INTRODUCTION by Ann Lauterbach
The poems in Apprehend, as do all poems of consequence, resist both paraphrase and description. They are instruments of Elizabeth Robinson’s elusive, haunting confrontations and minglings, her quixotic abrasions: trope rubs against statement, figure against logic, logic against figment. I am reminded, not a little, of Marianne Moore’s dictum about poems being part imaginary toad and part real garden, of Barbara Guest’s attenuated, observant mysteries, and of Marjorie Welish’s deft evolutionary sequences. These are distant familial resemblances.
Reading Apprehend, re—reading it, one wonders. It is a curious kind of wondering: sober, introverted, circling around and through the nature of inception. How does a poem get to be conceived in the mind of a poet? How does apprehension lead to comprehension through formal ingenuity and imaginative force? An old wonder, one that comes from time to time when the job of making new meanings gives evidence of itself; when the reader is swept to attention, wanting to follow the offered thread that the writer has cast. But in this case, the thread, the narrative, dissolves, morphs, disappears and reappears, so that the act of following becomes almost an act of faith. One leaps across. One stops for breath. One wonders. The how and the what of language, its means and materials, are in a radiant conjecture; the poem coming into being simultaneously with the possibilities of its not coming into being. A frail balance, as if each word were shy of its rescue.
We enter the poem, there is a journey ahead; we embark. But here, the direction of the poem and the direction of the language of the poem are nearly at odds, as if one were on a track or path that had a second, ghostly path, hovering above or below. The diction is simple; the address is direct, if often abbreviated; and yet we find ourselves inside of a baffled urgency, as if against a wind. Here, as example, is the beginning of “Passage”:
“Something falls from the heavens, the sky, the cloudburst itself and falls
and crimps, reconfigures.”
This “something”, the subject, reconfigures before it has an identity; it is,
the poem goes on, “arbitrary”, and has landed on a hat of a passerby as a
label or name tag.
The name of this person come unbidden
to hobble free passage
as in the case of the fairy tale hero
who walked backward in good faith
and stumbled on vermin,
progress and fine form disfigured.
The reader, like the hero, is hobbled in her journey through the poem, anxious between the objects and their arbitrary signs, terrified to fall backwards, to stumble on, say, a rat. In “The Little Match Girl”, the heroine’s fingers are “divorced from their hands.” From this grotesque, the poem investigates the nature of wishes, articulation (in the senses of digital joint and of language), hunger and poverty, transparency and coherence. Here, as elsewhere, Robinson evokes the familiar to stun us into re—cognition; she invites us to be readers who are able to believe, as a child might believe a fairy tale, in language as act. Indeed, Robinson draws frequently on children’s stories in this collection, but there is nothing childlike here. In “Hansel and Gretel,” for example, hunger and direction are taken up within frames of repetition and recognition. The story we remember sits under the poem like an armature.
Robinson wants us to acknowledge the ways in which language constructs both the world and our responses to it. She wants us to apprehend and then to comprehend. This is a poetics asking us to fully acquiesce in the potentially dangerous wonders of language as it travels through its arbitrary names, inventing as it goes. These inventions act like charms, spells, fairy tales, in that Robinson is fully prepared to allow whatever objects she puts in motion to undergo sudden, irrevocable shifts. These shifts alter the topography of the poem in such a way as to animate all the pieces, the materials, in the poem:
Here is a blanket
The abandoned image of the domicile
refuses to huddle behind.
Sons and daughters of structure
away and up—
Question collapses into request.
How to go in,
How to swaddle the image of survival—
Be it nourished off its own pests,
A peripheral spectre,
Roof rising again in feigned dark.
By now we are almost prepared for the suddenness with which the apparition, the image, the spectre, will collapse and we will be without a structure in which to survive: homeless, footloose, no more than a mote, without volition or intention, will or desire. We are no better than Chicken Little, trapped in the doom of (history’s) repetitions.
Little chick is redundant with his own doom.
His bomb has fallen into his lap
And the rest is all gaps.
Why would the world
And the sky hunch
Over with its sickening bravery.
But the bravery in this book is the opposite of sickening, and its disobedience is everywhere conditioned by a powerful subversion of our habits of mind, our expectations as readers, our lazy desire to be comforted by the familiar. These poems brilliantly reinvent the moral reckonings common to all fable. Elizabeth Robinson reminds us to wonder and, in wondering, to experience wonder as the fault line between how the world is and what we apprehend in and of it.