May 2008

David Rigsbee


David Rigsbee David Rigsbee is the author of six collections, most recently Cloud Journal (Turning Point, 2008). His The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems will be published in the fall by NewSouth Books.
VQR Poetry Series: A Book Review


by Kevin McFadden
112 pages
University of Georgia Press, 2008

TCR Bookstore Price: $13.95
Buy this book through our bookstore and support
The Cortland Review.

by Patrick Phillips
72 pages
University of Georgia Press, 2008

TCR Bookstore Price: $12.71
Buy this book through our bookstore and support
The Cortland Review.

Field Folly Snow
by Cecily Parks
96 pages
University of Georgia Press, 2008

TCR Bookstore Price: $11.53
Buy this book through our bookstore and support
The Cortland Review.

The History of Anonymity
by Jennifer Chang
82 pages
University of Georgia Press, 2008

TCR Bookstore Price: $11.86
Buy this book through our bookstore and support
The Cortland Review.

I think it was Alice who remarked on the information overload of "six impossible things before breakfast." Whether these were things pleasing or odious, I don't remember, but Kevin McFadden asserts that impossibility's bounty comes courtesy of words, and by way of demonstration, he offers Hardscrabble, one of the most extended and complex forays into wordplay poetics ever to worm, sew, and knot its way across 101 pages of text.

For a while there was a fear that the theory-fueled scrutiny trained on the non-metaphysical side of poems—i.e., their materiality, their homely is-ness—would dry up what remaining good will there was toward the art, especially after the diminishing returns on confessional and first-person subjective lyricism that finally exhausted tout le monde. Be that as it may, Joyceans, Poundians, and those who followed to the flutes of Kenner and Davenport knew that the "materiality" of words or "words alone," in Eliot's phrase, could still plow some fields once claimed by sensations, thoughts, prophecies, politics, all those things anterior and prior (or so it was thought) to the fact of words. For example, what's up with the pun? The anagram? Indeed, what's going on with rhyme and all the homologies and terms of recurrence with which words escape their loneliness and emerge, patterned with an ear cocked to the lexicon rather than the newspaper or the diary? Questions arose as old realities fell out of focus: does the pun's ambivalence pry anyone's fingers from their hold on the moral compass? Is there perhaps a further, comparable dimension down the rabbit hole of words that shift, that "will not stay in place"?

With disarming modesty against evident ambition, McFadden seems to subscribe to the Blakean notion that the fool persisting in his folly is bound to become wise. Of course no one with linguistic pockets as deep as his could begin a feat of his scope from a fool's starting blocks. But wait! That's only because this "fool" was never fool in the first place, foolishness being a matter of perspective ("Your ability to find the silly in the serious will take you far."). McFadden has, pace Jonathan Williams, turned the genteel poetic convention of nesting novelty poems among more serious siblings (or at least among poems that have taken the time to arm themselves against irony). He has written a whole, impressively fluent collection that avoids the pitfalls of standard sincerity and revelation, in favor of maximum wordplay, as though in the thickets of letters, paths will emerge—to the temple, I mean. An example:

I'm a rain. Let America be a cage;
I remain a gate, a Mecca. I blare
Niagara, I accelerate, maim, be
a beam, I emanate a grail, Circe
mirage. America, a neat cable I
tie in. America, a gala embrace.
Let America be America: a gain.
                 ("Meditate Sea to Sea")

Language is not dumb to its own felicities. You see here the glaring half-truth that it is language that writes us, with the poet as conductor, rather than creator, whose royalties are finder's fees. I always wondered whether we were seriously supposed to commiserate with Keats' fear that his name would not be among the English poets when he died. If language behaves as McFadden believes, then his own name's boost into any sort of literary orbit—although I hope otherwise—is moot, yet no matter. He seems to suggest as much,

