To My Opposite Number in Texas. May 2, 2010
A Review of Daniel Rifenburgh’s Advent: Poems. The Waywiser Press. London, 2002.
Daniel Rifenburgh studied with Donald Justice and Richard Wilbur, with the latter providing an Introduction to Rifenburg’s only book of poems, Advent. Though not mentioned on the book flaps or in Wilbur’s introduction, Rifenburgh, whom I’ve come to know through Facebook, was, he tells me, a student of the poet Robert Hayden, when he was a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Louisville during the spring semester of 1969. Since I myself had been a student of Hayden’s at the University of Michigan a decade later, I was delighted to communicate with someone else who had also studied with him. We exchanged a number of messages. I ordered a copy of Advent and he mentioned he had ordered a copy of my book, The Grove of the Eumenides, which includes my essay “Robert Hayden in the Morning Time.” He remarked “Hayden got me a creative writing scholarship,” but he had never bought his Collected Poems, which seemed odd to me. If I had studied with anyone of Hayden’s ability, though I don’t know who that would have been, I would have at least read all his work and chosen to own his books. It’s a pity that Rifenburgh didn’t. He might have found much that would have helped in both form and content.
Though I have never cared for most of the poetry of either Richard Wilbur or Donald Justice, finding them small academic poets, campus poets, writing usually on narrow, personal, limited subjects, I thought I’d not hold that against Daniel Rifenburgh and tried to give an impartial reading to his poems, when Advent arrived. The Note on the Author informed me that Rifenburgh had spent three years in Vietnam after his study at the University of Louisville, which made me recall Hayden’s bemoaning in poignant poems and prose his students “brutalized” in that conflict, wondering if he might have had Rifenburgh in mind among them. Wilbur’s introduction didn’t impress me at all, nor did his citing some lines from Rifenburgh, which included, “Wandering between the Word and its infinite extension.” I can respect a poet who believes in Jesus Christ and whatever historically evolved denomination or persuasion he or she chooses, or dissents from. I am not entirely unsympathetic at all. I stem from a long line of Christians of many denominations. Christianity is a humane, spiritual, and true vision of life, when not corrupted by human beings, which is the problem, since we seem to have the capacity to vitiate everything. I even find Christianity infinitely preferable to Marxism, capitalism as a religion, and the other endless substitutes for transcendence that modernity has and does produce. I’m well aware that by saying all of that I’ve violated numerous sacred doctrines, religious and secular, but must be honest before my own conscience, and what I actually found and think about Rifenburgh’s poems.
Getting past the first poem was the problem. I can’t even take it seriously in terms of what it’s saying. “To My Opposite Number in Samarkand” is in epistolary form, addressed to someone in the East, who hears, “The gong inside the old Buddhist temple,” and the call to prayer from “The high towers of the mosques.” Nearby, the reader is told, stands “the lone orthodox church, unevangelistic.” One senses there’s a severe judgment in the word “unevangelistic,” less than full sympathy with Eastern Christianity. Rifenburgh, I should explain, lives in Texas, perhaps known more for evangelism than the high church style, and maybe that influences his word choice. After allusions to Dante, Virgil, and Parmenides, the persona seems to take refuge in poetry, which is a thoroughly modern gesture, time honored for over a hundred and fifty years. What poet can quibble with that? Yet, an ersatz, nonetheless, and even Matthew Arnold knew and understood it as such. To his credit, so does Rifenburgh. He soon turns to the lines quoted by Richard Wilbur, after remarking on the overwhelming experience of reading Montale,
Or, so it seems, in the afterglow of such reading,
As if light had an enduring stepchild in the world
Wandering between the Word and its infinite extension,
Finding play in the interstices and lacunae
Where even breath must pause
In its tally of declensions
And what enters then by a grace
Commands our strictest reverence.
His “strictest reverence,” for the Word, is further implied in the closing stanza, in which he writes to his “Opposite Number,” to speak in the ear of the Boddhisatvas, by implication all the Ways of Opinion, “Parmenides.” The subordinate clause, “if you’re able,” slips in a derisive note, sticking the interlocutor right in the guts, if he hasn’t gotten it by now. In another poem, Herman Melville receives similar treatment, which I think constitutes a misunderstanding of Melville’s complexity: “call it a lack,” “a bible would do him little good.”
