We are all, in this pandemic, a living elegy; there are loves, possibilities, selves, ways of life that are dead, a mobile mortality poets have always known and used their art to reckon with, fool around with, and renovate: enter ghosts, memories, and Wordsworthian “spots of time.” Enter Joshua Rivkin’s abashedly self-conscious and evocative, capacious yet taut lyricism, which constructs desire as the cornerstone of autobiographical poetry. Restlessness may well be the character motivation or backstory underlying the experiences that give rise to poetic expression; it is also the subject matter underlying artistic representations of family and sexual histories.
Rivkin previously published Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (2018), an acclaimed biography of an abstract artist that is also, significantly, a poignant, earnest reflection about the process of chasing an elusive, complicated myth. Rivkin’s caveat in and about Chalk, “This, dear reader, is not a biography. This is something, I hope, stranger and more personal,” might also help readers navigate his new poetry volume, Suitor, which is not autobiography, but “stranger” and “more personal.” Unlike confessional poetry that frames the speaker’s voice as the content, Rivkin’s poems reframe the content as evidence of a suitor-poet, defined by a series of obsessive—sometimes existential—pursuits of intimate others, various exes, versions of the past, and texts. The poet-speaker like the suitor presents himself not as immensely interesting, but as interested—sometimes, ironically, in what happens when people are disinterested in each other.
The book reveals how the self can be the central element even when it’s not in the frame. For instance, the long poem “The Suitors” is ostensibly about a mother’s third boyfriend, but is really a poem about the speaker-son, a child who missed the would-be stepfather, who wanted the man to stay, to be family. On the surface, the poem presents as an exploration of the mother’s love life and an uncomfortable portrait of an unsuccessful, at times offensive man with terrible children. Yet this titular poem is a radically unexpected touchstone of the book, as the speaker reframes a transient figure in his mother’s love life as a quintessentially American conglomerate of desires to be successful, loved, and known by name. As a child, Rivkin learns from this imperfect, trite wooer that “a man’s name is the sweetest sound to him.” So, when the poet withholds personal names in the collection, he suggests our dreams and desires point to human frailty.
Even his own do, as Rivkin claims that the poem “isn’t about her, or them,” but the way that in his mother’s face he sees himself “waiting for the end of waiting.” To an extent, we are all “disciples” of the call to “Dream big” or the quest to find “a language,” and may recognize ourselves in the plot of the mother’s nameless third boyfriend: “Divorced, widowed, divorced. / Everything he loved was bad luck.” As the first poem, “The Suitors” like a comedy of manners shows us how estranged and knavish we look in pursuit of love and success, but then the tone shifts as Rivkin identifies with “the spark of [his mother’s] sorrow” and the existential crisis of an identity defined by longing.
In the envoi that immediately “follows” or pursues “The Suitors,” Rivkin confesses his culpability necessary to his art: his “mistakes, half- / truths” and “wrong / angles,” and the randomness of existence. Embodying the ardent pursuits that make life both meaningful and painful, the poet takes on the archetype of the suitor:
Suitor, from the Latin secutor,
to follow. I can’t
catch them, or let them go—
So, too, the poet cannot hold onto his father or let him go, an archetypal American father—elusive, brilliant, unfaithful, irksome, tender, narcissistic, largely absent—with the signature emotional baggage of “anger he carries like a pocket watch.”
By merging the story of his father with that of the scientist Fritz Haber, Rivkin asks readers to ditch the trite tale of “absent father, lost son.” The book’s long prose poem, “The Haber Problem,” is reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s “91 Revere Street,” but more layered. In it Rivkin brings in Haber’s legacy as a Nobel Prize–winning scientist whose research in chemical warfare was co-opted by Nazis to perpetuate genocide. Rivkin reinvents his father through the uncanny alter ego of Haber, another intellectual with a broken family and a complicated legacy, and thus reveals how a father is unfamiliar in his very familiarity, but how we too cannot be known in our fullness by those closest to us. Rivkin asks his father questions about everything from cooking to finances and exercise, but significantly, not “about relationships.” The father brags about his published scientific papers, to the son’s chagrin, and then diminishes the poet-son’s work as an amorphous blob of whatever-it-is-you-write. When the father suggests, “We’re not so different,” the poet-son ruminates, “He’s right. And wrong,” floating Keats’s concept of negative capability as salve. A moment of mixed connection for two academics, writers, dreamers. A gesture echoed in a vignette in which the father rubs his son’s neck while watching a movie the son has already seen.
