David Rigsbee – Down Before I Die

Rigsbee LE P&W June 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing June 2024.

Down Before I Die, guest editorial by David Rigsbee.

Watchman in the Knife Factory by David Rigsbee
Black Lawrence Press, June 2024.

A couple of years ago, as Father Time reminded me that he was making more-than-usual headway, it occurred to me in a blink of a thought that I might look to assembling a “collected poems.”  If the phrase hints at anything beyond what it denotes, it’s that such a volume represents a poet’s second life, life in another form, i.e. book form.  This way of conceiving of it offers challenges, both handsome and repugnant.  In the taxonomy of poetry collections, the names matter:  Selected, New and Selected, Collected, New and Collected, and—most lethal of all—The Complete Poems. The first hardcover I ever bought was a copy of Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems, which also happened to be my first purchase using a credit card.  Next to it was his Opus Posthumous, about which the poet’s part was unclear (did he intend anything of the sort?). It took me a while to decide to buy that one.  In the back of my mind was my teacher Carolyn Kizer’s remark that “a collected is a poet’s tombstone.” By this she meant two things:  once published, there it is in toto; she also meant anything that comes after has to deal with the long shadow of that body of work.  Retrospection clobbers the future.  A Collected was poetry’s equivalent to stare decisis in the law:  all was now settled. She was given to such remarks, but she also went about meticulously assembling her own collected volume which was published in 2000, after which she sank toward silence over the course of 14 years.

Although I didn’t know if I had earned anything like the status to suggest such a book, the idea persisted.  I was intrigued.  I consulted my daughter, who had followed her dad’s career with attention and had undergone a literary education herself. Her response was simple: “You must!”  I had published a new and selected more than a decade before, The Red Tower:  New & Selected Poems, and it had received good reviews and won some awards.  It was also published only in hardback.  Eventually, NewSouth Books, the publisher, had been acquired by the University of Georgia Press, and not too long after that new affiliation, the press wrote to inform me that the book would be listed as officially out-of-print at the end of the year.  I approached some of my most reliable and sapient poetry friends, each of whom said, basically, do it.  It would give me an opportunity to gather work that was either hard to find or out of print, as well as to repackage the contents of the three volumes published by my current publisher, Black Lawrence Press.  Then there were new poems.  In short, I could offer a look back at a 48-year ink trail since the publication of my first collection, Stamping Ground in 1976.  So the idea seemed, in many respects, both tempting and classic.  I talked to Diane Goettel, the founder and director of Black Lawrence, and asked if she would be interested in my submitting such a book.  She, ever supportive, was open to the idea.

I had written a poem called, in fact, “Collected Poems,” in the early ‘80s.  Here it is:

Collected Poems

The telltale spoors
under the jacket-flap of this
big book, this lifework,
hint more loudly of it than
the plain printer’s box of
the obituary page, the names
lying down to rest at last
within their little squares.

Slowly, nature erases culture
and life streams through the window
invisibly, in spite of gravity.
So the train’s solemn double horn
gives out a double meaning
as it strains down the rusty track
under the Mississippi bridge.
I can take it, or if I can’t

I don’t want to be the final
mention of my attempts when I am
less spine than this.
I don’t want to be the first whisper,
either, of the error I will be
when I lie in memory of such
a river, replaced by spoors
drifting down from the dark waters.

What’s notable about this attempt at a vexed subject – how to divide the labor between living a life and making the representation of it – is how delicate and yet grand (the Mississippi River) the thought of collecting one’s work in some definitive way—and yet involving courage (“spine”) and blurry chance (“the error”)—that emerges suddenly from the grip of someone’s Collected Poems.  Then there is the unspooling of thought pondering its significance as the world cranks its way through the salt of history. In other words, between sudden exaltations and horrible reveals.

