Adam Robison and Other Poems
Narrow House (2010), 77 pages, $12
As an editor at a small press/journal, I wage daily confrontation against the sheer tonnage of quality work out there. After awhile, you don’t always ask yourself “Is it good in some objective measurable sense?” or even “Do I like it?” but “Does the literary world need this?” Of course this leads to a more fundamental question: What kind of writing, if any, does the world need? The shelves of bookstores and warehouses of Amazon are flooded with writing someone thought worthy of publication, and yet much of it is just more words on a page. The detritus of a culture with too much time on its hands.
As I read the charming Adam Robison and Other Poems by the not-quite-eponymous Adam Robinson, I wondered why this particular book needed to be published. As the title suggests, this is a work of fourth-wall-breaking experimental postmodernism. When I say that as an editor, I am seeking “the new,” I mean the truly new, not the merely “experimental” – which as anyone versed in their Barth and Barthelme knows is neither new nor actually experimental. It is, rather, another tradition like the more accurately named traditionalism.
Let me stress that Adam Robison is not a bad book. I even have a soft spot for this type of writing; I did pay for the book. The charm in Robinson’s writing is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it seems to directly position itself against serious interpretation. In this sense, asking whether the culture “needs” such a book is already answered, quite cheerfully, in the negative by the book itself. Its language is deliberately unpoetic and the poems tend to end on flat, declarative statements or sometimes even non sequiturs. Here are some representative endings, all as printed, without periods – suggesting that the poem’s ending is provisional or even arbitrary:
He had a pompadour or feather/A nom de plume was Johannes Climacus – “Soren Kierkegaard”
Brahms died in 1897 – “Brahms”
My grandmother is still alive – “Emma Ruth Rogers Tyner”
I know a lot about Mike Schmidt but he doesn’t know one single/solitary thing about me – “Captain Cool”
As I’ve already mentioned, and as is especially evident in the above quote from “Captain Cool,” Robinson’s prose is purposefully conversational, even comically so. From the same poem: One time Mike Schmidt hit a hit that hit a loudspeaker in Houston. That repetition is 100% grammatically correct and yet it’s the kind of move we rarely see in prose, let alone the heightened, compressed language of poetry. Or this, from “Curtis Ebbermeyer, Leading Authority on Flotsam:” What’s up with bottled water man…Boy howdy what’s the deal with bottled water. The missing commas only heighten the sense that these words have been arranged to resemble an overheard conversation, just more cultural flotsam, to echo the poem’s title. Such a tone and syntax seem to be saying, “Hey, none of this matters, but it’s kind of fun and interesting anyway.” This is a smart rhetorical position to take in this age of centerless postmodernism, but in its extreme – i.e.–when it’s used over and over throughout a collection – it leaves a reader a little sad and untethered. The trouble is that it’s not a trick meant to lead us toward the meaning at the heart of apparent meaninglessness. (See how, for example, David Foster Wallace uses postmodern means for traditional ends.) Rather, Robinson appears to believe in the meaninglessness of it all. Which leads me to the question: why a book of poetry? Is it just one more wet noodle thrown against the void? Robinson seems aware of this weakness:
My poems lack depth and complexity in which the reader can invest
They are bald things…
…Readers will grow bored and go about their day
“There’s no urgency” they’ll complain “No incision.”
And yet an admission of a book’s faults does little but reveal the impotent self-consciousness of the author; it doesn’t eradicate or reduce the faults (though it can mitigate them marginally). Robinson is not wholly without poetry, as that interesting word “incision” in the above passage suggests. Here’s a passage from one of the stronger poems:
Deathbed is one word made special for the place you die
But there is no one special place for your deathbed
On her deathbed what do you want your daughter to say
You will be so spitsoul sad
Then you will be okay
Then you will be sad that you are okay
Then mostly okay again and well this will continue
Even now I often feel sad that I am not sadder
And my worst thing that died was a dog
This piece strikes me as new and weird and truly experimental. It strikes me, which is exactly what literature needs – poems that act as a slap to our complacency. Who hasn’t felt “sad that you are okay?” And further, doesn’t it say something interesting about the paradox at the heart of Western luxury and ease that the speaker is saddened that his “worst thing that died was a dog?” And yet this is an ugliness that we rarely admit: that our lives are empty, and our poetry shallow, due to the fact that our lives are too good.
Probably it is unfair of me to insist that every book assert its necessity. When you get right down to it, Robinson and I are asking the same question: when the traditional is too retrograde and predictable to impact us and the postmodern is a dead end (and equally retrograde), where and how do we find meaning? I worry, though, that Robinson has settled for postmodern stasis rather than trying to find the hard path forward. Because I believe there is meaning in the world. People die – not just dogs – and along the way they suffer and kill and surprise with kindness, creating narratives about themselves and the world, just as they always have.
*Editors Note – But of course the munitions locker wouldn’t contain meaning itself but merely the tools to target that meaning. Or something. To append a Robinson-like ending: Oh well.