Set in Italy and documenting its landscape, the seventh collection of poems by David Rigsbee reads almost like a travel diary in verse.
Readers will not find the cares of life and its usual dramas. Like someone who suffered too much turmoil and excitement in their youth, this collection of poems has left all the stuff and nonsense behind to meditate on nature, art by the Masters, the changes between morning and mid-morning, gradations and fine distinctions.
The Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, opened one of his poems, “The Lemon Trees,” with the request “Hear me a moment,” as if to acknowledge that the topic of lemon trees might not be a grabber. Rigsbee makes no such appeal. His are carefully mapped poems of quiet observation. Take them or leave them. Fortunately, this collection is written by someone who appears to have spent a long time looking and is qualified to make fine distinctions.
Unlike a tourist or recent transplant, Rigsbee knows his way around the territory, so much so that most of the poems do not designate a location. Many have names similar to landscape paintings: Gate by a Boat Pond, Combine Stopped in a Field, Annunciation. The correlation between poetry and painting is strong throughout the book; there are even several ekphrastic poems.
There’s also a strong sense of the summer season. Besides the obvious clues of a poem like “Poem at Midsummer,” the prolonged looking and slow movement of the eye on the objects before it suggest the summer’s slower pace. Time is always present but not pressing.
Another strong theme is that of sight and vision. When not looking at the world himself, Rigsbee seems to be looking at others who have, like the painter Giorigo Morandi or Montale.
In several poems, the speaker invites the reader to follow his line of vision. “Piero’s Resurrection” finds the poet musing on the risen Christ surrounded by sleeping soldiers. Christ is the only figure with eyes open. Though the sleeping soldiers cannot see what miracle has just occurred, Rigsbee posits that the painting shows them to be superior in face and body. They have “let consciousness go/ in return for their ordinary beauty.”
If Rigsbee is suggesting a correlation between unconsciousness and beauty, nature is the perfect subject. For all the looking that artists do, nature does not return the favor and the difference between man-made creation and nature is noted often. And yet, what would nature do if art did not exist to capture it? As Rigsbee says himself in “Never Forget”: “What both bird and butterfly did would go/ by the same name.”
Nature would never take on such long and sustained looking as that of the artist Giorgio Morandi, a subject of one the collection’s strongest poems. Morandi painted the same objects – vases, bottles – again and again and again. According to the critic James Gardner, the “fragile vessels” painted by Morandi “are rendered mostly in half-tones, that sit, as though waiting for something to happen that never does, upon a dull gray surface.”
But outside of art, things do happen. In the poem “Morandi,” Rigsbee seems to be writing of one painting in particular, but also gives a nod to Morandi’s sympathy with Fascism and Musslolini. He writes,
the Leader scraped boulevards until one reached the cathedral. Youths aspired to bone, and time itself to something more compromising than duration.
Morandi’s subject matter gives no clue to the turbulent times during which it was painted. Rigsbee suggests “modesty” was the artist’s motivation for leaving out the world’s attempt to destroy itself. Morandi stays true to what he can see:
A bottle complete with its own shade, one broad enough to merge with any radiance, but clinging decently, reliably, to its dark.
Morandi seems an appropriate subject for Rigsbee. Though some Morandi paintings are described as dreamlike, he is known for his attention to the visible world and this is the world that attracts Rigsbee’s attention, as well. In Two Estates, modern scenes and technologies arise at points, and history interrupts, but these are mentioned briefly and in passing. The artist keeps looking.