Monday, June 24, 2013

"Reply," a chapbook by Elizabeth Robinson: Review by Barrett Warner

Reply, By Elizabeth Robinson (Pavement Saw Press, 2011, 32 pages, $7, ISBN: 978-1-886350-21-2)

My Hall of Fame bookcase is filled with consolation prizes. These are appreciative tokens sent to me by small presses whose contests I haven’t won. Recently, Pavement Saw Press (Ohio) sent me a package of previous chapbook contest winners. It was the editor’s way of suggesting I take a little time away from my own suffering succotash and read someone else’s corn. Soon as I bent back the cover of Elizabeth Robinson’s Reply I was hooked, and thrilled. Robinson, a seasoned poet with three collections at large, can write the leg off a dead mule while most of us—me included—are still trying to feed it a carrot.

Reply is about making connections, sending mail, reaching out, stalking, phoning obsessively, and being confused by dialogue. There are accusations and insults. Dialogue is literal, experiences are figurative, and the weather, abstract. Each poem revisits a previous poem so that the chapbook feels like a novel, and is every bit as fascinating, as new layers are revealed and new light falls.

Ed Ochester says that Post Modern poetry is all about being afraid of dying and not wanting to be alone. The protagonist in these poems is an 87 year old man who is afraid of dying and being alone. He mails cassette tapes that explain poetry to the speaker. He’s also had his testicles removed, if anyone is keeping score. His relationship with the speaker is fraught with metaphor, as if new poetry and old poetry were trying to deal with each other’s presence.

Robinson’s lines are double-spaced, and her stanzas are more like clumps. Point of view and context alternate with each. In the opening poem “Wind,” three conditions—the old man’s tenacious direct address to the speaker, her focus on experience and association, and her son’s subtle asides—trade positions, merge and separate. “Wind” concludes:

If I am at the exact center of my life. I will
Live to be 94. This might be proof that I can
Partake in equal measure of the bornness and the
Deadness. Still, I do not reply. Still-

“I will not stop contacting you,” he says,
“until you supply me with an answer that satisfies me.”

In the second poem “Call” the phone calls start. The speaker doesn’t answer. She blocks his number. Old Poetry gets through when he calls from the hospital: “I’m about to die, / so you should talk to me.” The old man’s behavior is explained in “Justification”: “He likes to eat his rage, though / it tastes sour, because it is the elixir / of immortality.” Robinson’s speaker wonders and guesses at truth, at who she is and how she began. It’s about how associations, both highly intelligent and childlike ones, can take us to beauty. For the old man the game is about intentions, and not being understood, and even causing damage to know that he exists such as injuring a neighbor with his motorized chair or calling the speaker a bad mother, and a Nazi.

Reply makes a brilliant case against Post Modern angst. We shouldn’t be afraid of dying because we were dead before we were born. We shouldn’t be afraid of being alone because the winds won’t allow it. They blow the world into our lives. Feeling isolated? Open a window. The nineteen poems (I drew stars next to the titles of eighteen of them) converse with each other like a dozen witnesses re-telling a fantastic and secret story. My favorite is “Too Much Salt and a Bright Blue Couch”:

I have memories from before I was born. This
was when I was still dead. At that time,
I lived in a perfect room, gracious in its symmetry.
Its order and capaciousness I remember. After I was made
to be alive. I sometimes had intense fevers and during
these, I remembered being dead and the impositions
that arose on that ideal state. The room would become
cluttered, contracting; I felt harassed by its demands. This
experience, a friend told me, is a memory of what he called
“the birth trauma.” After this, the wind blew over my slick
premature skin. After this, I became an adult
and was made to sit on a blue, blue couch at
an old man’s house where I was
fed food that burned my mouth with salt.

Reply is an excellent chapbook. I wouldn’t mind having a thousand just like it.

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