“To My Opposite Number in Samarkand” and the last one in the book are clearly intended as “bookends,” if you will, that frame the poems in between of mostly much broader range, with many on Rifenburgh’s experiences in Texas and South America. His sequence of poems titled “Andean Music,” for instance, explores his time working as a newspaper reporter in Latin America and Peru. I was struck in particular with the poem “VI. El Condorito,” about “Che Ernesto,” not the Marxist hero, but a local person known for flying down from the mountains of Machu Picchu in a hang-glider. Later, together, they “headed, in the dark before the dawn, up to the sacred city.” Such poems are the best of his work, involved with life. In terms of other poems, Aristotle in his Poetics emphasized one of the crucial abilities of the poet was to choose the right material to work with. Rifenburgh often seems to me to lack such a sense of decorum, though our times may tend not to like that old tag. It is something poets forget and neglect at their peril. And it is always a temptation for the poet to write with his or her doctrine in mind and not the heart.
The last poem of the book is the title poem, “Advent,” and the reader is meant to feel the weight of the book leading up to it, emphasizing its importance to Rifenburgh. After describing a rainy day and the material decay of various leaves, he writes,
The mind, too, sheds a tattered cloak
And recalls elements of the old story:
The hoop round the omphalos of Christ, Marian,
The cold coin imprisoning Caesar,
A tocsin of alarm dilating the pupils of Herod,
And now the heart shunts the oil
Of incarnation out of its chambers again
In time with the last drumbeats of the rain.
We defeat the world through surrogates, and but briefly,
While placid beasts feed in drizzling pastures,
Building strength for the flight into Egypt,
Yet the son must be born in us, says the Father,
Or wither, when new oil floods the ventricles
And we become, however briefly, His surrogates
And for this, in Winter’s dead zero,
We must sing, sing Hallelujah.
The choice laid before the reader is the exclusivism of truth, for, from whatever perspective, this truth is the Truth, either we are “His surrogates / Or betrayers.” Some Muslims, Jews, and others might say essentially the same thing about their own religion. Influenced by the commonly shared Old Testament, the Western world, especially, has a penchant for this kind of approach to whatever the word “religion” means. Not a new idea, nothing tricky about it, just straight out in your face. I like that. Some Christians enjoy it as “scandalous.” That’s fine. That helps me know where I stand. And I respect Rifenburgh’s conscience, conviction, and interpretation. I stand with his “Opposite Number in Samarkand,” and I am proud of it. Rifenburg’s subject is as fit for poetry as anything else, and I don’t find it offensive, just out of touch with all of human history and religious experience, especially the last five-hundred years. Both religious and secular exclusivisms do that to people. They can keep people isolated from other equally valid traditions of the meaning and purpose of life, often not that different at the core from Christianity or an enlightened humanism, if one can be fair and open about it, make the brotherly effort to understand. Rifenburgh exhibits no such openness but continues along the line of what he had stated in the first poem, “Parmenides was right, / None of this exists!” Many Christian denominations have wisely moderated their thinking and teaching beyond caustic, dismissive either/or’s.
Writing off the history and religious experience of much of the world is perhaps not an entirely efficacious approach for any human being, especially a poet, who must be open to all that is human, if he is truly to serve the Muses, the daughters of Zeus, the sacred servants of All. Had Rifenburgh read Robert Hayden’s poetry years ago he would have found a much more open and universal perspective on life than he has spent his minor talent on. Toward universality, not exclusivism, is where the Divine Being, the Lord of history, has been guiding, and continues to guide, humankind. All peoples are able. In the light of the fullness of the literary tradition, which includes all nations and peoples, poets should encourage humanity to choose to travel together and be tolerant of their fellow human beings. We are all human, fallible, and not a one of us has ever had, or ever will have, the entire Truth, though it is human to think otherwise. At a time when it can seem some people in the United States and elsewhere are pushing toward religious fascism or secular utopia, it might help to step back from the brink and reflect on the healthy effect that pluralism and tolerance have had on civilization. People around our small planet need to value pluralism and universality more, not less.
Now available in
The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.