May 2010

David Rigsbee


David Rigsbee David Rigsbee is the author of three forthcoming collections: The Pilot House (chapbook) and School of the Americas, both from Black Lawrence Press and The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems from NewSouth Books. He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.
Never-Ending Birds by David Baker


Never-Ending Birds
by David Baker
112 pages
W.W. Norton, 2009

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The title reminded me to keep John Keats at the ready, as I opened and began reading David Baker's Never-Ending Birds, for his light-winged dryad and the destiny to which it beckons seems of the moment. Everyone knows the trade-off: you get something by going rogue on humanity, but you lose something too: the fret, the worry, and all that. And we have to be constantly reminded that it was the fret we loved: it sharpened consciousness. It was what made Stephen Crane, for all his bitterness, so much fun and gave us sibling lecteurs a kind of clownish dignity, tweaking the nose of the Universe. In David Baker's restatement of Keats' desire, per impossibile, for full-throated ease, his last minute psychological repentence, and icy conformity to what the Russians call the "byt," i.e. Fate's everyday wear, the stresses of an old formula for writing literary texts are redistributed to reveal an attraction to borders:

I hate the world.
I have come to the edge.

We don't know which line, from this opening to "Posthumous Man," to prefer: do we like the nature of assertion, even if the assertion is negative? Or do we opt for description, even though the brink to which it brings us carries nothing by way of promise? The border between the civilized and the wild is pretty clear in Keats. In Baker, the same distinction reveals that the border itself, like Arizona, is insufficiently policed. A coyote appears, the very image of the outlaw; then the dog, although "I hold the dog/ tight on his leash," spins off. That spinning off is both an illustrative action and a topic: that is, it's a "topos" traversed (and versed). Running away—with all its echoes of freedom, irresponsibility, chaos and renewal—is what Baker is about here:

trots off at precisely
one hundred and
eighty degrees from where
we emerged from
the wood, into the woods.

Where we're going is what we're about, after all. It's not the dog; rather, it's not only the dog, not the coyote, the woods dissolving in darkness; it's the fact that borders bring us always into the presence of change. Borders also nudge us into the recognition that brinksmanship, the teetering temptation at the edge, is as much to the point of human nature as we're likely to get without getting all Platonic (and what's wrong with that?):

Then come to an edge, where the world
meets the soul, and the soul knows once more
what it holds.

As Keats taught us, even if that change means that we are stripped of the trappings of the human—its poetry, for instance, its long chain of species memory—we can't help but hold it before us as it recedes into the next meadow. The Keatsian dog goes feral, and in a way that's more than we would do (who return to our "sole self."), without much dubious encouraging, and in the end it doesn't matter that dog and coyote have erased the difference between them:

He's loping.
Now he's running through the field towards the woods.
By the time he is halfway he is gone.

I'm moved by Baker's intertextual riffing between the oblivion-bound Keats and the speaker on his walk, by the sense that tracking—by which the addition of canines supersedes Keats' now-ageing, totemic fixation on birds—is also a haunting, a site where revenants are as real as bodies. Moreover, rather than let the soul of his poem be pulled toward an aesthetic star, Baker has us to understand that metamorphosis is first and foremost violence. Whether the change is worth the violence that accompanies it is something neither the realist, nor the aesthetician can answer. That it is so, that it bears acknowledging and has borne it for centuries of thought and feeling, I take to be a kind of tacit yes. Starting with Keats you wind up with Beckett, but then Beckett was a comedian, if for no other reason than he wrote for clowns whose bitter laughter answers the byt and oblivion alike. Nor did I fail to notice that the two poems preceding "Posthumous Man" (the very title sounds like an epoch), features the poet packing a machete, cutting his way from the nonsense of nature's "clutch" of "hair stuff" to the poetic sense of things laid by: "You knew all along, didn't you?" he says to himself.

In "The Rumor," the dismembered body of a deer, hauled up a tree by a mountain lion, lies scattered now in irrelevant, bloody particulars beneath a new tree of life, but as the monitoring eye and mind move along, this natural violence, cruel in its casual determination, becomes a hunger that is itself fed. Then, in the imagination's processor, it becomes generalized, a hunger itself desired in its full paradoxical formula: the lack equals the hunger, which is an incompleteness. Yet satisfying the hunger can only be pursued by more separation. Hence is it that we arrive at the fruitful paradox: oneness-in-separation. Here is the end of "The Rumor":

the lover's tree
Then the body fell, at
least in little pieces,
all around the trunk,
spattered, strews—
aureole of deer guts, bitten
skin, bone. The rest went
on again,
in the body of the beast.
And so—we hear—the lovers
do this, too.

