Thursday, September 18, 2014

NEW! Review of Elizabeth Robinson

On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson. Solid Objects, $16 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Mary McMyne

Elizabeth Robinson’s fourteenth book, On Ghosts, is indeed a haunting collection. Elusive and difficult to characterize, the book contains poems as well as abstract essayistic passages, floating quotations, anecdotes, an e-mail, mathematical formulae, and descriptions of (absent) photographs. In her “Explanatory Note,” Robinson writes that the collection “is an essay on the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting,” and at first glance, this statement appears to be true. She begins by exploring the “conditions that locate themselves in specific sites or persons” and “calibrate individuals and places, make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness.” What conditions make us vulnerable to perceiving that which others cannot see? How and why does this happen? What can we make of it? Later in the same note, Robinson claims that an “[a]pparition is not an entity as we think of it” with agency, but an “erasure.” As an example of this phenomenon, in “Creatures,” she describes a “subject” plagued by pain so insistent the pain
eats through layers of herself variably, mostly consuming the surface, but sometimes penetrating deeper. The remainder of the surface is first spongy with excavation, but then dries to a surprising sheen
bright enough to “attract things that want light.” The subject goes on to complain that since the pain has begun to persist, she has perceived invisible things attacking her, which she calls “creatures” for lack of a better word. The subject’s complaint—along with many of the other images and examples Robinsons uses throughout the book, such as the image on the first page of a building infested with termites—emphasizes the erosive quality of loss, the way absence can eat away at the self, causing the self to perceive absence as something other, something else, like a phantom limb. 
Much of the book is filled with essayistic passages, which outline ideas in abstract exposition and ask readers to project their own understandings to fill in the blanks. Robinson’s examples, when she provides them, are brilliant and lyrical. In “Incident One,” she narrates the story of a child who ends his own life: “Over and over the loop of his life rubs on its seam until the stitches rough up his skin and the garment comes apart. Dual ravel. He wrestles in the hammock slung over what, until seam and skin fall out.” Once dead, the child cannot figure out “what to do with goneness” and “keeps coming back to his departure.” The bereaved family he has left behind then perceives his presence in uncanny details, presumably projecting the apparition of his ghost, though Robinson stops short of saying so: “The nicely watered grass gets trodden down and the soil beneath it glistens, clinging to the bottoms of shoes.” A “tape clicks on mid-narrative when no one is there to push the PLAY button on.” In the description that follows, which appears atop a blank page with no such visual aid, Robinson describes the house the child has left behind: 

This is a photograph of a domestic interior. Because this ghost manifested primarily in an auditory manner, it is hard to see anything of significance in the photo. Note however the ghost’s baby tooth crumbling in a dish on the kitchen counter (foreground) and further back in the room, the boom box that went on at random times, always when there was a Harry Potter story tape in it.
There is, of course, no proof of the little boy’s ghost in this description, nor would there be in the missing photograph. Rather than provide proof that the haunting occurred, the description offers only proof of the boy’s family’s desire to perceive the boy, in the crumbling “baby tooth” that so concretely evokes his absence and the uncanny auditory events they ascribe to his return. Throughout the book, every time Robinson approaches the question of proof, she emphasizes her inability to provide it: in the doubtful nature of her evidence, her beautiful fumbling language, and the language of her characters. 
A closer look at On Ghosts, in fact, reveals the collection is less about literal ghosts than the ghosts of meaning and metaphor. Pulsing beneath the surface of these fragments is Robinson’s interrogation of the sort of haunting that compels writers to put words to page. Like ghosts do the bereaved, termites buildings, and pain its victims, the question of meaning haunts writers, compelling them to write despite the fact that their words “never truly impact the surface.” Robinson explores the way words erode those who attempt to “use” them as their medium, “lessening” or “infesting” them: “The word, his word or words, was like an autoimmune disease which attacked him, the word’s own organism, his soul and his body.” In “Drifting Interlude,” a writer trying to explain something—what we cannot be sure—
says, gesturing with her hands,
“There was just
this and this
and in between it was all commas.”
In “Visitor,” an elderly poet, who Robinson wryly calls “the dead man,” enjoys reading his poems aloud to a class despite having forgotten its teacher’s name, then, in “PHOTOGRAPH #3,” “is seen”—or not seen, since it is absent, of course—“looking jaunty, surrounded by a group of friends and admirers,” holding “a cigarette aloft.” In an epigraph to her poem, “Translation,” Robinson quotes James Longley on his difficulty with capturing the spirit that haunts him on the page: “How will I be sure that the spirit is speaking in me at all, much less when I transcribe, much much less when I translate?” Such writerly skepticism is apparent throughout Robinson’s book, in the way she uses analogies and then corrects them, the way she consciously experiments with form.
It is, no doubt, Robinson’s experimentation with form that causes the collection to continue to haunt the reader after it has been put back on the shelf. Robinson has written a collection full of absences, blank spaces, and abstractions, which require the reader to project her own understandings, to fill in the blanks in a way that brilliantly illustrates the book’s concepts. Robinson’s consistent use of absence, echo, and fragmentation enables her to capture a difficult subject in all its complexity, offering readers a new language for contemplating the human struggle with meaning and absence.

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