‘Suitor’ by Joshua Rivkin: The Power of Ambiguity

Cade Johnson

The term “suitor” evokes the masculine role in courtship, and in Joshua Rivkin’s latest collection of poetry it takes on many forms as his poems grapple with masculinity, personal history, and desire. Suitor (88 pages; Red Hen Press), whose title Rivkin tells us early on comes “from the Latin secutor,/ to follow,” proves an expansive rumination on the self, what it means to succeed those who came before you, as well as the pursuit of desire.

Rivkin’s poems emphasize a need to unearth perspectives previously unknown. In doing so, Rivkin sheds patriarchal categorizations of good and bad, of binaries and a singular objective reality, in favor of a perspective made up of multiple concurring realities. In the same poem he defines the collection’s title, he begins by asking for forgiveness: “–forgive me/ mistakes, half-/truths, my own wrong/ angles of forgetting.” Rivkin evokes a longing for a sense of reconciliation and conclusions, but at the same time his poetry demonstrates the power of ambiguity, of lyric over objectivity.

Making up the middle portion of the book is “The Haber Problem,” a lyric essay in ten parts that explores Rivkin’s relationship with his father through the lens of German chemist Fritz Haber. Haber, who is known as the “father of chemical warfare” and whose discoveries in chemistry led to the availability of artificial fertilizers around the world, provides a sharp backdrop for Rivkin’s semi-translucent illustration of his father. Where Rivkin is spare in the specific details related to his father’s harm, the complicated allure of Haber’s role in history fills in the blanks. Rivkin writes obliquely throughout the book, even when his prose appears to be rather direct. 

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“The Haber Problem” finds Rivkin tackling shifting perspectives in relation to his father:

“The events don’t change. They unfold exactly as they always have. What changes is our sightline. “Let us be gentle when we question our fathers,” writes one poet. I remember the day when I saw in my father the body of my grandfather. As if an explanation of how little our anger matters.” 

Where the collection is not studying Rivkin’s relationships to his past, it channels the immediacy of hunger and desire: the final section details sexual encounters with men and women, the gripping sensuality of the text providing relief to the inner tension of trying to know himself in relation to his past and the men that preceded him. In “Suitor’s Dream,” Rivkin writes, “It’s the moment before/ skin, before clothes pattern the floor/ like samba steps, this neck/ with hand, this waist with this mouth,” capturing the last moment before two bodies fall into each other.

For all the collection’s mentions of forgiveness, even asking the reader for it directly, Rivkin writes with surprising clarity about absolution in a poem reminiscent of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”: “I don’t need to believe each time I curse/ God, or go home with a stranger,/ or refuse decision/ the spaces in my body wides, are deep like a well,/ bone dry, and halfway to China.”

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” he writes. “I’ve done it all.”

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