on Otherwise Elsewhere, poems by David Rivard (Graywolf Press)
There is an astonishing density to the world imagined in Otherwise Elsewhere, David Rivard’s fifth book of poems. Tricked out with enigmas that won’t yield to the probes of the poet, this world provides a glut of substance for meditation and easeful enjoyment – but also, an implacable cache of cancelling impediments. His poem “Vigorish” begins:
The exorbitant devils of a showery late July day
brew up a potential cure in the heathen sweetness
of lavender – but who heals as he used to?
2 weeks after a hike across hills of heavy scrub
long scratches still scab my legs – a kind of vigorish paid
for abundant living. You pay as you go. Mornings
at this point are either like spread sails or (more likely)
spread-sheets – they fill fast. Mornings are fortunes,
but as suspect as a wristwatch running backward.
The poem goes on to recall high school where “the Jesuits made clear the sinister nature of both / doubt & faith.” One of his teachers claimed “that while we need most to be saved none of us / could understand what we desire to be saved / from – tho if our luck held, he said, at some point / the need would simply vanish.”
Otherwise Elsewhere records the sound of an unvanishing need grating against a stubbornly present world. The founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius, specified spiritual exercises designed "to conquer oneself and to regulate one's life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment." Rivard wants it both ways: He is inordinately attached to life and memory – and his stories depict a regulating sanity among ordeals, misunderstandings, and spreadsheets. But his salvaging decisiveness is found in the resolving forms and unhampered sounds of his poems.
In his essay “The Interrupted Now,” Rivard observes that “interruptions are only a series of visitations aimed at waking us up to the fact that we’re alive. A poem is a reminder of what’s at stake in these visits.” He quotes Czeslaw Milosz’s lines in “Ars Poetica?” to reinforce this notion of spontaneous visitations: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.”
In “Vigorish,” Rivard rather proudly takes credit for his schoolboy’s daydream “for what could be learned best / from cloud shadow frying on a hot rectory roof.” (The line exemplifies Rivard’s prescriptive impulse – a jumpy urge he manages to keep on a short leash.) In “Otherwise, Elsewhere,” the opening poem, the adult dreams an entire world where inclusion and exclusion coincide and never touch. The Whitmanesque life-catalog becomes a roll call for the invisible guests and ghosts of Rivardian modernity:
Otherwise elsewhere – someone somewhere other than here –
the stable-hand for an equestrian team or the bodhisattva
stretched out by the river or the sleepwalking knife-thrower,
the dubious bridegroom or the dental hygienist or steamfitter –
otherwise, the contented singer of karaoke – otherwise that
whoreson of the adamantine, an anti-semite with a pyramid scheme,
the small town doctor with TB – elsewise, in a soaking tub,
a tenured Gnostic or a tan Micawber; elsewise Joey “Crazy Joe” Gallo
in Umberto’s clam bar; or in Berlin, at the Atelier Jacobi,
Lotte Jacobi; elsewise the Secretary of Defense, a conductor
of souls, or a swimmer resuscitated by a wolfhound, or a policeman
eating beer-battered shrimp, or what used to be called an industrialist –
otherwise, a nun about to go over the wall – elsewise, at auction dock,
either one of the deckhands off-loading bushel-baskets of littlenecks
or the Irish wholesaler with his whitebait & herring, his glistening
eels on chipped ice & the sawdust wet with blood – otherwise,
the clerk at a lighting outlet – or someone steered by brighter
signs, a settler or a currency trader – elsewise the rooster-brain
who stunned Ophelia – or even Ophelia herself, her boots
made of patent-leather like clement black candles in the rain –
otherwise, aboard the bus from Tetuan to Fez, the Moroccan boy
with his lunch of hardboiled eggs – or a dumbfounded skeptic
or a vixen or a lotus-eater or grandmother or unbaptized doorman –
all those live & destinations that might have been mine, but weren’t –
because there are two kinds of distance between us – towards, & away.
Elsewise, Rivard is mainly a poet of personal situations – interruptive occasions. Although his tonal modesty and self-deflations signal a desire for the reader to come closer, it is the movement of these poems – towards and away from man to world, from action to the (longed for) absence of agency, from longing to disgust, from pieties to resentment of piety, from sufficiency to helpless fret and rue – that represent the welcoming generosity of these poems. The speaker is a limited man with an unlimited taste for various reckonings. His view is partial – but never impartial. Milosz’s lines had suggested to Rivard that “no poet will ever capture the changefulness of being.” In Rivard’s work, the speaker may worry over his lack of attentive changefulness – but the poems themselves are as mindfully protean as his range will allow.
