ISSUE 38
February 2008

David Rigsbee

 

David Rigsbee David Rigsbee is the author of six collections, including The Dissolving Island (BkMk Press, 2003) and Cloud Journal (Turning Point, 2008). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Southern Review, among many others.
Darling Vulgarity: A Book Review

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Darling Vulgarity
by Michael Waters
90 pages
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2006

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The collapse of metaphysics may have turned philosophers to Prozac, preachers to an even shriller falsetto, and scientists to peacock glory, but for diverse writers the spilt religion regathered in poems finds its subject in the grossest of materialisms: sex and all that comes with it (including, as Baudelaire knew, imagination) and the larger grind of generation—and all that comes with that (as Keats feared). Waters is not the first, nor is he the best-known, but he is surely one of the most naturally inclined when it comes to connecting the dots between sex with some intimation of divinity. Or what passes for divinity these days, where high and low no longer avoid each other, but have each other in sight. The title itself—Darling Vulgarity—with its edgy charm, shows the way. Thus, in "Erotic Roman Antiquities," we find,

. . . glass cases lit like store windows
displaying their goods: penises
with bells hanging from them, penises
with legs, penises with wings and, in one instance,
a penis with bells, legs, and wings.

Here, the presence of erotic possibility maps aesthetics too, in a manner that reminds one of the late masters of that coincidence—Yehuda Amichai, in its earthy directness, and of Jack Gilbert, in its Mediterranean inflection—where Waters' fancy also finds its objective correlative, one seemingly congenial as well to his New York City origins, though without the mildew of standard "old country" associations.

A poet with a distinguished catalog of work, Waters covers ground common to his immediate predessors—Logan, Poulin, Carver—as well as his slightly more distant heroes—Lowell and Pavese. That is, his poems have always found grounding in a subjectivity that, far from finding itself destabilized by time or eroded by the shifting standards of the age, has grown more capable with each book. Capable of what? Well, capable of outlasting the attacks on the privilege of subjectivity, for one thing. It is an irony that a poet of such subjective muscle and intention finds himself having survived the ongoing war on the subjective, Romantic project. Be that as it may, his career is as good an example as I know of the rewards that come of persistence over enlistment. That same war has produced one of his pet loves: punk rock music (see "Sonnet for Strummer"), which upended the faux sensitivity in which the '60s fizzled by violating every personal and public space, as well as every orthodoxy, with one exception: the creed of all-out resistance.

Waters underscores the body itself as a place of artistic transfiguration. In one of several poems that hook up with the sister arts (painting, sculpture, music, dance), he directs attention to such transfigurations:

look: they've taken both my breasts.
Yes, I reply, but listen: hasn't God replaced them
with such glorious music?
                                                  ("Miserere")

We are given access to the world where cancer and Goreckí may sign for each other's deliveries, which is to say the world we recognize with its odd affiliations bound not by lining up to the straight lines of orthodoxy but by the private and often impolitic wanderings of love.

As he reminds us in "Black Olives," history takes place on the level of the body. The body could then be said to be incorporated by its time:

                                                  Always
I'd select a half-kilo of the most misshapen,
wrinkled and blackest olives
sprung from the sacred rubble below Mt. Athos, then
had to shout, "fuck Kissinger!"
three times before the proprietor would allow me
to make my purchase.

Because fled gods inhabit those shadows, it is enough to glimpse, as Cavafy knew, a wing disappearing into the hills to certify that the world is thick with rough, immanent splendor—and not of another world only, but of other ways of construing the onrush of time and space of simultaneous worlds. Waters limns the presence of such another world in the midst of this one:

We had been arguing, slightly drunk,
about ex-lovers with flirtatious
gestures, about low murmurs in corners—
suddenly they appeared.
                        ("Fauns Fleeing before an Automobile")

The layering of the natural and the supernatural, of the natural within the natural, is often figured as a trick of the light. This trick enforces the ambivalent nature of interpretation and so tempers judgment. Rather, it is the feeling that characterizes the poet's concern: how it felt, not what it was.

