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. He was a poet, critic, scholar and horticulturalist. Born in Iowa in 1935, he studied at Princeton and the École des langues orientales in Paris, and went on to teach at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. As well as monographs on Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, he published two of the funniest books of lyric poems I know: The Compromises Will be Different (Carcanet, 1995), and First Things When (Carcanet, 2009). A posthumous collection, I’m Back and Still Returning was published in 2016 by University of Salzburg Press.
As soon as I began reading his work I began drawing up elaborate fantasies of finding ways to meet him. My favourite involved me making a road movie where I hitched across France and then Switzerland, right up to the door of his house in the tiny settlement of Corminboeuf, upon which I would interview him over coffee and cognac until we parted, the very best of lifelong friends, three days later. For one thing it would give me a chance to re-run the journeys my father would plot out each summer when we drove out to see my mother’s family. For another I would reconnect with those Swiss cousins and uncles and aunts, whom I adore and see very rarely. The film would show us sitting three floors up on a balcony with a view of Lake Geneva sipping dry white wine in tiny glasses like thimbles. They would forgive my broken, schoolboy French, and I would marvel at their command of the English they never need to use elsewhere.
I first came across Rehder’s work having read a review by Ian McMillan of his début, The Compromises Will be Different. I salivated immediately at his deceptive 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. (‘Hidden Agenda’)
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 K-mart and Ranch sauce (‘like watered down cold cream’), 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 his work is his referencing of Corminboeuf. 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 at our last family gathering I was met with blank stares when I mentioned the place. They had never heard of it. They even wondered out loud whether it in fact existed. (But then they are from Neuchâtel.) As he says in preface to ‘The World Elsewhere’, his Corminboeuf sequence of poems from First Things When:
Corminboeuf is a small village, originally a Roman farmstead, in French-speaking Switzerland, with some 1,200 people and 750 cows. Cows are counted in the Swiss census.
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, until First Things When, where a XI and a 99 materialise out of nowhere, quickly followed, naturally, by 797.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.
The same dark wit is on display when he dissects everything from the mall-culture of George W. Bush (he absolutely implies there is a connection), to the role of boredom in academic life, to settling old literary scores. I can’t think of a more serious poet who is also so funny. Here he is on the latter, detailing receiving an indifferent review by ‘A would-be poet whom I will call D/Because you have never heard of him//And I hadn’t either’ who has made the mistake of calling his poems ‘‘Too intellectual’’:
When the first blind unreasoning rage had passed,
My impulse 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.
Then a more moderate approach
A rocket attack on his car
To blast the little twerp to smithereens. (‘The Pequod Meets the Virgin’)
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.
If anything, his attacks, and the molasses-black humour he laced them with, grow even more furious in First Things When. ‘Dear Sir’, begins ‘Open Letter to the Secretary of the Swedish Academy’: ‘Please send me a Nobel Prize.// I have completed the enclosed coupon/ And attach three Quaker Puffed Wheat box tops.’ ‘The Gam’ is essential reading for anyone who has attended a meeting they cannot remember the point of:
For forty-five minutes we debated whether
We should suppress the program in social work,
When we were reminded we had already discussed this
Twice at previous meetings
And had decided to suppress it.
Then we spent another hour thinking
About restoring it,
Until someone explains: no,
What we are discussing is the way
That it is to be phased out.
There are more in-jokes, albeit Swiss ones.
I don’t know why,
But the German speakers
Speak more often
Than the French speakers.
Beneath all of this there is a tone of wistfulness mourning the loss of meaningful connection between people that is not premised on the expectation of some form of financial exchange:
Who can afford to think?
They don’t invite each other to dinner
Because they’re too busy,
Instead of friends you have email. (‘Hi There’)
When I wrote a blog post about Rehder a couple of years ago I had the privilege of being contacted by former students of his from the University Fribourg. Email after email (he would have loved that) spoke of how highly he was respected, and loved, by both his students and colleagues alike. Not many of us go on to achieve that, whether we live in the middle of nowhere or not. 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)’)