by Christopher Kondrich
“Some guests are givens; some, some they surprise,” Mebane Robertson concludes the first poem in Signal from Draco. Either way, they disrupt a lonesome man’s party. This is a fitting metaphor for Robertson’s entire collection; he is the operator of some guest-producing contraption and the guests are the products of his mischievous intent, showing up at the door with colloquialisms, references, one-liners, and non-sequiturs. Somewhere in all of this are profound questions and profound answers piggybacking from one page to the next.
The reckless abandon that characterizes Robertson’s best poems reveal him to be proficient in what Robert Bly called “the leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again.” In “Doctor of Teeth (White, Natasha),” Robertson grumbles, “Some jackass gets lashed behind the curtain / And guess who catches the flak.” He then registers this moment: “It’s lonely it’s getting harder / To do the dirty work of ever getting them back.” This marriage of Merwin’s punctuationless fluidity and Seidel’s backhanded regret resonates because of the strange set-up. Robertson has a knack for painting us into a corner, only to lead us out with knowledge we couldn’t have understood without that corner. Who is getting lashed, anyway, and why? Perhaps even Robertson doesn’t know, and that’s part of the fun. “Doctor of Teeth” concludes:
In the service it’s good for my hands
Not to know what each other are doing, but the agency
Wants to update my file and run some Rhine tests. I told them,
Before you lock the door, make sure I’m actually inside this time.
The humor exemplified in this poem separates Robertson from others who attempt a similar brand of rogue poetry; his subversion is considerate of the reader and grounded with sincerity. And one could argue that the humor, sincerity, subversion, lament . . . it’s all the same. It’s a way of dealing with the world around us.
This brings me to “Subject Body,” the sequence at the heart of Signal from Draco that focuses Robertson’s attitude towards the broader topic of identity. The title character “Subject Body” is portrayed as an everyman, a bit of our homogenized selves. “Pebble by pebble he came to see / His own developing, as he became more / Of a young Subject Body,” Robertson chronicles, making the issue of self-analysis more an issue of how self-analysis is represented. This is, perhaps, the greatest strength of this volume; Robertson’s strange spitfire of poetry is ultimately about how much is shared versus how much is ours and ours alone. When “Subject Body” grows into an adult with all of its trappings, one can’t help but identify. Roberson concludes wistfully for all of us:
He Kept up with What Needed Keeping Up With.
He Watched the News. Hope was in the Trees.