The Red TowerThe Red Tower by David Rigsbee

***SPECIAL NOTE***Meet David Rigsbee at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill this Wed. 1/12 when he reads his poetry along with Peter Makuck (Long Lens). Reading starts at 7pm

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Over David Rigsbee’s prestigious poetry and writing career, he has amassed seven full-length poetry collections. His eighth is The Red Tower, New and Selected Poems, containing diverse narrative and lyrical poems about the South, architecture, the poet’s father, his younger brother’s suicide, and a traveler’s Italy and Russia. As Rigsbee finds the kernels of human connection among the mundane (pottery, kitchen knives, weeds) he also gives us incredible moments of sinister beauty and even hope among the natural and manmade world. This rich collection comes together so well because Rigsbee combines a surgeon’s eye with a poet’s voice of justice. In every poem there’s a reckoning of the present with the past scaffolded by sharp images and description.

In “Gil’s Sentence,” Rigsbee recalls Gil Scott-Heron as a fellow creative writing student at Johns Hopkins who in a way defends him with a sentence when Rigsbee’s poem is being torn to shreds by his fellow classmates. The irony is twofold: Scott-Heron ignores him later when they’re off campus and Scott-Heron must serve a jail sentence in 2006, his second stint in prison.

Scanning the table, he who had been silent
all semester debuted a serrated baritone
that wondered about the merit of intention,
something he thought neglected (“Intention is
the moon I follow,” I seem to remember
his saying, though the verbatim trips here).
He was risen to that defense when justice
was poetic and of course snubbed me
later when I tried to ingratiate myself
with a lame joke in our apartment elevator.

In “After Reading,” Rigsbee struggles with what purity is and questions if it has any place in the midst of human imperfection. The last line delivers a punch that is both ecstatic leap and profound observation.

I put down the book thinking
how purity is a curse, how it
puts us off the human
for whom it better fits
to turn away from the shore
in favor of the garbage and the grief.
I remember standing in the nave of St. Peter’s
looking at the smooth, dead body of Christ
held in Mary’s arms and secretly admiring
the madman whose hammer
chipped the same marble that made
Michelangelo such a monster.

“A Hanging (after Orwell)” turns a man’s hanging into a surreal dream experience moments before the man’s death, much like the Twilight Zone episode did in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” where the condemned man fantasized escaping from his condition at the exact moment the rope snapped his neck.

I sometimes dream that my bed
is floating out to sea; storks
like caulking guns roost on the bedposts.
If I take this dream in a moral light
it makes me wake up good.

Besides this poem there are several others in this collection that discuss racism, slow justice and deferred dreams. Rigsbee never takes these political poems in an expected direction; rather he deliberates on objects outside the main scene so he can come at a difficult subject sideways. In “Prisoners Bathing” the prisoners’ state-owned bodies meld into a ballet outside the prison walls.

Twenty, maybe thirty men
wait under a pipe that’s drilled
with holes like stops on a flute.
Then, as in some pantomime,
the water and the washing.

These projections are like sinking,
the limbs and torsos swallowed up,
but waving and bending as if time
were not critical to anything,
and they would be clean
even in their extremity.

David Rigsbee’s poetry is strongest when he combines the personal with history and when he questions his personal loss, namely his brother’s suicide in 1992 which is referenced in the titular “The Red Tower.”

For two years I drove by the mountain
And wondered how long it would take
To tunnel through using a teaspoon.
That’s how dead my brother was.

Through his clear language, original metaphors and images that are easy to visualize, Rigsbee reminds us how danger, possibility and joy make life sublime.
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