Adam Robinson is the author of Adam Robison and Other Poems and the creator of Awesome Machine Press, an imprint of Publishing Genius.
"Funny and sharp. It feels unburdened by whatever's burdening otherwise smart long poems these days. Best way to spend $3 since the ice cream sandwich."
"Robinson is definitely someone to check out. I may still not entirely know what to make of him, but my impulse to pick up his book was a wise decision."
I just finished reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice books not long ago and throughout her adventures with chess pieces and playing-card royalty, Alice is fairly well awash with poetry reciters. She is asked to recite some verse herself — poems that she has evidently known for some time, but they never come out quite (or at all) as expected. The plots of the Alice books are like a biathlon, in that they are a string of strenuous or stressful situations separated by verse. Poetry readings are like this: public performances of works that the poet has worked over and rewritten and polished over the course of years, interspersed with segues that, more or less, involve a good deal less forethought than the poet — who, in all likelihood, tends to spend quite a bit of time alone and writing — generally feels comfortable with. Skiing and archery, beheadings and verse, forethought and spontaneity.
And anyone who’s gotten books together knows that by the time that book goes to print you are sick enough of it that you never want to see it again. Perversely, the best possible scenario one can hope for in the writerly world is to read from it, speak on it endlessly, be interviewed about it — to be doomed to read those words you’re so tired of — for the rest of your days.
Adam Robinson’s wonderful Say, Poem (which, with Adam Robison and Other Poems is his second book released in 2010) solves this dilemma. The title poem is essentially a script for a poetry reading, including poems and those difficult in-between times. After a while a poet in the middle of an endless string of reading from behind battle-scarred podia can’t help but sound rehearsed. Robinson pokes fun at the inter-poem banter, the disorganized paper shuffling, the reading of works-in-progress.
As we go, we find that we are in the middle of the exploration of the plight of the poet in this world, with writers “raking the leaves / of failure wearing / too many hats.” After briefly contemplating amusingly off-kilter Japanese sign translations, one of the interior poems asks, bleakly, “How can poetry compete with error, / in this economy of attention?”
Even if the Poet can keep an audience focused, for how long? It’s full of very hard knocks, the writer’s life. The tools and images writers use get tired and lose their usefulness. Times change. “Soon,” the speaker says, “you’ll have to rename your / quarterly review.” So much that makes it to print is forgotten: “We’re going to fondly remember / all of those poems swept / away on muddy banks.”
Even that seems wistfully optimistic until we read the next lines: “Those banks will crackle in the sun // like the toes / of the socks / of the poets”. The speaker in “Say, Poem” offers perspective: “What do I do? I divert / myself with sports. And in the / fluidity of a great athlete’s movement, / which is purely beauty, I perceive / so much that matters without thinking.”
In “Say, Joke,”the second of the two long poems in this volume, we get a string of one-liners and intimate confessions, and it’s here as well that the hook of the poem curves around and tries to catch at the impulse to write. After the tossed off gag “What do you call a two-legged dog?/ Why bother” we get something far more earnest:
No, what do you call a two-legged dog?
Give up? Move out of your lahvly apahtment into the dirt-
wore rurals. Then: labor. As your body tires and replenishes
itself through muscle-happy elation, when the light refracts
incandescent, his pair of ragged claws will come scuttling
now across the floors.
The Poet is up there, battling it all out in front of the audience, or battling it all out in front of the writing desk, thinking about “meaning” in the face of so much that doesn’t require or even want it. But still, the directives continue: “shake off your nervousness again.” Whose voice? In reading the Alice books, my mind couldn’t help wondering where all of these poems were coming from. She hears recitations from mock turtles and misshapen twins, and all the time she’s sleeping.
In Say, Poem, we are drawn, too, to whose voice it is we are reading, this bossy stage manager dictating what jokes are told when and how long the pauses should be before continuing. With both, it is the poetic impulse, the drive that is beyond the poet that says what must be done. The best the writer can hope for is to continue to follow that voice. In Robinson’s fascinating, darkly funny book, “we have to come back tomorrow — this poem goes on forever / to the best misty star.”