Reviewed by Aromi Lee
Elizabeth Robinson’s twelfth collection of poetry, Counterpart, consists of thirty-five poems, grouped and anchored by epigraphs taken mostly from her contemporaries. Her author’s statement explains that the poems focus on “the uncanny presence that one recognizes and yet does not.” Robinson’s uncluttered, hypnotic lines are both subtle and bold in her examination of the fear that the self and language are mutable, unpredictable, even sinister and hostile. Her poems center on the possibility of a dialogue with the self about the self, and one can become lost in the web of self-reflexivity that ensues. The confrontations of self and self may yield nothing, and the fear of finding nothing haunts these poems. Nevertheless, the willingness to peel back the layers of ‘self’ and face the shadows of these self-encounters drives the momentum of Counterpart.
The book’s first poem, “Turn,” introduces a cyclical nature that recurs throughout: the “one sharp kernel” becomes a “bitter seedling,” and out of that seed “comes / the green aperture.” The “green aperture” is described in similar terms as the seedling: it is “bitter, tender, self- / pursuing.” The seed and the green aperture are outwardly different, yet both are “bitter,” pointing to a cycle at work: the seed becomes the green aperture, and the cycle starts over. It is revealing that this first poem is prefaced by a quote from Charles Baudelaire (“You find it pleasing to plunge into the bosom of your image”), for it is an invitation to the reader to join the speaker on this inward journey, to listen in on the speaker’s “interior conversations.” In another quote, this inward journey is imbued with a sense of urgency; Barbara Guest calls “the act of discovering where the self starts, hears itself, and repeats the instructions” “a necessity.” This urgency, coupled with the central question of “Who am I?” posed by André Breton in the next epigraph, propels readers into the next set of poems, the first of which is aptly titled “Studies for Hell: I.”
The first word of “Studies for Hell: I” is the pronoun “I,” with its self-possession, yet immediately this ease is refuted as the “I” is revealed as “a hand,” or rather, one part of the human body is put forth as representative of the whole. The problem of the “I” in conveying the self is alluded to in a later poem as the speaker says, “One site of the alphabet / needs mending.” What further destabilizes readers attempting to track the identity twists that bombard them from the outset is the shift from the “I” to a “She.” But the slippery, metamorphic representations of the self do not end there, for an identity bifurcation occurs as a result:
I, a hand, reached into the sea for a piece of the sea.
What I brought out,
piece of liquid, split my hand in two.
And from the gash came an interpolation
fascinated with its own blood.
She had turned around or inside out
and found herself spelt as two.
What begins with a stable “I” somehow ends with “two.” The metaphoric representation of the self parallels the metamorphic unreliability of language. That it is “spelt” and not “split” or “spilt” is telling. The transformation that occurs in the poem is what happens when one tries to reflect something with a broken mirror: its shards are unable to reflect an exact representation of the subject, instead only able to reflect a splintered image that is similar and dissimilar to the subject. In an initial reading, readers may glide over Robinson’s subtle word play in that their eyes and minds might impose the comforting structure of parallels: they may read not “found herself spelt as two,” but “found herself split as two.” This raises the question of what the speaker truly meant: perhaps “split” or “spilt” instead of “spelt.” Does this signify the speaker’s loss of control over language, or the trickiness of language? This dizzying line of inquiry is exactly the danger the speaker risks in Robinson’s poems, where there may be no answers, only reflections.
Despite the desire for “pronouns to take on the corporeal,” to accurately name and give shape to the uncanny, they resist such easy definitions for “they are like the static of a sick-dream, / almost amenable and at the same time, / frizzy, off their marks.” Readers are confronted with an uncanny other, one who is like and unlike us, a macabre Narcissus “fascinated with its own blood.” In exploring this other, the speaker envisions flesh as a possible point of entry: “Here’s a fleshy zipper / that opens in my belly, and I unzip and open and then / there I go. Inside and down the path.” Yet this approach seems too superficial and there are distinct limits:
I fit the flesh legs over my
own, I wear the blue eyes atop my own vision. I double
back my own tongue to let it taste itself.
But I taste another body’s voice.
Perhaps the failure of this descent reflects instead the ouroboric nature of the self which resists neat definitions or explanations. The reflexive journey of the speaker is made hellish in that as soon as the speaker comes close to locating the self, it reproduces, transforms, doubles, and slips from the speaker’s grasp. Not only is it impossible to see the end of this journey, but the unpredictability of an end that multiplies and reflects back upon the wanderer is fraught with danger for “Whoever would try to find hell / will only get lost again.” Like the Narcissus of myth, the speaker will be doomed if he/she fails to resist his/her image’s seductive hypnosis and does not recognize it as mere reflection. This is no easy task, for the
Identical merges with identity:
one holds in one’s body (Twin, Irony, Narcissus),
like its own
trinket, a name repeated.
And similar to the journey fraught with danger, the poems are fraught with mirrors that the speaker and reader must carefully navigate: “The lost photograph found again, / become[s] a mirror.” Later in the collection,
When one looks at the devils
nesting on the devil, one has
the impression of being caught
in a hall of mirrors.
