Ashbourn, John Reibetanz's first book, was a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. Most poets begin their careers by exploring their own experience, but Reibetanz tried to recreate the daily life of a small East Suffolk community by taking on the voices of the different villagers living there. What was particularly impressive-aside from how he gave a diverse group of speakers (both men and women) unique and believable oratorical qualities-was the virtuosity of his writing. From the sensuous meditation of "Walter Foster, Lifeboatman" to the loud, hard-spoken bragging of "Lewis Bolt, Farmer", his poems embodied their complex personalities in language that was invigorating (and effortless; all his hard work seemed to have crafted itself into invisibility). While it seems churlish to rummage through the book for a sample, since the monologues absolutely need to be read whole to be appreciated, here is a small excerpt taken from "Sybil Hayward, Shopkeeper":
Did you mark how the village sits like a big
That's a fact, and only sometimes, to my mind
A judgement; certainly in the days of open sewers
It reeked like a turd-but you mustn't breathe
A word of that within range of "Treble Bob"
The bright yellow house, my neighbour to the north.
Worships the local soil: "a mine of sweetness!"
To me it's brought mostly scrubbing.
Reading this over, I find it hard not to marvel at its convincing diction-direct, colloquial, and personal-as well as its rhetorical forcefulness, powerful even in these few lines. I mean, one can actually hear her. Unfortunately, Reibetanz, in his second collection, Morning Watch, has turned his attention away from this kind of declarative intensity; choosing, instead, to retreat into a self-conscious lyricism that, although sophisticated in its effects, strikes me as being mechanical and lifeless. His craftsmanship is still meticulous; the very act of fitting word to word, phrase to line is carried out with a nearly flawless precision. But while I admire his steady skill, the effectiveness of these poems can be summed up in a word so often used to describe a certain competence: "academic". These poems lack, in other words, something that would elevate them beyond professional accomplishment. Here is an example of what I mean, taken from "Night Watch":
Only the woodstove
like some half-tamed domestic beast,
could keep the night at bay.
I was the keeper, canting logs
the girth of weaned pigs
over the blackened sill, keeping
watch in case the parched beast thirsted
after its sleeping masters.
I bedded down before its stall,
my breath's rhythm
faint as a baby's under its bellowing
To be fair, the images have a certain pleasing tactility, but compared to the raw, muscular syntax of the previous example, these lines, in their deliberate artfulness, seem quite brittle. His poems no longer have the look of casual utterance, of immediate outspokenness. Reibetanz now seems unable to say anything without stylizing it. And he strives so hard to bring articulated experience to a polished (and conspicuous) perfection that he often mistakes decorativeness for spontaneity, grandiloquence for expressive power: "Love fills her eyes with/ syllables of a silent language"; "Time's slow element/ renders her bones/ dust..."; "their voices/ unsheathe and rise/ free of deceits and promises/ up the scale of pain". Yet more worrisome than artificial language or portentous phrasing is the way his poeticizing can-as in the next example-imaginatively disfigure a subject, rendering it almost unrecognizable. (Keep in mind that this poem is talking about a squirrel):
He could be opening a jar,
the even swivel following a thread -
except that this thread never ends:
turning and turning, the acorn's lid
will not unscrew.
What if he could break the seal
and read, as in tea leaves, the pattern of an end
congealed in his burrow among tree roots,
or spell his entrails on some road
in senseless translation?
Would knowledge of an end (the snake's
linear gift) trip the light leapers
of kinder seasons, trap him spellbound
in an all-too-human winter, our strait
of inland ice?
Morning Watch is at its most disappointing, however, in its most ambitious effort: "Gibraltar's Point", a long historical narrative divided into lyric exposition and first-person speeches by the two main characters, Elizabeth and John Simcoe. The sequence tells the story of their tragic five-year stay (1791-1796) in the province of Upper Canada, where John Simcoe was Lieutenant-Governor. As with Ashbourn, our response to "Gibraltar's Point" depends on the persuasiveness of the recreated voices. The basic question is this: Are the monologues governed by a convincing sensibility, a focus that says here is someone who looks on life and experience in a credible way, with a voice and vision that we can trust? And the answer is: No. Or, at least, not for me. Reibetanz, sensing an opportunity to exercise his considerable technical skills, turns their experience a little too readily into "art"; so that John and Elizabeth Simcoe don't become real people but rather constructs of language. One gets the sense, in other words, that they were simply an excuse for some poetry:
That dream thunderstorm
shocked me awake by echoing the storm
we rode out at the Falls last year, weeks after
Katherine's death. You laughed-and I knew fear,
not joy, had tricked your laughter
up from its locked asylum-but I felt
such joy in its raised voice I could not help
goading it on with mine. And from our twined
and branching laughter grew a sense of shelter
not from the storm but of it, like the vines
that plait a water quilt
around you when you stand under a fall.
