From the archives: Why I miss Robert Rehder

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It is odd to speak of missing someone you never met, but this is how I feel about the American poet and academic Robert Rehder, who died in 2009. I wanted to meet him, but I never got round to it. I used to fantasise about making a road movie about hitch-hiking across Switzerland, where he lived and worked, to interview him.

I first came across his work having read a review by Ian McMillan of his début book of poems The Compromises Will be Different (Carcanet, 1995). I immediately took to his throwaway style, which seemed on the verge of disappearing into a vortex of self-referential pointlessness at every turn (which might well be the point): ‘I have lived through the crisis/of losing my diary//and perhaps not being able to buy/the same kind again,//including the possibility of finding/the old diary//and having bought a new one/unnecessarily.’

Stationery fetishes are hard to come by in poetry (as in life). I was in.

The poems proceed in much the same wry, self-amused (and somehow deadly serious) manner as the lines quoted above. The book is ‘governed’ by the principle of naming each poem after different chapters of Moby Dick: ‘The Pequod Meets the Rachel’, ‘The Affidavit’ and so on.

Rehder does not seem to give a hoot whether the reader is in on the lark, but calmly goes about dissecting his own and others’ lives with an honesty filtered by deep knowledge of everything from Rothko and Rembrandt to the underside of Harold Bloom’s bed and ‘Ashbery’s mother’. The aforementioned diary crisis is compared with a completely straight face to the ‘destruction of the Berlin Wall/and the troubles in the Caucasus’.

One of the things that amuses me most about the book is his referencing of Corminbeouf, the hamlet in the canton of Fribourg where Rehder lived. As a half-Swiss, this has always fascinated me. In my road-movie adventure I saw myself struggling to find it and getting very lost in the process. As it turns out, this is not far from the truth. Taking a straw poll of various family members I was met with blank stares when I mentioned the place. They had never heard of it. (But then they are from Neuchâtel).

To his credit, Rehder seems amply aware of how far from the centre of things he chose to place himself. ‘Corminboeuf CXXXVII’ begins: ‘This is the new American poetry/and you’re probably not ready for it yet.//Here in Corminboeuf, we’re at the cutting edge./I have a red telephone.’ Another in-joke: the Corminboeuf poems are numbered. There’s a II, a III and a IV, and even a XXXIX and a 157. But there is nothing in-between.

Les Murray once said something to the effect that the centre of the universe is where any poet happens to be writing. I think the same esprit de l’escalier inhabits every syllable of Rehder’s poems. He seems to have taken active delight in the fact that he lived in the middle of absolutely nowhere. In my imaginary interview with him I asked him about this. Did he mind what kind of an impact or dent or disadvantage it would make on his poems and ‘reputation’.

‘Are you kidding me?’ he deadpanned.

When I published my Lifesaving Poems piece on him a couple of years ago I had the privilege of being contacted by former students of his from the University Fribourg. Not only was he respected, he was also very much loved it seems to me. Not many of us achieve that. I like to think he was happy:

Looking at it, I can see

That this sort of thing would look better
if it was the posthumous work

of a great master,
but it’s all I’ve got.

‘The Affidavit (Corminboeuf II)’

First Published June 27, 2013

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