Want a wild time? In Glasgow time was tame.
See the town? You had to hear the tune. New loans,
including my name: I began saying Cave-in
if I wanted the right introduction in a pub.
             ("Famed Cities, XII. Loan, Glasgow")

What's amazing about Hardscrabble is not just the unstoppable playfulness, but the fact that his tsunami of wordplay lends itself to architectural form beyond the word and its immediate neighborhood. This ample collection has legs in the form of longer poems (and prose poems). The longest two, "Famed Cities" and "It's Tarmac," indeed work in autobiographical narrative: the first takes up the poet's life itinerary, while the second riffs on a winter drive from Charlottesville to the poet's childhood home outside Cleveland. Hardscrabble will not satisfy your longing for emotional transport, but it will do something as divine: make you wish you could vacation in the bowels of a dictionary. Did not the old gods survive by taking refuge in letters?

Patrick Phillips' Boy, as the title hints, works within a generational register and is (while it is many other things as well) an immense gloss on two classic poems of generational overlay, transition, and reflective order: Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" and Donald Justice's "Men at Forty," which haunt Boy as antecedent poems. In fact, "Those Georgia Sundays" is an imitation, homage, and resetting of Hayden's well-known example of le mot juste in action, answering the key, "What did I know?" with a terse, "I knew damned well." What the poet knew was, "I heard death hiss / through those austere and lonely offices."

Like discovering death, playing with fire is a boy's perennial adventure, instant high, and eventual come-down. In "Revelation," the poet and a friend, "setting army men on fire," watch as

. . . the purple flames
leapt up his arm
and around his throat.

Here the poem turns on its title, one that finds Auden and Kunitz at once within its ken:

I saw things clearly
for the first time in my life:

the perfect sky
still perfect as he burned.

Patrick's poems, spare, terse, formally ventilated, have an adroit sense of timing. One of the volume's most memorable poems, "What Happens," works by retriggering its initial volta to accommodate a three-part format. Phillips sets up the poem with what will become a trolling assertion: "What happens here happens on its own." The first section recounts an auto accident ("My father's Pontiac began to slide"), during which Hendrix "would not stop wailing." In that moment between the precipitous event and the recognition of damage, he recalls,

spotlit figures clutching their knees
and sobbing in the grass

as Jimi shrieked and shrieked out of the past,
until finally I found the knob

I'd cranked in my euphoria, just before
the gods let loose their wrath.

The second section picks up the thread with "And sometimes what happens/ must happen more than once." Here the news of a friend's death, delivered while the speaker is camping, is bracketed away, until

. . . I was showered, shaved

and halfway down the mountain
when a twig snapped, and he died.

The final section begins, "And sometimes what happens doesn't even happen" and proceeds to its evidence in the wife's obstetrical nightmare:

. . . she pushed so hard
the screen flatlined.

So hard the heart stopped
and the whole room began

to flash and beep, like on tv.
Nurses streamed through doors

and in an instant we were childless.

This horrifying scene brings a moral revelation in its wake: "And it was then I knew for sure/ that nothing cares for us." But he later comes to recognize that this unflattering, Hemingway nada can also bestow arbitrary and impartial blessings:

. . . I've learned
to pretend I do not know

what can happen and unhappen
in no more time than it would take

an angel or a devil to descend into my wife
and pass through her into my son,

who was miraculously born into this world,
where everywhere and always

hearts are stopping for no reason.
And for no reason, starting up again.

The wonder that supports Justice's "Men at Forty" is situated not just on coming of age, but on the full and not-gradual realization of what it is to be a father, of having sired offspring, the hungry generations' next act. In "Untitled," Phillips describes that pure moment before one is saddled with a name ("your mother / was in no hurry"). In that briefest stage, before the responsibilities that attach to even the most innocent are affixed, it's possible to imagine a love so pure, so unencumbered, it doesn't know which route it's coming down,

She cooed and kissed
and cupped your throbbing skull,
and lingered.
until they brought the yellow form,
in that moment
when we could have called you anything.