In his essay, Rivard specifies the conditions that satisfy his requirements: “For me to be fully inside the body of the poem I have to feel a flex and alertness in the syntax. Otherwise I go around slumping and round-shouldered, and the poem flops. The syntax has to be muscular enough to hold together in the midst of shifting speeds, but flexible enough to make the turns. That speed, that variable propulsiveness, is a thing I trust. The speed gives me a way of narrating experience that depends on elision and compression; but it also mimics the way that one moment of interruption fades into another.”
The ideas and subjects on Rivard’s mind are often so huge and pressing that his lines must provide a long runway to get them off the ground. Mistrustful of “a religious or social tinge” in poetry, William Carlos Williams said in “The Poem As A Field of Action,” “You can put it down as a general rule that when a poet, in the broadest sense, begins to devote himself to the subject matter of his poems, genre, he has come to an end of his poetic means.” If so, Rivard is devoted but in the narrowest, most provisional sense when, as in his splendid poem “Powers,” he restlessly raps on where the Jesuits left off. He begins:
Informally I believe in God’s powers,
tho not in his presence; I can see that this has led
to various momentary advantages, a certain freedom of choice;
and so, like other citizens given half a chance
I have fallen half in love any number of times
With one sonsy actress or another – please insert here,
If you wish, the lips & décolletage of the ineffable Scarlett Johansson …
After noting various pleasures and moments of beauty, the self-debater turns the corner and reconsiders:
On the other hand, believing in God’s powers but not
in his existence may have had some drawbacks, feelings of being
stranded say; either gone deep into the brine
of my being my self & solitary
lost inside my mind in the invariable infinity of variant neurons,
or forced to inhabit a planet
with frequent, inexplicable (or all too explicable) episodes of cruelty …
His “variable propulsiveness” is a loosened tongue drawing courage from a brain just returned from the war. He is out-spoken -- emboldened by the spill of his own speech, such that he dares a most unfashionably spectacular ending:
What I mean to say is that God has abandoned both us & his powers –
he’s given them up, & they hurtle around inside us.
Such a psyche ultimately gets choked up from its own allergens, and flees for a chance just to breathe. This is when Rivard reverts to simplicities, as at the end of “How Else To Say It”: “to pee against the mossed bark of a Juniper pine / is to be real in your soul.” I’m thinking: Don’t we men all know this? It’s a static earnestness. I appreciate the sentiment but the poem doesn’t give me very much to do.
There is also some hand-wringing and outrage for the sad state of the republic, “another week in the era of rendition & methamphetamine bathtubs.” The age in which he lives is a sin done unto him. But the language is so immediate and urgent, and the sense of situation so fluent, that one simply gives in to the rant:
& so is this place our country
evil now? & what are we? A nation of
self-absorbed gravediggers beery with grief for those they’ve buried?
(and as we bury more)
vengeful & suspicious, rancorous, flipped-out,
or are we a shadow kingdom, like a colony of wood lice in a fallen elm
full of the indifference of appetite,< span>
or perhaps we’re merely dazed?
baffled by the demands of our dreamlike good intentions
by a world that sees us at worst
as a malevolent apparition & at best as a smoke-free zone
ideal for the production of flash-frozen meat patties.
Otherwise Elsewhere asks: How do we regard the scene in front of us given what we know about ourselves? The scene demands something from us, some response. Just when Rivard begins to shade too deeply into sententiousness, he provides a poem like “Pasted Up in the Vicinity of the Sun” (a sister poem to “Otherwise Elsewhere”), evoking a second seating of uninvited guests while relaxing its grasp on our sleeves. These poems want to be regarded as proof that David Rivard did respond as fully as possible to the scenes in front of him. Despite the evidence, he would not and could not give up on himself. But more generously, he hasn't given up on us. His meditations are instantly recognizable as our own.
NOTE TO MYSELF
Having survived self-
esteem (both low & high), like
out of a to-do
list for civil war
in the heart –
been a back-stabber (when said
back was my own), or
the Ace of Spades,
in my mind –
Getting to see myself
as a green midge
as a pine tree looming like
a fetching samurai
at the edge
of a meadow – I get a little
tired -- & strangely
everywhere I go
step closer to wherever I
I was when I left for
wherever I thought
I wanted to be.
Given the round
ranginess of earth, always
thinking of myself – tho
that’s it for me now. Enough. No
more, thank you. No, really.
[Published January 10, 2011. 88 pages, $15.00 paperback original]