One of the true joys of the internet is when you find something you weren’t looking for, and then pursue it down the rabbit hole of the world wide web until you end up someplace you never thought you’d be. In that moment, new worlds open up to you, and you look around with fresh eyes to enjoy what you’ve found for its own merits, without anyone telling you what to look for. Often it’s a fleeting contact, picked up and discarded in a matter of hours, but sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to strike something rich and deep, so that you can go back and seek it out again and again, and each new discovery adds to your experience and enjoyment. That’s how I feel about the work of John G. Rives.
I first came across him while tooling around TED.com. Rives –it rhymes with ‘weaves’ if anyone is struggling with it– is a professional wordsmith. He can make the contents of the dictionary dance on the head of a pin in a ballet worthy of Baryshnikov. He makes a living as a poet and a public speaker, and I understand he also makes pop-up books for adults. To hear this man speak is to know what the English language is capable of.
Before I heap still further praise upon his head, I’d like you to indulge me for three minutes and watch this YouTube clip from his appearance on Def Poetry Jam. If you fail to be impressed, leave a nasty comment and never deign to visit my blog again.
Pretty amazing stuff, right? I’ve shown this to half a dozen people over the last year or two, and they’ve all been blown away. A good friend of mine who dabbles in hip hop went so far as to deprecate his own work after seeing this, but I told him that’s not fair. Rives is something to aspire to, but you should never try to compare the work of artists. Imagine if Monet gave up his water lilies because he thought they would never compete with Manet’s seascapes?
Rives’ website, http://www.shopliftwindchimes.com, is well worth a look, although it’s not often updated. You can also find Rives all over the web. The TED conference has invited him a couple of times. He’s also toured pretty extensively. The next time he comes through Toronto, you can bet I’ll be in the audience.
This first poem of his really captures what I feel to be the artist’s personality as a man. There’s charm and self-confidence, humour, honesty, and also just a hint of humility when presented with good fortune arriving unbidden into his life. There’s a YouTube video available of this poem, but it doesn’t contain the full text. That I’ve gotten off his website.
The morning after the first night we made love,
I dreamt thunder was chasing rain
through your neighborhood,
flooding the streets and keeping the two of us
indoors for days or even weeks,
until some old prophet could drop, by in an ark,
to take us and the rest of the paired-up animals
to a very high place, or an island maybe,
where we could just
sleep naked for a living.
But the thunder was a garbage truck.
And when my eyes woke up
a note on your pillow said:
“Good morning, Sparkle Boy!
I’ll be back around noon.
You–make yourself at home.”
And so I did.
I’m saying maybe I put on your slippers,
which were as comfortable as bunnies
because they were bunnies,
and then shuffled over my new favorite
hardwood floor to the bathroom
where maybe I took a bubble bath,
which is not something I can do at my place
because, frankly, my tub is way too skanky
to ever sit my bare ass down in.
And then maybe I got so caught up in the romance of the suds
I started quoting old Latin poetry from my college days
like: “fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles…”
You know: “Verily a bright sun does favor me this morning…muthafucka!”
And then maybe I…played with myself.
But it’s not what you’re thinking–
I’m saying possibly I just sorta
stuck my hand up from the water, going:
(Here the poet holds up his hand like a sock puppet and begins to speak in a high, smutty voice)
“Somebody got laid last night!
It was you-u-u!”
And then maybe I…played with myself,
and it’s exactly what you’re thinking.
But if I did, it was only to put
the mental motion picture of our naked night together
on replay and replay and replay
so touching myself was just like…
Tivo in a way.
And yes, I was still wet when I borrowed your bathrobe.
And yes, I baked apples in your oven
and then ate them with your honey, honey.
And yes, I scared the birds away from your balcony
with my antics, dancing full-blast
to your old Prince CD’s–
but please let’s just keep that my little secret,
because nothing is as private as a solitary dance
unless–maybe–it’s standing in front of a full-length mirror
in a borrowed pair of bunny slippers,
slipping off a bathrobe and then wishing to a lightbulb
that my name, or my game, or my whatever were bigger,
wondering: “What kind of woman wants this skinny kid for her warrior?”
And so I made for you a kite, enormous,
out of coat hangers, brown paper bags
and the masking tape from that drawer in your kitchen,
and I hung it in the hallway
where you couldn’t hardly miss it,
and I tagged that kite with my words,
Just so you know–
My weird mind wanders and my brave heart breaks.
I’ve nailed some milestones, but I’ve made mistakes,
Cuz I got more faults than a map of California earthquakes.
