At My Ease

atmyeaseUncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties
David Ignatow
edited by Virginia R. Terris
BOA Editions ($13.50)

by William Billiter

Reading Ignatow is like admiring moonlight on the switchblade of a mugger. How can something so thin, so reflective, so delicate, be so dangerous? Then you realize that it's not the knife, it's the hand that holds the knife, and the hand that holds the knife may well be your own . . .

Just breathe and you'll get the message.
Just eat or stand up and stab
the person across the table
with the bread knife. You'll know
and not be sorry because you'll know
and want to laugh how easy
you can turn the bread knife
on yourself.

It's in keeping with Ignatow's style that his weapon of choice is a bread knife—something intended to facilitate nourishment and communion turned suddenly savage and sinister. Even so, Ignatow doesn't flinch. He bears witness to our labors, our negotiations, our forced loves, our ordinary commerce, and our squelched ambitions, thereby transforming "the anger, sarcasm, satire, brutality, indifference and anguish" which rage in contemporary city life into some kind of odd redemption.

Although he began to select and order these poems long before his death last year at the age of eighty-three, Ignatow was unable to complete the collection. At the urging of his daughter and the editors at BOA, his long-time friend and colleague Virginia Terris agreed to assemble the remaining sections and prepare the manuscript for publication. She has, by any measure, fulfilled the promise of Ignatow's intentions for this book. Had Ignatow deemed them ready, several of these poems could have easily been included in his Selected Poems. Even the highly anthologized Ignatow classic, "Rescue the Dead," cannot dim the likes of such poems as "Thoughts of a Tiny Pig" or "They Said."

The back cover of this collection displays twenty-four photographs of Ignatow in various guises—smiling, grim, admonitory, thoughtful, reserved. Each poem collected here is a compendium of those venerable faces—complex, beautiful, lacerated with living and with toil, uncompromising. Yet, for all that, there is an easy grace and Athenian simplicity to these poems. Ignatow has spit on the whetstone of his life and honed these poems to fine blades of reckoning.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 2, Summer (#10) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998