Proem Press

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 time.

 

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 those procedures.

 

            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 way back.

 

            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. 

 

            Follow me.

 

 

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 stops.

 

            Silence, so sudden, it’s deafening.

            Mr. Barrett lifts a finger. Question.

            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 smiles slightly.

            Ashamed, they turn to the window.

 

Shame, despair, 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.

 

                                                                        …Bill bends

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 becomes metaphor.

 

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 edges”:

 

                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 “heartland.”

 

…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 landscape.

 

            Where you from, the boy behind the register wants to know.

 

            Bill hooks a thumb toward the forest.

 

            The boy 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?

 

            Fire?  Bill notices headlines leaping and shouting under the glass.

 

            The newspaper’s yellow, faded.

 

            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.

 

 

Mark 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.

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