David Rivard is an immensely talented, award-winning poet and another old friend from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The first time I visited the fabulous Hope Cemetery in Barre, VT, I went along with David Rivard and Francois Camoin, Francois taking book jacket photos amid the extravagant folk art granite headstones (granite cars, soccer balls, lovers). It’s a huge pleasure to use Numéro Cinq to reach back in time and capture those moments. Here are four gorgeous poems from David’s new poetry book Otherwise Elsewhere, just published a couple of months ago by Graywolf Press. Including Otherwise Elswhere, David is the author of five books of poetry. The others are Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1996 and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque. His poems and essays appear in the American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Poetry London, and other magazines. In 2006, he was awarded the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching. Among his other awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ranieri Foundation, and the NEA. He teaches in the University of New Hampshire MFA program.
See also Ron Slate’s review of Otherwise Elsewhere at At the Seawall and Ryan Sanford Smith’s review at White Walls/Black Ink. Here is a David Rivard interview at Agni and a short David Rivard essay on writing that originally appeared American Poetry Review.
Four Poems from Otherwise Elsewhere
By David Rivard
Note to Myself
Having survived self-
esteem (both low & high), like
out of a to-do
list for civil war
in the heart—
been a back-stabber (when said
back was my own), or
the Ace of Spades,
in my mind—
Getting to see myself
as a green midge
as a pine tree looming like
a fetching samurai
at the edge
of a meadow—I get a little
everywhere I go
step closer to wherever I
I was when I left for
wherever I thought
I wanted to be.
Given the round
ranginess of earth, always
thinking of myself—tho
that’s it for me now. Enough. No
more, thank you. No, really.
The part of Stockholm I saw at 22, I saw as an employee & thief
more or less—an American sweating in clogs & kitchen whites—
booster of those clogs from a Gamla Stan stall, a shoplifter
of Icelandic sweaters, book thief—Gravity’s Rainbow, Justine—
I worked day-shifts as scullery boy for Claes & Eva at the restaurant
Hos Oss, pot scrubber, peeler of turnips & potatoes, blade sharpener—
“working black” the Swedes said, meaning for most foreigners
off-the-books &untaxed, the welfare state scammed, meaning
for others that you had vanished, you were a Vera or a Paulo
or Damishi who had fled from your home in some southern dictatorship
fearful that you might be “disappeared,” so perhaps you no longer
existed anymore, or didn’t deserve to. “If people believe,”
Berndt had said, “it’s only because they wish for themselves to see,”
tho the chef was speaking of having had the dead appear to him
as bewildering presences, travelers trapped on the blank screen
of his broken television, souls stored in a paranormal peepshow.
Meanwhile I mopped tiles or whisked a bowl of whipped cream
as the middle-management of Gulf Oil drifted over
from a nearby office tower for pea soup & thick pancakes & jam
every Thursday lunch—there was a sad gentility & boredom
sunk deep in the witch-hazel faces of these sober businessmen,
far from the tripping & mobilizations of dumbstruck America
1975. Faces unlike my own bearded & baffled face.
What is the taste of raw potato in a steamy northern kitchen?—
the iron earthiness of your mother & father outgrown, left behind.
“Anodyne lingerie” was Amy Dryansky’s
way of describing it. “The sufferers of giganticism
are out in the fog with their mallets,” wrote
David Blair. Meaning what Snyder meant perhaps
by “spring-water in the green creek is clear,”
a crib from Han Shan. Meaning otherwise
“trouble no more,” as sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
or “now it’s your turn, mister!”—as any babysitter might say—
even if it is unquestionably true that no one should ever
promise anything so vague & huge—a youngish
woman with a macaroon talking to a toddler,
her voice the galvanic bath it all floats in. It. All of it.
“Solitude, my mother, tell me my life again,”
wrote the uncle of Czeslaw Milosz last time he saw it.
A blissful state of mind, or an anxiety attack. It
has a need to be called by its rightful name
or explained because it can’t see itself clearly,
plus is terribly changeful. In any case, “Grazie” is
still the best way to say goodbye to it. And it wasn’t fooled
when my brother referred to it as a “piece of cake.”
Perhaps the best advice ever given about it can be found
in these lines by a sadly late & formerly high-wattage
earthling: “When you come to something,” he said,
“stop to let it pass, so you can see what else is there.”
“It’s murder,” my doctor likes to say, & it is,
but it still wants you to love it back. My mother
dealt with it by telling the four of us, me, my
brother & two sisters, “go ahead, do whatever
you want.” By which she meant we should do
exactly what she thought best. As if that should
have put it to rest. Thankfully, it did not. Grazie.
What We Call Childhood
What we call childhood isn’t
what a child would call it—
so she doesn’t
speak of how she was the most sensitive girl in the convent school kindergarten
or that the god who was a panhandler
wore a fly’s face
and that whenever he dawdled beneath the striped
awning of the shop selling cut-rate shoes & her class
had to walk by him as it happened
on the way to the public library
she would cling to her teacher then & cry
steered off by the old nun’s fingers, she doesn’t mention
why her bedspread changed to blue
each July, the sky lighter blue, the screen door green,
her stepfather’s beach house having been rehabbed under the influence of sea light,
sea light & contractor kickbacks,
she doesn’t say she was
a girl by the first week of 6th grade summer vacation well-known
as a primitive freelancer whenever she rode her old 3-speed English racer
handless downhill to the anchorage;
none of it gets talked about, certainly
not the angora sweater
and the Chinatown bracelets
or those evenings
3 winters later when she danced in front of her bedroom mirror
with headphones on & always inside of the sight lines
because she was wearing blue mascara
and somehow that
had given her the idea to break into the empty summer cottages
with her rustbelt boyfriend; she doesn’t even
say she liked how her legs got long
in a kick-pleat skirt but hated her dark hair
for curling if it threatened rain—
her whole childhood, it’s all kept in play,
so no one will ever feel free to tell her what it was worth,
not even on that autumn moor
where against all odds a narrow sandy road
gleams at midnight.
I love this collection. I’ve been reading it to Cora.
Wonderful to see this poetry here! What a privilege. In addition to his wonderful poetry, I’ve been deeply moved by an essay of David Rivard’s…”Paint Brushes vs. Rollers: On Class Warfare, Honor, and the Cosmos.” Few essays have felt more profoundly personal to me. As a fledgling writer who grew up in a working class family in Massachusetts, Rivard’s essay illumiated the odd feelings I still experience when I talk about writing to most people: “I wasn’t supposed to write poetry. My family owned few books–a set of the World Book encyclopedia, pulp thrillers, catalogs and almanacs, popular magazines–certainly no volume of poems, no anthology.”
Rich, Thanks for this fine addition to the post.
Much thanks for your kind comments on the poems, and for remembering that essay of mine from way back–I’m honored that it meant so much to you. So glad to be in contact with you here.
all best, David
These are great! I too have been both samurai and midge – the civil war of “Note to Myself” is a familiar one but I’ve never seen it portrayed so well. The others provide much to meditate on. I’ll need to come back to them.
Thanks David Rivard & dg.