Joining the Conversation
A Review of David Rigsbee’s The Pilot House (Black Lawrence, 2011)
If you read enough poetry you come to realize that most, if not all, poets are involved in a dialogue that enriches each poem. Sometimes the involvement is a conscious one. You read a poem, put the book down and begin one of your own related to what you just read. Sometimes it is unconscious. Without realizing it, you carry a bit of a poem around in your head for weeks, months, years, and then write what you think is singularly yours, but others may recognize the relation to Whitman, Williams, Neruda. And sometimes it is something even less than (or perhaps more than) unconscious. You write from “something in the air,” out of the time, the world, in which you exist intellectually, emotionally, or physically. You respond unconsciously to a moment that other poets have likewise responded to or are simultaneously responding to. In that process a number of poets separately create a dialogue that is further joined by every reader who in their turn puts words to paper.
When I picked up David Rigsbee’s new book of poems, The Pilot House, and read the first poem, “After Reading,” I felt as if he and I must be writing from much the same experience, as if he had joined a lengthy, ongoing debate I was involved in and had been writing about for some time. The crux of that debate is summarized in Rigsbee’s brilliant opening lines:
I put down the book thinking
how purity is a curse, how it
puts us off the human
for whom it better fits
to turn away from the shore
in favor of the garbage and the grief.
To turn away from the safe, secure “shore” of “purity” and wade or swim into “the garbage and the grief” of human existence is indeed an unnerving venture, one that demands courage and unblinking honesty, but Rigsbee achieves this undertaking with admirable aplomb and sensitivity by using the familiar as a touchstone for the more disturbing. Thus, each poem resonates with previously unconsidered connections: Cary Grant hanging from Lincoln’s Mt. Rushmore nose and transcendence; Latin poetry and the mutability of what passes as even basic human knowledge; yoga and the inevitable passing of every human endeavor.
These are not poems to be taken or undertaken lightly. A brother’s suicide, a friend’s mastectomy, contemplations of one’s own mortality, a father’s death from cancer and the manic, last-minute struggle for his soul that precedes it, these are poems that readily admit the seriousness of life, and that look unflinchingly into the faces of fear, uncertainty, loss and hope all the while refusing the easy sedative of oversimplified explanations like faith, chance, or biology. These are poems that insist we examine the whole human experience, the good, the bad, the illimitably ineffable, and the hopeless and hopeful ways in which we react to it and try to create meaning from it.