Our rampant voices stilled then—
that awestruck hush,
creation's tentative pause—
then only the tick of wipers urging our arrival
home, the undressing, the desperate
confusions of flesh . . .

In "Poinciana" the speaker recounts "The man who offered one hundred dollars/ to watch my wife undress." The poem's wide-eyed setup reminds one of Christopher Walken in its confused-but-deliberate hyperreality and of Raymond Carver in its moral bargain-hunting. Its seeming bedroom nihilism has another purpose:

I tapped one finger along the ivory
keys of her spine, not knowing what came next,
or how to strike our shame
before money exchanged hands
or when waking next morning wild with thirst.

Waters has never thrown a punchline, and it's clear in this poem why timing is crucial. That thirst—for clarity, for bodily renewal—stands as the default position for much of Waters' poetry. Because the thirst is ultimately metaphysical, it can never be quenched, and thus the poems achieve the impression of being given additional power by a supplemental engine. It raises the inconvenient question of whether the body itself isn't in some sense ultimately metaphysical, too, the acceptance of which would go a ways toward getting rid of confusions attending the connections of the body to sex, divinity, and textuality.

Rare among contemporary poets whose aesthetics were honed at Iowa (but not among those few who read their John Logan), Waters is what might be called an organic formalist. The heightened rhetoric, the poetic language so often associated with formalism, has never been his interest. The distance between high and low, as we have seen, operates within a more demotically tweaked bandwidth so that heightened language is so as a result of quiddities and ad hoc moments, and wears its knowingness conspicuously, if lightly. He has written a number of poems in syllabics, for instance, a form that often doesn't announce its presence. Within that form, he brings the master craftsman's ground-level intelligence. Take this passage from "American Eel":

Suddenly my daughter let loose a shrill ewwww!
     —we heard
below that sour pitch, a dim
sorption like soapsuds sieving through a wooden
     bucket:
eels stranded in low tide . . .

The syllabic alternations enact the "flaccid/intimations" of their "doubling back," and "the sorption like soapsuds sieving," with their serpentine hiss and rising vowels, remind us why the daughter's cry is so instinctual: when we look at eels, we see snakes.

By the end of the first, erotically charged section, sex has become a word. The daughter's use of the F-word produces her father's double response:

"Bad word," I wagged my finger [. . . . .]
"but," I couldn't help myself, "you used it correctly."

"Eddie's Parrot" is a good poem to start off the post-erotic section, as it goes to the question of substitutions and the ways in which wording underwrites the body. The parrot's insistent "Where's Eddie? Where's Eddie?" continues after Eddie dies, until his widow "snapped and stormed that Catskill comic's /stage." Echoing an early poem of Gregory Orr (who himself follows the classical Horatian example), Waters shows that when the word is gone, you are, well, also gone.

The parrot is followed by the poet's own ventriloquism in "Family Outing," both a family tale and a wide parody of "tough-guy" writing. The poet's off-duty police grandfather "nabbed the thug" who seems a cartoon of sexual abuse.

Soon a buddy cop huffed up
to cuff the creep who leaned in close to whisper
     some filth
into my grandmother's ear.

Here, each keyword is an indictment in the dream of rough peace and rougher justice. No problem with water-boarding in this poem. It mirrors our insecurities in a former age when good people, the prey to "creeps," are collared and dealt a summary justice, the techniques of which receive tacit approval of women, the intended victims.

A middle section of prose pieces is reminiscent of Lowell's famous prose bridge ("92 Revere Street") in the seminal Life Studies. The similarity is not just fortuitous: Lowell figures as a character in one of the pieces. This section shows that it is not true that poets who affect concentration at verse fail at prose. In the first piece, the young poet is afraid his bike will be stolen if he spends too much time in confession, and the anxiety over having to choose between this world and the other world builds to a crisis. The second piece recounts the young poet's meeting with the scandalous Allen Ginsberg just when his mother has discovered that he is attempting to become a writer by scribbling piecework porn. The third prose piece describes an encounter with Robert Lowell in England, just when it was thought necessary for British dons to discountenance "confessional poetry." The final piece ("The Soul") plays a good riff on the poét maudit theme. A neighbor offers to pray for the poet who is on the way to have ear-fluid unclogged, presumably in order the better to hear Blink-182. This quaint gesture is received with patience, but later the poet wonders, in fact, about whether the soul isn't saved in some sense by its damnation. It concludes:

I have a colleague who asked my creative writing students if they thought I was going to hell. Waters? On skis, one laughed, and when they told me, I reminded them that "skiing" might be the only word in the English language to employ the double i. Hawaii, one said. English, I repeated, racing downhill, the slope all to myself.

