All The Days

FEATURE by Willard Manus

Robert Riche is one of my oldest and best friends, someone who has shared in many of the most important experiences of my life, going back to New York in the 1950s: attending Joe Friedman’s writing workshop, helping to publish the literary magazine Venture, fighting various political battles together, working for a time in the same p.r. agency, quaffing beers in the Cedar Street bar with the women who later became our wives–and more, much more.

Now Robert, a novelist and playwright who switched to writing poetry in his seventies, has published ALL THE DAYS, a memoir which, as he puts it, “scans poetically a life lived amid the tumult of much of the last century.” The 43-page book, handsomely published by Pudding Magazine Press, is not just a personal summing-up but a wise, touching commentary on youth and aging, life and death. This melding of private and public thoughts–the specific and the universal, if you will–is achieved through a lucid, masterful use of language and voice.

Robert begins ALL THE DAYS with a poem called Coeur de Lion, an affectionate tribute to his father, who at eighteen joined the AEF and fought in France, winning a combat medal for his exploits, which he proceeded to “misplace somewhere with the rest of his past.” A successful salesman who “could sell you the shoes on your feet,” he lived until he was 98, spending his final years in a retirement home, surrounded by women who doted on him and gave him treats. “His seraglio pleased him,” Robert writes. “He was king of the beasts.”

Several poems about childhood follow, but the major part of the book deals with Robert’s experiences working in a Brooklyn machine-shop, a job this Yale graduate took out of revolutionary zeal, a desire to lead his fellow workers “out of slavery.” Robert’s portraits of such blue-collar guys as the welder Vinnie Caraluzzi and the Polish foreman Stash are brilliantly rendered: unsentimental, vivid, deeply respectful.
Robert’s working-class dalliance ended when management announced that it would be moving the plant to North Carolina. Hearing this, a “collective howl, more like an off-key chorus went up. Bass, tenor, soprano–all those guys united in one endeavor, to assemble a living.”

America’s McCarthyite assault on the left–-compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union--took its toll on Robert. “I lost my way in the light that failed,” he confides in Howl, his poetic tribute to Allen Ginsberg’s famed cry of mid-century anguish. That’s not to say, though, that Robert himself succumbed to hopelessness or nihilism. On the contrary, even though he sees himself as “Lear in the wilderness, with no way back to my former throne,” he still insists that “rare wines set aside taste better now” and that, aided by the laughter of old friends, he still continues to rage “against the stupidities of government gone mad.”

ALL THE DAYS concludes with a few wise, touching poems dealing with mortality: memories of the past mixing with gratitude for the gift of life.