Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review of David Rigsbee's "The Red Tower: New & Selected Poems"

Review of The Red Tower: New & Selected Poems
by David Rigsbee
NewSouth Books, 2010, $24.95, 192 pages
ISBN: 9781588382313

Like countless others, Thoreau, for example, or Camus or Whitehead or Sinatra, I have been haunted most of my life by a single question. Stephen Dobyns put this question into words in perhaps his best known poem, “How to Like It.” David Rigsbee, in his new collection of poems, The Red Tower, has an answer to that question. In his opening poem, “Harp,” he concludes, “Pointless speculation, and yet / / that is what I did with my life.” Granted, “pointless speculation,” may not sound like much, but one shouldn’t judge that summation of human existence and endeavor too harshly. After all, with the exception of that special certainty granted by what we call faith (others might say imagination or fantasy or denial), as far as we can ever know, all of our efforts to explain and understand the nature or meaning of life are ultimately speculative, and lacking the truth that is necessary to make one’s efforts truly meaningful and purposeful, they must be deemed in all likelihood pointless as well. More importantly, however, the answer to the question, “How do we like it,” that Rigsbee provides in The Red Tower is that we embrace the uncertainty of our existence, and all that entails, in other words, that we try.

Such uncertainty is a frequent source of frustration, sometimes even depression or desperation, but it is always also a source of possibility and purpose. I think of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and how any attempt to determine the nature of the road Frost is suggesting one should take is frustrated by the poem’s embrace of uncertainty, leaving one with the conclusion that Frost’s real point is not which road one should take but only that it is one’s willingness to choose a road and pursue it that makes “all the difference.” In other words, it matters most that one is willing to try. Rigsbee’s poems in The Red Tower have a similar undercurrent. He recognizes that his answer to the question is an embrace of uncertainty, which creates possibility, and each of the poems in this book clarifies how one pursues possibility, what one might encounter in that pursuit, and what consequence might occur along the way. The first clarification comes in his second poem, “After Reading,” where he declares, “Purity is a curse . . . / It better fits / to turn away from the shore / in favor of the garbage and the grief.”

The next clarification comes in his third poem, the book’s title poem, “The Red Tower,” where he attempts to discover meaning out of his brother’s death, finding instead no transcendent answers. He declares that “Yeats was wrong when he wrote / that God talked to those long dead,” and adds, “Even if / God talked to the dead, what could / He possibly say to them?” This is not the first time anyone has asked this question, and Rigsbee makes clear that it shouldn’t be the last. If God is to have any real meaning to humanity, then this question needs to be asked repeatedly and persistently. The doubt expressed in those lines is repeated in the next poem, “The Apartment,” as well, where he tells us that “Saints were said to emerge from their cells / and pause, before going forth out of the spirit, / in their rope belts, into the stony forests.” If even saints pause between the realms of the spiritual and the physical, between life and death, then how could the rest of us expect any certainty, any correctness, any purity in our choices?

The four poems mentioned thus far are all from Rigsbee’s new poems, so it’s not surprising, perhaps, that the subject matter and attitudes they express are similar. It is most interesting to note, however, that the same perspective exists in the selected poems from his seven previous collections as well. My favorite of his expressions of this embrace of uncertainty comes from “The Stone House,” a poem in memoriam of Edmund Wilson, whose very life embodied the necessary dialectic between ontology and epistemology, what one might call the balancing act of being human. Rigsbee proclaims:

Wanted: a sky-blue life,
wild valleys brought to heel
by threshers and the queer tame men
walking the swath of a glacier.
Wanted too, a meaning for these footsteps,
these crawfish on the stone ledge, crawling
back to the river, and the tiny water-shrew
there, particular and bashful.

We want both to be and to make meaning out of or discover meaning within being. Embracing this balancing act and the effort necessary to persistently create meaning from it is also central to another of my favorite of Rigsbee’s older poems, “Equinox.”

It is the equinox, and today I feel
the thrall that reconciles the animal
and the hole, cloud and lake, the sexes.
The ticking at the window grows . . .
but in the kitchen the summer flies still swirl.
I hunt them all, as if nothing
should learn to expect the impossible.

Negative eloquence . . . /
is why the fire saves nothing, discards nothing.

Rigsbee stresses appreciation of the difference between life, which is clearly eternal, and individual life, which is decidedly not. He also stresses the necessary duality of living and being aware of living, being in the moment and aware of being in the moment.

Finally, in “Caught in the Rain,” another of Rigsbee’s best early poems we hear the same message in perhaps his clearest words as he contemplates the freshness of world metaphorically washed clean of loss, regret, the ever-present past by rain:

It will be
like falling in love again

to feel the sky-chilled rain
wanting to press my shirt
into the likeness of my body

until I am the submissive one,
part bird, part worm, part of
what is without reason . . .

knowing only the present tense.

Throughout his decades-long work, Rigsbee has encouraged us to live better, to make life better, by embracing the present tense, by submitting to an understanding that each of us is only a moment, by embodying Keats’ idea of negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any [or at least too much] irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is lesson that will do us all good and that we need to be reminded of regularly.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Imbued with the Spirit: A Review of Echoes Across the Blue Ridge

Imbued with the Spirit: A Review of Echoes Across the Blue Ridge

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge (Winding Path 2010)
Edited by Nancy Simpson
238 pages, $16
ISBN: 9781450701525

What makes the Appalachian Mountains so special? Certainly one distinctive quality is age. Where else can you see stone so old it crumbles, trees left alone to grow as big around as houses, houses bent on one knee but still lived in, and traditions as old as . . . well, as old as the hills?

