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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (Black Lawrence Press, 2012). He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "Inventing Constellations" by Al Maginnes

Inventing Constellations
Inventing Constellations
by Al Maginnes

86 pages
WordTech Communications


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You don't have to read far into Al Maginnes' Inventing Constellations to find a man haunted by contingency and trying his manliest not to be made giddy by time, even as he is a man acclimated to stoical adjustments. Much of Maginnes' fifth collection finds occasion to comment on our sojourn under stars, discovering music's timeless transport as body and soul age, taking both specifically human and generally mammalian pleasure in securing his family against threat and clearing the brush to the main road. He knows it all could have been otherwise: the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God theme runs throughout:

                                                I admit
      and deny nothing because I know
      a mile beyond the heart of town
      waits the house of a man caught
      and convicted for all the wrongs
      I committed and got away with.
      He spent years locked away and now
      sits on his stoop carving figures

      out of soap or soft wood. When
      he sees me pass, he says nothing,
      and I don't look in his direction,
      the two of us disciple
      to our divergent paths,
      our twinned and broken fates.

                                       ("In My Good Life")

Going nuclear notwithstanding, the family too is invented, and the very idea that it is not sequenced by nature would be, in another time or place, one of the risks. Here it is one of the rewards for selecting old verities to apply to new opportunities—in other words, of improvising. The poet's humility in the face of his evident luck (and of the common humanity he holds with the unlucky) is an appealing quality here, as is his wish to characterize the exact caliber of his gratitude at finding himself the fifty-something father to an adopted Guatemalan girl. This urge is made all the more poignant because that gratitude, whatever its merit, shades into melancholy, just as encomium desaturates into elegy. The "shading" invokes all the associations, from relief to suspicion and the generally ominous. It is the

      ...shadow that deepens my joy at chasing
      my daughter through the morning
      of a day that will not last and likely
      will not be remembered even if
      we breathe it all the way in and use
      the best words we know to write it down.

                                            ("Before Elegy")

If you thought for a moment you perceived Roethke and Justice peeking out from the leafy shade here, you would not be wrong. Nature takes on a metaphysical weight, even as it is exonerated from the willful destruction "we" excel at, either in potentia or in fact. Maginnes frequently resorts to a complicit "we," and it's the drive of "our" desire to experience the art within the poems that keeps us from resisting such a consensus-wool-gathering as the first-person plural so often implies. For who does not feel the urge also to think hell no, I won't go along! I won't be caught up in the poet's language net! This is especially so, one notes, when such language makes that 90-degree turn into the moral and ethical neighborhoods where the poet himself lives. But just as the edge of the lawn alternately threatens and beckons both child and protector, so too its coverage widens, to be coped with by means of art. In "Light Remains," this takes the form of movie—visual narratives riding piggyback on streams of photons: what could be more dreamlike than the as-yet-unplumbed mysteries of our newest art? The old theater, even as it molts its magical identities and settles into more secular and provisional forms, somehow retains the memory of its beginnings. It is more haunted than any canvas or book:

      The Grand rise from the dark
                  of its lost lease to house
                           community theater, a gallery
                  for local painters. The bottling plant
      of my childhood is a museum
                  of county history now, the drugstore
                           where I read comics
                  and wrestling magazines a gift shop.
      Memory, like light, changes
                  but remains, its accuracy
                           a matter for archivists,
                  backyard astronomers, those willing
      to guess the age of a stone or star,
                  to catalogue the dust caught
                           in the cone-shaped beam
                  that blazed the screen white
      as the beginning of time, before sound,
                  before cartoons and coming attractions.

More typically, it is music that provides both the succor of, and the belief in, invisible things. Shorn of religious hope and consolation, he feels duty-bound to pay honor to the steadfastness these things once bestowed: "A song on his kitchen radio promised/ we have a home in heaven waiting." ("Prayer for the Imponderables"). Music—rock, bluegrass, folk, jazz—provide him a platform, not only for emotional expressiveness and sorting-out, but for mirroring and improving upon reality (knowing too the fact that music makes its own reality). In "The Shape of Song," he realizes that the setting down of music still requires the performance, just as a composition leaves open a space for a whole gamut of acts and enactments, from interpretation all the way to improvisation. It is the latter where we pause, before stepping into the unknown:

      Absence is not silence,
                                                  but the slow beat
      of a band trying a new song,
                                                      each player alone
      with pitfalls of melody,
                                                   the snags and snarls
      before the threads begin
                                                   to weave in the same direction.
      Our lives are mostly mistakes
      we are trying not to make again,
      living as we do
                                without rehearsal....

