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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of two forthcoming books: This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press) and a translation of Dante's Paradiso (Salmon Poetry). Black Lawrence also published his recent Not Alone in My Dancing. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "Our Sudden Museum" by Robert Fanning

Our Sudden Museum
Our Sudden Museum
by Robert Fanning

82 pages
Salmon Poetry

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If you look up the word "nostalgia," you will find that it consists of two Greek roots, nostos for "return home," and algos for "pain." It's the longing for home, once considered a disease, homesickness, as home spreads from origin and structure (house), to the inhabitations, the rises and declines of its members, to loss, and memory, and finally to the fields whereon the home sat and which will remain fields when home and the memory of it are gone. Robert Fanning's Our Sudden Museum offers some preliminaries (dedications to family members, memorial dedications to father, brother, and sister; epigraphs from that bearded dreamer Gaston Bachelard and another from Morrissey, whose "Girlfriend in a Coma" helped get us through the '80s) before getting down to the real business of confronting emptiness. You would think such confrontations were mere floor exercises for a poet, whose own memories come so acutely detailed that it's like Dr. Johnson kicking that rock, as if to say take that, absence! And in just such a richly negative way, absence becomes a thing, its custodian, memory. But if memory is important to the poet, it also finds that absence is working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn't forget to whittle away at memory too. Hence, poems.

This collection, the poet's third, confronts loss right away and its emblem, the empty house, the "Heart—home: a whole and hollow //drum." The here, now, gone, now metaphysic drives the collection, but it doesn't overwhelm it. In the first place, there is none of the too-customary faux sonata form partitioning into sections, but there is the feeling that the confrontation with nothingness is better served where there is invention, and even a good deal of playfulness. I wouldn't be surprised to find several of the poems here plastered on the inner wall of the subway in New York, the kind often obscured either by depressing ads for for-profit colleges or hangers at rush hour. There is plenty of room to stretch, thematically and formally. I was delighted to find both a sonnet and a triolet here, for example, and the sense is that Fanning's preference is for form and informing both. And yet, because loss is the opening gambit and the house, once filled with presences, is now filled with memory and speculation, the growing arc of the reader's impression lands with the command to let go, which is also to say, let be. The house is a sudden museum, as are the poems, and we are advised to let go, finally, of all. But why you might ask? What about do not go gentle? The brother, a suicide, didn't. But you let go to make a place, as the appearance of a child implies:

This home's a sudden museum.
From the living room, I hear our daughter
knock a glass thing over and giggle.
I move to save the breakables from wreckage
then remember: nothing can now be ruined.
We're the guests of someone gone.
                              ("Staying the Night")

As the poet said, every elegy is a self-portrait. There are several elegies to the brother. In the first, we are led into the presence of such poems as Merwin's "On the Anniversary of My Death," where we know that day is coming and will be for others an anniversary, but meanwhile we find ourselves blind to the warning signs, so to speak, that lie about. As he writes in "Our Footfalls" "How in beating time we lived/ despite a hum we couldn't hear,/ despite the silence we'd become." And in "The Beam":

Would that you had heard
as it must have creaked

one winter night while you crossed
your living room floor.

In "The Boy Who Taught Me How to Whistle," the warning takes the form of a silent and heavy bell, and the brother, now deceased, is its immobile clapper. This is a horrifying and yet rich image: there is nothing to summon, nothing to announce, the bell is a tomb:

My Brother, my snap-necked loon,
my slack-jaw goner, my stone epiglottis,
my brother now hung in your new dark womb,
a stopped clapper in an iron bell.

The quiet innocence of learning to whistle ends in a paralyzed silence. By the same token, the Scout's prowess in learning to tie knots ends in a noose, but now the noose not only fits the condemned, but widens the circle of inclusion:

In the lore of knots, the Hangman's Noose
was wound thirteen times and placed
behind the left ear of the condemned.

The Elizabethans call it a collar.
Every art has its language.
How much you knew of this dialect,

our master of tangles and coils,
the lashing, the skein, the sinnet,
the hundreds in the Book of Knots.

Here's something you didn't know
about your last knot. We hang too.
Untie us. Untie us. Untie us.
                              ("The Book of Knots")

The wish to be untied presages the letting go of the final poem, just as in "Cuttings," where "The wind will take what we forget/ to sweep. And cannot keep." And yet Fanning's book makes a case for good-natured play, warmth, and fellow-feeling. After all, letting go is not the same as whatever. Many things that come to seem inevitable have their roots in chance. Chance is also the forking path, which may be, now that I think about it, the opening for imagination, for what didn't happen, but could have. A case in point is "The House We Almost Bought":

Passing the house we almost bought
I look through its windows at the man
I almost was, with his wife, who's almost
glad. The children who were almost ours
are almost asleep in rooms they almost had.

——————

I almost wonder if he sees me pass, then wonder
what he is about to almost say, as if I'm someone
he almost knows, or could almost be,
which is almost true. He almost is.

Almost, you might say, is one of the key words of imaginary, an invitation to meditate on the virtual, the alternate, and the wish. This important area of subjectivity can also claim larger satisfactions, one of the most important of which is the quality of our humanity. Lest you think I'm going soft on you here, consider the robust, yet wistful defense of non-purposive activities in "Poem to a Transcendent Composed Before the Arrival of the Singularity":

Enumerate this, Robot: the slow helix
of a falling leaf, the threads of September's
going light. See if you can learn to savor
as we did, the notes from Billie Holliday's
midnight throat, the moon's pink flutter
floating from Nick Drake's guitar.
But know what counted for us most
was the untranslatable data found here
in the blown scrap of this poem and a million
others, slapped against chain fences
on the edges of our long forgotten fields.