The Red Tower by David Rigsbee
The Red Tower by David Rigsbee

I spent a month compiling the poems and discovered that such a book would come to over 600 pages. This alarmed me.  I remembered an aside from Sainte-Beuve, who noted that while one can’t make meaningful judgments about literature as a whole, one thing was for sure: “most of it is too long.”  I spoke with Diane again, and she suggested that while she would surely consider publishing it, it would be harder to market than a slimmer new & selected.  So I was back to fundamental questions:  why would I want to preserve every poem I had ever published?  That was a good place to start.  Did vanity overtake judgment?  Was I being presumptuous, a trait I was always quick to detect in others?  Still, I could imagine the volume in its stalwart thingness.  Its very existence would be a blunt fact, a statement, as well as a petition.  But another thought took over, thanks to an exchange I had with poet Michael Waters. He pointed out to me that a selected poems would be much more likely to be carried around by readers than would a brick.  For instance, he mentioned the popularity of selected volumes by Richard Hugo and Lucille Clifton, as opposed to the collected versions of each.  I remembered that Robert Penn Warren, as he grew into his golden years, made a point of updating his new & selected volumes, opting for that over a collected version.  So the idea began to sink in that it wouldn’t be a true collected, but it would nonetheless be everything worth saving—at least as far as I was concerned.  I would delete any poem that displeased me for any reason.  I would show juvenilia the door too.  For instance, I jettisoned all the poems from my first book, itself an expansion of my master’s thesis for the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins.  It was paltry work, not quite cringeworthy to the gimlet-eyed senior, but not far from it.

I had some editing experience to draw from.  I had edited the manuscript of Kizer’s Midnight Was My Cry:  New & Selected Poems when I was a senior at UNC.  This opportunity just fell in my lap, and the learning curve was steep.  But I managed to do it, explaining my suggestions about organization and inclusion to her satisfaction.  I had also edited a collection of poems by the Polish poet Alexander Wat and translated by Czeslaw Milosz in the mid-70s.  By the ‘80s, I was directing the St. Andrews College Press and went poem by poem through the work of all the forthcoming collections, making line edits and suggestions about organization.  By the millennium I had begun doing manuscript consultations for poets.  I would apply these skills, such as they were, to the verse record of someone’s life, i.e., mine.  It sounds awkward to say it that way, but that’s what it was:  representations marking, for good or ill, a long stretch of time.  This was what it was like in my case, and though you may not have known me, these words would offer an affidavit, one version of feeling and thinking about what it was like living in the quick and singing about that feeling.  It would also be dimensional collapse:  three into two—all the better for preservation’s sake.  The Greek gods thought so, and in spite of Christ’s driving them out and superseding them (according to John Milton), they survived in lines of verse to be restored by the poets, who knew that dormancy was and is a natural state, the fact of a bookshelf at home or the aisles of a library.  But readers?  It’s every poet’s fear:  collecting dust, until the book and the voiceless dust merge.  The gods, meanwhile, repose in bliss.

Speaking of Kizer, who is now virtually mute among the shades, I had, as her literary executor (a designation that morphed later into legalize—“advisor to the estate of…”), written another poem in a moment of pique at having to go through another box of effects after her death, and wrote this:


In the box I expected, of course, evidence
of journeys, exotic, stony destinations
where her famous friends, those
with prizes and wit, waved on the dock
having come to greet her, a fellow traveler.
They would have adventures, diversions,
and engagements proper to their kind.
When they were home, such material!
Just like the tragedians and satirists.
When their books came out, they signed
them with abiding love, vigorous pledges
rendered in tiny, unassertive script.
From the first book, as with all
the others I quarried, flyers fell out:
reviews from The Nation, Poetry,
and The New York Times Book Review.
On the back page, notes, “P150—Metaphor,”
“P 72—relation of present and past,”
P 29-31—“Barbarians.” I reinserted
the reviews and returned the books
to their container, sealed it with masking tape,
careful that the creases were straight,
the tape itself reinforced and taut.

