David Hadbawnik


Elizabeth Robinson
Omnidawn / 2001
$12.00 / ISBN 1890650072

In Elizabeth Robinson's new book Harrow, an exploration of the concept of faith in god(s) and goddesses plays out in carefully spun language that constantly gives one a sense of the divine hovering just beyond the page. In its compact, musical intensity, it reminds one at times of the feverish magical invocation H.D. produced in her war-time masterpiece Trilogy, although the aims of this book seem more speculative than ethereal, the emotional impact more subtle.

I was reminded of H.D. not only by the tone and concept, but by the very rhythms of the poems, especially the first section, which is perhaps the most successful one in the book. Compare these two stanzas:

...you are retrogressive,
zealot, hankering after old flesh-pots;

your heart, moreover,
is a dead canker...

...You find a space,
heretic, whose width conveys meaninglessness.
The prod of that glow in memory.
The womb...

The first is from H.D.'s Tribute to the Angels, verse two; the second, from Robinson's poem "Experience." Not only do we find here a similar construction, but a similar concern with consonance and interior rhyme, handled more skillfully by H.D. (hankering/canker, zealot/heart/dead) but present in Robinson's verse as well (conveys/memory, whose/womb, etc.—see below for further samples). Of course, the zealot and the heretic here respectively addressed couldn't be more diametrically opposed, but that only makes them two sides of the same coin ("gods always face two ways," H.D. has said right before this).

At any rate, Robinson's heretic is faced with an interesting and somewhat unique challenge—not one of recognizing and calling upon specific, certain gods or spirits, but of deciphering, in the midst of the cultural and spiritual debris we are left with, here at this edge of the 21st Century, which gods are worth having faith in, whether belief itself is still a viable option, and if so, where that belief ought to lie.

Volumes of poetry have been launched on much less intriguing premises than this. The question becomes whether the book meets this challenge. Does it find the answers? Not the facile answers of textbooks, but the seed-within-a-kernel answers of truly hermetic texts, the answer that swims between the lines, that must be approached obliquely, felt rather than seen.

At times it does. As Robinson writes in her introduction to Part Two, titled As Betokening,

These poems are a story. I began them on the figurative eve of my entry into what became a protracted theological education. From that site, I began to read scriptural texts, apocrypha, pseudopigrapha...The figures and their miracles, the attestations against all reason, the unreadable clichés, the transgressions... sinners willing transcendence, radiant, then fallen into a paltry grasping for order and control.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to decipher some of the figures and transgressions Robinson documents here, to tell the heretic from the saint, to glean the shape of the landscape she moves us through in stutter-steps and then sudden swoops of descent or ascent. As if pulling back the veil too much or too soon would destroy reader, if not poet. But somehow, especially in the first section, it works.

Is there something of the tree-worshipper, the Druid, in "Tree," for instance?:

Its reversal,
he could say—
Pallor became
the forbidden image.
An inscription in the pocket
sloping outward.

All gold; digressive splinters.

All the force of the body to the body
some requirements need.

But it was a trunk
that engorged his lungs.

Some codes elongate.

For some, he knew to blaspheme,

the chips clinging to the axe.

A base for prolongation.

If so, its already begun to break down, to "blaspheme" the tree or god with axe, for the sake of—what? Progress? Reason? Order and control? So he

Nailed the slushy boards together.

Slats and tines.

from which the line slacks.

Built a neck that stuck in grief of the fork.

Hid time.

The voluptuousness of the lines here, the chiming sounds each to each, clean as axe-strokes, hardly need to be pointed out. What's less clear is where it's all headed, what it "means." But this is the kind of subtlety that the poem, intuitively trusting its own dark logic, gracefully moves into and out of.

"This is what poetry says," writes Robinson, again in her intro to Part Two: "Faith is uneasy, an erotic uncertainty. Poetry makes faith out of willed attention. The word is its own commitment, willful for its own sake, a poltergeist who hunts out its double in order that their gaze may be shared."

It's as if Robinson would drag us over and over again to a mirror that doesn't quite want to reflect but to hold our image, not give it back to us as intact. We witness Robinson echoing H.D.'s poem, "The Walls Do Not Fall":

this is the new heresy;
but if you do not even understand what words say,

how can you expect to pass judgment
on what words conceal?

And yet the delicate spell Robinson weaves begins to break in Part Two, perhaps because she cedes some of that subtlety to a more focused look at her subject; to consciously construct a narrative, to tell a story, to "reach for control and order" when her words stop concealing and start merely to say.

In all fairness, it's only because the first part is so good that the second does not quite stand. "Harrow," after all, means not only "to break up and level soil," but to "inflict great distress or torment on." Robinson has constructed a book in which both meanings of the word are employed, and often as not, it's hard to tell which is used:

If the root harrows,

what gratitude

would sharpen the line there was—
There was not a shadow, but

on the morning a response ran from it.

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