by David Rivard
David Rivard’s sixth collection of poetry, Standoff, released in 2016 by Graywolf Press totes an impressive number of glowing reviews and a heavy list of humble brag worthy laurels. Most recently it won the PEN/New England Award for poetry, judged by the statuesque Jericho Brown. Reading this book, Rivard had me muttering, as the viral video goes, Damn, Daniel.
And like that video, this is a bon example of persistence. While the “Damn Daniel” video makes persistence comic, Standoff engages the philosophy of permanence and personal identity, creating a wholly different effect, an emotional and intellectual latch locking tighter as the book progresses. This poetry collection counts the ways the speaker differs from others, no matter the situation, whether it’s the death of a father or the love for a daughter. Standoff catalogues gaps.
This collection’s main income is distance, a speaker at odds with the world: a larger world and a more intimate world. For instance, “Said,” a poem early in the book, is a title that immediately emphasizes distance by its past verb tense and creates a lag of information between speech and thought. There’s a gap between what one intends to have said and what one actually says, and what one says and what another understands. In this way, we are always living in the past. All of this is encapsulated in the word, “Said.”
In the first line of “Said,” an irreconcilable distance becomes apparent, “I fed my father what/ as it turned out the future/ would call his last meal.” In the hospital, thinly gowned, a father is spooned ground chourico and chopped pepper, a last supper (the biblical alphas-and-omegas the poem). In this moment, life and death are most poignantly at odds, which is delineated syntactically, as it is not the speaker but “the future” that will call it his father’s “last meal.” The chasms mount quickly, creating a standoff between what is physically beneficial and what is psychologically beneficial, and highlight the gulf between what they should do versus what they will do.
Taking a deeper dive into the poem, one will find other divides. For example, the distance between senses of humor or the divide in how one remembers. In addition, the images and syntax compliment the subtext of distance, like the moment showing a separation of a hat from a head or the moments were ellipses create gaps in meaning. Even the concluding image, children being born, is a subtle reminder of the separation of the child from the mother at birth that emphasizes the difference between self and a hardship town. But most importantly it is the emotional, intellectual tangle I most admire. “Said” is a poem where a speaker eats a whole history of anger so that he can take care of his dying father, so that he may feed him. Damn, David.
“Said” is just one evocative poem in a system, carefully constructed. The preceding poem is dedicated to Rivard’s daughter. While “Said” is partly about disconnects between son and father, the love held in pain, “Birth Chart” is about pain held in love, about the inevitable separation between father and daughter. In this poem, with the death of the father fresh in the mind of the reader, the speaker hopes the daughter won’t “think to badly of me when I’m dead.” Which reframes “Said” as not just a poem of remembered pain but a philosophical reremembering of time and space, a reconfiguring of what happened by sure will. The speaker in “Birth Chart” asks for the daughter to consciously, purposefully, misremember.
The dynamism of this poetry pivots on division. Standoff captures a vis-à-vis engagement with the world, a speaker equidistant to love and hate, to pain and joy, to letdown and achievement, to dying and living. Life is, as always, “as adamant as a Jayhawk,/…a standoff, between what/ happens around me & what’s/ going on inside.”