Friday, January 20, 2012

a fine poem by Joshua Rivkin

More than a few of us, I wager, have sat with friends in cafes and bistros stealing occasional glances at the people seated at the table just across the room and wondered what it was like to be them, to be with them, to live in their skins, in their world. Sudden bouts of sagging self esteem are not unfamiliar nor uncommon among a good many of us, who we are and what we have done with our lives suddenly seem so trivial and irrelevant in the presence of someone we think is the cooler variety of human. There is no logical, sensible reason for this to take place among normal, successful people who have interesting lives and accomplishments; the downward spiral of degenerating self regard hits us all in a culture that treats even personality as a material asset to be built upon, used as barter, currency, the cause for bragging. What wouldn't we give, what wouldn't we trade for just a small slice of that karma those we momentarily see as obscenely blessed have far too much of. Poet Joshua Rivkin considers this in his poem, "New Economy", a savvy and sleek lyric, expressed in self contained sections, that present a variety of situations where seekers are beseeching the people , places and things they covet with a variety of propositions that attempt to coax a bit of better luck from the flesh or the mortar of a superior Other:
NEW ECONOMY / Joshua Rivkin

A man offers to trade his guitar for a city bus. 
My pick for your passengers. Six strings for sixteen wheels. 

A bride on her wedding day exchanges her love
for bright weather, a groom exchanges his hands for hers. 

A father offers to trade his family for a hotel’s worth of sleep. 
A sailor offers the Pacific for a hotel’s worth of sex.

Tonight, the shirt from my back, my singing mouth,
my endless praise, for your skin or company.

I’ll give you my stethoscope for a red barn: a doctor. 
I’ll give you my right arm for your left: his patient. 
It’s the inequality of pain a sleepless woman wants
to give away. Here, take mine, she offers to freight trains

whistling their replies through Houston’s poorest wards:
Jealousy gets you jealousy. Rage gets you rage.

"What wouldn’t you offer?" a man asks the pawn shop window.
"What wouldn’t you take?" replies the glass. 

There is a nicely surreal tone through this poem, a series of odd remarks and offers that end up in unexpected resolutions. A man is willing to surrender his gift of music in exchange for a city bus with it's human cargo and considerable tonnage, a bride prefers a sunny day to a wedding night, doctor and patient negotiate for things they cannot have in exchange for the things they do not want to do; Rivkin's transitions, his eventualities are not jarring but make sense in a manner suggestive of how dreams work against expectation and interrupt a narrative line regarding the pursuit of lust, escape or pleasure with a complication of some sort, an element a dreamer has perhaps forgotten about but which reappears as an issue that needs to be resolved before any fanciful living can be had.

This does, indeed, sound not a little like dime store Freud, but Rivkin isn't here to analyze or instruct or even critique; the task of the poem is to put the reader in the center of all the mood, with their bittersweet undertone of regret. Interestingly enough each section reads like it were the start of a short story or a joke, something lightly suggestive of the way Rod Serling introduced his episodes of his old "Twilight Zone" television series--this prevents the poem from becoming ponderous, from succumbing to the temptation to describe poetry's limitations on describing emotional states that are fleeting and otherwise described in terse cliches or psychiatric jargon. Rivkin defies this and displays a superb craft, a sense of balance between the proposals he highlights here; this is the state of mind where some of us find ourselves so critically bored with the people, places and things of our daily existence that cause  absurd and  dangerous change appear briefly desireable . This is an evocation of a delusional on the most dream like and banal level, the bored sigh or the frustrated "oh hum" translated in an exhilarating rush of chaotic abandonment, not even concerned with trading up for a better kind of life but instead obsessed on an instinctual level only with escape from what tethers toward a future containing either possibility or oblivion.

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