the title itself ("Against Again") indicates both against one more time and against repetition itself.

Cycling through narcissistic parental indifference, the poem moves to the default mercy of nuns: "The only thing that clung to me was her perfume/ the first time she left me at a nunnery." When this admission sounds, it's clear we're not on home turf anymore, what with the "thick-soled sandals," the beatings on the backs of heads ("they didn't leave bruises"). Although

Nun's faces replaced mother's: thickset in wimples
so tight the wrinkles and jowls were pushed forward 
like the skin of old fruit—
she survives in the wool-gathering of time and the crooked halo of memory:
some nights, I kissed myself in a mirror. I swear,
once, the mirror breathed Chanel No. 5
back into my mouth.

It's curious that Bosselaar figures identity by way of first taste and smell, then of swallowing, which is to say ingestion and incorporation, parodies of the Catholic's transubstantiation of the Host. The nuns' cuisine ("Boiled fish and rutabaga. Stewed horsemeat.") provides the fare, but it's by swallowing that we get to the reality principle: you swallow, even incorporate, even perhaps transubstantiate, but you are not nourished. The fact is foreshadowed by the "sixty four/ pairs of ravenous eyes" that greet her at her first arrival.

"She was beautiful, violently beautiful and blonde," she remarks with great distance, greater injured love at this narcissistic diva. Ironically, her mother's laughter is remembered as "a child's." A moment of accidental awkwardness has the effect of canceling the mother's decorum and of foreshadowing the child's own future career:

and hours later, I had spilled ink on her rug.


And it comes back to me: how adoringly I'd

in sync with her—

the few times she held me.

The complicity of the priests and nuns with the mother (and father) extends to the regard for their apparel: "Mother wore a Brussels lace veil and elbow-length gloves/ closed by long rows of tiny black pearls like glimmering rosaries." The mother's emphasis on decorum and refinement is echoed by the father's indifference: cologne and Chesterfields are more his style. When they send postcards from distant places, they don't bother to write a message, just signing,

with only Father's four, spiked, green-inked letters
"Papa" under her blue "Maman"—

At her father's funeral, the mother whispers how adoringly the priest's alb had been embroidered, how delicately refined it was.

Following the episode of the spilled ink, the poet mills the year through its mitigations: charity work ("knitting socks/ for prisoners and the poor"), outdoor laundry and the intimation of some great cleansing. At this point—summer—the poet returns us (or rather, we are pitched back) to the train, the man still sitting next to her:

                                                      and I suddenly
long for that hand, yet just as suddenly need it to
to flip back, palm down, and stop being so intimately

open there, vulnerable and foreign.

The desire for "transitory intimacy" to reassert itself is interrupted by the present, for this moment carries with it all of of travel's instability, even a degree of vagrancy. At the same time, in coming back to the present, a contradiction looms, as the transitory and intimate are naturally opposed too ("I'm sick of this train, the fleeting faces"). The lack of sustained intimacy has elevated the transitory variety beyond its value—so she recoils in protest to her own emotional pragmatism in countenancing such an "unavailable" intimacy in the first place. The poems ends with the equivocations of desire:

A transitory nearness,
a transit story.

And always this hunger,
an exhausted longing—

the wait and the weight.

One of the great questions for poets is precisely how can we forgive our parents? It was a key question for poets of the previous generation (Schwartz, Lowell, Plath, Kunitz, Roethke). Must one somehow accept their neglect as a kind of negative empowerment, something like the family version of a negative theology?

The middle piece to A New Hunger is a crown of sonnets ("The River's Mouth, the Boat, the Undertow"), the mirroring form of which connects the child's truth (the suddenness and finality of loss) with the adult version, which, unlike the child's, gives way to rationalization.

Each sonnet is both mirrored within (tercet-quartet mirroring tercet-quartet—often taking the form of before/after, proposition/fact) and linked without, the last line providing the first of the succeeding poem. The linkages are therefore associational: a blizzard leads to a lover dead in a skiing accident, the sounds of birds to actual birds, clouds to les merveilleux nuages of Baudelaire, and from there to a series of poems on poets and writers: Baudelaire, Crane, Lorca, Gide, Goethe. And as the garland is traditionally circular, this one begins and ends with the phrase "letting go." Considering the instances of clinging in the preceding narrative of "Against Again," letting go is indeed the imperative that hangs over the whole collection. Whether it can be accomplished is another matter. There is some reason to believe that there is progress not in letting go but in the ambivalence that such an imperative creates and that is represented by the divergent aims of the first two sections. At least we don't succumb to the lure of false "closure" (a notion that finally seems to be reaching the status of a cliché).