Things, even people, are allowed to grow old here without someone knocking them down in the name of progress or shuffling them off to a nursing home. And that’s how the real magic of the place happens, because, in one respect, nothing dies here -- not really. Sure, physical presence may come and go, but the essential character of things is retained in stories, poems, songs, artifacts, traditions, and, most of all, memory.

The word “haunted” has a negative connotation in most places, but one can hardly read about the southern Appalachians without that word or a synonym being, if not named, then at least implied. Robert Morgan uses it in his Introduction to Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: “The deep valleys seem haunted by the natives who once lived there.” Kay Byer uses it in a comment quoted by Nancy Simpson in her “Note from the Editor:” “our most haunting artifacts.” The first poem, “Beyond the Clearing” by James Cox, certainly suggests it by referring to “a place sublime / where spirits sing invisibly.” And the first two stories, “Rendezvous” by Charlotte Wolf and “The Third Floor Bedroom” by Lana Hendershott, are, to some degree about the sensation of being haunted. And despite the usual expectation that non-fiction wouldn’t involve such fanciful ideas as spirits and haunting, even the first essay, “The Oldest Answer” by Steven Harvey quotes Bettie Sellers saying, “My bent was to espouse the unseen that’s in the woods at night.” To which, Harvey adds, “It is the need to fill all this haunted otherness with something human.”

All of this repetition of the word “haunting” or the sense of being haunted reminds the reader that the implication of the word is in fact not limited to an unpleasant habitual visitation but rather to a persistent presence of spirit, a presence that may be desired, embraced, just as I, a flatlander, have been haunted by images of Cade’s Cove, Caesars Head, Graveyard Fields, and the Devil’s Courthouse since visiting them as a child and returning to them as often as I can manage. This usually pleasant but sometimes unsettling lingering of spirit is closer to the type of haunting the writers in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge have discovered in these mountains and expressed in these pages.

Not that every piece in this anthology deals with the past or memory or spirit. Some of the selections deal with other reasons people are attracted to these mountains. Ellen Andrews comments on the beauty and sense of community in the mountains in “Homing:” “We are connected not by school uniforms / but by a raging lust for these purple mountains.” And in poems like Gene Hirsch’s “Where It Comes From,” we see even more closely the intimate relationship between the human and the natural: “Love / sprouts from lichen, / in the shade, by the lily pond . . . / in the thicket / of a chapter of floating / leaves / beneath the silky / hairs of a willow.”

Even the descriptions of nature are, however, frequently haunting, as in Janice Townley Moore’s “Photos from Another State,” where she describes the sound of a creek as “lyrics from the unseen.” Similarly, Jennifer McGaha’s reverie in “Looking Glass” is punctuated by images from the past: “You see your great-grandmother, her long, gray hair pinned in a bun, stooping over the quilting loom by the black wood stove in her cabin, and you see her strolling in her garden, her brown, crinkled hands pulling a green bean fresh from the vine.” And Susan Lefler’s harrowing story “The Spirit Tree” tells of one little girl’s attempt to use the spirits of nature and tradition to fend off the hazards of her mother’s emotional disorder.

Whether spirits of joy or grief, familiarity or strangeness, there is no doubt that the southern Appalachians are possessed by a presence that transcends the physical and temporal. In the same way, the poems, stories, and essays in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge are possessed by the various spirits of these mountains, leaving us standing, in the words of Janet Sloane Benway’s poem “Sugarloaf Mountain,” “in awe, / even in the face of sorrow.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Art Speaks -- A Unique Collaborative Art and Theatre Project

Art Speaks – A unique collaborative art and theatre project

Saint Stephens High School (Hickory, NC) students from Sue Hardy’s Drawing II, III/IV, & Visual Arts III and Molly Rice’s auditioned class of actors, writers, and singers Play Production have collaborated to produce a magazine-style book, art display and performance called “Art Speaks”. The artists and actors have worked closely together in dialogue as partners. The artist and actor together have chosen a persona to bring to life – some include making death, fear, confusion, a secret, broken cell phone, and dog tags speak, among others. The actors have created monologues, poetry, prose, and songs based on their chosen persona and the artist has created art work from their favorite medium.

Forty-six artists and actors met on Tuesdays and Thursdays during class to be a part of each other’s art as it was created. The project was kick started by Irish poet Adrian Rice who shared the “Muck Island” box a joint book made with Irish artist Ross Wilson. Muck Island is housed at Tate Gallery and Harvard University.

Artist Sue Hardy and Poet Molly Rice have teamed up as well to enjoy the experience with their students. Both teachers agreed that it was refreshing to focus on their own artistry since being a teacher leaves little time for creating outside their classroom.

“Art Speaks” will be performed in a unique walk-through production where the audience will get an intimate look at the students’ work.
Saturday Nov. 13th at the Hickory Museums of Art’s Coe Gallery at 4pm. This one-of-a-kind event is free to the public.

In the afternoon, the book “Art Speaks” will be launched.

Books, art prints (for framing), and CDs of the original music produced for the project will be sold. This project has been documented on film and a DVD of the work in progress and performance will be sold at a later date.

For more information, or to order copies of the books, prints, or CDs, contact Molly Rice at