Robinson is rich, restless, bored, and drifting. Robinson is lonely. Robinson is alone.
In Kathleen Rooney's novel in poems, Robinson Alone, she trace
Robinson is rich, restless, bored, and drifting. Robinson is lonely. Robinson is alone.
In Kathleen Rooney's novel in poems, Robinson Alone, she traces the life of Robinson, an elusive character in just four of Weldon Kees's poems (and a representation of Kees himself) as he moves cross-country--and moves from disenchantment to despair. As Robinson makes haste to leave his Nebraskan hometown, to set up shop in NYC, working for Time magazine, we don't need a whole chapter to tell us about the town--Rooney can say so much with so little, and she does so eloquently throughout the book, "This hateful small./ This hateful empty," ("Robinson's Hometown"). Once in NYC, as Robinson's well-to-do life, and wife, Ann, and fear of the draft progress, he finds himself growing more and more cynical and more and more disappointed with what his life has become, "they sold fun & we bought it. We/ bought it" ("What does he want? The future? When does he want it? Now!"). So he and Anne pick up and leave NYC for the West, driving through state after state. And this is where Rooney excels--the way she can create a phrase that is not just original but also provides an understanding of how the character is feeling, such as, the way Robinson is "Eyeing other poor saps in their rolling coffins" ("Robinson tears pages from The Rand McNally Road Atlas") while Ann reads Burma Shave ads out loud as they travel by car. It is clear that the two of them are searching for...something...though, "Robinson confesses they don't know what they'll do when they reach the West Coast" ("Over a thousand miles from New York City"). Unfortunately, making a new home in San Francisco doesn't make life much better for the couple. Ann starts drinking constantly; Robinson begins feeling inferior to his friends, as he finds out about their successes, which just serves to illuminate his failures. Their marriage rips at the seams as Ann drinks herself into anxiety and paranoia, and they divorce, with Robinson slipping into depression and trying to find solace in sex. During this deterioration, Rooney uses poems meant to be letters that Robinson is writing to his friends/family (we aren't quite sure)--a great way to illustrate how his state of mind continues to sink, especially since these poems are all in Robinson's own words, "The trick/ of repeating, 'It can't get any worse,' is certainly no good,/ when all the evidence points to quite the opposite" ("Robinson sends a letter to someone," p 108). It's clear to us that all Robinson seems to be finding is depression, "He can't get the world right,/ he can only walk around in it" ("Robinson understands as he stands at North Point & Fillmore"), and we wonder what will happen to him as "Bone-/thin in a linen suit, he executes/ a slow vanishing act" ("Robinson dines mostly in restaurants lately") and he decides "He will go out glitzed. Called a phenom. Called unstoppable" ("Historically, Suicides). But Rooney--paying homage to Kees himself, who disappeared in 1955--doesn't tell us. And rightly so: maybe Robinson (Kees) ran off to Mexico to see if jumpstarting his life would work there; maybe Robinson (Kees) committed suicide. We're not sure. What Rooney does leave us with is this, "Seven years after a disappearance, a person can be pronounced dead./ But that's nothing compared to the size of the ocean" ("Robinson's telephone rings"). And I think that's all we need to know.
Poetry is a sneaky beast – a poem can mean one thing to one person and mean something completely different to soAlso posted in Gapers Block Book Club!
Poetry is a sneaky beast – a poem can mean one thing to one person and mean something completely different to someone else. For me, Orange Crush is all about women: their persecution, their struggle to become something, and their refusal to give up. Simone Muench follows this arc in elegant little bursts of language that takes the reader from “Fever-damaged girls/…Spells/and vixens and dead calico kittens” to “We were once lithographs smeared/with ink-chapped hands, now we are/smooth and inscrutable as bone china…”
Muench’s collection starts with “Record,” a section devoted to the abuse of women – each poem a tribute to their mistreatment, be it whipping, “the room grows thick with incisions […] weather me better master” (“You Were Long Days and I Was Tiger-Lined”); witch hunts, “…the little girls/are sick, their voices muffled/by smoke and wool/hands and psalms” (“Psalm”); illness, “We lay down//fixed as wax, let the hospital’s/IV & ghost sonata troll through us” (“Count Backward Toward a Future with You in It”); or even by their own design, “Surge of marrow when the body bends/toward its own dismantling…” (“A Captivating Corset”). These poems bleed death and memories – “records” of wrongs not easily forgotten. The last poem in the section, “Photograph 3014: Execution of an Unknown Child” brings this idea sharply into focus as each part (“frame” of the photograph) cleanly captures a “Record of the executed.”
The next section, “Rehearsal,” pays homage to the “Orange Girls.” In the 17th century, the Orange Girls were women who sold small “china” oranges outside of theaters, occasionally passing messages from patrons to actresses and, allegedly, occasionally passing themselves out as well. This section consists of a long, 13-part poem detailing the Orange Girls “rehearsal” for a regular life: They sell oranges, and themselves, for an income and survival – the same way a salesman/shop owner sells his wares. Unfortunately, because they are women, and seen as little more than prostitutes, they don’t receive respect or recognition, “…we were sold/in beautiful clothes…//…we were movie stars/who never entered the frame” (“Orange Girl Suite, 1”). They are treated as unimportant – used once and thrown away, literally, “own skin gathering the Baltic’s//debris, an intersection of earrings/and quiet, wrists and ropes” (“5”). And because of who they are and what they do, the people surrounding them don’t care about their fate and may even place the blame on the girls themselves, “this city closes its windows to the odor//and forgets that a girl went missing/forgets any girl who ‘got herself strangled’” (“7”).
