October 7, 2016KR OnlineReview

On Michael Robins’s In Memory of Brilliance & Value

Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2015. 80 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Imagine driving with a windshield splintered by hailstones, how the world presented would skitter from sightline to sightline: a tree would have a slice in it, as if someone had taken a sword to the trunk, only to have it come back to its true form once you sit up a bit more in your seat, scooch a bit to the right. Though the brain would make its adjustments for you, find the “real,” there would exist a time where viewing the world would become a massive workload of accepting perception as a mostly lost cause. Reality, these poems suggest, exists in that splintering.

In Philip K. Dick’s Valis, Horselover Fat presents a similar idea about the perception of an abstract reality: a blind, angry god created this world, he argues, and to exist in a world made by an irrational god means to exist in a world of fragmented perception, where actions happen that make zero sense. But at times, Horselover argues, we get a theophany, a moment of pure, rational meaning.

This idea of a fragmented world is one that Michael Robins presents and explores in his third collection of poems, In Memory of Brilliance & Value. At times when we are reading Robins’s poems, the desire to parse out a single, central idea meets with the impossibility—or the irrationality—of that desire for a central meaning. But occasionally, clarity arrives in a line or sentence so exact in its meaning and imagery that it resonates with us, and the book becomes a tuning fork that hums in our hands. All of the other moments move toward that harmony, almost centrifugally drawn to these theophanic moments’ gravitas.

The book opens with an epigraph from Stevens: “Sit in the room. It is true in the moonlight / That it is as if we had never been young.” Allusions to Stevens abound in the collection. The titles alone tell us to expect a Stevensian experience: ten of the poems begin with “Anecdote,” conjuring Stevens’s oft-anthologized “Anecdote of the Jar.” But other titles suggest Stevens in a quieter fashion: “Tyranny of an Object,” “Marathon of Deletions,” “Requiem as Seen from Infinite Space,” just to name a few. If we take Stevens as a model—the world split into reality and imagination, that necessary angel—then we can begin to see that Robins wants us to question reality, or, more importantly, that reality—through the imagination—is a questionable experience.

The book consists of five sections: the first, third, and fifth section contain eleven poems; the second and fourth section contain nine. Only three poems go longer than a single page—“Anecdote of the Western Hemlock,” “Anecdote of the White Oak,” and “The Luxury of Sympathy.” Every poem is written in couplets, and the range of the line length seems more of a visual formal requirement than a syllabic one.

Like Stevens, Robins dwells in the abstract. But also like Stevens, many of his poems return to the concrete, to reality, to show the significance of the play between reality and the imagination. Take, for instance, “Marathon of Deletions,” a poem from the opening section:

With luck I’m born & an artist,
devise friends and those irreverent

in a drawer. How often I return
my passport to its own devices,

amateur backing a moving truck
on this day, squarely one day ago

when that hasty boy painted love
ageless & unrequited.

Yes, something seems deleted here, some central narrative line that could float over everything, making connections, stringing it all together for us. But that wish won’t be granted every time we want it. Something has gone missing, but these missing pieces have been deleted—not removed or lost or misplaced—but deleted, a writer’s move, an active decision. If I find myself lost in the poems, that’s because, at times, reality and perception can both be lost, too. The Philip K. Dickian irrationality would have deletions in it—would require them, really, and why wouldn’t they happen as a marathon, an inexcusably long run of them? But at the end of this poem, the rational world opens up to us, and the theophany occurs:

Umbrellas flowered for the storm.

This sentence is, for me, arguably perfect. Nothing goes to waste. The image and verb match so well you can hear it click at the period.

While Robins does utilize the abstract, he also stays planted in the natural world as well. Rain, trees, spring, rivers—the elements of the world come into these poems and are treated by the speaker with respect and tenderness, even when the natural world seems less interested in the speaker:

Like these timbers, water leans to bury
me alive, my hood & throat, my mark

that climbs the fuse of a calendar black,
insomniac under the ancient, naked bulb.