When you were you,
and had no other name.

Elsewhere ("Our Situation") this same love is described as "reckless" and "naive"; it becomes a questionable proposition "to love a thing / so fragile and weak." Yet the sense is that the speaker pre-approves of his naiveté in the same way that we sanction any new love, though we know that both will become barnacled with conditions eventually and lose the freshness that was the boutonniere that graced our having started out. In "Kitchen," he imagines sprawling with his sister on the floor, overlaying his consciousness of time at the site of her Edenic innocence,

the same age and in
exactly the same mood

as my son, now, in this kitchen
where soon we will
have lived so long ago.

The boy of the title is a figure of beauty, perhaps the last convincing emanation of that goodness that began with the nameless infant. In any case, the assignment of goodness with beauty lines up an old aesthetic, by no means superseded or exhausted, that beauty is a reflection of the Good. The allegiance to this aesthetic in the face of more robust challenges is the subject of "Ars Poetica," which recounts the tale of the quartet playing as the Titanic sank,

a melody from Brahms—
not as a consolation

or a sympathy, or solace,
but because the violinist

didn't know what else
to cling to

In "A History of Twilight," the poet observes,

I lie back on a Star Wars pillow
and give the performance of my life:

playing the role of my father, reading
a bedtime story to my sons.

Phillips has given a lot of thought to the refractory ways we encounter, grow into and out of, our identities. If we shift among these, for example, do our actions become performances? And if you answer yes, how does this answer alter sincerity, devotion, and other big nouns where we stake our lives? The thought is another version of Yeats' stone troubling the living stream:

I laugh my father's laugh:
It has no other home.

The future is a myth.
And then it is a stone.

If this is so, then it is—strangely—the past that has stability. In Phillips' negative theology, the past is "heaven,"

It will be the past,
and we'll live there together.

Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.


It will be the past.
And it will last forever.

Cecily Parks is into the basic "gotcha" of surprise: "As I watched my dog roll inside the ribcage of a long-dead cow I thought of you. Your name escapes me, but please allow me to describe the cow . . . ("Letter to the Pistolsmith"). This inventiveness keeps poems going when their manifest occasions have receded into the (mostly western) landscapes they inhabit. "I Lost My Horse" begins,

I was looking for an animal, calf or lamb,
in the wire, metal and hair along the fence line.
Wire, metal and hair and there, in the gully, a man
I was pretending was dead.

And ends,

The man left before I could leave him, and I pretended
the world was afraid of me because I was alone.

Parks has no problem adverting to imagination's caprice. In the best lyrics, both the western pastoral contexts and her sheepdog tercets corral the strangeness into familiar forms. She is able to convey the push-pull between wild and compulsive registers, as Willa Cather loneliness and tactical self-control vie for memory and consciousness. "Miss Peecher's Rivers" is among the volume's most assured poems, rehearsing a spinster's stores, the quotidian inventory of domestic things that impose symbolic order and substitute meaning through feats of ritualistic control as the dust of boredom rises over life:

Pincushion, gingham, pins. A picket case
of rulers, nibs, and pens, Miss Peecher writes
slate-length essays in chalk that always end

at bottom right. She calls herself housewife,
meaning: catchall for cutlery, a vat
of tape, a sheaf of tables, numbers, measures

and trouser legs.

The absence of a man ("there is no husband") is but another fact transformed into her household wisdom:

. . . (A thimble weighs as much
as the stone it holds: a man's inseam will rarely
surpass the compass of his chest, a lady's


For Miss Peecher, her very name fructifies meager portions of meaning into a pattern where "light machinery—treadle / spindle / mangle . . . suffices." Her Linnaean domesticity also allows Miss Peecher a way into the world, rather than what it at first seems—a retreat: "Never has she been underwater. / It is a gown, she thinks, one cuts and enters." The beauty of such austerities, since they depend on accumulation over time—and hence a narrative, even a plot—customarily belongs to novelists, in this case those who chronicle the plains: Cather, Wright Morris, Marilyne Robinson. It's good to see a poet of Parks' talent submitting similar materials to the lyric's resources. As she says in "Trapline," "The landscape holds you in no clouded thrall/ but holds you nonetheless."

