Aspinwall, PA: Black Lawrence Press, a division of Dzanc Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9826364-7-3, $9.00
Reviewed by Marilyn McCabe
The View from Above: a review of The Pilot House by David Rigsbee
I have noticed an elegance to the expression of grief, at least in the Western world, where we rarely fling ourselves to pyre and wail, but file singly to grasp hands with the grieving and sit in the filtered light of Victorian houses turned to funeral homes or stand in the close clipped fields of cemeteries. And so it is with David Rigsbee’s The Pilot House – slim poems lit by white space and set in austere typeface, limning the quiet sorrows of a rich and tumbled life lived: “to turn away from the shore/in favor of the garbage and the grief.” (“After Reading”)
Winner of Black Lawrence Press’s Black River Chapbook competition, The Pilot House features poems whose author is watching closely from a high point the world streaming past, into the inevitable past, into the night. They are detailed and vibrating. From “Mastectomy”: “The clouds were in a frieze that day,/arabesques interlaced like a finger-church/but unable to open….” This image of clutched hands embodies the emotional weight of the poem, just as the entire book is captured by these lines from the eponymous poem:
…an oil tanker
streams by, the tall pilot house seeming
to inspect the trees, then sending smoke
into the low clouds, before sailing on
to the mountains beyond the treetops.
These poems are Rigbee’s meandering smoke, the signals of his travel, slow moving, through the world, observing the comings and goings, all the little births and deaths.
One of my favorites is “Holbein.” Rich with spondees whose pulse is tempered by the sibilance that whispers wind-like through it, it calls up the painter’s seemingly dispassionate and detailed portraits, his “light” showing both beauty and something besides beauty. The poem sketches quick portraits of the narrator’s family, an arm waving father, a bird-like mother glaring her way to death, and a brother who gave the great gift of a listening silence. But the light of late day and the inexorable end of things “…turned all to mugshots…before the ground tilted and offered/its old face to the new dusk.”
But it was the poem “Theology” that caught me about this volume in the first place. One of only two stanza’d poems in the book, it is intimate and somehow terrifying in the way it portrays isolation – a man overhears one side of a conversation between his wife and her oncologist, hears a laugh between them that manages to be unreassuring. In his isolation, outside the conversation, outside the intimate drama of those two people’s unique relationship, he can ask no questions except of the wild ducks he watches from the window, who only cry and fly away.
There is plenty of life in these poems: music, art, voices, old lovers, old movies (Cary Grant hanging from Lincoln’s nose). But these are poems full of that sense of death in the midst of life, and are neither apologetic, nor sad about it, but rather, embracing of the lovely hazards of living. In “Big Wind,” the narrator walks with his aging uncle through the uncle’s herbicide-seared but stubbornly burgeoning garden:
…On the way back, an unfledged bird
stirs in the dirt on our path beneath
an old chinaberry. “Caint put it back,”
he says, looking up. “I guess
I could stomp it,” he adds and peers at me
to see the effect. “But I won’t.”
Marilyn McCabe’s work has been published in a variety of literary magazines, including Painted Bride Quarterly, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Rhino, and she has received awards through the New York State Council on the Arts and through the Adirondack Center for Writing. She recently completed her MFA in Poetry at New England College. Her latest published work can be seen in the online magazine Praxilla.