Review of The Red Tower: New & Selected Poems
by David Rigsbee
NewSouth Books, 2010, $24.95, 192 pages
Like countless others, Thoreau, for example, or Camus or Whitehead or Sinatra, I have been haunted most of my life by a single question. Stephen Dobyns put this question into words in perhaps his best known poem, “How to Like It.” David Rigsbee, in his new collection of poems, The Red Tower, has an answer to that question. In his opening poem, “Harp,” he concludes, “Pointless speculation, and yet / / that is what I did with my life.” Granted, “pointless speculation,” may not sound like much, but one shouldn’t judge that summation of human existence and endeavor too harshly. After all, with the exception of that special certainty granted by what we call faith (others might say imagination or fantasy or denial), as far as we can ever know, all of our efforts to explain and understand the nature or meaning of life are ultimately speculative, and lacking the truth that is necessary to make one’s efforts truly meaningful and purposeful, they must be deemed in all likelihood pointless as well. More importantly, however, the answer to the question, “How do we like it,” that Rigsbee provides in The Red Tower is that we embrace the uncertainty of our existence, and all that entails, in other words, that we try.
Such uncertainty is a frequent source of frustration, sometimes even depression or desperation, but it is always also a source of possibility and purpose. I think of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and how any attempt to determine the nature of the road Frost is suggesting one should take is frustrated by the poem’s embrace of uncertainty, leaving one with the conclusion that Frost’s real point is not which road one should take but only that it is one’s willingness to choose a road and pursue it that makes “all the difference.” In other words, it matters most that one is willing to try. Rigsbee’s poems in The Red Tower have a similar undercurrent. He recognizes that his answer to the question is an embrace of uncertainty, which creates possibility, and each of the poems in this book clarifies how one pursues possibility, what one might encounter in that pursuit, and what consequence might occur along the way. The first clarification comes in his second poem, “After Reading,” where he declares, “Purity is a curse . . . / It better fits / to turn away from the shore / in favor of the garbage and the grief.”
The next clarification comes in his third poem, the book’s title poem, “The Red Tower,” where he attempts to discover meaning out of his brother’s death, finding instead no transcendent answers. He declares that “Yeats was wrong when he wrote / that God talked to those long dead,” and adds, “Even if / God talked to the dead, what could / He possibly say to them?” This is not the first time anyone has asked this question, and Rigsbee makes clear that it shouldn’t be the last. If God is to have any real meaning to humanity, then this question needs to be asked repeatedly and persistently. The doubt expressed in those lines is repeated in the next poem, “The Apartment,” as well, where he tells us that “Saints were said to emerge from their cells / and pause, before going forth out of the spirit, / in their rope belts, into the stony forests.” If even saints pause between the realms of the spiritual and the physical, between life and death, then how could the rest of us expect any certainty, any correctness, any purity in our choices?
The four poems mentioned thus far are all from Rigsbee’s new poems, so it’s not surprising, perhaps, that the subject matter and attitudes they express are similar. It is most interesting to note, however, that the same perspective exists in the selected poems from his seven previous collections as well. My favorite of his expressions of this embrace of uncertainty comes from “The Stone House,” a poem in memoriam of Edmund Wilson, whose very life embodied the necessary dialectic between ontology and epistemology, what one might call the balancing act of being human. Rigsbee proclaims:
Wanted: a sky-blue life,
wild valleys brought to heel
by threshers and the queer tame men
walking the swath of a glacier.
Wanted too, a meaning for these footsteps,
these crawfish on the stone ledge, crawling
back to the river, and the tiny water-shrew
there, particular and bashful.
We want both to be and to make meaning out of or discover meaning within being. Embracing this balancing act and the effort necessary to persistently create meaning from it is also central to another of my favorite of Rigsbee’s older poems, “Equinox.”
It is the equinox, and today I feel
the thrall that reconciles the animal
and the hole, cloud and lake, the sexes.
The ticking at the window grows . . .
but in the kitchen the summer flies still swirl.
I hunt them all, as if nothing
should learn to expect the impossible.
Negative eloquence . . . /
is why the fire saves nothing, discards nothing.
Rigsbee stresses appreciation of the difference between life, which is clearly eternal, and individual life, which is decidedly not. He also stresses the necessary duality of living and being aware of living, being in the moment and aware of being in the moment.
Finally, in “Caught in the Rain,” another of Rigsbee’s best early poems we hear the same message in perhaps his clearest words as he contemplates the freshness of world metaphorically washed clean of loss, regret, the ever-present past by rain:
It will be
like falling in love again
to feel the sky-chilled rain
wanting to press my shirt
into the likeness of my body
until I am the submissive one,
part bird, part worm, part of
what is without reason . . .
knowing only the present tense.
Throughout his decades-long work, Rigsbee has encouraged us to live better, to make life better, by embracing the present tense, by submitting to an understanding that each of us is only a moment, by embodying Keats’ idea of negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any [or at least too much] irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is lesson that will do us all good and that we need to be reminded of regularly.