issue 32 > nonfiction > bassen
Texture PressReview by L.S. Bassen
Norman, OK 2014. 114 pp.
One of the aspects of getting older is a palpable sensation of time as if it were weather or a season. A corollary is the feeling of being displaced, replaced, like a wave on a shore. Aging can feel okay in the scheme of things, but it also inspires resistance. Dylan Thomas's exhortation to fight against going "gentle into that good night" is a useful mantra. Regarding poetry, another facet of maturity is a facility and preference for form. You've had enough of Jackson Pollock's spills and their verbal equivalents. It's neither nostalgia nor crankiness that sends you to past unities. Mastery does. A current tyro or young star might consider wrestling with the Angel (of rhyme, meter, sonnet, etc.), so that like Jacob's, a pelvis might be disjointed and s/he would earn a new name.
Now there's nothing old fogey about Don Rigg's fine new collection Bilateral Asymmetry, as the paradoxical title immediately proclaims and the poet's page-by-page images illustrate. My first introduction to Don Riggs was reviewing an excellent handbook he illustrated, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for (Texture Press, 2013). His 2012 essay "Making Things out of Words" http://www.leafscape.org/press1/v6n1/ makingthings. html increased my interest. I sought out Bilateral Asymmetry for the drawings, but I stayed for the poems. In his calligrammes Riggs does both (with homage to earlier calligrammiste Apollinaire). Here's one that accompanied Uber Blumen Und Madchen (85) that I enjoyed figuring out: Daffodils demand folly, as befits those who fly from the keeper of carcasses.
In this marvel of a sonnet, Riggs asks, I can always translate from a text, but/how can I translate something from the past? Altogether, that is precisely what the poet achieves in the 121 page collection which are all (but two) unconstrained sonnets. So natural is the language of the poems that you don't immediately recognize their formal aspects, and Riggs is erudite without pedantry. The title of one of the book's nine sections, Ars Brevis Vitrina Obscura (Art is short-lived, the view shrouded), puns wryly on Hippocrates's Ars longa, vita brevis (Art lasts, life is short). Riggs's accessible language brings to mind the blunt-voice poetry of Catullus:
Odorous: To Rufus
I'm not surprised as to why no girl desires
to place her gentle thighs beneath you, Rufus,
not if you were to weaken her with gifts
of rarest dresses, the delights of clearest gems.
A certain evil story wounds you: that they tell
about you: that you've a wild goat under the armpits.
Everyone hates that, no wonder: since it's a truly
evil-smelling beast, not one that girls bed with.
So either kill the cruel plague to their noses,
or cease to wonder why they run away.
Compare Odorous to Riggs's title poem:
My right side, my adroit side, is tighter;
my sinister side is much more relaxed.
My dominant side is more insecure
since it always has to be capable;
my submissive side's used to giving in:
sloppiness is expected. The right takes
over, the head pulled close to the shoulder
as if I'm always listening closer
to what the left brain commands, pulling strings
on the opposite side of the body.
The left side, where the heart lives, the right brain
loosely directs, taking a wait-and-see
attitude. Most of the body's water,
it reflects; let it shift along ley lines.
My dominant side is more insecure/since it always has to be capable trips you, and that end couplet saves you from the fall. Splendid!
A book like Bilateral Asymmetry is an antidote to the half century or more of poetry overdosing on Dr. William Carlos Williams's originally inspired prescription that so much depends/ upon/a red wheel/barrow and/or on the oracular voices of depressed confessions that led William Logan to describe Louise Gluck as "a stand-up vampire." In contrast, Riggs's Confession (71) is ruefully optimistic:
She asked me if I wrote confessional
poetry and I had to admit I
did, as everything I write down has to
do with whatever is on my mind when
I'm writing it: my sleep patterns, any
dreams I may have remembered or if I
remember a fragment a single shot
I write that down and follow the pathway
that opens up before me, tracing where
I may have gone even if I didn't
actually go there when I was dead
to the world and I was taking the deep
road into the Lower World unfolding
before me holding my pen before me.
With a full-bodied collection like Bilateral Asymmetry, you'll want to keep track of your copy when you share it. You'll have favorites. Mine (87) is the swiftest summary of Life & Art I've ever seen:
Life goes on, but individual poems
stop. The most you can hope for is the line
that doesn't end with a period. You
are suspended in the middle of a
sentence, possibly look up, then resume
reading as if the music never stopped,
as if everyone didn't have to dive
for the chairs, of which there were always one
too few. This was before birthdays returned
with such increasing rapidity that
you lost count, the world hurtling around the
small yellow star, the entire universe
flashing past your bewildered eyes until,
like a premeditated sonnet, all is still.
In one of the later poems in the book, Riggs says there is Real Magic (105) that involves metamorphosis/of one thing into a wholly other…as of that wise/…phoenix that turned to ash/ and emerged/younger, stronger, unwrinkled, glorious/…launched into his new life, never to return. Given the range, energy, and beauty of his new collection, the wise phoenix Don Riggs shouldn't look for a pyre anytime soon.