I was very sad to read yesterday that the American poet Robert Rehder died in 2009. I had no idea.
He was from Iowa, educated at Princeton and lived in Corminboeuf, a tiny hamlet in French-speakingSwitzerland, which no one, not even the Swiss, have heard of.
Robert Redher’s poems are an absolute delight, if you do not know his work. He published two collections with Carcanet, The Compromises Will be Different(1995) and First Things When (2009). I urge you to read him.
I discovered his work through a review of his first book by Ian MacMillan. I seem to remember him saying there was something kind of Huddersfield and kind ofNew Yorkin his work, mixed with kind of something else he could not put his finger on. Labels are always a bad place to start when discussing poetry, a topic Rehder wrote much about in his academic work (when people ask me what kind of poetry I write I say ‘The good kind, of course!’), but as it happens MacMillan was onto something, particularly the thing he could not put his finger on.
Mark Halliday has a line in one of his essays about contemporary poetry making intense investigations into ever smaller units of experience (I paraphrase). This seems to me much of what Rehder was up to. In ‘Hidden Agenda’ he details the ‘crisis’ of losing his favourite diary (I always trust a poet with the statienery thing), only to find it down the back of a sofa a few days later, having made the trip into to town to buy a new one. The effect is self-deprecating and charming: ‘An event of this magnitude//Overshadows the destruction of theBerlinWall/And the troubles in theCaucasus.’
In ‘The Pequod Meets the Virgin’ he details receiving an indifferent review of his poems by ‘A would-be poet whom I will call D/Because you have never heard of him//And I hadn’t either -‘:
When the first blind unreasoning rage had passed,
My implulse was to smash his face in
And knock him down.
He’s smaller than I am
Even if he is a pretentious cretin.
I have no problem with criticism
As long as it’s constructive,
But kicking him very hard in the crotch
Might not hurt him enough
Since he’s a eunuch,
Therefore, it might be better
Just to beat him to a pulp.
These lines had me laughing out loud when I first read them. It seems to me they are a very accurate description of the rewards of life as a poet. I dare you not to recognise this.
A Redher poem is often about nothing very much at all: ‘I am so bored by Corminboeuf/That I can’t stand it -//My boredom, that is./ I lke Corminboeuf.//Only about half a dozen times a day/I wish I was somewhere else’ (‘Corminboeuf XXXIX’).
When nothing dries up there is always the subject of the poems’ composition to write about. I am still not sure if Rehder chose to do this as an act of defiance or desperation. ‘I have just composed the first/Corminboeuf poem.//If this doesn’t put Corminboeuf on the map,/What will?’ (‘The Affidavit (Corminboeuf II’)). ‘Corminboeuf III’, the next poem in the book, begins less certainly: ‘The third Corminboeuf poem is going/To be more difficult’.
Writing in a foreign country in the middle of nowhere seems to have energised Rehder hugely. The poems in First Things When are still about themselves, about nothing and about Corminboeuf, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes as if they each represent each other. But there is wonderful satire on the America of George W Bush and on mall-culture, too. It is darker, perhaps, and tinged with sadness.
Here is the poem of Rehder’s I read first. It is quoted on the back cover of his first book and does give a good idea of what he was up to.
I am so sorry to have just typed that last sentence in the past tense.
I am writing these poems
As fast as I can
So that I don’t miss out on my late style
Which will be extremely allusive,
Freer than anything I’ve ever done.
(The compromises will be different.)
When I get there, the work
Will be already changing,
Further from everything,
Although I don’t want to say goodbye,
And yet closer,
As the saucer reminds us of the cup.
The things that are not mentioned
Will go on existing,
Exerting their unspeakable presence
Or the books beside the bed in the next room –
I have my Montagne Sainte-Victoire
The poems will be the wonder of the future
And totally American
Like the work of all of the poets
From Eastern Iowa
Who live in Corminboeuf.
Robert Rehder, from The Compromises Will be Different (Carcanet, 1995).