It's a fine formula that Baker hints at throughout Never-Ending Birds and that explains, in a sense, why the birds are everlasting. In the sequence of things, the lack precedes the change, " the twisting rough chaotic thing we crave, "as she puts it in "Like the Dewclaw." It's what comes in and organizes all the seemingly random components of the biosphere. Finding the tropes for this Darwinian muss es sein, at the DNA level (so to speak) and acknowledging its force without dread amounts to a kind of praise—neither faint, nor cheesy. It is a fit subject for the pen of any serious poet, and I'm glad to see Baker working its emanations, pathways, entailments, and implications. Never-Ending Birds has a cumulative force, and the poet's fascination with the evidence of his own paradox invites the participation of readers, who, like birds, are theoretically endless.

"Horse Madness," the poets tells us, "means fury; means heat." Baker references the ox-born bees of Virgil, whose success as honey-producers is predicated on a particularly cruel sacrificial ritual:

I look at you
and find—what? Mythology,
song. Thus slaughter begins,
among the bullocks,
when bees are lost
and must be raised again.
The nose is stopped
(who devised an art
like this? and the body
beat until its innards fall.
Then—with marjoram—
a ferment. Then the offal
seeds with bees, and up
they may be gathered.
Meaning madness
is its own mythology.

In spite of the violence of this "seeding," it's the spectatorial nature that poetic description shares with the "spring-wild" horses that is really at issue:

The eyes go everywhere.
The eyes are orbital, animal;
they reflect both worlds.

In reflecting "both worlds," Baker underscores the sense that narratives proliferate and mythologies open themselves to multiple interpretations to the point that, not only does veracity itself come under fire, but the spectator can't be sure of a firm footing from which to see. Loose footing notwithstanding, seeing is here a type of tracking and tracking, in turn, a form of mapping, of description, by which the world becomes—in theory—intelligible. Yet in "Ditches for the Poor," Baker avers,

Language is, in itself,
skepticism, writes Levinas.

And it may be that attribution, the use of expert witness, is as close to authoritative utterance as we are likely to get. If so, then poetry is less a matter of establishing the basis of true statements and intelligible descriptions, than of faith. Baker is at heart a realist, in the sense that, while he may find his own descriptions problematic, they map states of the world (and of the imaginations's imagistic and formal rendering of that world) well enough. So to find the skeptic lurking in one of his poems bespeaks a hard-won acceptance of poetry as a kind of linguistic pragmatism. No doubt that wasn't his original intention, but it wasn't Keats' either.

The way a Baker poem moves down the page, plowing short-line phrase-terraces, reminds me of poetry's ability to reveal anxiety in the rushing mix of the ordinary. Stevens did it in "Domination of Black" and said it was what he feared. Stevens' anxiety was that strands tighten nothingness to make a rope, but for Baker, as for more recent practitioners of this kind of verse, the past and the present are compact. The self is no longer "my sole self" but distributed like the words, tethered to other soils, briefly convergent in the poem, then subsumed by the whatever of the after-poem, by the unintended consequences of soul-making (to bring us back to Keats). Brodsky said that all that was left in the ensuring silence was literary criticism, hinting moreover that the ensuring silence was literary criticism. But in the domain of Darwin, which is our world, the silence at the center is just the poet's eye in quiet surveillance, when in fact all poems are surrounded by the cacophony, not only of other words, but of other noises, for which birds make a suitable emblem transitioning us between intelligible and unintelligible noise. This is a book whose often ventilated-looking poems acquire a weight in excess of the sum of parts. Yes, they deal with nature, but David Baker is no Mary Oliver. The benign is a construct, but so is the poem. Meanwhile, it's a jungle out there, and the machete is its own kind of writing. If the animals could talk they would probably say the same about fangs and claws. On the other hand, as Wittgenstein said, even if the lion could talk we wouldn't' be able to understand it. And that is why we need serious poets like Baker.




David Rigsbee: Book Review
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