If the executor did this, what of the general reader?  There was not just the presumption of making the effort in the first place; there was more importantly somehow the reception it would receive.  After all, it suggests all you ever did with your life that you want the world to know about.  But would the denizens of that world here and there ever pick it up and begin thumbing through?  I remember people saying things like “poetry is not my strong suit,” or Raymond Carver’s classic, “I must admit that poetry is not the first thing I reach for when I look for reading matter.”  I think of Linda Gregg’s quick insult: “Of course they’re idiots.” Far be it from me to be tainted as an aesthete, but I know what she means.

Sister Bernetta Quinn, a poet and critic of Modernism, once told me that she had noticed that Randall Jarrell often used the word “world” in his poems.  What did this mean, she wondered.  I sent her a poem in response that touches on the idea of what it means to be collected in a world constantly in motion.  The poem ends like this:

Once I stood by Jarrell’s grave and smelled
the boxwoods sweetening the field, the same
shrubs that had sweetened my childhood.

And I remembered that a Fragment describes
how, in Hades, souls perceive by smelling,
as the fixity of past life gets jarred loose
in spring. Structurally speaking, the slab
and a bookshelf are identical. How sad,
then, to seed books with the word
“world,” as if one brought the other
into being by will or necromantic power;
or book were to life as “world” is to this
shifting habitation. Instead, the birds
are dabs of pathos, and songs lean automatically
toward their shelves. Already I have to go
a new way to work, and things, I know,
are not going to be so easy as they once were.

(From “The Word ‘World’ in Jarrell”)

My most recent (though surely not my last) attempt to engage the subject concerns the urge on the part of many poets simply to get things down, regardless of the outcome:  neglect, dust, vanity, mattering, not mattering, praise, rising in glory, dwindling to zero, or any of the possible results.  It’s about the need to make an accounting, whether that faces judgment or is simply ignored.  The poet who figures in the poem below is someone I know, so much a poet’s poet as to be virtually unknown, who himself receded into a core where he found poems that stand in his place.

Get It Down

I had a friend who was so pathologically shy
he barely functioned in public. He was
in essence, a hermit living in a dune shack.
Unfortunately, he wrote poetry, and this
brought him to the attention of an art colony
that offered him safe haven, in return
for which he had only to push paper,
arrange chairs, and host weekly readings
by prominent poets. It was almost schtick
as he stood, a large man, before the gathering,
hands folded defensively over his crotch
and paused long enough to give
the audience, also, pause too before he swept
one hand mechanically, by way of introduction,
and blurted, “Miss Bishop!” or “Stanley Kunitz!”
then found his chair. It was a performance
of the highest order, in one sense,
and no one who was there ever forgot it.
He was a beautiful and mysterious poet too.
I said “unfortunately,” only in the sense
that he had to overcome his shyness,
in order to look a fool in the eyes
of all. And I imagine him each time
going home from the weekly humiliation
to write the most radiant poems
as the green sea gnawed its way up
to the shack and the crabs scissored
across the wooden steps, as irrepressible
as I imagine Ritsos was, confessing
to his young executor, “You see, I’m
trying to get all this down before I die.”

I understand this drive, although I don’t know to what end.  That’s for the sybil to say.  What I do know is that my book, Watchman in the Knife Factory:  New and Selected Poems, is half the size of the original idea of a collected, an idea that still seems sound to me for others.  It’s the testimony you present to your deity, who is at the same time almighty and the inventor of dust, and who, as the poet tells us, “thinks about poetry all the time.” That deity waits at the vanishing point, eager, as you must believe, to learn what you did to justify and exalt your own mixed and fleeting moment.

© David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is an American poet, critic and translator who has an immense body of published work behind him. Salmon Poetry has just published his translation of Dante’s Paradiso, and Black Lawrence Press will bring out his Watchman in the Knife Factory: New and Selected Poems this month (June, 2024). He is working on a memoir and a new book of essays to be called The Keep of Poetry.

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