Friday, January 07, 2011

Elizabeth Robinson’s (disputed) orphans

The loop itself has no beginning or end.

See this chair? It’s a place where you may sit.
See this wooden chair? It’s an object for you to dismantle and

It’s a piece of wood to be carved into a steering wheel.
See this: this is your durable wooden map.

It is not a chair. (“A Story About Chairs,” The Orphan & Its Relations)
Poems can no more live alone than we can, Michael Ondaatje once wrote, paraphrasing Jack Spicer’s Admonishions. In two recent poetry collections, The Orphan & Its Relations (Albany NY: Fence Books, 2008) and Also Known As (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2009), Elizabeth Robinson’s poems, if orphans they might be, prove themselves to be a family created out of such. Poems that explore, as Patrick Pritchett wrote in his review of her Apprehend (Apogee Press/Fence Books/Saturnalia, 2002) in Jacket:
To grow apprehensive suggests a restlessness, a trembling before the other, whose approach is also the longed-for outcome. Throughout these poems the other approaches across great distances, at first like a monster, or a wolf, or a witch, to stand in a radical and plangent proximity. Nearness hurts these poems like a heartbreak of continuous affirmation. This is the source of the uncanny in these poems, the way they touch us to the quick, like a ghost with its nerves on fire and speaking the shadow tongue we know as our own hidden murmur. We are lost, we are found, then lost again, but we are never who we were before. Inside the story that is the word itself we make a way for ourselves, lighting a home, preparing its meals, dreaming the dream of shelter and exposure.

Robinson articulates the tensions and pauses, the sudden leaps and velocities at work inside the poem as smartly and surely as anyone now writing. Her attention to measure offers innumerable surprises, but does not make a fetish of it, as so many younger writers have, particularly those enamored of the more moribund aspects of the New York School. Surprise, in Robinson’s work, is more than a production of a frisson, of the delicious shiver of the novel. Rather, it inhabits a moral dimension, compelling the reader to see not so much the unexpected connection between X and Y, but to weigh the distance between them, and not as irony would either, but with a care for including everything that distance allows us to see.
In The Orphan & Its Relations, the poems explore and concrete the abstract, marking philosophies tangible in the way that bodies are, in the way that we live. What is her orphan, specifically? The poem, as the book could be called, goes back to the beginning, each piece returning to the first piece, “Critique of the Orphan,” and each section of two, three or four poems an ampersand. Here we have poems relating words and objects back to each other, objects and ideas; you cannot step twice, it seems, in the same idea, we already know, but how different are ideas?
A Version of the Alias

Robust, my ability to list. But I tattoo this litany
on the inside of a pocket, and I wear my trousers close

to my thigh. Like a billfold. Like my license, like it or not,
which permits me to go where I will.
If there is no body, how can there be an orphan? Robinson’s poetry collections, from how I understand, are all book-length explorations, each a book-length project in itself, and Also Known As (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2009) is her exploration on the hetronym, as she writes:
These poems interact with the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. I have frequently quoted Pessoa’s work in these poems or employed quotations as titles or epigraphs to individual pieces. I was curious here to explore the opportunities and limitations of persona(e): it is widely known that Pessoa himself wrote under a series of “hetronyms.” Thus I undertook to write in the persona of an author who was himself writing under the guise of multiple personae.
It’s as though Robinson is opening up her craft, developing her poems to be set loose from the anchor of the particular author; these are poems set loose, but not and never adrift, held on by her steady, guiding hand.

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