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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 26, 2006

What might poetry have in common with NASCAR? The appeal of speed. And since the "SC" in that acronym stands for "Stock Car," we can add the appeal of speed as a challenge met by ordinary means -- the stock material, though applied and transformed with extraordinary skills and resources.

David Rivard's marvelous new book, Sugartown , moves through familiar material, like the way a good mood and a good memory can make life seem rich and even death nearly acceptable.

Rivard's poems move through such subject matter with an exhilarating, smart pace of association and evocation. The speed of mind, compressing details and emotions, covering the maximum distance in the least time, gives this writing its thrill:

A Real, Right Thing

Like a green ludicrous tow truck

with yellow stripes & naked chrome bulldog

atop the hood, my pleasure's obvious

watchful wary arrogant & pure

the smell of warm December early the sixth

day the city men come to the park

to gather leaves half-disintegrated

already compost, that smell

there for the asking, those leaves

a few the color of her skin

at the end of summer, sweet present

blown against my lips--

Oh, that

was a good moment to be born in, serendipitous

for how the color set off her collarbone

like a silver belt buckle in a darkened church

and seeing her face then, so calm in sleep

I'll be in sympathy with a car alarm forever

so long as it never goes off again

and when I die finally it's certain the house flies

will love having this sick man around.

The phrase "naked chrome bulldog" is fun to say, but, as the ampersands imply, the poem has no intention of lingering on such moments. Decay, exemplified by the decomposing leaves, will not wait for extended, prosey musings or explanations.

Decay as a reason to seize the day is one of the most traditional notions -- a stock idea. Rivard's quickness dramatizes the idea with a fresh urgency and also with fresh images. The idea of being in sympathy even with a car alarm recalls the giddiness of a lover in some Shakespeare comedy, and the afterthought "so long as it never goes off again" has a Shakespearean light irony to it, expressed in an idiom as American and feisty as that Mack bulldog. ("Speak American, OK?" says the crew boss in another Rivard poem, "and then shut the hell up.")

These street-wise, book-wise, eloquent poems have a bracing sureness and scope.

(David Rivard's poem "A Real, Right Thing" is from his book "Sugartown." Graywolf. Copyright © 2006 by David Rivard.)

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