Monday, 29 June 2009

First Things When by Robert Rehder

John Clegg on First Things When by Robert Rehder (Carcanet 2009)

For such a funny book, First Things When is startlingly bleak. Rehder’s theme is vacancy – physical, cultural and mental – and he rides it with a mixture of bemusement and anger. Most of the poems are in unrhymed, free-flowing couplets, giving them a conversational looseness; he can gossip about colleagues, fantasise about his ‘Larsen Boredom Meter’, demand a Nobel Prize, and tell long stories about ranch dressing that don’t go anywhere: but then suddenly the poem turns on a dime, and that same familiar voice (cranky, acerbically witty college professor) is saying something like ‘We work all the time, / Because nothing has any meaning’ or ‘Not caring is also like freedom, / And there are fewer choices’.

The most immediately striking poems are the ones about American popular culture, especially films: ‘I worry // Whether the chemical factory in I Love Trouble is / The same set as in Demolition Man. // I brood over this as if I were Proust.’ There are pages of this and it is as habit-forming as the movies it describes. ‘These details are probably lost on you / And in a hundred years // They’re going to drive the scholars crazy. / They’re driving me crazy now.’

At the other end of the scale are the poems about memory loss. In the series of philosophical meditations on snow, vacancy is a stepping-off point: ‘The snow has something to say / About everything’. But the idea of mental vacancy pulls Rehder in the opposite direction. The best of these poems, ‘Entropy’, uses Venice as a metaphor; a city gradually sinking into a swamp, ‘the fading splendour of an unknown world.’ This is an abyss that can’t be joked out of existence, and Rehder becomes more subdued around it. (It’s not a coincidence that the ‘Snow’ poems open the book, and the ‘Entropy’ poems close it.)

With so many poets nowadays employed by universities, it surprises me how few have taken university life as subject-matter. (I’m sure there are thousands and I’ve just not read them. In any case, John Berryman comes to mind. But bear with me here.) Rehder – perhaps because he’s now retired – is a joyful exception. He attacks Cultural Studies (‘That’s the wonderful thing / About Cultural Studies. // You stop thinking / And have all these great ideas’) and bitches about staff meetings and bad hiring choices. The anger is all somewhat in excess of its target, which is pretty funny.

If you want a proper taster of Rehder before you commit to anything, I recommend this damn fine essay (which reprints several of his poems in full), but First Things When is curt and savage and hilarious and well worth £9.95 of anybody’s money. Finally, an open call for assistance: Rehder’s website promises a free autographed poem to anyone who can correctly identify all of these citations, and I’ve got all of them except for #7, so if you know who said and in what context ‘Our bed is full of dry cereal’, please let me know.

* John Clegg has a chapbook forthcoming from tall-lighthouse in 2010.