Review of David Rigsbee’s The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems

David Rigsbee. The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems. NewSouth Books, 2010. $24.95

David Rigsbee has the kind of enviable journal and magazine credits that might suggest a high national profile. The acknowledgments page of The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems lists such prestigious and widely distributed venues as The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Poetry, as well as such highly respected university-sponsored publications as The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, and The Journal. However, his many books have generally been published by small presses, which, given their limited resources for advertising and distribution, tend to find readers fit but few. He may be more widely known for his co-editorship of Invited Guest, a valuable University of Virginia Press anthology of twentieth-century Southern poetry, than for his own poems.

The Red Tower is Rigsbee’s first publication with NewSouth Books, which, though another small press, seems more interested in publicizing its releases than do many others. The Red Tower thus seems likely to bring Rigsbee something more like the recognition he deserves. The book offers a substantial overview of his work: sixty-five previously collected poems and excerpts from two long sequences join sixteen new poems, providing a substantial overview of his forty-year career.

The new poems come first; taken together, the opening three make a good introduction to the whole collection. “Harp” cinematically invites us into “a room / not mine”—a room in which the poet is “sitting by a wooden harp”—and shares the room’s view of a woman across the street hanging wash on her balcony. As the poet watches, he is “thinking of hot, loser towns / where I am no longer, of years imagined / when I never was,” then fastens our attention on a particular item in that load of laundry:

One child’s dress, an ever-
serviceable blue cotton smock, says it all,
hanging four-square from the balcony rail,
as if in the absence of its little owner, billowing,
it took that absence on a journey.
Pointless speculation, says a contrapuntal voice,
and yet that is what I did with my life.

So the poem concludes. “Harp,” like much of The Red Tower, offers an attractive combination of precision and mystery: the language is deft, economical, and evocative, but the relationship between image and idea can be elusive. (The dress says what all, exactly?) But Rigsbee connects far more dots than he doesn’t. He’s no John Ashbery, relentlessly pulling the rug out from under our feet; he’s an occasionally elliptical artist whose ellipses seem designed to draw in rather than shut out his readers. In those final two lines, “Harp” also articulates a modesty that pervades this book. Though Rigsbee often inserts himself into his poems, he hardly writes in the self-aggrandizing vein of much recent American poetry. Indeed, the image of him sitting next to a harp (a laughable exaggeration of the traditional lyre), and moreover a harp that stands silent, suggests nothing so much as the poet’s sense of his own uselessness, a sense only reinforced by the poem’s ending. It’s a poignant but also appealingly self-critical sentiment with which to open a retrospective.

Next comes the shorter and more startling “After Reading.” Reading someone’s work (but whose, he doesn’t say), Rigsbee thinks “how purity is a curse, how it / puts us off the human,” distracting us from the real world we live in—or, as he puts it, from “the garbage and the grief.” This leads him to recall standing in St. Peter’s, gazing at the Pietà, and having a surprising thought about the 1972 attack on that masterpiece: he found himself “secretly admiring / the madman whose hammer / chipped the same marble that made / Michelangelo such a monster.” Several poems in The Red Tower demonstrate a value of “impurity” over “purity,” some by indulging in the grotesque (“Spaghetti,” “Hosanna,” “The Exploding Man”), some by engaging in the kind of ellipsis discussed above (“A Life Preserver,” “Autobiography,” “Almost You”), and some by partly adopting and partly resisting the strictures of traditional verse form (“Sonnet,” Cloud Journal, Sonnets to Hamlet).

The third new poem, “The Red Tower,” sounds a recurring theme: the poet’s anguish over his younger brother’s death, which we eventually learn was a suicide. Rigsbee writes, “Yeats was wrong when he wrote / that God talked to those long dead”; he offers “a blinking tower / on a mountain” as an image of such communication, noting that its pulsing red light “raised no one.” He closes with a rhetorical question, repeated as if in despair: “Because even if / God talked to the dead, what could / He possibly say to them? / What could He possibly say?” Several of the poems dealing with his brother’s life and death are very strong (“In Ohio,” “The Mermaid,” “Safe Box,” “Linking Light”), but one is particularly remarkable: “Four Last Songs,” a virtuosic four-part, eighteen-page poem based on Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder. Strauss’s songs, settings of poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, encourage an acceptance of death; Rigsbee integrates them, passage by passage, into this long meditation on his brother’s last act, setting off the borrowings by printing them in all caps. The result is a powerful counterpoint between turmoil and peace that Rigsbee finally resolves: “let us not lose our way / but move along the wall of silence // and cling, as he has done, to the wall of silence.”

The Red Tower is a very rich book, one difficult to do justice in a short review, but at least two more aspects need to be noted, if only briefly. First is the frequency with which Rigsbee honors other artists and thinkers. In addition to all the masters already mentioned above, these poems memorialize or otherwise invoke Richard Rorty, Allen Tate, Gil Scott-Heron, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, Wolfgang Mozart, Randall Jarrell, and Joseph Brodsky. Second is the inclusion here of several lovely poems restoring us to a relationship with nonhuman nature, poems such as “The Mountaintop,” “Crickets,” “Heat,” “Wild Strawberries,” and “Vespers.” “Vespers” appears below, so Rigsbee’s gifts can speak for themselves in closing:

Wind carries off the slighter
birds, after which a purling of doves
adjusts the evening. An owl stands
quiet as a pine cone when a blade of light
breaches the hilltop and is gone. Behind me,
a compact car carries compact profiles
to town. Only a cloud, like a lipstick kiss
left on a mirror, offers
its supplemental farewell to the unbroken haze.
This is the final atmosphere
of a work day, not great bindings
but the modest affinities: bread
crossing the table,
as the jet engine overcomes the dove.

Robert West's latest collection of poems is Convalescent (Finishing Line Press). He is an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University.