Courting the affection and acceptance of an aloof father sometimes feels like an exercise in futility. However, Rivkin reclaims the identity of a suitor by focusing on the poet as a pursuer—as haunted—and as one who is pursued—not only in life, but in the artistic work of memory, research, transformation, composition, and revision. Rivkin, like his father and like Haber, is an alchemist-farmer who sees the “good earth” and “change[s] ‘stones’ into ‘bread’ ”; transformation, a goal of artists and scientists alike, becomes just as important a story as the one about the absent father and lost son. As the familiar, domestic life is made strange and the unfamiliar, scientific past is made intimate, Rivkin recasts autobiographical poetry as transformative work in an intertexutal ecosystem of desires, past and present.
So who is the titular suitor? The Austenesque identity of suitor suggests social status, certainty, and objectifying scrutiny, as if one knows what they want, who they want, who they themselves are—as if any one of us actually wants to see how the discrepancies between aspirational self, performative self, and current self are maddening, catastrophic, and hilarious. The poet confesses, in “Suitor’s Dream,” “I am divided / and unsure in so many things.” The word suitor historically assumes a heteronormative, sexist positionality by which one male pursues a female love object, an idea that Rivkin subverts in several ways, in his explorations of unrequited love, portrayal of desire itself as problematic, and bisexual evocation of men and women as addressee for his love poems.
The job of the suitor does not, as in the narrative of Pride and Prejudice, culminate in the most celebrated literary marriage, that of the proud Mr. Darcy and the even prouder Elizabeth Bennet. Rather, each courtship ends in its own way while implying the similitudes of unhappiness in love, as Rivkin tells us in “The End,” writing that “The end of every suitor is rest” and that “The end is disappointment. . . . A suitor’s end is confession / and apology. Silence.” As if redeeming the tremendous costs of having a desiring body and subjectivity, Rivkin surmises that longing might be transformed in writing:
The end of every suitor
is a myth: of fathers, of lovers,
the dream of a new coast,
a postcard: Wish you were here.
Rather than a beloved, what is sought in this volume, relentlessly and heartbreakingly, is the lyric poem, elegiac in nature and obsessed with homage, apostrophe, and transformative metaphor. Self-conscious references to the act of writing poems surface throughout the volume and suggest the erotic nature of the lyric and the elegy, which feeds the existential turmoil of apostrophe. Rivkin asks the poem itself, the reader, the beloved, his right brain, the night, anything or anyone to stop him in his relentless pursuit of the perfect father poem to end all father poems: “If I write again about my father / may my hands fall off.” Wryly, the speaker refers to a poem that doesn’t exist, whereby he knows more, will tell more.
Broadly, the book asks what desires drive us. What do we need to know about others, the world, the self? In turn, what do we need others to know about us? How do we remember, and what happens when legacies are twisted, outside of our control? If the poet says too much, goes too far, does the art compromise life? (As Lowell would learn from Bishop, “art just isn’t worth that much.”) Or, if the poet forgives too much, does compassion undermine suffering? This collection doesn’t just present intimacy, it dramatizes the difficulty of even talking about intimacy. How the tour guide “knew every architect / but couldn’t name what he wanted.” How the poet admits, “Words escaped me too.” In a world quieted by pandemic, we might be in a position to confront the difficulties of articulating desire: “Each body lives / a hundred lives / and is silent / about where / it sleeps.”
CA: Red Hen Press, 2020. 88 pp. $16.95, paper.