The future is ripe for subversion, and Ray Kurzweil will be upping his vitamin intake after this retaliation against the AI Machine. As for alternatives to that future, consider going to the gym and finding the slouching, smoking, ironic sots of the suicide squad (Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Hart Crane) arrayed like Harpies in a tree, as he works out:

Dylan sips scotch
and leers. John and Anne, doing shots,

shout: feel the burn. I head for the lockers,
make a fatal choice to check my progress.
Old hearts are too heavy for the scale, says Crane.
And I sink at the sight of my weight: the same.
                              ("Poets at the Gym")

Similarly—and subversively—he smiles as nature pushes back at the spectacle of Buddhist monks going about the business of eliminating earthly desire:

Soon, in lotus, though outwardly here,
they disappear, each monk burrowing breath
by breath beneath the body's topsoil, bound

toward the roof of suffering to exterminate
desire and the infestation of need. Meanwhile,
up from the deep heart of a mound in the field
beyond the temple, the buried invisible

army thrashes, barbed mandibles gnashing
upward, advancing toward a needle's eye
of light and air.
                              ("Buddhist Temple Ravaged by Ants")

That life is subversive all by itself seems to be the point, and you can take that high, as in elegy, or low, as in a Tate-Lux-Knott acknowledgment of the onmipresence of absurdity in the daily routine. There are fissures in the most carefully planned edifices. One of Fanning's central images, in poems themselves patterned with chinks, is of the house whose ever-present cracks shrink and widen with the seasons:

Putting                    our son to bed, the tiny fractures           in his ceiling
What lightning could do               to the tree
outside         his room.                 That network of branches.
The veins     beneath his pale flesh.                  The fort lightning?
My therapist asks.  No, I said:  fork lightning.     Am I
the load-bearing    wall     Did I say that              out loud?
You     need to get on your knees                        to see the fulf
between        each plank.   Just say a little prayer          my mother says.
The spine      is central command            the doctor says.
Lean one way                     long enough and your body                    will let you know.
                              ("Of Bricks and Vertebrae")

Fanning has a lot of the chops of his mentor, the late Thomas Lux. You will find, for example, that a poem like "Limbo's Babies, Softly Falling" brings up Lux's poem "God Particles." The thing is to invent and then imagine the details with enough fervor that, even if you're making it up as you go, it's as good as any slice of so-called reality, a word that Nabokov warned us should always be clamped in quotation marks anyway. Here, the Vatican's release of the souls of unsaved babies in Limbo (a sticking point for many), has wonderfully absurd consequences.

         Until, with one stroke of his pen, gallant
in his robe, Pope Benedict declared these babies

would no longer be in Limbo. At the moment of this edict
Limbo's floor and walls evaporated—whoosh—and the souls
of Limbo's babies began to fall, fall feather-light, down,
down through the spheres, through clouds and soft rain,
some settling in streams, some in beds of long grasses,

others gently rocking in treetops. And all across the earth,
grieving mothers and ghosts of grieving mothers came out
into the fields, their arms outstretched, weeping with elation
ready to catch and cradle them, and before God comes
to snatch them back, to carry them, their dead ones, home.

Several of the most appealing poems in Our Sudden Museum are short bursts of carefully prepared but seemingly jotted expressions of banality and desire. My favorite of these is "Old Postcard," and it's short enough I'll quote it in full:


Old Postcard

I was here.
It was beautiful.
This is where I walked.
You should see this place.
This was the birthplace
of a lot of really important people.
I didn't have enough time.
I saw everything I loved.
I loved everything I saw.
I will try to carry it all home
with me. I hope I don't forget
everything. I am running out
of space now.
Always,

The art of artlessness takes a keen talent to secure, but Fanning's work finds this among its capacities. The more I read this collection the more I found myself thinking that for all his exposure of the cracks in the structure, he believes in structures and knows how to make them yield their qualities to the reader's attention, often cumulatively, sometimes tentatively, always finding the right resonances. Artistry is also a kind of courtesy, and for all the death and darkness, the emptiness before which we teeter, these poems also offer their courtesies in their variety and ability to build, even when the occasion is destruction. It feels civilized and quietly cultured, certainly not in a hoity-toity way, but in this he pays a compliment to the reader, as if to say we're in this together. So if that is not the basis for the mutual recognition of a commonweal made through words, I don't know what is. In "Light on Her Bare Shoulders" he admits,

my mind unwinds and runs,
unspooling light's unruly way,
to caves I'll darkly question
should my mouth get its say.

Which gets us back to nostalgia. Yes, we long for home, and saying so is not to succumb to sentimentality. Ask Elizabeth Bishop: it was her whole theme. Just the same, central to our desire to be homing in is the knowledge we come to, just as we come to our own houses, poems, and beliefs. The judgment that has been rendered against every stay still leaves us a move, but it is an important one, for it seems to remove the iron of tragedy and gravity and replaces these with something more dignified than weight, something he doesn't mind calling "transcendent." In the final poem in this fine collection, this transcendence merges with a litany, almost, but not quite, a song.

Of the season, let go. Of the ache to shape and make meaning,
let go. Of the hand in the dark, moss and worm, the awful gnaw.
Of the docked tongue, the root-clenched heart. Let go trunk mold,
branch rot. Of the green shoot that sprouts through your death,
being born, let go. Of the changing light—the euphonious chorus
of children, let go. Of your mother's hand, your father's laughter.
Of what has happened to us.
                              ("What is Written on the Leaves")

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