Foreword by Mark Irwin
I’m intrigued by the unassuming title of
this collection: Bill. -And though unassuming, almost pedestrian, it is
pregnant with meaning, for Bill is not only a proper noun and name, but as
signifier it throws us into the American world of capitalism, one of dollar
bills, bills of sale —or that less than responsible phrase, “Bill me,” which
moves democratically throughout our world, including the world of medicine.
Bill is a physician, but he is also
anyone of us dropped into the cloud of Americana. Bill likes books, sports,
food, and travel. Bill is educated, polite, overworked, frustrated, canny,
jaded, and somewhat naive, naive as any jaded, canny physician can be, having
glimpsed death in the eyes of others, but realizing it’s a little different each
Medicine is a science, and there’s
certainly a logic to its praxis, but we must remind ourselves that it is a
“practice,” and that the identical procedure performed on ten different patients
might yield several different results. The procedure is that haunting
aspect, as we learn in “exponent of the horizontal”. We are trained, urged to
follow procedures, but the most memorable parts of our lives seem to depart from
Are you a doctor?
The woman in the floral raincoat plants
herself in Bill’s path and loudly demands that he direct her to the parking
structure. Level G1. Her husband’s sick. He took a bad turn. She can’t find the
Yet there is an “exponent of the
horizontal,” a departure from logic, diagnosis, prescription —a wind called
chance, or “Fate”, as Rector would have it, wonderfully echoing Kafka.
Can’t you see?
There are signs everywhere. G
can mean either Green or Ground. You’re hopelessly lost. On the
wrong level, headed in the wrong direction. There’s an etiquette called Fate.
These departures from the horizontal,
from logos or praxis, occur regularly and frequently in Bill Rector’s poetry. In
“a question” the overtly polite and servile doctor speaks to a terminal patient,
Mr. Barrett, and his daughter, while outside a helicopter “whupps” the air, then
so sudden, it’s deafening.
Mr. Barrett lifts a finger.
All lean in. He has an
appointment next week
to have a bridge fixed.
Should he keep it?
Bill meets the daughter’s eye. She
Ashamed, they turn to the
insecurity, dark humor, and frustration number among these exponents of the
horizontal, those that in their departure from the norm can never be tallied,
except in poetry.
The art of distraction and a keen sense
of peripheral vision must certainly be admired in these poems, for if the
physician survives the deaths of others through compassion and forms of
distraction, then the poet thrives through that same distraction —I mean more
specifically the art of seeing the many in the one, one also filled with
compassion. Consider the brilliant “ars poetica,” in which the speaker
sees another terminal patient, Mr. Charles Biltz, a laborer with snake tattoos
on his arms.
Biltz wears a miner’s hat. The lamp
flickers. There’s rain in his eyes. Forget the miner’s hat. Remember it.
During the procedure, a window washer
appears on a scaffold: each ignores the other, and while the patient recovers
from anesthesia, the physician sketches a poem; doodles on the paper become the
window washer’s “figure eights” and the snake tattoo on the patient’s arms.
over his poem. His scattered note-poem.
His wooden doodling. Each pretends the other isn’t there. The one who has taken
his life in his hands is the more successful. The doctor in the office is one
more transparency in a long line. There are green and red snakes on the
laborer’s arms. What an artist with the squeegee! Swish, swoosh, figure
eights, no smears, no lines.
If only the practice of medicine left
“no smears, no lines.” Surrealism is most effective when its associative imagery
If much of Bill concerns witness, other
parts produce both a self-portrait and also a striking physiological portrait
where physical places become sites within the body, as in “postcard without
Lemon light, long shadows: morning.
Turning and stepping back through the sheen on the cornea, then the convex door
of the lens, Bill finds himself at the market of the macula, near the river of
the optic nerve, dim in the shade of ancient buildings, where the sights of
Paris, a city he’s not seen except in pictures, come to mingle with his other
senses before proceeding on to meet the brain.
Bill Rector, just as John Keats, has
witnessed the physiological landscapes of the body and the sweeping panoramas of
the natural world, and a particular sublimity arises from their artistic
melding. Often, Rector creates strange psychological portraits through the
wide-open spaces of America, spaces that affect the way we live our lives, as in
…I’m not even sure
what state we’re in,
the heart sighs. Let’s get out and see.
Down the black silo
billion year-old photons rain on summer’s last kernels. Thupp, thupp, thupp.
You can hear corn growing? The mind’s amazed. The things it never
knew. New joints forming on the stalks, the heart says, the action of blood,
muscle, and valves mimicking that of sun, sap, and cells. Bearded ears lean in.
There’s the Milky
Way! Bill exclaims, astonished to find the disc of the galaxy above, watchful as
a cat’s pupil. I told you we weren’t lost…
These psychological probings become most
salient when Rector examines the harsh, rural landscapes of his native Wyoming.
We feel this sociologically in the striking and memorable dialogue of “here,”
whose ellipsis, pauses, and dark humor approximate the isolation imposed by
Where you from, the boy behind
the register wants to know.
Bill hooks a thumb toward
nods —my sister lives there.
They look that way. Sun is
spilling on the road.
Maybe I know her, Bill says.
I don’t think so. The boy
shakes his head.
Did do you hear about the
Fire? Bill notices headlines
leaping and shouting under the glass.
The newspaper’s yellow,
Ants are carrying off pieces
of candy bars.
Where are you really from,
the boy says.
Casting the more surreal, polyvalent,
emotional poems in prose heightens their density, while undermining their
artifice, or form, which often functions here at an implosive degree. There is a
wonderful range of emotion in these landscapes, portraits of mortality, and
self-portraits. The body of the American west has been diagnosed, mapped,
dissected, and happily resurrected in these pages.
Irwin is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the
University of Southern California. He is the author of five books of poetry,
most recently Bright Hunger, published by BOA. He has won several
Pushcart Prizes as well as an NEA award in poetry.