It seems to me one useful polarity by which to sort poets might run from “realistic” to “idealistic.” In other words, some poets spend most of their time describing clearly and relatively completely what’s in front of them while others want to ascend to the empyrean as quickly as possible. There are advantages and dangers for both. The realist speaks swiftly and directly, but gets drowned in the objects he conjures up. The poem never goes beyond its details. The idealist can fill the reader’s mind with cosmic thoughts but not always with thoughts tethered to real experience. We wind up in a sentimental utopia. Of course, most poets lie somewhere in between.
I think this also relates to the question “what do we really know?” I’m Romantic and, indeed, Victorian enough to value really good advice in the lines of a poem that shows me how I might live out my days. Poems, therefore, become experience, and since I’ve read more poems than actually have had experiences I’ve learned from, poems assume great—perhaps even unhealthy—importance to me. However, what if the poet needs to write a poem but hasn’t yet penetrated the mysteries of the universe? That condition probably covers most even very good poets, after all. He can sing beautifully in his own way. He can point out details or make connections nobody else has noticed. He can write about what interests or bothers him. No matter what he does, he has to connect to the reader, and, just as important, a reader has to connect to him and want to keep the connection. Is it John Donne’s fault that most readers can’t follow him? Is it Rod McKuen’s glory that most readers can? A poem, I’m afraid, has to have a reason beyond the needs of the author, and it’s the reader’s job to discover it, if it exists.
I’ve deliberately set up extremes here, for the sake of clarity. Again, most poets combine the physical and the metaphysical. Most poets reach some readers and not others. Some poets deserve their obscurity. Some don’t earn their popularity. Right now, I feel as if perhaps I’m talking at too basic a level. Why not just take all this for granted? I think it’s important because right now I believe too many people have in their heads a near-codification of what makes a great poem, an attitude that also prevailed in the 18th century. I like a lot of different, competing activity in a culture, and I feel the loss of it in contemporary poetry. For example, I would bet that most of us believe in the Image: a process that begins in the physical and leads to the metaphysical. When Donald Hall kicks the leaves, he points to something about old age and to the life already lived. But is this the only way to poetry? After all, the poetic image—especially the Deep Image—is a relatively new idea. I doubt Homer, Sophocles, or most folk poets would have recognized it. They don’t eschew figurative language, of course, but they don’t usually (do they ever?) resort to this particular figure, the image. Simile and metaphor are essentially explicit or implied comparisons: “Hercules roared like a lion”; “Hercules, a lion in the fight, let out a roar.” Hercules corresponds, one-to-one, with a lion. An image is far less definite and tends to need a cluster of related images to make its point. If one read just the opening line to Hall’s poem “Kicking the Leaves,” I doubt any meaning beyond the literal would occur right away. Think about Sophocles’s opening to Antigone‘s praise of man:
“Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.”
Not an image anywhere and the reader doesn’t have to fish deeply, if at all, for meaning. It largely says what it means. Sophocles can write this way because he has something important to say, something that he knows.
This is a long introduction to a review. Rivera has written a book full of sharp detail, and the observation is largely his own, rather than derivative. In the current way of poetry, the details point to something beyond themselves and thus put Rivera closer to Hall than to Sophocles. Consider the poem “Alfalfa”:
Walking-dead’s a prisoner
about to die. That’s his case.
Alfalfa, Camp Street barfly
The morning zombie, pale as flounder.
His homeless stink’s beyond compare. I smell him
near the gate. Grandmother doesn’t care
She makes him eat, sits him on the stairwell
listens to him suck his food, gives him carfare.
Where’s he going? Only his radar knows —
Some alley way or park’s deserted bench.
I am the last recalls he comes and goes
His staggered search, the thirst he couldn’t quench,
And hear Alfalfa’s heart stop quicker than
he hit the pavement, as if I’m there
the absent observer, a newsman
Noting undying thirst for life elsewhere.
The language has music in it, without the music trying to hide the vague. I particularly like hearing the “heart stop quicker than he hit the pavement.” I get the sense that Rivera has reworked the poem’s language and music over a long period. Yet I wonder not what the poem means, but why it exists beyond artist’s need to say, “I am here” or (more hopefully) “I was here.” Several poems in this collection recall incidents meaningful to the poet, but not especially to me—the case of many of the poems set in New Orleans, where Rivera grew up. Consequently, it’s experience felt, but not sufficiently understood. In other words, the precisely-rooted images point to something too indefinite. The work of the poem has gone into realizing its means, rather than its meaning. An essayist rather than a poet, I feel uncomfortable with this, although your mileage may vary. I’d also pick a nit with the at-times obscurantist punctuation and the rather haphazard initial capitalizations of lines. This isn’t genuine style. It’s merely annoying.
On the other hand, when Rivera buckles down and deeply engages with the experience as well as with the language, the results are wonderful. General concerns, even themes, emerge from poem to poem: the pain and anger in even loving relationships; the sadness in even happy lives; the feeling of senseless loss; transience; blind luck, good and bad; the kindnesses we do one another. Much of this enters the poem “Patuxent River flow”:
We sat, my friend and I, facing the wind
On an evening’s bench, recalling the wrench
Of women past, the flaws, imposed failures,
How we die a little — each passing breeze
Still lifts the spirit. See how we can squeeze
Our pleasure just from watching Patuxent
River flow into the Chesapeake. This far’s
the measure of how far we’ve come — to this
Bliss of being where we are enjoying
The bench the breeze, our embedded scars.
Again, the music of it wins me over. Rivera has me at the first line—simple, straightforward, and beautiful. I also enjoy the inner rhymes of “bench/wrench” as well as the half-rhymes and inner assonances throughout. The poem chimes, rather than (with a single exception) rhymes. Notice how, in a way, old-fashioned it is—very Wordsworthian, nature giving rise to meditation on one’s life—and that the resolution comes from the union with nature.
The book falls into two sections: “Buried in the Mind’s Backyard” and “Red Winter.” In general, I preferred the poems in “Red Winter.” “Buried in the Mind’s Backyard” seems a too-perfect title for the section. So many of the poems either remain buried in Rivera’s psyche or provoke the reaction of finding an old penny in the soil—that is, little beyond “hmm.” The “Red Winter” poems seemed more fully worked out, with not only fewer duds, but stronger strong poems. For me, they provide an example of one way to live, which is the most I can ask of any poet.
Steve Schwartz was born in Cleveland, lived in New Orleans for twenty-six years and now lives in Austin.