Redemption is gained with the next two portions of the book, however. In “Recast,” Muench provides descriptions of her envisioned Orange Girls who seem to be the ones running the show, despite their “job” and reputation. Kristy b is “…born to unzip men’s breath…/a switchblade pinned to/her taffeta thigh” (“Orange Girl Cast, 1: the fever”); Sophia k is “no odalisque in organza, she imprisons pharaohs in her spine” (“2: the femme fatale”); and Brandi h has a “…thorned orbit. Her/breath full of footprints and soporific ruin” (“3: the arsonist”). Others are “recast” from victims to victors, strong enough to define themselves as something more: Jesse m “…says, ‘Wring the nightshade from my eyes. Let me be/an explosion.’” (“6: the ferment”); Lina v “Radiates silver convexity. Her eyes/ever apogee, not apology” (“9: the elliptic mirror”); and Mackenzie c, “A pinafore on/the floorboard of the car, and she’s speeding away” (“13: the aperture”). Escape – and revenge – is sweet as we move to the last section, “Redress.” “Bind” reinterprets the ballad “False Sir John.” In the tale, Sir John woos women and then drowns them. His eighth bride, May Colven, turns the tables and drowns Sir John instead. As seen in Muench’s version, May Colven isn’t the only one who saves herself – all women save themselves, as well: “when sailors and map-makers/return to the crime, we tie their ropes/…leave them sinking/…and climb the rungs of the sea.” Others in this section do the same, freeing themselves, “But I’m adrift, no longer/your delivery” (“Pages from an Unknown Title, page 448”) and seeking retribution, “While you fumble her flesh/…she pockets your wallet” (“epilogue”).
I have to say, I love this book. Muench's style is a style, as a former wanna-be poet, I always wanted to match: short and to the point, but it cuts to the quick. Her poems have beautiful juxtapositions, such as “Lady of cornhusks & sericulture, arrowheads & fruit bats” and unusual adjectives, like “Fever-lit and gin-livid.” However, I did find myself looking up quite a few words that I didn’t recognize. For some, this might be a bit off-putting – it might take a reader out of the momentum of the poem. But there is music in the language; each poem has a lovely flow: “Broadcast of vendors & shoulders bustling with cannon/percussion in the retinal ring out of peignoir signage” (“Her Dreaming Feet”). This collection is also very visual, bringing to mind many images and many colors. Most of these images are natural, organic elements like bone and water, wood and fire, filled with deep, dark reds and yellows. These are poems that envelop you – poems that you can sink into and lose yourself in. So even if you don’t keep a dictionary handy, and even if the poems don’t make perfect sense upon first read, you still want to read them again and again. ...more
Some questions for Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and author of the poetry book, Every Riven Thing (among others!) (From Gapers Block: httpSome questions for Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and author of the poetry book, Every Riven Thing (among others!) (From Gapers Block: http://gapersblock.com/bookclub/2010/...)
GB: The definition of “riven” is “to wrench open,” “tear apart or to pieces,” or “to split with force.” Obviously, the book’s title, Every Riven Thing, could describe your diagnosis of an incurable cancer tearing apart your life, but after reading the poems, I also feel that the diagnosis might have split open your relationship with God or put a crack in some of the beliefs you previously held about God and religion. Is there any truth to this?
CW: It’s hard for me to remember which poems were written when. There are poems in this book that are fifteen years old, and others that were written right before the book came out. I think you’re right, though, to notice the radical mix of tones in the “religious” poems. Some, like the title poem, are clearly devotional; others are fraught with doubt and a sense of my own inadequacy; a couple are openly antagonistic to the whole notion of religion and belief. I needed them all. Need them all. “God’s truth is life,” writes Patrick Kavanagh, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fires.”
GB: An idea/image that spoke to me in this book is the burning of sermons (in “Voice of One Head” and “Hermitage”). I know what I took from that image, and I’m sure other readers find their own meanings in it. What does that particular image/description mean for you?
CW: I don’t really believe we can ever speak clearly and truly of god, much less speak his (his! –even the pronoun is problematic) name. In both of those poems you mention (two of my personal favorites), language and existence have been pushed as far as they can be pushed—by the subjects of the poems, I mean; I’m not claiming this as an accomplishment of the poems—and the silence that ensues is a mixture of mortal defeat and mysterious grace. Plus, and perhaps more to the point, I just like the sound of “burn” and “sermon” together!
GB: Now, less about topic and more about process… I’m the kind of writer who spits out lines randomly and eventually tries to put them together into a poem. Your work is very well-crafted, very musical, with an emphasis on sound and rhyme. Do you find it difficult to create poems like these? What is your process like?
CW: I don’t know if it’s difficult. I mean, I don’t really have anything else to compare it to. I never chose to write the way I do. I hear this music in my head, these rhythms wanting to be words, and I can’t get any relief until I get the lines and the rhymes and the rhythms right. Sometimes a poem comes quite easily—the title poem was written in a couple of hours one morning. Sometimes it will take years.
GB: I love “So Much a Poet He Despises Poetry”; it reminds me of being completely burned out on poetry after I finished my poetry MFA program, but yet continuing to immerse myself in it – even being the managing editor of a poetry journal! Do you find being a poet difficult at times? Not just the difficulty in getting published, but do you feel you’re driven to write and/or be involved in poetry, even if perhaps you don’t particularly want to be at any given moment?
CW: Yes, definitely. I get sick of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, and sometimes think I want nothing at all to do with it. And I get tired of the psychic pressures of writing poetry, the mental derangement it can not simply cause but seem to require. But that poem, I should admit, is actually making fun of someone (me!) who gets so sick and tired of poetry, who feels exhausted by the existential exposure of it (“his soul’s dainties”), who has become so jaded that there’s NOTHING to which he doesn’t respond with a slight sneer. To hell with that. I wrote the poem as a purgative, because I don’t want to be that person. And because it was actually fun to write.