The first sonnet concerns losing (a balloon). Readers will be reminded of Bishop's "One Art" in these lines:

Too soon you're the one saying: It's only a glove,
dog, lover or job—as you move on, just one of the
bending over another job, dog, love. But the balloon:
how suddenly it was gone.

Loss is in some sense a vagueness placed on fact, a lack of specificity, in need of correction. Thus we learn "The Czechs have a word . . . for what hurts exactly ('litost')." In a moment of deflationary candor she muses, "Would a word make such pain more tolerable?/ As if language could help." But it is after all one of the broad premises of A New Hunger, that poetry helps control pain. Allen Grossman says it contributes to the management of violence, which is to leverage a new proposition out of an old. Bosselaar's version stands with the older perspective.

Standing in the shade of these big production pieces, the third section of lyric and occasional poems might seem slight, but chalk that up to the power of contrast. With their humbler scale, these poems, some formally inclined, work their way through the needful particulars with commendable understatement and graceful implication. Picking up what we might call the carryover value of Bosselaar's aesthetic—the strength derived from the wound—we find ourselves immediately in familiar, if wistful, territory. "Stillbirth" finds the speaker overhearing—and turning as if in answer to—the name of an unborn child ("I was told not to look"). In "Elegy," she recalls the special gap that figures her exile where, "crossing a summer meadow in Belgium . . . I found nothing there I wanted to bring back." The forced incorporation of the central poem "Swallowing" picks up a thread begun in Against Again:

          Swallow that, the mother orders, swallow that
now. Child begging, don't leave again, don't go.

            And the mother: Swallow that.

From swallowing she proceeds to swallowing's inverse: singing.

                       Sing child. Sing louder.

            And the child does. Becomes good at it.

Bellows hymns, swallows more. . . .

That singing and poetry come from the place of forced hosannas is but one of the ironies this poem is meant to underscore. The don't-leave-me theme that is her starting point becomes but tinny bathos in the "torch songs . . . blasted on "the radio . . . deaf now to sirens," yet this theme that sits at the source of her song finds over the years that it is in no position to emphasize its own exceptionalism. The plea not to be left behind (she references Jacques Brel's "ne me quitte pas" in "The River's Mouth, the Boat, the Undertow") is cancelled out of existential exhaustion.

The trenchant "Garage Sale" examines another facet of poetic origins related to "Swallowing." Here the suspicion that the mother's bed was a sexual, specifically, luxurious one—for which the poet/child was abandoned—finds the poet engaging in lyric payback. Poetry is, after all, a song—with a pun on the idea of both a saving song and of a worthless one (by the bye smuggling in a swipe at commodity thinking). Beyond these, the song is one "of yearning like an orphan," who is rewarded, if she is rewarded, in exchange for her music. The book as a whole is suffused with an orphan's yearning, which is both powerful, aggrieved, and inexplicable.

A place of dissolution and transmutation, combining her chief metaphors is the theme of "On a Bench by the Hudson." Far from succumbing to the spectator's passivity, this poet finds her objective correlative ("my pulse a swirl"), which is both her transformed experience and the image of "my journey away from my country." It even, in its sweeping abandon, carries her into the perilous present, as we recall that part of Ground Zero, presumably within eyesight of this, was bounded and held by the Hudson. As illuminations go, this is supreme: that smallness, evanescence, ambivalence warring with affirmation, that understanding of the lacrimae rerum, is present in the taste of "sweet salt." Such a Wilburian moment, always the realist's desideratum, exists in subjectivity as well as in nature, but it is seldom that one can corner its mercury, but the phrase "that wide-hipped mother of a river" from the next poem shows the poet closing in.

Forced praise gives way to real praise in "Awe," a poem whose title will remind some of Emerson's teaching that the disposition to awe ("surprise") was the American trope par excellence. In "The River's Mouth, the Boat, the Undertow," she had reminded us that what we fear most is "not death, but to lose wonder". The capacity for awe is thus generative, another version of the capacity for self-renewal:

rocking I loved in the Scheldt river
a half centry ago

           —how I needed that river too—

already then longing to be taken away,
taken along, yearning for

a mother, a place, anything to belong to

Again, Bosselaar locates desire with belonging, which also entails recognition, much in the way that Bishop does in sober affirmation, but lightly edged with cautions.

In "Night," she has moved many spaces beyond the events that make up her life and, mutatis mutandis, her career. Poised in the darkness, the questions come down to the one we always present to the darkness: What are you? While this night brings on its ritual solemnities, its sounds and memories, her own prayer for her children contains the directive to "Wrap a wing around the orphan."




David Rigsbee: Book Review
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