Sunday Review: Rag Cosmology
a poetry collection from Erin Robinsong
[ BookThug / 2017 / 96 pp ]
Erin Robinsong’s debut poetry collection is an inexplicable dive into the deep end of language. Robinsong’s effort to explore nature in a way intensely unlike any other poet creates surreal landscapes where trees are cloudlike, coral reefs are erotic, and swans beat down police with their wings. Robinsong’s work addresses the urban dweller’s detachment from nature not by setting nature apart, but by asking the (presumably) detached reader the question “do you think our bodies are the only way / we get to be here?” The body is not detached from nature; it is here, in it, at all times. In an interview for Open Book, Robinsong says “I think cities exist in the natural world as much as forests do.” It is as difficult to imagine a world without cities as it is to imagine one without forests, and she knows this. In response, Robinsong offers a refreshing break from the Romantic and problematic notion of an unknown/unattached/undiscovered landscape. She writes:
I was 20, I was a polyrhythmic
rugrat noticing there is nothing that isn’t
This, to me, is the effect of her work—it draws attention to a direct and inherently human connection to life, and the constant movement of it within and around us. There is no such thing as stopping in Robinsong’s world. Undulating to and fro, her poems often end in half-finished thoughts or even with a note stating the poem is (ongoing).
Of course, this can be difficult to come to terms with, knowing that the world will never simply cease to be despite how endangered it is. In ‘Vibration Desks,’ Robinsong describes being overwhelmed by her surroundings:
in a distracted century I’ve
taken a walk it’s almost
hallucinogenic the things I’ve seen
I’ve seen tree bark
I’ve seen clouds darkening
I’ve seen a woman speak into a rectangle
The fragmented, almost feverish writing in this long poem reflects the anxiety felt by living between environments, where one hundred year old trees exist alongside telephone poles and the latest electric car. This poem, like many others, seems to be running out of breath, in a hurry, or otherwise caught up in chasing or being chased. This tangible aspect of her writing is due in part to Robinsong’s ability to play with the visual nature of poetry by spreading the words across a page, breaking them in twos or threes, and even flipping letters onto their side or upside down. This is a reading experience that moves the eye, the hand, the book itself.
In this way, there is something jarring about Robinsong’s writing, as the fragments of sentences/thought create surreal images of a broken landscape. Not much is personified, and there are human bodies present, of course, but so lost in the language of her poetry are they that it can be difficult to tell whether the poem is about a tree or a person. Either way, it is easy to get lost in Robinsong’s vision of our world. My favourite was the lighter, almost playful poem ‘The Woods,’ a romantic gesture (to a partner? to the woods themselves?) that plays with the ear of language by finishing with the thought:
I too pine for a landscape where nothing is in danger of becoming fragmented or foreclosing, where the thin line between endangered and extinct is a concern of the past. Robinsong’s poetry is not here to assuage fears of environmental crisis; rather, its intent is to make one realize that one is living in the midst of one.
Visit the BookThug to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Terry Abrahams
Five Things with Camille T. Dungy
1. The last thing that made you smile.
A newly recovered photo of my daughter, at 2 1/2, dressed for Halloween as Bessie Coleman. The costume prompted our neighbor, Kate Shatz, to look up Bessie Coleman, a black aviatrix whose biography is a source of empowerment beyond measure, and then to eventually feature her in the book Rad Women: A-Z. All that from a Halloween costume put together by my daughter’s Godmother and me. Small things lead to big things. That makes me smile.
2. A secret.
It’s all a secret. Until it’s not.
3. The last thing you wrote.
A note to the woman who voiced my book, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. I like her, not just her voice, and we’ve struck up a bit of a correspondence. She reads for a living, so I try to make my letters worthy of her time.
4. Favourite city.
The city of my (very best) dreams.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
Some well preserved seeds. Mostly flowers (sunflowers, California poppies, cosmos, four o’clock, mountain iris…) but probably some vegetables, too.
Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History and four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has also edited anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. She is a professor at Colorado State University.
a poem from Erin Marie Hall
“glass and the way it can resemble her own voice”
I love poems that interact with the reader while existing and owning its own dimension, which is what attracts me to this newest poem in The Ellis Review. We all have our connotations of drama and theatre, and with a title like ‘Showstopping’, there’s no illusion about what what will be presented on the page, and it’s refreshing to have a title reveal and obscure the poem’s story.
With the blank space swinging between sets of words and sentences, the pauses serve as an acrobatic link to the visceral and vulnerable contortions of the “damsel on a / track rope-burned”. The commanding dark humor of “folks you won’t want to miss this” next to the physical “she bats those / pretty lashes” is the most satisfying aspect of this poem, with an equally satisfying cliffhanger of a final line.
Visit The Ellis Review to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
a short story from Victoria Campbell
Unerringly, I return to narratives that are rooted in place, when the revelation of place is equal parts revelation of character. I’m also fond of narratives that break from linear time, zipping through years to rest on sharp, key moments of character’s lives. Victoria Campbell’s ‘Noman’s Land’ has both—the sparkle of a wonderfully rendered scene, and the brisk efficiency of a story distilled to the most potent moments. The only extravagance in her story is the language, the “veins in her papery hands glow Caribbean blue” and the “smell of honeysuckle rising through rolled-down windows.” The richness of language is necessary—vital to offset the bleak unravelling of a life after tragedy, and the heartbreaking contrast of life before tragedy; by contrasting the style and form, Campbell avoids the potential pitfalls of schlock and shock. Campbell’s story isn’t uplifting, but it is so well written you’ll forgive it for breaking your heart.
