The Dissolving Island by David Rigsbee
BkMk Press, 2003 (ISBN 188615743X)
I think perhaps my long fascination with the poems of David Rigsbee comes from a scene in my own life where, as a young writer (age 19, or thereabout), I turned in a rather terrible philosophical poem as part of a college creative course. The professor, not brave enough to state the simple truth that my poem was weak, returned it instead with the following note in voice-of-God red ink on top: "There is no place for philosophy in poetry." I confess, I have spent much of the last decade trying to prove her wrong. In a way, Rigsbee's poetry does that for me—much better in fact than mine does, and without trying so hard. In his newest book, The Dissolving Island, he manages to mix the thought-provoking wisdom of the philosophical 'Greats' with clear, precise language and images just as powerful as the ideas he attaches to them. Sometimes he blatantly uses the philosophers themselves to add depth and texture to a piece, as in his poem, "Sketches of Spain":
Times were better once,
before I read Spinoza
and felt his logic shake
my senses. It was like
a summons to a man
on his over-stuffed couch:
"Your reading this
indicates your compliance."
That is not to say, however, that Rigsbee overloads his poems with just the meditations of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the like. In fact, he uses philosophy the same way some poets use sarcasm, and others, the erotic: it fills in the gaps between poet and reader, adding context, building a bridge that helps with understanding.
Even though many of Rigsbee's poems use ideas as poetic devices, the scenes he describes are what carry these poems and make them worth the attention they demand. He focuses on picture and narrative alike, describing a possum struck on the road, a foggy portrait, and his own coming to grips with his brother's suicide, all with the same high seriousness and sense of purpose. This latter especially he shares in such a way that the reader is moved to show him sympathy he never asks for, as with these lines from "Safe Box":
Fresh from contemplating his own death,
now that the cancer, like rain on a carpet,
had upgraded its strain,
my father showed me the gun
my brother used to kill himself.
"Who gave him this thing?" I asked.
"I gave it to him," he said.
"Wish I hadn't done that," . . .
Sometimes idea fades into the background, allowing an image to work its magic on the reader. Then, Rigsbee draws a clear, bright sketch with care and precision as, here, in "Turner's Mists":
The sky begins, on one side, to assert itself.
Its brand of blue, which in our century
stands for the indifferent, dispenses
meaning, revealing a bay
and implicit in it, ships and commerce.
Such sky, then, looks forward;
even its mist equals only momentary chaos,
out of which land is coming to life.
Taken as a whole, Rigsbee's poems have a depth and complexity that make them fun to read once, but powerful taken in many times. The poet has honed his craft to a sharp point that he uses to make pinprick after pinprick instead of one fatal spear's hole. That leaves the end result the same, though one gets there after so much more awareness of the wounds.
Recommendation: All in all, The Dissolving Island is a wonderful read from cover to cover. Rigsbee's craft and seriousness make these poems seem as though they have been carved from marble in stead of merely inked on a page. This volume easily merits the $12.95 cover price. So, as Socrates himself might have put it: the only thing I know is that I know you should buy this book. Or, maybe it was Sartre who said . . . oh, never mind. Just pick it up. Trust me.