Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms

James Richardson

Ausable, 253p

Friday, May 6th, 2005

“I think therefore I think again.”
(#93, “Vectors 2.0”)

LaRochefoucauld, Joubert, Lichtenberg, O.V. Milosz, Nietzsche, and now Richardson: given the ease with which its very grammar persuades the reader that what was never said before has always been true, available, and satisfying, it’s odd how few writers’ minds the aphorism has colonized. But consider the general reputation of the aphorism’s practitioners: other than the greatest hits trotted out by speechwriters from the White House on up to high school salutatorians, authors of witty quotes are remembered for the pith of their diction, a few key words (amour-propre, anyone?), and a strange kinship with comedians and morticians. James Richardson is a poet, one of the few whose “new and selected” gets stronger as it gets newer.

20. If the couple could see themselves twenty years later, they might not recognize their love, but they would recognize their argument.

21. Each lock makes two prisons.

22. Painting high on the house. Yellow jackets swarmed around me. I couldn’t convince them I was harmless, so I had to kill them.

23. All stones are broken stones.

24. Of all the ways to avoid living, perfect discipline is the most admired.

In 2001, having published four books of poems each more complex and lively than the one before, Richardson, a professor at Princeton, brought out Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays. For about forty percent of Vectors, Richardson’s facility for the vatic utterance gets the better of him, as in 21 and 23 above, which any zen novice would have chosen to write in their soup. But oh that other sixty percent — the remarks feel confirmed by repeated observation, and annihilatingly concise. By the time you get to number 469, “All work is the avoidance of harder work,” you have to wonder, is the author actually putting forward as his own work a manuscript of some unknown 19th century divine?

All too human. While his early collections occasionally show pizzazz worthy of Wallace Stevens, the evidence of human interaction suggests his poems might have been composed in a biosphere. Or maybe a desert: of his chosen totems, birds and stones, the birds get the least air time:

Stone (ston), noun. Originally a verb meaning
to illumine blackness, later
to hold without touching, or
to be capable of all things. In modern,
and less felicitous, speeches,
Indo-European, for example,
to thicken or compress.
Still later, as we know.

Here is another of their stories:
One stone.
Like the others it is characterized
by control of plot and fidelity to the real.
(from “The Encyclopedia of the Stones: A Pastoral”)

Hard not to see that he’s got wit—harder, in these early poems, to stick around to see it (for a selected poems, Interglacial reprints generously). Yes, yes, “we” have failed, “we” prefer easy confessions—”we” know, but who are we exactly? People show up in a much less vague form in time for the National Poetry Series winner, As If (1992, three years before Alicia Silverstone bent the phrase toward the valley in Clueless), and not a moment too soon:

Because Kate stood, face pushed to the screen,
cheering fuck off, fuck off
into the swim of summer,
I don’t know what . . .
(“As If Ending”)

He comes out as an unabashed fan of science journalism in the “faux-didactic” title poem of 2000’s How Things Are, the first homage to Lucretius’ I’ve seen that manages to loosen up enough to catch the source’s oracular quality and add to it the indispensable quality of seeming overheard:

I can’t get it through my head that the day is just in my head:
that I don’t see things, only reflected light.
That I don’t see light, actually, flitting between perches,
just the splash on my retina, the ripple
inward, of chemical potentials,
which isn’t seeing at all—I mean, as I think of it.

It’s as if I were watching behind video goggles
a movie of exactly the path I’m taking,
hearing on tape exactly what I hear,
though to God, looking down in trans-sensual knowledge,
it’s darkness and silence we walk in,
the brightness and noise only in our heads,
which are the few lit windows in a darkened office tower.

He’s still bleak, but at least he’s talking about the darkness and silence, and not serving the prison labor of eternally reenacting it.

Post-Vectors, Richardson is a changed poet, with access not only to paradox, wit, and dark subjects, but to popular culture, human foibles, and as avuncular and self-critical a persona as a Harrison Ford character:

He pokes from the distressingly fragile harbor,
black-tiled, sky-scraping penis, looking a little worse,
for having been nuked and long under water,
but not bad for a penis. Who’s going to clean it up?
you think, that mess he’s making.
(“My Godzilla”)

In other words, he’s alive and you’ll want to know him. Skeptical readers may be concerned that I am charting a descent into vulgarity — not so. In the new suite, “Half Measures,” he returns to the abstract figures of his early work to breathe life into them:

Giddy, uproarious,
daughter and friends:
I feel as a tree must
when it can’t tell its feelings
from the clamor of birds in its branches
suddenly lifting!

The 150 new aphorisms collected here may, to devoted fans of Vectors, feel like echoes of stronger work, but lines such as “Birds of prey do not sing” suggest that these are new shoots and not old cuttings. Readers new to Richardson will want to have both Interglacial and Vectors. Ausable was wise to withhold some of the earlier aphorisms from this book with the pessimistic title, which I imagine is supposed to be a description of our era, and not a warning that the ice pack will come again to freeze this warm, engaging voice.

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