Some poets seize and refine a particular aesthetic until their procedures can take them no further. Others are more searching and allow specific projects or concepts to determine changes in their approach from book to book. Elizabeth Robinson belongs to the latter category. While her poems do possess certain recognizable features—Marisa Siegel for The Rumpus observes the poet’s language is “[s]parse without nearing empty, pared down without ever feeling over-edited or contrived”—Robinson’s books are the result of painstaking research, self-examination, and, as with all great poetry, a receptiveness to surprise and discovery. As Siegel also notes in the same article, “Robinson’s work belongs to a school of writing all its own. Certainly a part of the lyric tradition but also influenced by a spirit definitively experimental in its nature, Robinson’s poems are both studies in intensely felt human emotion and in the alternatively slippery and concrete ways in which words can function.”
The following interview was conducted through email and telephone exchanges throughout 2012 and deals specifically with Three Novels, Robinson’s eleventh book. Published by Omnidawn in fall 2011, the book is a beautifully realized triptych where the narratives of three Victorian novels are abstracted and retold in verse, with rigorous objectivity. This objectivity ensures that Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and George Gissing’s Eve’s Ransom are not merely “retold” but reconceptualized. “Distance enables one to look at these novels in a self-reflective way,” Robinson explained to me. “In Gissing, you’re not assured the narrative will end well. With Collins, you have the Victorian novel’s assurance that all will be well in the end. But in both cases, the arcs of these fictional narratives have a certain inevitability poems do not have. I’m grateful poems are much more insubordinate and untidy.” Robinson’s work continues to challenge and reward readers because of its exploratory nature. In her poem “Awake” from Counterpart (Ahshata Press, 2012), Robinson says, “Alertness and sorrow / revolve on the same hinge”; this statement could serve as a kind of poetics, for the guiding eye in all of Robinson’s work is alert. That sorrow coexists with it does not guarantee sadness. In fact, the very alertness with which such emotion is regarded transforms the material and lends it an aura of wonder.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): You have dedicated Three Novels to your father, Bruce C. Robinson, who introduced you to each of the three 19th- century novels you use as source material in the book. This dedication seems highly appropriate since in Three Novels you appear to have absorbed and re-gendered the “father” narratives of Wilkie Collins and George Gissing in ways that celebrate and transform the original texts as only you—a woman poet of the 21st century—can do. As you say in “Decorum,” “Look how the feminine boot print leads to the shore and not back from it.” By the end of the book, gender identification is occasionally forgone, such as in the second poem from “Romance (After Eve’s Ransom)” where “the character must put its hand out to hold up its head.” Assuming my observations are on point, I was wondering if you could talk about your reasons for doing this.
Elizabeth Robinson: I am not sure how you mean “father” narratives—just in the sense that my father’s reading them to me was my original source for the poems? It is true that my father read The Woman in White and The Moonstone to me when I was in early grade school. He was so obviously delighted with the eccentricities of the characters and Collins’s beautiful prose that his enthusiasm was infectious, but I often did not understand what he was reading. For instance, I had no idea what an illegitimate child was and I don’t believe he explained this to me, or only did so obliquely. I do remember being quite impressed by the rules of Victorian etiquette and how gendered a lot of behavior was, not that I could have articulated this. With many of these novels, if people could simply speak directly to each other, the plot would collapse. I think I fell in love, a little, with the way circuits of communication could create patterns, and this has transposed itself into my relationship with poetry.
After my father died, I felt such bereftness that I went back to the books he first read to me and that we read together. He discovered or rediscovered George Gissing later and we read the novella Eve’s Ransom at about the same time. Trying, as an act of mourning, to reclaim a shared site with my absent father, I was really struck by how circumscribed the lives of the women characters in these books were, and how this places them in real peril.
Rail: Thank you for this background on your father. It’s illuminating. I was using “father narratives” more generally, as narratives that emerge in patriarchies. Collins and Gissing, for example, were men who wrote of women. I was wondering if in Three Novels, you were reframing those narratives—a woman writing about women.
Robinson: Oh, yes, that was my intention. At the same time, I do feel that both Collins and Gissing wrote about women with some sympathy, but it felt necessary to reanimate these characters from a lived feminine experience. It became, as a result, a dual process of reclamation: firstly, to manifest my connection with my father and, secondly, in his absence to look at the constraints operating on these female characters and try to work new agency into their stories. The women characters in their stories are so profoundly circumscribed, which is both absurdly comic and dire. Aside from my very personal motivations, it was impossible to reread these novels without thinking of female contemporaries who have said to me that feminism is now irrelevant. One need only look at the current political landscape to see how preposterous that assertion is.
I appreciate your noting that I worked to efface gender designations, especially in “Romance,” the poem written responsively to Eve’s Ransom. In the novella, the central male and female characters are both people who have felt the humiliation and precariousness of poverty. The resources by which they combat their vulnerabilities are necessarily different because of their genders. By the end of the narrative, one feels that Gissing is tending to side more with his male character, but I wanted to suggest the characters as interchangeable, as subject to the same dehumanizing forces of poverty and loneliness.
