Both/And: Republic Café by David Biespiel

Reviewed By

David Biespiel’s sixth and latest book of poems, Republic Café, should be within your reach as soon as you can make it happen. The book shouldn’t be placed in between others on your bookshelf or in your “books to read” pile. Republic Café should be where you can reach it so it can open its door for you, seat you immediately, and begin giving you what you didn’t know you could order or hunger for.

Republic Café is comprised of three epigraphs that orient us toward the book’s governing principles, a frontispiece titled “Room,” and fifty-four numbered sections that work as a unified long poem. The menu is simple, but not easy, and everything on the menu will be served and eaten—if we follow Mark Strand’s lead and eat poetry—and, having partaken of it, you will feel a change in yourself if you give yourself to the poems so they can give to you.

The menu reads something like this:

  1. “Room” is the book’s frontispiece and the only “titled” poem in the book. It is the only (and perfect) way in.
  2. Sections 1-54 should be taken in as a whole so they can make (a) room inside you.
  3. Memory systems aren’t chronological.
  4. Emotional systems aren’t chronological.
  5. “You” is both an interlocutor for the book’s “I,” but “You” is also “You, the reader.”
  6. What’s at stake for Biespiel’s speaker is what’s at stake for you.

 

I love the way Republic Café seems to know something about me that I didn’t (and still may not), but makes me aware that I want to know what it is about me, and everyone I know, that I see in these pages. But, as Biespiel writes in Section 1,

If you ask me what is the shape of the world,
I would say it’s a spiral, a cone, a wisp of smoke
Spinning on the long axis of remembering and forgetting.
A balustrade, fractal, strand of genetic instruction.

This stanza is what the book knows: there’s a relationship between confluence and divergence, and the relationship is barely based on the different meanings. Biespiel’s perceptive diction places the poem, and the speaker’s interior, on the balcony of its own beginning, or perhaps, its own present—a balustrade being the railing against which we lean when we look out over the cityscape or landscape from a hotel balcony or a scenic overview, or, as in this case, from the beginning of a poem that trusts itself to exist in all of time’s tenses on every page.

One of Biespiel’s greatest strengths on the page is working inference and direct statement into a natural coexistence; he trusts his reader to follow the poem even in seemingly dissociative moments. This strength is especially present in Republic Café when it embraces the mind’s achronological nature, and places experience next to experience, and thought next to thought, because that’s what happens in the room in which Biespiel’s speaker, section by section, establishes his orientation and follows the smoke, about which he writes,

But I have not yet established my orientation,
Nor am I ready to follow the smoke.

Here we see how Republic Café’s first section establishes the speaker’s willingness to describe the shape of the world—but the shape of the world is an interior room holding both the speaker and the exterior world, as it works on, and in, the speaker. Section 1 establishes the enduring, visceral and ethereal (“a spiral, a cone, a wisp of smoke”), physical and not physical (“A balustrade, fractal, strand of genetic instruction”) nature of the book’s central concern: There is a how to how we make ourselves in language, and Republic Café’s largest investment is in that simultaneity, the what and how we remember and forget, and what this might mean for how we want to love.

So often, I hear discussions about art centered on the idea of “intersection” or “juxtaposition.” And often, these words want to mean more than they do, but what language do we have for the side-by-side stuff of life, which is, always, the both/and, as Whitman writes, “stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed / with the stuff that is fine.” Let’s dispel the notion of “intersection” and “juxtaposition” in this discussion, because to put those words in relationship to David Biespiel’s Republic Café would separate us from ourselves.

Early on, this poem makes room for the reader to become vulnerable, because it works associatively, the way the mind works (or the way conversation between people who know each other deeply works), which creates a kind physical and metaphysical intimacy that feels quite rare in the present moment of American poetry.

There’s a sense, beginning in Section 2 and confirmed in Section 43, that we are in an actual café called Republic Café, because we can’t help but associate the book’s title with this physical placement:

In this room, I am oriented by the river to the west
And mountains to the east.
Farther off are the puzzle pieces of America with its gentle
____rogues and vistas and easy dollars and protests.

The stanza’s first three lines bear verisimilitude to what people would say to people, but the last line places rogues, vistas, easy dollars, and protests together, suggesting these are parts of America seen together from the room’s balustrade. This line doesn’t just create one scene, it also names its parts “gentle” and “easy,” inferring that there is another Republic Café in which we’re seated; a country that is not close enough to its rogues and vistas, its easy dollars and protests.

The lines work to place us both physically and figuratively. We can quite easily see the river to the west and the mountains to the east and associate them with our own rivers and mountains, but here is the craft lesson: Biespiel’s prosody here, as in much of the book, serves to at once name America “with its gentle,” but gentle’s not a common association for rogues, easy dollars, and protests. The puzzle pieces, this stanza suggests, are just there, not fit together into a logical whole, but visible in a way that allows us to imagine a whole republic, as we imagine our fractal republic in the literal and the figurative.

