poem index

Heather McHugh on David Rivard's Wise Poison

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Heather McHugh
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Year

2004
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This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal published by the Academy of American Poets for its members. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.


David Rivard was the winner of the 1996 James Laughlin Award for his second collection of poems, Wise Poison (Graywolf Press, 1996). The judges for the award were William Matthews, David St. John, and Heather McHugh, who wrote the following citation.


In Other Words: The Poetry of David Rivard

To the extent that poems are all, implicitly or explicitly, narrations of a lyric impulse, they are untoward. They are about something, to paraphrase Allen Grossman, the way a cat is about a house. Each poem in Wise Poison passes through so many shifts of narrative direction that no usual sense of destination survives; rather, directional moves are replaced by an accumulation of patterns of change (changes in tense, changes in figuration, changes in overlay of image, curves of memory in cloverleaf). The very notion of passage (temporal, spatial, literary) is redirected by the mind into mind, the outgoing waves traced back to an in-house organ. David Rivard's poems are not conducive to excerpt, yet I'm loath to discuss them without supplying a few examples of their motive means. Take the poem "God the Broken Lock." It begins with the line:

I've died enough by now I trust

but then proceeds to shift our premises for reading:

just what's imperfect or ruined. I mean God . . .

These are lines disorienting to any ordinary progress along lines, because "I trust" switches syntactical allegiances midstream. The poet drifts (along metaphoric and paronymic flows of association) through the memory of an illegal breaking and entering (into a concert hall via an airshaft)--a narrative which is broken both from inside and from without, for the perpetrators fall asleep and then, awakening, hear "gospel hymns from the dressing room."

I mean I trust what breaks
A broken bone . . .
and the phone call sounds French if the transmission fritzes,
and our brains--our blessed, desirable brains--are composed
of infinitesimal magnets, millions of them
a billionth-of-a-milligram in weight, so these brains
they make us knock our heads against hard walls . . .

The trail of breakages communicates (along metaphorical lines) with the brain (such swoops in scale are characteristic of the Rivardian imagination), and arrives at the end of our science of science, at the limits of our capacity to know our knowing. At the "hard walls" where ". . . these brains / they make us knock our heads," language shows itself up, broken in the very process of transmission and sounding, for all the world, translated. This is a judicious clumsiness, expertly employed. Wise Poison is a book of careful casuality, calculated chaos, oxymora.

The breakers-and-enterers finally get their glimpse of the gospel singers themselves:

. . . between primping & joking about
their thinning afros, they sang of Jesus, Jesus,
who said "Split a stick, & you shall find me inside."
It was the winter we put on asbestos gloves, & flame proof
stuck our hands in the fireplace, adjusting logs.
Jesus, we told them, left no proof of having sung a single note.
And that, said the lead singer, is why we all are sinners.
What he meant was that
we are all like the saints on my neighbors' lawns--
whose plaster shoulders & noses,
chipped cloaks & tiaras, have to be bundled
in plastic sheets, each winter, blanketed
from the wind & the cold . . .

On the Wise Poison trip, a reader books passage to the unpredictable, and at every turn might wonder "How did I get here?" The poem "God the Lock" turns out to have been an etude, and, like every etude, a study of its own instrument. This one sounds a series of variations on the word "break": from the imperfect or ruined figure of God at the beginning, down to those crackable saints at the end, the poem has passed through meantimes of broken windows, broken English, broken codes, broken bones, broken heads, and voices breaking. It's a piece on pieces, a passage of parts.

En route, one may find one's senses of logic restructured. The lead singer's explanation about sin isn't syllogistically evident. Even as one ponders the mysteries of the assertion (that we're sinners because Jesus wasn't a singer), Rivard is piling up proof against the conventions of proof. To sin, to be singed, ever to have sung a single thing—such links are forged, not on the anvils of deductive reasoning, but rather in the spark-bed of song-sense itself. "Split a stick" makes music out of meaning, and the poem's final image does its own kind of harmonizing, in connection with an earlier image that serves for virtual visual antonym. Those lifeless figures bundled against winter are the counterparts of the living hands that had to be gloved against the fire. Cold protected from cold, hot from hot, the strength in things is a hairline fracture away from their weakness. As for song, how do we get there, if that's our destination? We break into it.

*

"And then there are places / no one ever expects to arrive," begins the poem "Anywhere Out of the World," and proceeds to do a set of variations on Jonestown's status as a kind of destination--as a geographic destination for the followers of a leader, a tele-cultural destination for the followers of a story (which "in the pitying words / of various commentators / become a mind / collapsing in on itself"), and a station along the line for millions of individual memories, a happenstance of circumstance. "The news was handed me / . . . by a janitor sweeping the airport lounge / in Merida." Subtly, then, the poem becomes a study of the smallness of the world, with so many tenuous versions of a destiny:

. . . I had slept the night
in a stony field outside the terminal,
barely nodding off, sweating ferociously in a down mummy bag
as inappropriate for the lowland heat
as the shirt I'd been wearing,
a heavy, ornately woven cloth
dyed violet-purple by Mayan mestizos.