Rail: You mention the sympathy with which Gissing and Collins wrote about women. This reminds me of a wonderful passage from the last section of your book, “Romance: After Eve’s Ransom”: “Yet it is hard, very difficult, to understand from whose / point of view the story is told, to understand that neutrality / is sympathy.”
Robinson: When I began writing the poem I tried not to specify gender, because I felt that, though the characters of the novel start with the same kind of predicaments, they react to them in gendered ways, which lead inevitably to different decisions and then a series of further predicaments that differ. But in trying to rewrite the story, I found it surprisingly difficult to suspend the language that way, to step away from gendered pronouns, because there still was a narrative element with characters. It was this difficulty that made me realize a connection with Gissing. As a storyteller, he had a certain kind of sympathy for a woman character who was not entirely sympathetic. He tried to suspend judgment in a way to clarify what her circumstances were. I was trying to do something similar by writing in a non-gendered way.
Rail: A prevailing theme in “The Moonstone” section of Three Novels is the persistence of opacity, of one’s difficulty seeing through certain “surfaces” (a repeated word) and disguises (“One body fits inside another body like a turban upon a head”), in trying to find accurate tools to see beyond riddles (“…equate the map with blindfold”), or the ways in which chance elements stymie one’s attempts to pierce through uncertainties (“…as a crease in the map which obscures the vital turn-off from the road”). In one sense, these concerns are the hallmark of all detective fiction. How are they also vital to poetry—more specifically, your poetry?
Robinson: I heard that once Sartre cursed his own innate lucidity, and I think I would, alternatively, curse my inability to understand the world except through ambiguity. Perhaps I was relating to that dimension of the novel. It does eventually solve the problem of the mystery (where the famous diamond has gone), but nonetheless there are recurring instances of misunderstanding, mistaken identity, and unarticulated feelings.
This is indeed vital to poetry in the way that suspension is vital to exploration. A mystery novel (and The Moonstone is said to be the first detective story) tends to adhere to a pattern, even a formula, and I believe that poetry can slip outside the tethers of formula more easily than a detective story can. Still, both genres work by suspension and irresolution, by leading the reader to believe that they’ve discerned a possible answer or conclusion and then swerving elsewhere. Taking the wrong turn in a detective narrative means that you fail to find the answer to the animating question: who did it? Taking the wrong turn within a poem is a productive error; poetry seems to me to thrive off of infinite deferral. By refusing conclusiveness, I would even argue that a poem develops a kind of empathy towards its own ambiguity. Of course this can be taken too far. Nobody wants to dwell indefinitely in a floppy, aimless text. Put another way, I’m very fond of saying that a poem gets to have its cake and eat it too.
Rail: Titles for individual poems are eschewed in books two and three of Three Novels. In “The Woman in White” I suspect this is the case because the individual poems (to me) read as one interconnected poem. This does not seem to be the case in book three—“Romance (After Eve’s Ransom)”—where individual poems, though interconnected through imagery and theme, seem to stand independent of one another. Could you discuss your various reasons for omitting titles from these sections and also explain whether or not you see the poems in either of the sections as mosaics of one long poem?
Robinson: You’re right that “The Woman in White” is meant to be one extended poem and the sections should drift, almost like weather on fields and hills, over the pages. I did want the sections of “Romance” to be more discrete and yet, as you noted already, retain some blurriness about the protagonist(s). In the novella, the characters are in shifting, but always perplexed, relation to each other. They move around in their environment almost like chess pieces, so I wanted to capture the grief and confusion that I felt was intrinsic to their interactions, their struggles with and within the world, without oversimplifying who these players were. The separate pages that mark each section were intended to characterize the proximity and distance of the man and woman and the grim role that necessity played in their responses to given circumstance.
Rail: In contrast to the neatly, unambiguously formed prose blocks of “The Moonstone,” the poems in “The Woman in White” exploit lineation to an extreme degree, with lines often resisting left-margin justification and appearing in unexpected (thus, to an extent, dramatic) spaces on the white field of the page. Visually, they read like erasure poems based on the text of the original Collins novel. But since I have not read that novel I am not sure. Whether or not erasure was a method you employed there, was erasure a visual effect you were trying to create? Or were those dramatically-lineated poems arranged as such for reasons beyond erasure?
Robinson: “The Woman in White” is not an erasure poem. In fact, I played with the content of the novel in the loosest of ways. I’m not sure that someone who had read the novel would be able to make a smooth transition from one text to the other. What I remembered from my childhood hearing of the novel, and what struck me in my adult reading, was the way that the woman’s body was tied to property. Laura will inherit the family estate and so her body (as matrimonial property) is tied to ownership of the land. By contrast; she is a nomad. Her illegitimate sister wanders, homeless. Her half-sister lives in a state of contingency, as she has nothing to inherit, so only her blood and affectional ties with Laura, though not legally definitive, serve as a tenuous link to the possibility of a place, a home.
What I wanted to do with this was create some sort of pastoral poem, one that was distinctly feminized. The woman is a creature inhabiting a literal and figurative field. She is continuous with that horizon, but also a quarry within and upon it. To enact this, it seemed necessary to use the page visually, as a landscape. The poems are fragmented in the way a moving creature in a landscape is partially visible because it is in motion. It variously reveals and secrets itself. Also, a woman in the context of Victorian England would be both human agent and object, and therefore fragmented in that way.