Visit Bellingham Review to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
a poem from Patrick Kindig
“as the saying
goes / fool me once / shame
on you / fool me twice
& this is how love
The newest and inaugural issue of Underblong has brought us so much wonderful work from an array of talented writers. I found myself drawn to the tone and imagery of Patrick Kindig’s ‘Presto’ and its interest in distraction, and the act of misdirection. Its analogy of love being like an illusion, a trick, really holds for me. To be in love is to be fooled, to be held by the theatrics, and to let the distraction take you where it will. The poem itself becomes involved in the act, becomes spectacle:
“but hey / see how long
this string of scarves
is / how fat this rabbit”
But only watches from afar. You are not audience or actor, but something inbetween. Not in on the secrets, and the tricks aren’t meant for you, really. There is a tinge of melancholy in the last line, the calm after the chaos, the lingering sensation that this was all a moot point.
“this is what everyone comes for
anyway / the moment
it’s revealed that nothing’s
The aftertaste of time skipping like a record, but no one really noticing. The momentary thought that maybe you should keep your eyes peeled, or else next time you’ll miss it.
Visit Underblong to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
Leda & the Swan
a poem from Kathryn Hargett
Sometimes a poem hits me square in the face, and to me it’s an act of unsparing generosity. I feel grateful—really, really grateful—to be able to encounter and listen to poetry that comes from a place of openness and inquiry, a place that offers me a seat. ‘Leda & the Swan’ by Kathryn Hargett in Tinderbox Poetry Journal is such a poem. It begins in the morning, then begins again and again, breaking with tradition and linear narrative in order to create something more resonant and cohesive.
The past is present; parents and grandparents are part of an overlapping sense of self. There is a push against fairy tale (“no slain dragon or high priestess or gleaming knight / waiting at the end of this sentence”) but the poem traffics in a magic interjected with violence: “How we sat in the sun / and watched birds plummet, beak-first, into the concrete,” and “Here’s the moment you named serotonin, a torch / whittled between your lips, / your mouth an exit wound.”
“Dear So-and-So” is repeated a half dozen times as the poem appears to wrestle with the action of communicating with the reader—“So-and-So, they called me dogeater & Philomela, / tongue dissolving through my fingers / into Atlantic spume, all my dead friends / passing through me like a summer wind”—before “Forgiveness” replaces “So-and-So”: “sit down at the table / & let me anoint you with patchouli & salts.” The poem ends with a beginning—an invitation to come in—another act of generosity, another domino falling in line from one heart to the next.
Visit Tinderbox Poetry Journal to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
White man on Tinder calls me Geisha
a poem from Kristin Chang
When a poet can pull off using the title as the first line, I’m almost instantly impressed. It can come off as a lazy move that doesn’t really frame the poem or give anything new enough for us to bother. But here, it creates a sense of urgency. We move quickly from “White man on Tinder calls me Geisha” (which immediately poses the overall conflict) to “& my shadow is a stillborn / & i drag my body behind me” (the consequences). It’s the only tercet in the poem of couplets that acts as the blueprint: we’ll continually be tossing around these ideas of conquest, distance, and violence. The shadow has no movement/life/breath and the speaker can somehow exist without their body, which throws us into the surreal immediately. Yet violent language making us strangers to ourselves is quite familiar to most of us, and that connection grounds us enough to move forward. I’d argue that the newness of the language for this well-known concept only pulls us in more.
When the speaker says, “don’t tell me / that history is a skinless almond,” we must consider how skin can be one of the main markers of time. We’re accosted by almost every skin cream or wash commercial to reverse/prevent the damage we’ve done just by carrying out our day-to-day lives. In fact, they often (unwittingly) make the correlation that to live is to decay. To have no skin inherently implies that there is no blemish to be found, but we know that history has been rewritten to favor those who want us to believe that the blood on their hands was a necessary evil. We know that even the best looking skin can have secrets. This moment begs us to consider that there are truths beyond what is currently brought to light.
Yet the most intense moment of the poem for me is the one we’ve been building towards all along: “I watched a documentary that said / men were the only species / causing death from a distance / distance as killzone: distance as motion: / distance as ownership: if i send you / my body via text / can you let my hunger out, walk it, dog / gone it?” I love how these lines seamlessly form a connection between the larger issue of war and interpersonal relationships. It’s harrowing to consider how often our governments are using bombs, nukes, drones, etc to destroy people who are nowhere near us, their agency stripped so thoroughly in a moment and the immediate impact can only be seen through screens. And once we hit “distance as ownership”, we’re called to reconsider the title itself. While some men are bold enough to use racist language to someone’s face, it’s much easier to send along when there’s space between you. Tinder can put you in contact with those you wouldn’t meet on a regular basis, and this sense of meeting the “other you’ve missed” often reminds us why we avoided them in the first place. When you must push back against white supremacy on a frequent basis, you don’t want to be reminded of it in spaces where you’re seeking to be desired. But desire, like history, isn’t skinless; it’s still informed by everything occurring outside the screen. Throughout the poem, but especially in this moment, we get the feeling that the speaker’s hunger for justice—for both bodies like theirs and their body specifically—may never filled. But the poem’s exploration of why and how this plays out calls us to stomach it with them. Do you feel the growl yet?
Visit Nailed to read the poem (and the rest of the suite!).
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse