House Made of Silver
Kelsey St. Press ($11)
Omnidawn Publishing ($12)
by Ken Rumble
Elizabeth Robinson's latest two collections of poems, Harrow and House Made of Silver, are like the work of Brancusi and Henry Moore—intense meditations on fundamental forms. In both Robinson deftly treads the edges between the structure of faith and the experience of it.
The first section of Harrow sketches in airy and compelling language the threshold of transcendence, the place where one leaves pattern behind to become something willed by the self. This tension between determining patterns and individual action is picked up in the opening lines of "Plaid" as Robinson writes, "To engineer traffic / is to move in one's sleep." Robinson eschews such unconscious action as represented by "sleep." These patterns stand in for and regulate bodies, creating appearances without substance.
What matters most is to appear tidy.
I see it in the bloodstream,
with orderly movement.
To be faithful, properly,
is to be transparent via this.
Transparency—becoming a body through which light, faith, passes—breaks the patterns down. As paths create repetitious movement, the paths become "Ridden until the route / is glossy." The pattern wears itself out, becomes "glossy"—reflecting light as opposed to allowing it to pass through.
In a similar vein, "Uprising" examines the way truth becomes static. Robinson writes, "The mute coating of these many cells / hardens in response to its articulation // like paths of frequented truths / or well-circulated air." All of these patterns, however, are "forms of illogic" as Robinson suggests in "Experience." Articulation fences experience into the form of expression: "What is created, like a word, is circumscribed the word in its state of experience / is never spoken." Each act of perception creates a self-reflective context; it "becomes the object of its own lunar orbit." Self-creation is not the enemy in these poems however, it is the goal. In "Slope" Robinson asks "how one fares / or is formed, // lingering. // You were gone / in resemblance." In the absence of external guidance it is faith and will that determines "what your regular substance is // at its leaving off point."
"As Betokening," the poem that makes up section two, is an extended examination of the interdependence of faith and doubt. In an introduction to the piece, Robinson brings faith and doubt literally face to face as she writes, "To profess faith to nurture doubt, to force the twain to come together—two miscreant children tugged by their ears until face to face. Twins, simultaneously they close their eyes. Refuse to see the reflection." Robinson posits tradition as the mediator between the pairing of faith and doubt, "a daily uniform, unattractive but reasonably comfortable." Tradition in this poem takes the place of pattern in the earlier poems, both impulses springing from the same source—to regulate the uneasy relationship of faith and doubt. Language is also tied into this triumvirate by "faith's attendant tenderness for the open door of language and, on the other, with the real but unstable value, the unbearable constraint of tradition's grammar."
In the final section of Harrow, Robinson turns inward, examining the relationship of the inner and outer worlds, sketching the borders of the physical while revealing the spirit within. In "Entry for Song" Robinson meditates on the surfaces, attempting to open them through baptism. She writes, "This is the contour / that I'd deliquesce." As water and rain penetrate the ground, God and faith erase these borders. Physicality tethers the spirit by distraction: "For you are benumbed by this ether // and your soul now resides // in season // at the right hand // of God." This is the flaw of humanity, our physical existence focuses our attention away from the spirit and on the physical. Robinson recreates the story of Mary Magdalene as a template for salvation. She writes, "I come to the garden alone // and pour // on his feet // a misstep of // my own choosing. / Mopping with my hair // mistaken oil." By making use of the body in an act of worship, the speaker attempts to gain entry into the interior, to bring the soul and body together. In "Little Book" the speaker becomes a dove lost "in vehement fog." As the dove navigates its borders, the speaker exhorts it to "Wing, to alter the shape of the outermost." Ultimately, the spirit expresses itself in physical ways, pushing the envelope of physical limitations.
While the poems in Harrow achieved their aims through a gesture at excess, the twelve poems in House Made of Silver arrive spare and sparkling like a spider web. Robinson addresses many of the same themes in House Made of Silver that she does in Harrow—faith, doubt, the relationship between the soul and the physical world. House Made of Silver, however, distills these themes.
In "Return" Robinson balances images of water, birth, and flowers in a meditation on becoming. She writes, "I repeat my selfhood endlessly / but there are still blotches." This process is one of both birth and baptism. Robinson writes
who would be you
brought hand over hand
Distant from advent
or any sense
But still there are
lilies Your hands
The one is born through water in a baptism that leaves her still flawed—"Distant from advent / or any sense"—but blossoming as the submerged hands that appear like lilies. The speaker sees herself as an active participant in her rebirth, that it is a choice. She writes, "Beneath that fluid border / one has to // prepare for the responsibility of presence." As in Harrow, becoming is an act of will, a responsibility to an existence however flawed. The flaws the speaker sees within herself balance against the recurring images of flowers. By the end of the poem, the speaker has achieved a sort of balance between the "blotches" and the "petals"—"Begin to hover in your name / at its midpoint." The speaker does not transcend the world by becoming, but instead reaches a balance within the physical and spiritual worlds.
Robinson's focus on self-will appears again in "Site Legend." As in other of Robinson's poems, this one uses the conceit of maps to examine predetermination.
Maps are for
the badly behaved.
of the construction
I want to make less petulant.
The presence of glue,
a matter of building
For the speaker these definitions of space—maps, directions—foil individual creation. The map becomes a blueprint for repetitive motion, a way to eliminate individual thought and replace it with a script that is not the speaker's. She writes, "all the effort / to scale down the sense of fit, say, / to the size of a human, / whoever she might be." The speaker resists that singular and prescriptive account of location, instead she writes, "There should be many types of fields / supplanting gestures. Manageable / gestures, how they / refer back to familiar directions. / The arm that points, here, / is not habitual but genuine."
In both of these books, Robinson undertakes a ruthless examination of faith, ultimately arguing that faith without doubt is impossible, that faith is the result of an individual unmediated act of will. She eloquently enacts her own claim that "Faith and skepticism chain me to my will, foster a generative ambivalence. This is what poetry says: faith is uneasy, an erotic uncertainty. Poetry makes faith out of willed attention."
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002