I hoped that what I constructed in this poem would have enough grace to attract the reader without itself succumbing too facilely to portraiture or narrative. The poem in this instance should be a site that expresses many tensions but yet remains a space in which there is room to move and interpret its landscape.
Rail: One of the features I admire most about your poems in every section of this book is your adept handling of similes. In a stunning passage from “Romance” you write, “…The nature of the story is to generate / a tension that remains suspended over the ending, like a landscape held / over its actors: they can go nowhere.” The theater comparison is powerful enough, but then the admission that follows the colon is devastating. Are stories prisons? Are they traps?
Robinson: I really cannot account for my relationship with narrative. I’m implicated in it the way every human is, I guess. It’s interesting to me that you implicitly—and usefully—connect simile and narrative. For a period of time I thought poems equal radiating pattern and narratives equal linear movement. Recent hybridities show that this delineation is very unnecessary. I wasn’t conscious of my use of similes, but, reconsidering them, I see them as an outbranching from narrative, a little surfeit that overflows from the structures that would overdetermine the way we think and act. The likeness that the simile conjures is comfortable with its own inexactitude. It provokes inexactitude.
In the end, story is one formal shape among others. Our culture tends to forget this, so art-making that is really up to its own task would disrupt this assumption with other formal shapes and processes.
Rail: Another aspect of your work that intrigues me is the prevalence of general, often theoretical assertions and statements that would not be out of place in an essay or academic discourse but, somehow, in the context of your poetry, seem elegant, musical, and even sensual. Williams once said “No ideas but in things”—the result being a whole generation of often lesser poets writing boring thing poems. You, on the other hand, embrace ideas and engage and interrogate them the way one might turn over an object to find out where or how it was made. Would you agree with my observations here? Could you elaborate?
Robinson: I’m so glad you have this reaction! My friend, the poet Larry Fagin, always complains that my work is too empty of imagery and too full of abstraction. I do love and live in the sensual world, but that concrete, material world is always, always resonant beyond itself. Poems are good as “finding mechanisms.” They ask. Asking makes way for unexpected encounters with unexpected modes of knowing. And unknowing. Two of my favorite words/ideas are “inquiry” and “curiosity.” I should clarify, though, that “knowing” is for me always continuous with feeling and with being. How one unfolds oneself in a poem is, for me, a spiritual event. Uh oh: what do I mean by spiritual? I guess it means commitment. One contributes more of oneself that she properly understands to exist in order to follow the process of the poem. I really don’t mean to imply that this is some grim holy, ethical, or philosophical experience (who knows, it might have elements of those qualities). Often it’s just real pleasure and intimacy, a kind of eros and play.
Three Poems by Elizabeth Robinson:
Wasn’t it flawless?
Out of the corner of the eye, the purity was stable. It
didn’t refract into different colors.
Every day, diligent to the day’s variegation, always
treading on the blotches, scratching snot where it’s dried on the sleeve.
Counting the syllables in “every” every day.
Until by mistake
it had no error to pursue.
It tugged on the so-scrubbed hands and left them bland with perfection.
It licked the face and left no residue.
Fee Fi Fo Fum
That is, a measure of four notes
Perfect 4/4 rhythm
No beat is to be accented over any other
One phrase; no rhyming rejoinder
on the invisible staff
Was it indeed a musical measure—
—a warning Fee
that it is human to syncopate, to subdivide
Fum Fum Fum
before infallible tone, the count entire, the melody neutral
On What’s Gone
The given world taken in, hemmed, swallowed
All of it disappeared into a series of postulates. The disappearance as
something one might like to try out.
—Say a man mounts his bike and rides away.
—Say a silver milagro meant to protect the kidneys and liver of a person
who has long since died.
—Say et cetera.
All of it consumed.
That is, by mouths, lungs, eyes, fingers. Form
pummeled by goneness
into form. It was
the nature of goneness
to be incomplete. But also
to refuse the present tense verb.
It also relinquished pronouns (the goneness),
but with regret. And prepositions.
Form muted but still stubbornly
But, say, “there” is a pronoun and all that’s gone
looks back with slight contempt, not at contradiction but
at those who pause before it.
What’s gone wakes from disturbed sleep to the recollection of shape.
How one consumes, desires to
consume, the palpable, and all
error. How it’s fingers thrash
in this reach, there,
slits in the atmosphere, quotation marks [“ “] siphoned of dialogue.
One knows, of course, that it’s not an abyss. Its
a puddle, a pothole, a chip on a cup, the
keys that were right “there,” but aren’t.
The lost place in a book,
on a page, a form of
ultimacy that finally understands the typographical error.
Say one could retrieve
—could retrieve ellipses as pure form, as the gestural:
direct, even blunt […]
and completely devoid of sentimentality, when retrieval
(a hypothetical forward or future that trails one suspiciously,
threatening to pick a pocket, grab one’s collar)
is purified, brusque riddle, like the body, pulling
air into its lungs and then making it gone.