In one Republic Café, we’re sitting down and orienting ourselves with landmarks we know as comforting and beautiful in our imaginations reminiscent of the American-ness of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’s” “from ev’ry mountainside / let freedom ring.” In another Republic Café, we’re seeing “rogues and vistas and easy dollars and protests” in an America we might be dubious about taking at its word. But Biespiel’s work throughout this book isn’t choosing one Republic Café or the other. His work is living in both, which means love-making in catastrophe’s wake, and considering citizenship and self on the long axis of remembering and forgetting, as in Section 25:

There are those, I say, who die for us every day.
What a horrible sacrifice, you say, this freedom without
____beginning that should save us.

And later in the same section,

In time we shall be nourished with unending fullness
And with the invisible mornings of our hymns, I say.
You say, we shall be nourished with trees of black feathers.

And next, in Section 26,

You say, look, there are miles of smoke cooling through your
____shirt, feeling for your throat.
______________________________

We understand this to mean that another city must be burned
____down,
And the soundless ashes, scattered and misbegotten, are the
____color of our lips.
_______________________________

You say, and then forgiveness?

These two sections next to each other show one way Republic Café includes the reader in its unfolding, by making a poem that speaks for both the reader and the poet. Consider, also, Sections 25 and 26 in conjunction with Section 32:

Tomorrow I must write: In the palm of every man’s hand is the
____blood of war.
________________________________

Tomorrow I must write: The soul is emptied like a clear day just
____after rain when the wind has died and the afternoon train
____never arrives.
________________________________

To be shorn of the past, I say, is to believe that each previous
____love was a mistake.
Everyone forgets—I say, leaning forward in a chair
While you are standing near the window—
It’s like coming to the end of a triumph but seeing it as failure.

In this amalgamation, we’re in both Republic Cafés, and we’re also witness to the way Biespiel makes lovers, and the concept of love, a mainstay of maintaining the poetics of personhood.

Inclusion is one of Biespiel’s gifts—one of the reasons that his 2013 collection of epistolary poems, Charming Gardeners, is rarely far from my mind. There, as in Republic Café, I feel a part of Biespiel’s ongoing literary conversation and his modeling of literary citizenship. I’ve never learned Biespiel in a classroom, but his books feel much like the best kind of master class, in which Sir Philip Sidney’s assertion that poetry should both teach and delight is palpable to me. Being inside Republic Café is, to me, in a very real sense, like being part of a conversation I didn’t know I was going to have, wasn’t prepared for, and don’t always know if I’m “doing right”: Hiroshima; the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US World Trade Center; lovers’ hands doing what lovers’ hands do. How is one to make sense of making catastrophe and making love in the same moment?

Biespiel’s answer to that question is a central premise of this book and appears in the form of Section 19, which I place below in its entirety to highlight an excellent example of the way this poet makes one experience out of what might be described as juxtaposition or intersection, but is better described whole:

__________________________19

There comes a scream through a dark house.
A man’s face stares out of the newsreel,
His teeth white as the pages of a new book.
While lamps flutter and the mist goes black,
He rushes in all directions to dodge the fire, waving his arms,
As if seeing God for the first time.
_______________________________

He had been standing on a car hood under the filthy sky
Waving his arms all along,
His legs emaciated like fine thread,
And turning in half circles,
Like a street sweeper without a broom.
There were scars above his cheek,
Flowery bruises,
Flies in the nostrils,
Gnats in the branches like shadows of air.
If he is praying with hands clasped,
If he seems to be eating a slice of bread,
If a red leaf spurts across the boulevard,
He opens his mouth toward the filthy sky,
Trying not to move too much,

Trying not to unfeel his feelings,
Nor to forget that he is forgetting.
_______________________________

Wasn’t it worth it, I suppose he thinks, to have once had his
____heart broken?

The speaker here shows what he sees, describes in detail so we, too, experience what was experienced. For this section’s duration, we become viewer through the eyes of a viewer, though we feel like we are the only one seeing the man because the piece uses third- and then first- person points of view to reconstruct the image of the man’s suffering and shock, which is palpable to the reader—and then the curious last two stanzas:

Trying not to unfeel his feelings,
Nor to forget that he is forgetting.
_______________________________

Wasn’t it worth it, I suppose he thinks, to have once had his
____heart broken?

These stanzas grant introspection to a man the speaker never met, and wasn’t witness to, on the streets in which we see him. We know we’re seeing the victim on the television news in third-person point of view, but the first two stanzas also feel like first-person point of view. We are, and are not, close to the man with emaciated legs, but we are human watching another human suffer, and if the poem had turned away from the lyric descriptive or made a comment about the attackers, we wouldn’t be granted access to our empathy, the ability to feel the man trying not to un-feel the feelings of his life, all of those available to him as, beat by beat, in the poem’s prosody, “the red leaf spurts across the boulevard.”

