Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Drawing to More: Standoff, Poems by David Rivard

David Rivard

Drawing to More: Standoff, Poems by David Rivard

Review by Marc Zegans

A central concern when taking up a book for review is whether the volume in question is worth the reader’s investment.  For many collections of poems the answer is a nonchalant yes in the sense that if a reader picks up the collection and thumbs through it, more than likely this reader will find a few pieces to his or her liking.  A critical reader may also find some elements of the material fresh, novel, engaging, and possibly worth unpacking and assimilating.   From a reviewer’s perspective, collections such as these function in much the same way as the old vinyl record album, a container for a single and a great, quirky b-side, along with a a few other pleasant but unremarkable tunes to fill out the package.  Such collections—because the stakes for the reader are low—are easy to recommend.  It’s not hard to say, “This is a gatherings of poems well worth thumbing through.”

Less commonly, we come across a collection which functions effectively as a sustained and directly engaging performance, a collection that draws us into its world and makes us want to stick around.   Such works manage the trick of tautly sustaining a project, generating willing attention to the line, the stanza, the page and the poem, while cultivating a sense of urgency, and desire in the reader.  The latter aspect can and often does represent, for the reviewer, a kind of deceptive seduction, an encouragement to relinquish critical faculties and simply be swept up in the succulent moment. If we honor our craft, we find an eddy amidst the rush to consider whether there is something worth giving over to with such abandon. When the answer is yes, we rejoice and commend the book to our readers with verve.

There’s a different kind of collection, more challenging for the reviewer to engage and assess, the kind written by an older poet, one skilled in the craft, wise enough to know the field’s present boundaries and limitations, and concerned with its expansion. Such a poet may proceed by arranging a set of interconnected and mutually dependent poems, not as series or cycle, but as consort—a gathering of associates who know each other’s ways, and who—we hope—play well together.  

While such gatherings of poems may be accessible to and while they may reward serendipitous inspection, their claims to value do not fundamentally depend on such fortune.  Their worth depends rather on how the collection functions as a whole, truly functions, which is a different matter from how it plays as gestalt.   Such books are harder to assess and harder to recommend both, because the aesthetic bar they set for themselves is radically higher than the other types of collections I have described and because a reader may have to do some substantial wading before getting to solid ground.   In order to judge whether the slog was and will likely be worth the effort, a reviewer has to undertake the full journey and weigh the effort before expressing an honest view.

Standoff, by David Rivard, an established poet with five prior collections to his credit is a volume that puts us to this harder test.  Rivard’s collection develops as an encounter with and passage through a poet’s experience of a fierce conundrum particular to, and sharply battled in, late middle age—what comes when our best may simply be to have struggled to a stand-off with the forces and internal failings that threaten full and final dissipation.   The topic is by its nature challenging and it begs disappointment, or, should standoff be the result, perhaps a wan version of Sisyphean nobility—a grudging acceptance that our freedom lies in rolling the rock yet again up the hill.  Why would we want to read a book that might arrive at this conclusion, and what about a journey into the experience of standoff, as poignant and honest as this may be, would make us want to spend the time there? 

Perhaps, because it addresses pressing concerns.  Rivard speaks in honest voice to a reader on the cusp of such dynamic blockage; to a reader in its midst, and perhaps one who has passed through to something else and can appreciate the nature and experience of standoff and what follows in or perhaps as its wake.  For readers such as these, and I count myself one, Standoff, takes us with vulnerability, but without self-pity into this world and invites us to walk with the narrator through it, one difficult poem at a time.  We learn quickly that we won’t find a quick fix in a single poem, nor will we find satisfaction by flipping and dipping.

The cover of Standoff is somewhat at odds, with its project, and this creates difficulties of induction.  Below the title, we find in a smaller black font, the word “poems,” implying that we can take these as one-offs, clustered around a theme, rather than as a collection of poems, functioning as a consort, that do work together.   This is simply not true: The power, beauty and wisdom in this collection lies in how the poems inform each other and in how they proceed.  To access these qualities, we must read and consider each one in relation to the others.   By suggesting that the books contents were more gathered than allied, the cover disserves the enterprise. We would have been better met and more effectively led had perhaps the cover said less and signaled more.

Structurally, Rivard draws us into Standoff, the experience and the book’s title poem (set as a hinge in the book’s middle) by giving us a string of poems that force us to enter intimately and uncomfortably into the tense realities of the narrator’s situation. The first five poems scream for stanza breaks, but he doesn’t give us a single one.  Instead, he places us in the numbing run-on of the stanzaless situation, so different from the experience of life as a pearled-string of moments entered fully.  