The desire to say “At last,” in a neat summation of the self, seems a feeble, laughable dream. The power and longevity of the mirror are absolute: “the mirror is / Eternally and eventually reflective.” In what is perhaps the speaker’s weakest moment, he/she laments:
Why is it so difficult, always, to recognize
a thing for what it is.
The naked is flat, is a syllogism that leads
a fragile repetition of its own image, called movement.
This is one of the rare moments in the poems where the speaker is direct. The query ends with a period, connoting a somber acceptance on the speaker’s part. Whereas the speaker has previously approached the search for the self through fragmented, ambiguous lines, furtive glances, veiled, gently probing sentences, the speaker abandons those approaches in this moment of exhaustion. Readers may feel similarly drained. Robinson seems to hint that the very act of looking inward, of searching for that elusive ‘self,’ necessitates a suspension of disbelief or a shift in perspective. One must accept a surreal, upside-down outlook, an overturning of the natural order: “The purpose of the blanket / is not to cover but to fall”; “the trap door leads / ultimately / up”; dreams, not people, are placated; and voices are doubled (“the voice recognizes its hoarseness as echo”). The search for the self necessitates an acceptance of these contradictions while evading the dangers of this exploration. Readers can get lost in this self-reflexive hell, become trapped in an ouroboric existence, and, in the words of Laura Moriarty, create ourselves “to death.”
Furthermore, language as a means to navigate these shifting waters becomes suspect. In Robinson’s poems, language becomes just as slippery, unstable, deceptive, and warped as the self it attempts to name, sometimes even assisting in the permutations. With minute displacement of letters, “split” becomes “spilt” and “spelt.” In “Sanctuary,” thief and victim are conflated: “do you mind, she asked, / if I steal a bit from you.” This phrase is then “murmured to myself,” and the repetition transforms the words, “bit as in bite,” further complicating meaning. “Word after word” folds “in on itself” in self-reflexivity. The inadequacy of language to name and identify ‘self’ is represented as “pointing fingers…broken off at the stem.” Language’s destruction accelerates towards the ending of Counterpart. “Studies for Hell: II” begins with full statements:
Whoever would try to find hell
will only get lost again.
Some antonym, hell-like, elides with hell,
melting on your tongue.
As if the strain of maintaining order were too great, the poem collapses into word scraps:
Infantile devil, funhouse, ocean-for-drowners,
mismap, obligation, blowhole, itching bites, gloss
and paternity, blue sea of alcohol, toxic resemblance and
And language is most seriously crippled in “Studies for Hell: III”:
We like singed feathers. Quills. Ink.
We drew our parts with them, two-faced,
apart. Singing or singed,
Nacreous heat. Quills
circle hardening. Ashes,
ahs, eyes fall down.
re-membered in the
air hand in hand with the air.
Ere. Err. Janus-faced wing.
Language, that traditional mode of elucidation, is revealed as unstable and fallible. It can be misleading as even letter permutations can create new meanings. However, the destruction of language is configured as a necessity for “how better to translate / than to destroy.” But just as the poems are rife with dualities, so too does this destruction have a double. Language’s flexibility lies in its instability. As words are deconstructed, they are also constructed. With sleights of hand, “singing” becomes “singed” and “quills” become “quell.” The sense that the speaker loses control over language is coupled by a sense of playful abandonment. The cat-and-mouse game to tack down meaning with words is frustrating yet enjoyable. In the breakdown of language there is sound: “ashes” glides to the aural “ahs,” which is then echoed back in the homophone-like “eyes.” And if these are not enough to convince readers of Robinson’s language play, there are many instances in which the speaker takes on a puckish tone: he/she declares that “Beauty is vanity’s quackery”; proposes “a toast” to “the image who / was graven, recognized, / recognized, or fallen. / May you resurge”; and wryly states that “The paternal devils pats / his own back.” There may be no clarity by the end of this jaunt through hell but, at the very least, it will be a lively one.
Though there is little doubt that Counterpart’s landscape is bleak, this desolation is not without its reassurances. The last poem’s title, “Secret Eden,” hints at this. The speaker instructs, “Speak, tongue, with your obedient quiet. Divide, / but do not be divisive.” The inherent contradiction of speaking with “obedient quiet” is partially reconciled by the calm command to “divide” but “do not be divisive” because it offers a way in which both can be held as truths: it recognizes that division does not have to be alienating. The command continues,
Now say blessing on the stem, the seed,
the orders of reproduction,
flanked on all sides by
Pronounce pulp and juice. How they divide from each other
as a fork in the road.
The language here is neat: we have “orders” and “destination” as opposed to the disorder and lack of destination that has haunted the poems. The difference between “pulp” and “juice” is likened to something as natural “as a fork in the road,” and thus places the disturbingly open-ended question of the nature of the ‘self’ in the territory of ‘unknowable yet essential.’ Thus the declaration that “death’s doppelganger is truth” should not unsettle, but instead should comfort in its offering of an absolute in a world fraught with infinite plasticity. Robinson’s unstable ground is still a space for that kind of declaration, and, almost defiantly, the statement is re-printed in larger font two pages before the title page. The entropic landscape of Counterpart should not overwhelm readers with its disquieting probing, but should offer them new terrain for exploration.