It is the mark of a master craftsman for this poet to feel for his fellow man so deeply that he blends third- and first-person to make a room in which speaker, attack victim, and reader are confluent. Had Biespiel chosen a word other than “suppose,” the reader wouldn’t read the section’s end as anything more than cliché. “Suppose,” though, is its own kind of room, a space for giving credence to the unexpected effects of what was a more-than-likely, supposedly normal day for the man who now helps us “in and in and in” ourselves, as we give thanks for his life in the same lines we give thanks for ours.

After a section like 19, I’m not sure which aspect of the living image is more devastating in all of devastation’s definitions. Biespiel brings a victim of violence into high definition for his reader, just as I imagine he is seeing the image in the poem’s present, which is “the scream” that comes “through a dark house” and on television, which is another kind of balustrade that creates another way to “view, and thus define, the shape of the world. In Biespiel’s hands, the view via television becomes “reconstruction,” which is a way the book engages with what it means to remember, to forget, and the need for both. In Section 17 we encounter this repetitious use of “reconstruction”:

In the reconstruction on television
The events are always in the same order.
Sky, jets, fires,
Until the screen cuts or darkens
And the broadcaster resumes, or takes a break,
And a commercial pops up for hair removal product.

The reconstruction on television makes apocalyptic freaks look
____like symmetrical adversaries.
The reconstruction on television confuses the real with the
____symbolic and makes murder look like a spectacle of the
____sublime.
_______________________________

In memory there is something to do with archways under a
____bright sky, the aroma of high cotton.
Straw in the wind.

We recognize the September 11, 2001, events in the first three lines. If you were alive at the time of the attacks and old enough to remember, you recall the footage played and replayed and replayed for days, weeks; seeing was believing. The footage was a shared experience in which Americans could participate. The footage gave us specifics to talk about.

In Section 17 we still share that experience. Reading the first three lines, we relive that day, remembering exactly where we were, what was happening, and how suddenly fragile our lives felt, our country. Of course, being closer to the day makes the experience somehow more “authentic,” but these three lines work to enact the way forgetting matters as much as remembering. Republic Café’s very existence is a testament to remembering, but for Biespiel (and now for me), it’s how we remember that’s under the microscope. Notice how deftly Biespiel gives three lines to the footage we see and re-see, and the way the “sky, jets, fires” fit into the necessary format of television, versus the twenty-four lines given to the image of and empathy with the man in Section 19.

“The reconstruction on television confuses the real with the / symbolic” is perhaps one of the most synechdochal sentences in the book. Both images are “real,” Biespiel suggests, but here, like elsewhere, he urges us to see “real” and “symbolic” as a both/and; “sky, jets, fires,” has become the synecdoche for the man in Section 19, Section 27’s account of the Jewish mother whose son’s been taken from her in a Nazi lineup, Section 42’s survivor who “has written—

Single men picked out women from the group to be their “wives.”
The rest were killed.
I was selected by a widower who took me with him into exile.
When the man was killed, I was two months pregnant.
The child was born in the refugee camp.

“Real” and “symbolic”; “remember” and “forget.” There is a how to how we make ourselves in language, and Republic Café’s largest investment is in that simultaneity. I can’t help but think of Adam Zagajewski’s 2012 Threepenny Review article, “Inspiration and Impediment,” in which he writes,

[M]aybe the real danger and the real challenge for poets writing today is…namely, a kind of spiritual anemia, the risk of simply being lukewarm, indifferent, deaf…we’ve gained a lot—a kind of aesthetic freedom, a kind of flexibility—but also lost something very significant. It’s too bad we can’t remember what it was. Beauty? Passion? Soul?

I assure you that beauty, passion, and soul are alive and well in Republic Café, and that flexibility is a kind of freedom (aesthetic and not) that Biespiel couples with duty and responsibility. I assure you that David Biespiel has worked to help us remember why poets make poems. Nothing is served in Republic Café lukewarm or indifferent. In this room there is room—and hence, “economy”—for all of us to be imagined, to be included in this experience: “We wrinkle into a large booth at the Republic Café, / Clumsy as people getting off a train, / Bumping against each other with our arms and legs,” and when “You ask—after all that, why does one fight to love?” Republic Café answers, “Because people want to love,” and you’ll find yourself sitting with a book of poems in your lap, and you’ll feel the tears in your eyes, because it’s all true.

***

Photograph of David Biespiel © Marion Ettlinger. David Biespiel writes the Poetry Wire column for The Rumpus.


Christian Anton Gerard is the author of Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). His work appears widely in national and international magazines. Gerard has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award. Gerard holds a BA from Miami University (OH), an MFA from Old Dominion University, and a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. More from this author →