Summer sinking to solstice, the marriage
of breath & braid.

Though the speaker feels as if the water wants “to bury” him, just as the woods do, the truth of the poem is that the speaker’s intuition has nothing to do with whether or not the woods and rivers have an opinion about him. That’s where the rational irrationality comes into play. Nature doesn’t care about us, which doesn’t—or shouldn’t—surprise anyone, but at the same time, we cannot not react to nature, and so we find ourselves surrounded by a world designed to destroy us while simultaneously created as our only place of refuge.

                                  These homes
cough record of yellow land, echo

thistles & catch the banner circling
up over the pageantry of a goldfinch.

Homes, here, our abodes, where we dwell, all they can do is “echo // thistles,” and “catch the banner” of the “pageantry of a goldfinch.” Our attempts at life are just that: attempts, essays that, at best, attempt to reconcile the fragmented irrational world with a constant need to make sense of it, if only for a moment. Take the realization that occurs at the end of “Enough to Poison the Heart”: “The robin egg in the sky like a lung . . . / Come now, this world is mostly lung.” In the end, the speaker tells us, the world is mostly a breathing place, an incubator for the first part of speaking, or of singing, or of surviving. Past that, it does what it wants.

To further recognize the irrational in the rational—or vice versa—these poems suggest that the world stands away from us, that it creates for itself blocks and fragmentations that we witness daily, but, in the face of that improbably splintering-away of the visible and felt world, the speaker in these poems consistently and openly embraces the situations in which he finds himself. He admires his world, and more so, he admires us, humanity, when we are most brilliant: in sport and in love.

To speak easily of pastime is our crime,

of sailboats, sliced apple pie, the trains
like foppery, no nonsense battle cries

interjected as the crowds shrill, gather
steam for peanut shells, candy & beer.

Autographs & souvenir, a healthy dose
of singing, we are the count on three.

It’s April then July. We have no work,
no pledge in the morning. We implore

the win, we hope for flags blowing out,
days that flicker & shine, day that blinds.

A beautiful paean to baseball and America, the poem tells us that we have “hope” and “no work,” that we can “implore // the win,” but really just want a good breeze and sunlight so bright it “blinds” us. We can hear the dueling aspects of perception, here, the criminal, the pain, the physical difficulties the world provides us with as we sit down to be entertained, to have a pastime, to sit idly. They all matter, the poem tells us, because our desires matter, even if—and maybe even especially when—we don’t have them completely fulfilled.

And though our speaker tells us from the opening poem that “We wish we’d made these stories up,” we, in fact, have not. Or, more to the point, these stories are made up, but that invention is also reality, is part of reality, and we depend on it. There is no singular truth to the universe, but a constantly shifting, always-splintering perception of the universe. But, at times, the vision clears, and we can see so clearly it makes our eyes water:

                                   My lungs,

they fill, they take my beard instead,
lull me on the board, now & always

into hell. For this comfort I’m made.
If truth be told, I’ll never be so alone.

But the thing we should remember from the book is his admonishment to us all in the opening line of “Anecdote of the White Oak”:

Be beatific & stirring within ideas
where the blue waters diminish,

where feet & their transcriptions
emerge like secrets from a pond.

Even in our idleness, with our feet dozing in the river, we must “Be beatific & stirring within ideas.” It’s the highest calling we could have: to think actively, and with our minds turned toward beauty. No matter how irrational the rest of the world may act, may seem, may actually be, we can stay beautiful and fascinated.

It’s a serious way to exist, a tiring way to approach reality, to think of this irrational world by seeing the beauty of it. It almost makes zero sense to do so. Unless you’ve done it, and then you get your theophany.

You can get it all the blinding day long.

Patrick Whitfill
Patrick Whitfill has poems and reviews appearing in the Threepenny Review, Colorado Review, Subtropics, 32 Poems, among other journals. Currently, he teaches at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, and he co-curates The New Southern Voices Reading Series.