I met poet Daniel Rifenburgh ohhhhh… a dozen-or-so years ago. We’ve stayed in touch since. We had an unforgettable June evening together at the West Chester Poetry Conference. We were in a rented car crammed with people, en route from the university to the home of Michael Peich, conference’s co-founder (with Dana Gioia). As I recall, David Slavitt was piled into the car, too. Can’t remember who else … plenty of people pushed into a small vehicle.
Dan was driving – as I recall he was a taxi-driver at that time, so he was pro. Later, he taught at the University of Houston. Now he drives an 18-wheeler flatbed rig, hauling steel out of the Port of Houston. On that particular night, however, he had the misfortune to appoint me as his co-pilot and hand me the maps. We quickly became confused and lost in the suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood, with its winding, pointless streets, but we were having fun, anyway. We may have been the only ones in the car who were. We found the party eventually, and stayed in touch over the years, respectfully addressing each other by title, always – “co-pilot.”
So I was pleased to receive in the mail his newest volume of poems, Isthmus (it was signed – what else? – “To my co-pilot, Cynthia, with admiration and affection”). I was also pleased to hear that we have a mutual friend, Anne Stevenson. Here’s what she wrote about his poems in London Magazine, after recounting a career that included serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, and working his way through Latin America as a reporter: “Rifenburgh is enjoyable because he ranges at large over many subjects, testing, exploring, reporting, celebrating; he has many moods … Yet, for all his ironic witticisms, Rifenburgh is, au fond, a profoundly spiritual poet, committed, like Hecht and Wilbur, to declaring his seriousness.”
Other supporters include Richard Wilbur, who says his poems “can also stun the reader with a brilliant, slow-fuse image. What governs the movement of the poems is a genius for the speaking voice.” Isthmus is dedicated to Donald Justice, who said Dan’s poems “are terrific: so fluent, so smart, and brimming with charm.” Both Justice and Anthony Hecht figure in the poems, as dedicatees or the source of subject matter or epigrams – and Adam Zagajewski, who taught with Dan in Houston, makes a welcome guest appearance, too. Hecht wrote, characteristically, “These poems are startling in their vividness, skill, their originality and solidity. I find that lines and images resonate long after they have served the purposes of their local contents.”
Dan said I could reprint a poem – but which? Sometimes the first choices are best. When I opened the book, my eyes fell on this one, and I liked it. It grabs me still, though I haven’t read them all, so I can’t claim it’s my favorite yet.
The Fragments of Heraclitus
The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.
. The Fragments
The fragments of Heraclitus,
Compact, trenchant, inscrutable,
Are lovely in their resistance
To analysis. Therefore, from sympathy,
And, being immortal,
They sometimes assume human forms
To attend unnoticed the burials of critics.
They hold by their brims dark fedoras and,
Standing aloof, stolid, anonymous,
Listen respectfully to brief eulogies
While the great world sifts noiselessly
Down through time’s latticework
And the bow named life,
Accomplishing its work, later
Sends them strolling like slow arrows
Away from these shaded gravesites,
Pacing back cleansed
Into birdsong and light.