Dearest, tonight's dream-storm has cleared my head.
We cannot hope to laugh the way we did
before death broke our hold, but death can call
a stronger laughter forth. It holds us up, Come, walk
across its unbreakable bridge.
("John on Water")
Though passages like these show Reibetanz's continued commitment to the "well-made poem"-in which impeccable craft and sharply focused language gesture toward an ideal excellence-there are no real chances being taken here, since the poem asks that you pay attention rather than feel. The grief and love expressed by John and Elizabeth are so thoroughly mediated and overrefined that they end up sounding tinny and false. In fact, one is left to wonder how personal and intimate these poems can hope to be if, by their formal strategy, they are made to thwart so much genuine emotion. Make no mistake: the spontaneity, intimacy, and conversational ease of the monologues in Ashbourn were also the result of artifice. The poems were as fastidiously manipulated, and as wilfully constructed, as anything in Morning Watch. But while there may have been, in Yeats's phrase, much stitching and unstitching, the poems gave the appearance of being "a moment's thought" and preserved, in their freshness, an experience that was unmistakably authentic.
And yet, having said all this, I don't want to leave the impression that everything in Morning Watch fails. My quarrel with Reibetanz's new work is a lover's quarrel-which means that I can be unduly harsh. I start from high expectations. And my criticism could, to some, seem petty in the face of some truly fine poems in the book. There is "Eyethurl", a richly imagined meditation on windows; "Headlands", a charming poem on Reibetanz's six-year old son; "The Contractor", whose daring inventiveness we don't see nearly enough of in Morning Watch; "Body Language", which, in its linguistic brio, recaptures some of the exuberance found in Ashbourn; "Window Glass", where Reibetanz draws on a famous saying of Seamus Heaney's, to write probably one of the most fascinating statement of poetics I have read; and "Buckow Elegies", his alert, efficient translation of some of Brecht's poetry. Yet "The Galley" remains for me the most satisfying poem in the book. Here is the second stanza where, with luxurious description, he shows us his mother at work in the kitchen:
First a licked finger testing
the iron's readiness, and the hiss and pit
of its rude, businesslike, quick-get-on-with-it.
Not my finger, still too small for trusting
to cross-examine trickier witnesses
than frosting boards and cooled jam pots.
Her finger, poised in mid-air a moment, a sea
relishing the right wind for coming anchor:
no taste of raspberry or chocolate, yet her face given
over to coming sweetness. Then the casting-off, the
iron plying sea
of cockled cotton sheets and deep-troughed
taming whitecaps with a warm wake smooth as ice.
Where do I begin? The vitality of its language, its intense and expressive rhythms, or how all this energy is housed in sturdy, unimpeachable craftsmanship? There is, to be sure, a touch of visual theatricality, but what ultimately saves Reibetanz is his success in fusing his perceptions in an urgency of feeling. Indeed, very little about the poem comes across as contrived. Reibetanz aggressively deploys all the resources at his disposal (diction, rhythm, image, syntax) to create an aesthetic "object" held together not by explicit ornament but by a voice steeped in the awareness of mortality and loss: "she plied her dreams as deftly / as hard-nosed iron over the yielding folds". It is the ending, however, that stays with me most. Elsewhere in the collection, Reibetanz is always very cautious about his resolutions; rather than stepping out into unforeseen territory, his poems march dutifully toward their assigned destination. "The Gallery", on the other hand, outstrips its own carefully planned elegiac implication (its melancholy acceptance) in an attempt to reclaim the very inheritance that guided and sanctioned Reibetanz's poetic act:
Although my clumsy ironing
can never match her sweeps of resurrection-
stiff shirts rising warm and supple from the board-
out of the ritual that was her routine
I make these words my iron, and in her wake
my hand sets sail across the blue-lined paper.
A poem as emotionally alive as "The Gallery" is not only a rare achievement (it should be counted amongst Reibetanz's best work) but makes painfully obvious how misguided the rest of his efforts are in this new book. His facility often betrays him into treating poetry as a self-justifying activity, not as one that a poet must constantly earn. This is not to say that Reibetanz should grow suspicious of his own abilities, but given the ease with which his work slips into what, essentially, is a fussy verbosity, maybe a little wariness wouldn't hurt. While I believe, in the end, that a poet should be judged by his best poems (not convicted by his worst) the bulk of the work in Morning Watch-marked by Reibetanz's distressing susceptibility to own technical prowess, resulting in experiences that are prettified rather than revitalized-shows him lagging behind his 1986 debut. In future books, the measure of the distance travelled will, I think, be the real measure of his talent.
Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet and critic who has appeared in the Malahat Review, Fiddlehead, Quarry, the Montreal Gazette, the Antigonish Review, Vintage '93, and the Irish magazine Cyphers.