Book Review Archives

The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems

By: David Rigsbee
Reviewed by: Russ Kesler
NewSouth Books, 2010
$24.95, Hardcover

Reading David Rigsbee’s The Red Tower, I am struck by the difficulty to categorize these poems. While there are lyric moments, these are not lyric poems; while there are specific allusions to family and friends, the intent of this work is not narrative—not in the conventional denotation of that word.

Rather, these poems tend to narrate a tension between seeing the world as it is and accepting it on those terms. They foreground the speaker’s preoccupation with possibilities and connections that often remain elusive. Sometimes that concern is made explicit, as in “The Ferry”: “I had been trying / to make an image for that change, / how the hawk merges with the bare madrona, / how the slap of the motorboat hull / is followed by the long, rolling wake.” More often we intuit the speaker’s brooding, while bits of autobiography and perception are seamlessly melded, as in “The Red Tower:” “For two years I drove by a mountain / and wondered how long it would take / to tunnel through using a teaspoon. / That’s how dead my brother was.”

Because the poems are cerebral, looking inward even while seeming to look out, they are tightly constructed. It feels almost unfair, somehow, to try to describe them by offering quotations from them, since image and intellect are so closely woven, so dependent on each other. There is always the sense of a journey being undertaken, the implicit focus being the paths the self must invent to find its way.

Cerebral, yes, yet moments of great beauty consistently arise. In “Equinox” the speaker catalogues the changes in the fall landscape, noting, “For miles / the orchards shrink to gristle and joint / and propose to carry the white load of sleep.” And there’s this passage from “Buried Head”: 

        In the garden, magnificent rot: tomatoes eviscerated, 
        hanging like bags; sunflowers that once were 
        bright pies on stakes, bend and crook into canes. 
        In the fields, stopped wheels of hay, implying journey, 
        clutter before the horizon, above which 
        battalions of clouds roll up and forward….


Even in the lines that are concerned primarily with description, the voice remains cool and measured. Its low-key inflections provide equal emphasis to question, statement, and description alike.

In fact, because the voice is so reserved and the poems so dense, readers who are accustomed to more ecstatic voices and more overtly “poetic” subject matter—Mary Oliver, say, or Richard Wilbur—might have to adjust their expectations and have patience when turning to Rigsbee’s work. But it is because his voice is so finely attuned to his subject matter that the poems in The Red Tower manage to sing. The tension between thinking and feeling is the real subject of these poems. They are always working toward clarity of understanding, while acknowledging, sometimes ruefully, the mixed blessings that might be the reward. Jan. 2011


Russ Kesler’s second collection of poems, As If, is due out from Wind Publications in 2011.