Because music, as Yeats saw, presents us with an image of the timeless, it is a swinging bridge to an ideal realm. Maginnes plays on the ambivalence inherent in the dual nature of bridges, as structures that allow leave-taking and connecting alike. He plays upon this ambivalence in "The Bridge," the collection's centerpiece and his riff on Hart Crane, whom he sees, rightly, as both enabler and blocker of imagination's reach. The poem moves easily between quizzical meanings and the effort of language itself not to be problematic:

      The first time I heard a singer cry,

      "Take me to the bridge," it was not James Brown
      but Robert Plant imitating James Brown,

      though my knowledge of music—and most things—
      ran so shallow I didn't know anyone was
      being imitated. Before I knew words could claim
      two meanings, my mother told me
      her friends were coming over to play bridge.

In spite of the tendency of meaning to proliferate, preferring the plural to the singular, we know that simple language puts us in the position to hold true beliefs not shaded and cross-hatched by irony or semantic creep. When language can do that, it complements us as rational beings. But poets know that we are far from rational much of the time, and language does not shake off slipperiness like a dog who has just run through a sprinkler. It is routinely slippery, as parson Eliot reminded us, and hints at cracks in the façade of our rationality. At the same time, most of us dismiss the slipperiness in our daily rounds. We are, as Brodksy said about Cavafy, rather bourgeois about language: we don't want to catch it sashaying when we have stuff to do. Hence, the image of a bridge itself tips the hat to an inbred ambivalence in language at the same time as it exists to find connection:

      Thousands of CDs, many thousands of songs
      and I'm still not sure what purpose
      the bridge serves in a song.
     "I never write a song without a bridge,"
      I heard one songwriter tell another
      while I listened as silently as I had listened
      to my mother over cards with her friends.


      We believe our lives make a shimmering whole,
      but revisit moments, each an island
      in a series of islands, isolated and come upon
      mostly by accident.

                                      And now and then
      we believe we've reached the place where
      the span of the past shines clean and whole
      as an architect's plan, a bridge
      where the band can vamp.

Notice how he nails music's need to "vamp"—away from our quotidian destinies.
He makes the same point another way in "The Missing Language":

                          we know this is language
      that has no need for us.


                                                 I wonder
      what murderous silence fell
      on some of them when they were among
      the ones who knew them best
      and what it cost to choke the flow
      of words designed to fill the hollow
      men have not learned to name.


                                                And it is not
      desire for poetry or God
      that starts her speaking a language
      no one can answer, only desire
      for the women who could hear
      what she said and reply.

Yet again in "Blue Collar," he turns to a different set of problems inherent in the use of language, namely the political dimension of utterance and silence. I note too that the class context here puts Maginnes in the tradition of Philip Levine, whose tracing of such divisions marks a thematic meeting place where poetry and politics share a wardrobe, and where class certainties begin to seem as chancy as they had also seemed locked-in:

      They were the frayed shirts with company logos
      and names stitched over the pockets,
      by my friends' fathers as they came home
      from the bottling plant or the mill with no good words to say,
      who opened sweating cans of beer and slowly
      unlaced their shoes, mumbling half-sentences to their sons
      and nothing at all to me.

The bridge between the work of the poet and that of the musician figures as one of the themes here. Maginnes is like a number of poets of my generation who came to poetry more or less by way of music, be it as inspiration or accompaniment. And we all remember the universal academic lament that went up when we learned from our esteemed professors that poetry and music were divorced in the Renaissance, thanks to the rise of the printing press. We all dreamed of a reconciliation, though in a fuzzy way, and this fact led to the purchase of many a used Gibson or Martin. It also led to poems about music (though not vice versa, thank goodness):

      First, believe with me that music becomes
      our default language after navigating
      the grave.


