Volume 8, Number 3

“The poems in Apprehend mark a new chapter in the work of Elizabeth Robinson, who over the last few years has emerged as the one of the finest poets of her generation. Apprehend amplifies the body of her previous work, examining the insurgence, regulation, and ambiguity of eros through a brilliant re-reading of classic fairy tales. Fairy tales, Robinson suggests, act like a subspecies of theology; their disturbing and uncanny motifs appeal to our secret longing for solace and disruption. In the space between them we might apprehend, for a moment, the possibility of standing outside the gaze of history.

Disruption in these poems, as when the other lays siege to the self—the wolf forcing entry to the pig’s house in ‘Three Little,’ for instance—arrives as smoke and fire, as an invasion of consciousness, as an awful messianic moment in which ‘the arrival is something like naked. /All the excess tarnishes and flares. // We could not welcome you otherwise.’ This tumultuous recognition announces the arrival of the other not as rescuer, but as someone like ourselves, someone for whom, as Robinson writes in ‘Passage,’ ‘salvation is simply an exchange of names.’

The need for belonging means the subject must empty itself in order to be recognized. This is one way, at least, to read the enigmatic drama of ‘Firedrake,’ the second of ‘Three Dragons,’ in which the question of identity and alterity revolves around the uncertain status of a language that constitutes us: ‘Those words most / besotted with you / are not those which are most loyal,’ warns Robinson. Here, the dragon tended to by the maiden signifies both the pressure of interpellation and the possibility for the monstrous or alienated to assume a shape of redemptive eros otherwise known as beauty:

Now a maiden loves a dragon,
and the dragon might
come upon a quality
of moral rightness and adopt it …

The dragon
reads on the throat of the maiden words
she cannot view herself. There are rules here,
you understand, that will not err
and cannot forgive.

What are these words the maiden cannot read? What matters is that she has been inscribed from without and must remain unaware of it. Her status as a subject is illegible to her, the one thing she herself can never fully know. The dragon’s ambiguous character—does it offer hope or a threat?—promises to complete the hermeneutic circle by playing the specular other to the maiden’s misrecognition. Language is the real dragon here, writing on us from outside.

The penultimate sequence in Apprehend, ‘Hansel & Gretel,’ is an austere tour de force, a parable about nourishment and want. In Robinson’s eerie, touching tableau vivant, the two children wander lost amid the dark wood of the Symbolic order, struggling to negotiate the demands of a jumbled ethical terrain. The messianic asserts itself here not as arrival, but as the endless project of self-becoming. ‘That there are options even in repetition: / Starvation breeds resourcefulness.’ As Robinson shrewdly insinuates, we all play the witch to our own cravings, the willing agent to the disclosure of our mutual dependence on one another—but only if we can learn to see it:

What is most important is that
they learn the skills of recognition.
I’ll swear by all my witchery
that this is what any parent
most wishes for her children …

We do not want you to find your way.
We do so want for you
to see the mirror.

Throughout these poems the other approaches like a monster, or a wolf, or a witch, to stand in a radical proximity. Nearness hurts these poems like a heartbreak of continuous affirmation. This is the source of their uncanniness, the way they touch us to the quick, like a ghost with its nerves on fire and speaking the shadow tongue we know as our own hidden murmur. We are lost, we are found, then lost again, but we are never who we were before. Inside the story we make a way for ourselves, lighting a home, preparing its meals, dreaming the dream of shelter and exposure. Robinson’s wisdom is to acknowledge that we ask of the poem, as of the fairy tale, to affirm for us that though the world is broken, we are somehow safe inside of it.”

Patrick Pritchett