Ann E. Michael,PQ Contributing Editor
In Memory of Brilliance & Value
Saturnalia Books, 2015
paperback, 65 pp. $15.00
When encountering couplets on the page, readers tend to expect the lyrical rather than the narrative. Michael Robins’ most recent poetry collection, In Memory of Brilliance & Value, in which every poem uses the couplet stanza, delivers on this expectation and also subverts it. By this I mean that these poems contain narratives, if often through omission. The stanza break, and lapses in the syntax of sentence structure, create in these poems lacunae that suggest that story is going on somewhere—unsaid in the poem, maybe, but vivid in possible interpretation. The reader wants to supply the narrative. The poem doesn’t have to, or perhaps refuses to. That’s part of what makes Robins’ collection intriguing.
Tension between lyric and story may be the foundation of what we call literature (as opposed to plot). Robins’ poems call themselves anecdotes, poems, and songs; he alludes to the lyrical through titular references to elegy, requiem, and simile, such as a poem called “Like So Many Mice in a Bucket.” His couplets do not connect into so many grammatically-sound sentences strung into a storyline, but the reader should not discount that ten of the poems employ the word “Anecdote” in the title. These poems do have stories to tell, illustrations of human experience, events, and memories amid the song-like alliteration, rhythm, and closely-measured lines.
“Wooden Bridge & Wooded Waters” begins:
We had found our place in the sun
intending to saddle down. Took off
our jackets, our boots in the canyon
true west beneath the whirling falls.
Thus far, clear and physical images that indicate narration. What the poem builds toward, however, its climactic moment if you will, remains unstated except for, quite soon, “the flood & that explosion.” The narrative abandons the poem there, but the ghost of a story stays on, swirling with the fig leaves “few in going around.”
Re-reading these poems, I felt that each time a new tale would emerge—I found myself wondering if the backstory was in the gaps, or whether the poems supplied only the backstory. “Upon the Patrons of the Game” is a poem about baseball, for example; or is it a story about America? Or about growing up? “To speak easily of pastime is our crime, // of sailboats, sliced apple pie, the trains / like foppery…It’s April then July. We have no work…” There is considerable work in the craft of these lines, including puns and allusions, internal rhymes and tight syllabic counts. But the poem has a tale to tell as well, and the story might be one thing or another depending upon how the reader interprets what has been left out.
Omitting the narrative thread through omitted actions—verbs are noticeably few in these texts—arrives partly through Robins’ interrupted grammar rhetoric, but his lists and deft imagery supply meaning as relayed by other aspects of language. That is one of the challenges of poetry, the task of saying what always seems so damned hard to say. Robins uses implications, gaps, and descriptive lists to get us there, and he doesn’t shy from humor and the more-than-occasional pun or cliché, either (see “Most Likely to Secede,” “Song of the Second Fiddle,” and lines like “led horses / to waterboards but couldn’t make them // shrink…”).
I don’t mean to minimize the lyrical resonances of Robins’ poetry; that’s the aspect of his work most superficially noticeable, however, and it feels important to suggest that readers be attentive to the less-obvious in these short poems. The breezy, speculative tone of pieces such as “Requiem as Seen from Infinite Space” draws us in: “Isn’t living plain enough, hankering / unavoidable, stealing with it a yard // & the spitting of carbon everywhere…” and manages, in this case through reasonable cornfields and cars and dodos, to drop us off somewhere thought-provoking at the poem’s close: “Let us weigh what dazzle we know / where our people reassemble and rise.” Between those lines, story happens; it could be the Rapture, it could be a road trip zooming out to Google Earth. Robins encourages his readers to imagine a host of potentialities. The imagining is the reward.