Landscapes are also on Jennifer Chang's mind in The History of Anonymity, as is Patrick Phillip's topos, childhood. Chang's poems are charged with competing voices, floating and shifting identities, and elliptical narratives. Chang has spoken in an interview of the draw that confusion has for her, as being more relevant to the perspectival nature of facts and identities. Whether one responds to the lure of confusion with appreciative wonder or reduces and dismisses the project as a species of the Fallacy of Imitative Form is less a matter subject to verities than to taste. But Chang's mentor is Charles Wright, and the latter's flattened journaling and drop-out lines are in evidence here too—and familiar to readers.

Chang's collection begins and ends with quasi-narratives, the eponymous "A History of Anonymity" and "A Move to Unction." Both poems allow for rolling ellipses, mentions standing in for history, and monologues doing double-duty as unsecured identities and numinous voiceovers:

                                            In The History
of Anonymity,
the glacier longs to be water,
and each granule of salt
begs a lesser atom.               We will know each other

the voice writes I am already
           in this afterworld.
   You will find me where the

I am two parts . . .

The act of journaling, of noting language within the day's scope, takes at face value something noted by Barbara Hernnstein Smith in Poetic Closure, namely, that lyric poetry manifests a deployment of words that mimics narrative's dynamic structure, but it does so, as it were, in the absence of narrative. Chang's poems recognize lyricism's more natural allegiance to what Helen Vendler calls the "cloud chamber" effect of poetry written with this degree of realism, which is to say, perspectivalism. Such poetry invites a different degree (if not of kind) of participation and collaboration than is specified by straight-up workshop lyric poetry. It's the kind of "participation" that language poets thought they were going to get before they "hummed the auditorium dead," in Lowell's phrase. Chang's invitation may indeed open participation in new ways, and I for one, would like to see it happen.

At the same time, there are the usual pitfalls for words as relational entities in a cloud chamber. Aside from abandoning the quest for a specious clarity, there is also the matter of the effects that attend the abandonment of that quest, such as the keying down of diction and grammatical muscle. Notice, for instance, how the static this-is-that of the following passage is enabled by the substitution of the verb to be for more dynamic options:

          . . . It is all wait
and wilt. In the ground,
     there is a secret to grief

which is only a door
with a face drawn on the threshold.
This is who stole Mother's spine
and splinter, leaving her

a morsel of dirt and a filthy hand
to raise at her children.
               (A Move to Unction: "In the night, I seek
a meaning before I sleep.")

Be that as it may, I am willing to trust the teller whose version of candor includes such encounters with anonymity, cloudiness, and discontinuity: I find it a more plausible assertion of realism than keyed-up lyricism. These meditations that touch on childhood wounds, loss, and looming spirits are finely wrought, even if the question of their uncertainty to ears raised on Frost and Bishop sometimes competes with their bright intelligence. Chang is a poet whose access to mysteries is something that will be worth waiting for in future poems.

Ted Genoways, editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The University of Georgia Press are to be commended for launching this handsome series. Each of these poets has ears tuned to matters of language to a sophisticated degree that was not the case when I was doing workshops back in the day. It would be nice to think that this collective sophistication is a sign that poetry is a progressive art after all. But whereas language comes forward now, I still remember the civil wars between enchantment and disenchantment, naively assuming that authenticity of purpose put poems out of the reach of any but aesthetic criticism. But who is to say where naive and sentimental poetry now makes its bowers, where enchantment's swells and dimenuendos are niggling, if at all, the stern Muse and her next darlings?



David Rigsbee: Book Review
Copyright ©2008 The Cortland Review Issue 39The Cortland Review