I am taking a nap beneath your covers.
Wake me if you like me.
Wake me if you want me
Wake me if you need another poem.
Your once and future lover
has made himself at home.
- – -
That’s Rives at the start of a promising new relationship. What might he say when something like that ends? That’s this next poem. I can’t call it my favourite, but it’s pretty amazing. His delivery, also, is something to behold. Nimble, yet powerful. Playful, yet sincere. I don’t have a transcript handy, but fortunately the YouTube clip is excellent:
- – -
This next one might be my personal favourite. The transcript, again, came from his website. I read this to a woman I thought particularly well of, and she was suitably impressed. Gentlemen? Never underestimate the power of poetry delivered earnestly when trying to win the attentions of an interesting woman.
And how, the night before,
you considered my ceiling,
where the passing cars outside
the passing cars outside
the passing cars outside
cast their shadows and liquid lights
through the slats of my blinds.
You said: “Hey Romeo–
your CD player is skipping again…
but your ceiling’s like fireworks for poor folks!”
And I liked that.
I like the tall pauses you take
when you tell your nephews knock-knock jokes.
And I like your theory
that men and women’s shirts button on opposite sides
so that couples can get dressed facing each other
after making love.
You seem to season your seasons,
your days, your time
with rhyme, not reason,
I’ve seen you. Daily. Nightly.
I’ve watched you housebreak a puppy
just by asking politely.
And your remedy for insomnia?
Is to pile every pillow and blanket into the tub
and you nap there like you’re taking
a patchwork bath,
and I said once: “Oh–I wish I had a picture!”
and you said: “Oh–I wish you and I had hot sex,
you gave me a pedicure,
and then elves showed up at our doorstep,
with a pizza, to tell us Jesus just built a treehouse
in the backyard, and he’d like to meet us both,
so hop in Hotshot!”
with a capital “We.”
And I’m grateful, I marvel,
you’ve helped me hammer
some of my worst manners into manhood,
but I still admit–I like the way your shorts fit,
and how, overall, you’d call me “smart,”
even though sometimes
I do really stupid shit.
And I like how you giggle with your lips closed
like you’ve got a secret little moon in your mouth.
But I’m not insisting you’re some kind of goddess,
(I know you’re suspicious of unspecific love poems).
You’re more like a sunflower,
growing in the courtyard of an old folks home–
you mean things to people on a daily basis,
and this petty poem won’t explain
just how “my favorite” your face is,
but I wish I’d been your bathroom mirror
the day they took off your braces.
You’re so pretty.
You’re like a vivid video game
and I’m the idiot kid
just trying to get to your next level–
I like your right-shoulder angel,
Hell, I like your left-shoulder devil.
I admire the lively deeds you do.
So if you come through a doorway again,
in a thrift store poncho,
or a drop-dead evening gown,
twirling and asking:
“Well, whaddya think?”
I’m gonna tell you:
“Shit howdy, Sunshine,
sit your fine self down!
If you’re looking for a compliment–
I think you’ve come
to the right place.”
- – -
Great poetry spreaks to everyone on an individual level, and Rives has so many poems that mean something to me: The Boy Who Could Levitate is wonderful and whimsical. It speaks to me of the yawning gap between young and old, and how each can find something to admire in the other.
Op Talk is a beautiful story about the special relationship he has with his sister. I have a sister too, and though most of the details are different between Rives’ family and my own, the feeling of love is right there in his story. As true for him as it is for me.
Glaucoma is about an old couple, still in love even after infirmity takes them and their ways become set in stone. Who, hearing that poem, doesn’t look forward one day to having such life-long happiness?
Summer Camp reminds me of my childhood summers, when my parents would drop my sister and I off for a week somewhere and go on vacation without us. I never took a job at a camp, but I knew plenty of people who did. I’ve heard different versions of his poems coming out of the mouths of my friends for more than a decade now.
I can’t link to everything he’s done. He’s a prolific artist. I can encourage you to try out your Google Fu and see what you can discover on your own. Robert Frost might be my favourite poet, but Rives is my favourite living poet, and that gives him the advantage. His content is stronger too, I think. Frost talks about the human condition through pastoral metaphors. Rives talks about human emotion through the interactions of real, flawed people. Men and women who have hopes and dreams, disappointments and regrets, pride and hubris. Rives’ best years are still ahead of him. I look forward to seeing him reach for Frost’s crown in my affections.
I hope you enjoy him as much as I do. He’s one of my internet discoveries, and it is my privilege to introduce you to him. Cheers!