This would be a good place to end another collection, but one of the virtues of Waters' talent is its recursive intelligence: careers like his evolve because the poet takes another look. In "The Tether,"

Some almost-shapes drift by.
Awe. A distant knocking.
—Then the long haul.

"Commerce" takes as its occasion the faking of miraculous survivals at that epicenter of honeymoon kitsch, Niagara Falls. In the "commerce" with time and circumstance, desire trumps credibility: the entrepreneurial intelligence knows this, just as it knows that casual cruelty is the American key (and if the blind torture the blind—all the better):

Then one cat was found, eyeless, legs broken,
so for the next decade tramps tortured strays
to sell them to tourists, farm boys, and Poles
as The Cat Swept Over Niagara Falls . . .

Several poems juxtapose the slacker urgency of indie and punk with classical artifacts, and yet what hints at eccentric accommodations turns out to be the dirunal pendulum of process. In "Ossuary,"

The widow hawking postcards hustles us
toward sunlight—we've breathed centuries enough
of mold & spore & crumbling fibulae.
We've witnessed enough. These schoolgirls want
     more.
Let them follow each other—a scraggly
crusade of backpacks & pierced lips & brows—
till they flame to spirit down the noon glare.
Let us all unburden ourselves before
the next plague . . .

His love of music situates him among those for whom the distant past has not yet established a grip, and yet, being a poet, he finds one foot here, the other in that past. Moreover, he declines the attempt to reconcile the contradiction and stands as poets since Whitman have been invited to do, highlighting his own ambivalence. This is that ambivalence that Brodsky called "healing," no doubt because it references the violence of exclusive choice, preferring the "weak" position of indecision to the "strong" one of judgment. Likewise, in "The Crusades," the "martyrdom" of the Notorious B.I.G. is the thematic overlay to French sarcophagi. The ambivalence, the declining to judge, is on display here too. Between hip-hop and solemn reliquary art: no choice. As the poet who knows the name Jean D'Alluye is aware, hip-hop (and popular culture generally) is a kind of crusade to liberate us from the necrotic reach of the unreasonable past.

A poem about student days ("Backrub") finds the speaker accepting the siren-song of an obese woman who haunted the campus like "a wet dream of Christo, a draped tornado/ clanging its ceramics, her bracelets & earrings," who beckons "with a wheedling tongue,/ wanting someone please to touch her." What must have started with gallant self-sacrifice ends with, "So one morning, why not, I volunteered." But while the possibilities for recognition and contrition are numerous, the poet doesn't go there. Instead, he finds that he is "losing myself in the laborious process of creation." Acceptance, seemingly so arbitrary is seen—in that same arbitrariness—as participating in "the process of creation," though nothing is created that would count as a "product."

The process of creation is touched upon again in "Making Love at the Frost Place," here contrasted with the Good Gray Poet's process of creating poems, in particular, "After Apple-Picking," which manages to tame the timor mortis. Now, as an unintendend consequence, it provides a master-auspice to the lovers.

There is much to admire and much to love in Darling Vulgarity, not least of which is the sense of experience as a worthwhile congeries of unsortables and exuberances. The plain fact is that we age, and in aging try to figure out whether experience is a fit substitute for love. Yeats wondered it, and said no. Waters, whose poems are vibrant embodiments, would agree, except that he would equally agree with Miles Davis, the subject of "Junkie Tempo," that time is the thing: "always time and time again relentless time:/ time, Miles used to smile, like a motherfucker."

 

 

 

David Rigsbee: Book Review
Copyright ©2008 The Cortland Review Issue 38The Cortland Review