Stamping Ground. Poems by David Rigsbee. 74 pages. Ardis. $2.00/paper.


This is a book praising freedom. If you are released (by will or by grace) from one illusion and do not fly immediately into the long arms of another, where are you? Partially you are remembering, solidifying your foundation; and partially you are interpreting, as accurately, as quickly as you can, the spaces that fall in all directions about you: “I stand in the half light:/ one leg, one arm,/ an eye.” (from the poem “Goodbye”)

History, one’s personal, is important, and many of these poems deal with seeing oneself in past situations, interpreting the significance of past experience. As if before birth we’re given a pocket full of questions, and our parents, ancestors, acquaintances give us a pocket full of answers. For a long time we run around trying to answer the questions that weren’t answered for us. Then one memorable morning or night we realize that the very questions that were already answered for us are the vital ones, and that we’ve forgotten these questions, so closely do we now resemble their answers.

All one’s senses must be trained to decipher those forgotten questions from the inside of one’s skin out to remember and re-create what’s real. Rigsbee gives a vivid description of those who fail or never attempt this task: “Our lovers who hugged their histories/ like flippers against their hearts/ and went extinct.” (from “Down the Lines”) If you do attempt the task, you use calipers, tweezers, long hat pins found in the attic. You do not want to disturb the raw material too much or stir it up past recognition: your intention is not to reconstruct another, more comfortable myth for yourself.

That would be easy. It’s tempting for us all to do only the research necessary to prove ourselves royalty or innocent, but it’s not usually true and is therefore a trap. Rigsbee is interested in the truth, and it takes a good poet to bring back to us, by the use of language, the truth of feelings we all share but have never named:

You want to curl your hand
around creatures like these
but they never give you the chance.
Even by the dark they see
the brain at work in back of your eyes.
    (from “The Tortoises Go Home Tonight”)

These poems, as accomplished as they are, are not merely in praise of language. As David Ignatow says on the jacket, “This is life affirming stuff, without qualms or quibbles.”

Of course, the truth is difficult. Every veil the poet lifts reveals another:

How much must he have recognized
when the eyes of the myth grew white
and his confessions crowded to my mouth
pretending now to have to speak.
                           (from “The Inheritance Tax”)

“Pretending” lifts the veil of compulsion. He did not have to speak. He spoke because he wanted to. The poet is consistently choosing to be himself, to work with his experience in the way that frees him — by making poems. “Of course they are forced confessions./ No one is fooled by that, least of all me.” (from “The Signatures”)

Yet when the poem is finished and the written page looks back at him (“I stamp my face on every page”), the poet says: “I have never seen this man before in my life.” “This man,” the poem, is something we all search for and work towards — a self come out of us but unconditioned, free from what holds us particular and bound.

Stamping Ground is David Rigbee’s first book. Read it and you’ll want more, so wait for the next volume and reread this one. I’m on my third reading, and the poems are still opening.