But it's not until the very end that we get a shivery sense of the dimension and transparency not only of lives in time but of the workings of a pattern through matter. For we too who travel the longitudes of poems couldn't have foreseen we'd come to this end:

That morning, in the men's room, after stripping off the shirt,
I found my chest & arms tinted
a translucently purplish red
paper towels and liquid soap couldn't scrub off--
so that the words the janitor spoke
seemed then to have made my body
glow, like a particle shot
scraping through dense air, one of the brief
phosphor-red sparks thrown off
by an emery wheel
while someone sharpens a blade.

Someone sharpens a blade, all right, all the while, behind the scenes. In this poem's last image of a maker, there is a kind of enormous destiny (or fatality) at work, but it is one with no apparent interest in our welter of worldly ultimata. From its wheel and blade, the brightly-colored human figure flies off incidental as a spark.

*

Juxtaposing a dead yellow-jacket on a windowsill with a casually revealing self-analysis ("A secret & clever recklessness / has always helped me"), the poem "Self-Portrait" continues:

The sort that in 1953
drove a Hungarian recording engineer
to bootleg his favorite be-bop & R&B.
The outlawed tunes were pressed on top of x-ray sheets.
The x-rays stolen from a Budapest hospital
so a diamond-tipped stylus could glide
the . . . splintered eighth notes of jaw bone and hipsocket.

From this anatomy of the blues the poem delves deep into the story of an intentionally sunken car (insurance scam gone wrong) and tearful co-conspirator. And then the poem ends:

I kept my own counsel,
always acting
. . . an impersonator
of the helpful, my plots & schemes
disguised. The other hornet knows how,
the slyer one, the one who spotted
a hole in the screen . . .
He flew off to join the next dance
around a branch of over-ripe pears, he was
a daydreamer, & easily distracted--by a day-old smear of ketchup,
by sweat dampened hair--dreaming
of sailing downstream
on a chip of cedar bark,
wings folded back, lost, but canny enough
not to give the feeling a name.

This is an ars poetica, just as surely as is "Welcome, Fear" ("I woke / because a smoke detector went off, signaling / its batteries were dying . . . / walking naked / through a cold house, moving from alarm / to alarm, unable to find the right one . . ."). This is a house divided against itself, a sensibility that strikes itself alternately as fortunate and hapless, a mind bemused by the foiling of its own best instruments. In the Rivardian world, cold must be protected from cold, hot from hot, and the alarm sets off an alarm to say that its alarm might not go off! Still, the right alarm has to be found and tended to, in the cold dark house. (If one only had a fire!)

Behind these shifts in humor, perspective, scale, and time, one senses an organizing intelligence with an abiding taste for oxymoron (that figure of opposites conjoined):

. . . in the astral & swampy songs of a cardinal
an undertone of cheerfully French gloom.
. . . the melancholy Quebecois ballads they sang fluttered past the heavy, resinous leaves
and, absorbed by each other's genes,
encased & encoded,
passed down to me.
Then
my loneliness might need to be
protected,
by everyone else's.

(from "Little Wing")

To my mind, none of these excerpts fails to speak to the act of poetry-making itself; this also from "Little Wing":

A pleasing loneliness, don't doubt it,
to walk where so many swam.
Back & forth, under the sun.
All on my own, I drift, & drift off.

David Rivard's passages are of passages; he has a mind to be of two minds. Between Eric Dolphy and a sea otter:

. . . it was easy to feel how
each left his mark on me.
Out of my happiness they carved an intensity.
. . . the same might be said of my hatred.

The poem from which I've chosen this last example, "Baby Vallejo," is perhaps the place to rest his case: a case that, when it isn't carrying a saxophone, offers up a velvet bowl, the instrumental space, to tell us not that music's missing, but rather that music is being made somewhere nearby, and cannot be contained. This poem, like all of Rivard's poems, is drawn irresistibly on, through saddening straits of time ("the moment my grip loosened / . . . I couldn't stop my cousin / punching out his wife. . ."), then ruminates its way into a memory of a story of a dream: a dream of torture told by a Pakistani tile mason on a job--a story of men suspended, men torn. Its ending is my own best ending, since it amounts to a listener/writer's own self-recognition as an other. "The man recounting it," writes Rivard:

wanted only the least implausible interpretation.
But I never answered,
out of ignorance or indifference, some job site superstition . . .
Hands grizzled by dried grouting pastes,
he spoke the concise, elaborated English
a former lecturer in linguistics might--
since, in fact, that is what he had once been,
that & a cipher for the wrong politics--his words filtered
through a crushed windpipe, a nose smashed
during several precisely-engineered & official beatings.
Suffice it to say
the mark carved inside me by that voice
is probably exquisite, intricate...
but I don't go in to look it over.
Because he knows why
in my poems a . . . gray rain . . . sweeps down,
and, knowing, refuses
to believe, as I do, that the roofs of our houses
will withstand the rain's buffeting,
why, in other words,
sadly, happily, luxuriously, it is often
Rivard against Rivard.