"Rescue the Dead" – David Ignatow – American poet – 1914 – 1997


The poetry section of my personal library has around 400 volumes acquired over some forty years. The largest concentration is probably of works by American poets of the 20th Century, particularly those writing between the 1940s-1980s. Amongst those, for reasons I can’t explain because he is not the best-known, most prolific, or winner of major prizes, I’ve always felt a personal connection to David Ignatow.

Ignatow’s birthday (Feb 7) is eight days before my father’s and in the same year (1914). The anniversary of his death (November 17) is eight days before MY birthday. “Eight” is a lucky number for the Chinese, because it’s a homonym for “wealth”. It doesn’t explain anything: just a small observation with no relevance for the un-superstitious, of which I am one.

I first encountered Ignatow’s writing in a thin paper-back edition of “Rescue The Dead”, purchased in 1971 while in college and shortly after my discovery that there was poetry beyond “The Raven”, limericks, and Rod McKuen. The title poem, in particular, articulated and defined love and living with images and in ways I had never encountered before. It collided spectacularly with my youthful yearnings to understand the love(s) ahead.

The poem was mysterious and compelling: sometimes I understood all of it without being able to parse any of it. It was a forest I would walk through and discover something new each time I visited.  And, as I brought more life-experience to its understanding, a line/image would become known, yet the next reading would shift it, add meaning as another line gained clarity or became opaque again.  I marveled at the layers of complexity possible in such few – and simple – words when brought together as he had done.  Here it is:

Rescue the Dead

Finally, to forgo love is to kiss a leaf,
is to let rain fall nakedly upon your head,
is to respect fire,
is to study man’s eyes and his gestures
as he talks,
is to set bread upon the table
and a knife discreetly by,
is to pass through crowds
like a crowd of oneself.
Not to love is to live.

To love is to be led away
into a forest where the secret grave
is dug, singing, praising darkness
under the trees.

To live is to sign your name,
is to ignore the dead,
is to carry a wallet
and shake hands.

To love is to be a fish.
My boat wallows in the sea.
You who are free,
rescue the dead.

————

Over the years, I followed his work as I did no other living poet’s. As new work was published – always small volumes, the poems inside sparsely written – I added them to my library. I never liked – or understood – all his poems, but nevertheless enjoyed seeing his work develop over the quarter-century or so between my introduction to it and his death in 1997. (The writing and imagery became even more sparse – at least one critic called it “Zen-like”.)

I wrote an unmailed letter to him sometime in the mid-1980s, but it being pre-Internet and email days, I never actively pursued an address to which to mail it.  I regret it, because poets have such a small audience that “fan mail” is an oxymoron.

Two weeks ago, on Alibris.com, I found – and purchased – a signed, first edition hard-cover copy of “Rescue The Dead”. It was a special feeling to hold it in my hands and see his signature on the title page. I am still exploring what I felt. Maybe it will become a poem.

December 14, 2011

On December 22, 2010, almost a year ago, I had a devastating fire in my apartment that destroyed 98% of my poetry library.  Included among the losses is that signed, first edition of “Rescue the Dead”.

About Drachenfutter

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5 Responses to "Rescue the Dead" – David Ignatow – American poet – 1914 – 1997

  1. ljlenehan says:

    He is amazing… Great blog!!

  2. Kevin Michael Dunagan says:

    I was looking for “Rescue the Dead” online to refresh my memory of the poem, most of which lives in my head. It holds within it the kind of truth that cannot be directly and plainly said. I had a special reason for thinking of it: wonderfully, marvelously and relatively late in life–I am in my latter fifties–love has reentered my life and “My boat wallows in the sea.” Then I read your posting below the poem, and it filled me with such sorrow at your loss–one that only those “who care about words,” as a poetry professor of mine and himself a poet put it years ago–can know. I, too, own a large library and experienced a devastating fire 13 years ago, but most of my books were saved. I cannot imagine your loss and wanted to voice my small grief at your great grief, with a wish and a hope that time and circumstances have healed your loss.

    • Thank you, Kevin, for your thoughtfulness and empathy. I am delighted that love re-entered your life, however “late”. I reached Medicare eligibility last November and also pleased to report to being both coupled and contented again. A poetry project curtailed by the fire and the loss of my library can be found at this link: http://illsandthrillsoflove.blogspot.com/. I think you might find some old “friends” there. Best to you. Harrison.

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