      And the music involved in the bargain
      for eternity must be epic, its performance
      flawless. Onstage, singers claim, the mess
      of daily life falls away. Cold dressing rooms
      and bad management, divorces and tours
      poorly planned all evaporate. So the soul
      trying to sing its way into paradise
      must believe the past, the life ill-spent
      on earth, will be forgiven if only
      the right note can be reached and held.
                                            ("Opera in the Afterlife")

Maginnes finds that connection in family and art, in family as art. He makes no pretense at programming his poems to reflect intellectual derring-do. Nor should he: he desires that his daughter and we make up our own constellations, not from fabled antiquity, but from newly conceived stories that reflect what have become our myths. It is enough that we have stars at all, he seems to say, but like a good provider, he also slips in a little bonus from time to time: the unexpected quip, the unlikely volta face, the grace-notes of gratuitous invention.

In his astronomies, Maginnes suggests that humility is a survival mechanism aimed as much at Nietzsche's god-like self-creation as at Darwin's (or God's) down-sized determinism. As he puts it in "Two Horizons": We have all traveled enough to know/ every horizon is imaginary." This then is the new belief. In "The Wine Resurrection," he makes the point explicit:

      Each time my friend plays his song about turning
                water into wine, I hear a new verse,

      and then one I hear tonight is elegy for his bandmate
                who died last summer of cancer. Because

      he was raised to believe the transformation
                of the material is possible, even probably,

      I think he is sometimes saddened, as only
                a believer could be, by the world.

LIkewise, Maginnes writes through the register of his maestro, the late revered poet and novelist James Whitehead. He can also channel other stalwarts whose echoes provide a susurrus of his tradition. In "The Edge of the Field," you could almost write your own Road to Xanadu, following the tracks of Frost, Roethke, and James Wright, and their particular notions of a "field," with sidebars dedicated to the fate of stars as images in contemporary poems, to say nothing of the last four centurys' devotion to the imagery of shadows. You could then put your ear to the rail and hear Rilke ("tongue," "courage,") Creeley ("insistence"), Roethke ("the edge of the field), Bly (the "silence/ waiting there"), Stevens ("deeper than music"). It's not only the protocols of rhythm that motivate Maginnes' pen, but also the echoes of keywords from the singing masters of our white, American souls.

      Each one of us
      will take our turn crossing that field,
      far from the lights of cities, nameless
      under nameless stars.

      You can walk into the shadow
      early, singing a song whose words
      you forget as they leave your tongue
      and believe it is courage, not fear,
      marching you forward.

      the soft insistence of the wind
      urging you to the edge
      of the field and the silence
      waiting there, deeper than music.
                                            ("The Edge of the Field")

Maginnes is a tender poet, one who looks out for the underdog and a poet capable of laying out the promises and perils of domestic love. How often in contemporary poetry have we been subjected to a sustained sense of love? Maginnes grafts sinew to the tenderness, like teaching a child to be tough, but the toughness takes a back seat to the tender instruction. His poems operate on the border between feeling and sentiment that are these days subject to policing according to the ideological moment. In the title poem, he writes,

      I wish the ones I love were with me in this small field
      near our house to see earth's shadow cross the face
      of the fire-reflecting moon. But lately I've let
      too many small angers burn, said too many things that can be
      excused or taken back. I've wanted too much time in fields alone.

                                      After she dropped into sleep,
      I lay on her floor a while inventing constellations, giving names
      to those soon-to-vanish formations: The Bad Father,
      The Child Rising, The House of the Family Dreaming.


                                                             In the morning
      I'll tell my loved ones about the color of the moon
      and all they missed, but morning has its own business,
      and they know the moon will be there tonight to preside over
      this constellation, this body of light, we made and remain.

Is the sentiment an issue? For readers who no longer choke on a steady diet of irony, probably so. I imagine this is why Maginnes situates so many of his poems in the context of night, the sky, and memory. These things, depending on which way your aesthetic hangs, will either give modesty a modest bump or be ignored. His poems are composed of scrupulously observed details that carry weight, if weight is what you think words hoist. They pace slowly—even the poems about musicians—rarely accelerating past an andante. While the gait may be old-fashioned, the underlying apprehension is both of the moment and universal. His poem about the decapitation of Daniel Pearl, for instance, draws out the sense of dread that connects, in its own version of a bridge, to the shadows on the edge of the lawn and culminates in a shock wave of horror, where beauty and other tonic truths used to be—and still await incarnation in violence's despite.


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