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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

Marianne Boruch’s poetry collections include The Anti-Grief (2019), Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing (2016), Cadaver, Speak (2014), The Book of Hours (2011), a Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award winner. She has also published a memoir, The Glimpse Traveler (Indiana, 2011) and three books of essays—In the Blue Pharmacy (Trinity, 2005) and in the Michigan poets on poetry series, Poetry’s Old Air (1995) and The Little Death of Self (2016). Her works have appeared in APR, London Review of Books, Narrative, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry, and has appeared in Best American Poetry and received Pushcart Prizes. A Guggenheim and NEA Fellow, she has had residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio, Yaddo, MacDowell, the American Academy in Rome, Djerassi, the Anderson Center, two national parks, Denali and Isle Royale. A 2019 Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the University of Canberra, Australia, and a 2012 Fulbright Professor at the University of Edinburgh, she founded Purdue University’s MFA in 1987. Having taught there over three decades, Boruch has gone emeritus though she continues on faculty (since 1988) in the low-residency MFA at Warren Wilson College. She and her husband, David Dunlap, live in West Lafayette, Indiana where they raised their son.

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 "The Anti-Grief" by Marianne Boruch

The Anti-Grief
by Marianne Boruch

96 pages
Copper Canyon Press

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Marianne Boruch's new collection, The Anti-Grief, begins with what sounds like a credo, but you could be forgiven if, having acquaintance with her previous work, you suspected she might sooner or later walk it back or even contradict it. An aficionado of layeredness, of the secret sharer school of experience, she would no doubt subscribe to Iris Murdoch's idea of language as a net thrown over the mind, from which reality, occasionally snared, mostly escapes. Boruch's value is to note reality's escape routes and in so doing combine the purpose with the presentation, the poem. She underscores this immanence in "Pieces on the Ground," which prefaces the collection:
 

O fellow addicts of the arch and the tragic, give up
       the thousand-pound if and when too.
       Give up whatever made the bed or unmade it.
 
Give up the know thing that shatters into other things
       and takes the remember fork in the road. (3)


That is to say, the memory bank isn't a piggy bank. Nor does the feel of memory get us beyond the notion that something past, like something saved, holds promise or can shake off its spooky sense of possession. Narrowing the issue, she adds,
 

Truth is, I listen all night for morning, all day
 
        for night in the trees draped like a sound I never quite
 
get how it goes. There’s a phantom self, nerved-up
        as any missing arm or leg. (3)


Is the sense of the missing arm a kind of mysticism? We wonder, and yet the poems also wear sharp edges. Meanwhile, syntax is as consequential as it is problematic, and Boruch, who tips a stylistic hat in the direction of John Berryman (she has an affecting poem about the poet here), knows it and is known for it. Just as ordinary syntax is, roughly speaking, a system of rules that reflect allegiance to a causal structuring of experience, so too messing with those rules makes us question whether ordering and order belong to the same family.

In "Dürer's Engraving," Boruch meditates on the Renaissance artist's depiction of a heraldic moment suspended between order and disorder, between peace and the beginning of history.

No sound in the garden. And closer, so much
weirdity to love. Which one, Adam
or Eve smarter, more full of wanting, of bravado,
wonder, all grief finally but first
able to talk those animals into lounging about,
no vengeance, no tricks, assuming
chats with a snake don’t count. I’m not sure what counts. (23)

It's typical of Boruch to characterize the beasts as "lounging about," but such slyness comes with a purpose. Just as the tangle of history stretches astronomically away from such quaint goings-on as "chats with a snake," so our ways of conceiving of ourselves in the Western evening land can assume a congeries of viewpoint and intonation. You might say that the distance from the Garden scene to the here-and-now, even curated by a 500-year-old painter, takes us to the point where input is arbitrary. To say that no viewpoint supervenes on another is to say that every viewpoint is supervenient. And not just the viewpoints of others, but jousting viewpoints within the singular consciousness of the poet. It would be wise to hold that thought for Boruch would seem to have no truck with simplicity. And yet simplicity in the form of brevity, including dissolve and dismissal, often comes to the rescue. Such are the wages of imagination.


It's those was-and-will-be stories my whole life
with a fuck-up inside. Starting sweet,
out of place. Pre-unbearable. (23)

The question of what counts as authentic in art extends to the person. "Original" beds down with our era's mot juste, "fake." In "Genuine Fakes," Boruch shows her cards right away, quoting a docent who explains they are "Paintings and drawings/ someone figured would do." After ruminating on the forger who "heats up a hot plate in an old pig sty," even as he is "dreaming of Caravaggio," she brings the matter home:

Weren't our genes stamped out mostly
again and again the same when our parents by accident or design
lay down after the argument. Until it took.
The usual translation: two arms, two legs. I've been told
I look like my mother, a thing neither of us
much believed. (26)

We spend a lot of time in museums in these poems, and Boruch is a kind of docent, if not the custodian. And yet, you don't need to be steeped in Baudrillard and Benjamin to sense the ambivalence that's just waiting to melt away on the poet's hot plate. Sometimes it doesn't melt away:

I don't know. Pick up a pen and those hundreds of
dull and ravishing words
used to death flood back. Honor everything.
And shred and merge and burn. (26)

This is the poet who avers, in "Back Back," that "To know the blurred thing is to know/ what is exact." In banging away at phenomenal life, at reality until it becomes evidentiary, Boruch arrives at digging. In "The Underworld," it's gophers and weasels:

Layer upon layer, story gives way
to story. Don't tell me not
every bit counts. Really it's two points of descent to
the underworld, a few feet apart.
Weasels at both ends disappear, come back
as if sprung.
A link down there, a passage
dark as the brain refuses to know,
then we do. (38)

What does it matter whether the second hand ends on a tock or a tick? Does it determine who has the most fabric? Is this what the brain refuses to know? Digging brings us to memory too. What of that? Boruch grapples with the question of the really real, a question that has vexed many pointed heads over many centuries. As she says in "Susanna and the Elders,"

...history must do its job of
endless awful recording, because mere memory
is clearly finite. (43)

It's finite, for sure, but also strange, as in the case of the blackmailed Biblical maiden Susanna "to be so remembered." Boruch recalls a Caravaggio rendering of the story of Susanna and the Elders, only to be reminded that there is no such Caravaggio:

In Rome, in a certain church, I liked best our gazing rapt
at the Caravaggios though I mixed up
this part: his doing a Susanna at all. Later it seemed
right to get it wrong, my recall where
she never was... (42)

We can see one of the many ways that memory is both a record and something registered that is not, in fact, a record. For all that, memory, whatever it is, retains its importance. In "Rings of Saturn," she comes back (she often comes back) to a central idea, "Friend, make of it while you can/ what you can" (79). That, too, could be a credo. If memory is "wrong," if art relinquishes accuracy, then what can be made of it would seem to be imprisoned in the subjective, even the solipsistic. But in the midst of such a concession, Boruch fashions a meaning. In "Pieces on the Ground," the poem that prefaces the collection, she writes,

In drawing class, all eyes fix on the figure gone
        imaginary, thinning to paper. Not the wind or a cry,
        how the hand makes our bent to it— (4)

That "the hand makes our bent" reveals both the making hand and our inclination to make, freed of the figure's presence, freed of the niggling guilt over accuracy, freed of the need to ground experience in received ways. You might say it's desire—desire to register hesitation and uncertainty, to dismiss conventional syntax, to keep digging.

The final poem in The Anti-Grief is a nine-page tour de force, "Keats Is Coughing," employing both images of classical Rome ("that's so-called/ civilization for you") and the Romantic poet's tragic last days in the soon-to-be Eternal City. This topos she pairs (astonishingly and unexpectedly) with a journey to the frozen and art-resistant Denali. The very fact that she is able to draw connections between ancient Rome, the young poet's end two hundred years ago, and her own trek across a desolate landscape verges on the preposterous. All the more reason to suggest it is her fullest expression of the making hand. The poem is at once a meditation on time ("the puny life span we're allotted") and the mind's ability to improvise its way. The poem carries an epigraph from Leonardo ("Everything is made of everything") and begins "I found Rome in the woods." How does this play out? Here is an example:

...Rome or Denali,
a mash-up of lunge and cry out, predator
and prey throwing coins to a fountain,
footholds made first by a hoof,
pickpockets in buses and trains, nuns
queuing up their no-nonsense, brambles thorny,
raggedy spruce groves... (85)

So here comes the assertion: "You find the fossil record everywhere" (86). Good enough, then, to unspool arpeggios of detail. After a while, you accept the premise - "From the start, perverse, any premise" (84) -  Rome in Alaska, Rome made of

              Tabularium close to the Temple of
              Castor and Pollux I rebuilt that same summer—
              not superimposed, exact as any scheme
 
in secret—the Arch of Septimius Severus at the gravel bar
        where fox drank from a river turned stream,
           a Theater of Marcellus near
              the ranger station where one raven,
                                                                              such a brat,
   complained of
                     my Circus Maximus, my Trajan’s Column,
                              my Baths of Diocletian... (83)

 

At length we see Keats and realize what he's doing there:


His bed at the last
                      too low for the window, his must-have
                             tell me, what's out there... (87)
 

This Keats—"who made claims about beauty and time"—becomes emblematic of Boruch's desire to invest with poem, with its strange premise, with full plausibility:
 

I admit: a ridiculous layering, this Rome in that Denali.
Just because? Because I went to both in short order?
Two continents, an ocean apart. My mother
loved hand-me-down expressions—
never the twain shall meet.
They do meet.

                             To repeat: that's civilization for you.

Happenstance and this minute drag along
future and past

                             and why the hell not
the Denali, the Rome in us, no two
states of being more
unalike, worn-out compulsion
to collect and harbor, piece together

                                                              stupid into
some remember machine. (87)

It's a difficult volume, rangy and occasionally wandering into the gnomic, but Boruch inspires enough confidence that the strangeness will make us see something that the demotic could not. The poems are always under management of quick turns of phrase, shifts in register, shifts in syntax, pull-back phrasing, and verbal synaesthesia. The flashlight probing, frequently tart and witty, underscores the intelligence and work that goes into something that might just fall short of a vision, but is visionary nonetheless. Although highly stylized, none of it is swaggering (she could do that); all feels the product of originality, thought, and judgment. I inhabited this book for a month and thought about it daily. At first I resisted its twisting of the rules, but now I sense it's made a rich and welcome impression. It's a book of middle age, and as she writes in "That Thing,"

                                       Try to figure a logic there
if you come into the story midway. Which
is every human's condition. (12)

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