Buried in the Mind’s Backyard (James review)

Sonja James

Buried in the Mind’s Backyard (James review)
by W.M. Rivera
BrickHouse Books
2001
20

W.M. Rivera is a poet with a distinctive relationship to his own unconscious mind and the memories housed there. His stunning new collection of poems, Buried in the Mind’s Backyard, documents the poet’s unique and often painful connection to his psyche. In Part I the poet elevates the unconscious mind to the level of the familiar without resorting to surrealism as he unearths childhood memories of his great grandmother, grandmother, and mother. In “Off to No Ends” he establishes a pattern of excavating forgotten or repressed memory by using concrete imagery as he speaks of his great grandmother, “her mind/a package when the gift is gone.” He then solidifies the template of literary excavation as he assumes the role of unwilling visionary in the title poem, “Buried in the Mind’s Backyard.” Here he explores the excruciating and until recently buried memory of his mother’s attempted suicide during his childhood. The catalyst for the memory is a film which he views as an adult. Watching a Goldie Hawn movie is what “dug it up.” He now remembers his mother on that day as he fights the recurrent sensation of

  Some dreadful wrong, that stark reason why
  my mother locked herself inside, her quiet cry
  above the faintest hiss and peculiar smell
  companies give to gas….

The poet recounts how he yelled until his mother opened the door to the kitchen and let him in. He thus saved her life.

The unearthing of memories related to his mother continues in another poem called “Deeper Than the Grave” where he chastises himself in the first two lines: “I should have dug deeper than the grave./You disappeared but were never gone.” In this poem the poet chronicles his complex love-hate relationship with the mother who left him for a second marriage:

  I never fought with you outright but held
  inside, the hateful love you left me
  here as ever in this darkening, this

  image mixed in metaphor. The Sun
  descends, disappearing never
  completely so deeply as the grave.

In this way, memory and its accompanying pain becomes art as the narrator makes poetry of it. The subsequent poems in Part I include two poems dedicated to a sculptor friend, a poem about student protests in the streets of Paris in 1968, and a short poem, “The Honey Hardened,” which explores the poet’s anxiety experienced during a failed marriage. The move from buried childhood memory to the lived experience of adult life is chronicled in full in Part II of the collection where the major theme is art and memory as perceived by the adult poet. Such artistic memory is a place where “Words/control the way snow falls perfectly.” Following this theme, many of the poems in Part II deal directly with works of art, poets, or events from the lives of artists.

In the ekphrastic poem, “Marie-Denise Villiers: Self-portrait,” Rivera explains his problematic and even obsessive relationship with a painting in the Metropolitan Museum:

  How many times that day I turned back, sought her out, and left,
  nothing fixed, apart from a postcard by my desk,
  traces of her shaded sky, her creviced dress, the hint of what’s been
  missed, the clue to what she means, her look beyond expertise.

The poet continues to dredge up his relationship with Art as he writes a poem about the poet, Delmore Schwartz, and yet another ekphrastic poem, “Lottery Dream,” inspired by a Fred Folsom drawing. These poems, like “Marie-Denise Villiers: Self-portrait,” explore the connection between memory and Art. As the poet excavates both his initial experiences with the biography of Delmore Schwartz and the viewing of the Fred Folsom drawing, these experiences are transformed into the independent entities of Rivera’s poems. The Art of someone else becomes memory which becomes the Art of W.M. Rivera. The equation Art becomes Memory becomes Art continues in the poem, “What’s More Difficult?” written in memory of yet another painter, Gil Cuatrecasas who lost his life’s work in a flood. Rivera completes the art-memory equation in “Graffiti” where he proclaims “Art is war” and thus adds a social dimension to his otherwise private world. He then continues to celebrate the social dimension of Art in “Eros and Thanatos” where he no longer speaks of himself but of humanity in general. He proclaims, “Love’s death is darkest for the young.” In the final poem of the book, he completes the newly found social dimension of his work by acknowledging that every poet is co-dependent on the perceptions of others. In the opening lines of “In Others’ Words,” he defines the relationship between poet and reader:

  Not who he is but who he was
  or will be what

  who never knew him determine him to be.
  So he is….

Read as a whole, Buried in the Mind’s Backyard is a voyage from the repressed world of childhood memory to the public world of art and society, most especially the relationship between poet and reader. The book excites as it agitates. As a psychological thriller, Rivera’s work is not to be missed.

Sonja James’s poems have been published in The Journal, The Iowa Review, Crab Creek Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The South Carolina Review, and Poet Lore, among others. Among her honors are two Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Martinsburg, WV.

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