The first poem, “Greenwood Tonight, “ thrusts us quickly into difficult and unpleasant questions about, the poem and its construction, or perhaps the narrator as character and what he’s choosing to share.   After the narrator observes, “I miss myself most/these days with friends/I feel a distance from/when talking to;” he rapidly raises the stakes, describing how he stands, “clear-eyed & cold/amidst the murderous/machinery of our birthright—“The careful consonance of  mmmmms denoting both self and situation tells us that these things are somehow related: But why?  What is his pre-occupation with a situation writ so large?  Why is he invoking in this poem forces on such a grand scale? And why does he then shift to cheap, commercial surreal imagery, “…in the  telenovela/based on my life/tall prairie grasses bent/by an Alberta wind/would sprawl snugly/I’ve been told/ behind a woman vaulting/In blue pajama bottoms”  Rivard drives us toward questions, making them pile in our mind, until we reach poem’s bottom, on which there is no line, simply a statement made question by dint of a mark, “greenwood nightfall--/that’s what calls me now?”

He continues and escalates the jumble in “Less Than More Than,” blending images of a used Mazda, Peshawar, Murdoch and privatization, into “ideas,” then question again, landing finally on a double assertion—“a little foolishness/goes a long long way, I’d say;/a lot drops dead/in it’s tracks”—offered without persuasive image, evidence or logical support.   Arriving at these flip, clichéd conclusions orthogonal to the text that preceded them, we are left to throw up our hands and say, “So what?” 

It’s at this moment, and at many that follow in the string of poems leading to “Standoff,” that we’re forced to the dilemma of whether to put the book down and walk away, or to seek a real answer, and Rivard having led us into the predicament of a late-middle life standoff offers neither encouragement nor direct answer.  Having committed to reading the collection, I chip away: “Why the cliché?”

I know from the preceding material that the poet is capable of original image, tightly crafted line and novel thought, so is it possible that these flaccid assertions are a device meant to represent the character and the motive structure of the collection’s perhaps fictive narrator?   If I take the answer to be yes and place the poem’s entire narrative in quotes, thereby making its lines expressions of a character constructed by the poet, the cliché’s begin to make sense.  They’re the utterances of a man in pain, the flailings of one gesturing without conviction at freedom through regression in light of the deeper fear of a futile ending.  We know that he does not believe that foolishness is a solution to a problem that has no answer better than standoff, and yet, having not come yet to this place, the character dissipates his energy and ours with hackneyed and fruitless assertion.  

By so doing, Rivard makes us enter viscerally the experience of a scared, limited, struggling individual, fraught with resistance, reluctantly traveling down the path to a balance of forces in which survival without progress may be the most that this protagonist (or any protagonist) can achieve.  The clichés bring us to this dispiriting generalization, and in the succeeding poems, the poet pushes us to this place again and again.  If we continue, we will share this brutal path to its likely foregone conclusion.

In “Birth Chart,” he begs “Simone,” presumably his daughter, “…don’t think badly/of me when I’m dead & you’ve gone deep/ into the distance of love tangles, moneyed/
Interests & old-fashioned commutes…”  He wants more, and vests in her life beyond his perhaps the possibility of something more than standoff.   The plea is earnest, because the character has come to grief but not acceptance of the inevitability of standoff,  “out of my reach/ your life will make itself in struggle & love perhaps/dependent on the strength that will come/if only I let go when you step out the door…”  But why should we believe him?  In part, because we know that the book does not end with “Standoff,” there are many poems that swing beyond this hinge.  If we stay with it, we will learn what happens when this character meets and passes the point of balance as dynamic tension under threat.

Will the poet teach us how to live in this state?  Will he offer us something different and more?  Will standoff be a stasis that breaks leading to a life richer and deeper?  For me to answer  these questions would be to strip from this collection the method by which it’s author realizes his project, and realize it he does.  If you come to Standoff do so knowing that it’s virtue lies in its completeness, its challenge in that you must travel entirely its crags and bogs without guidepost or encouragement, and that you will gain its treasure only if you stay the course.  Standoff is a demanding work by a mature poet that goes to a place many of us face, but about which few of us speak with humility and candor.  In giving us Standoff, Rivard opens for us the possibility of drawing to something more.

Marc Zegans  Left--Doug Holder--Right

Marc Zegans is a poet and creative development advisor. His most recent collections, The Underwater Typewriter and Boys in the woods are respectively available at

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