Rabbit (Boiler House) deals with the struggle to connect in a globalised, social-media age, where our language is overwhelmed by the clichés of celebrities and advertisements, and our conception of friendship, success and love is as a shallow performance.
The fierce, plaintive, stylish poems in Rabbit are about the experience of unbelonging and being distanced from others. ‘art in america’, the last poem in the book and the culmination of a sequence set in New York, is emblematic of Rabbit’s project as a whole: negotiating networks (virtual, social or literal), and the contrasting ideas of loneliness, and inability to use art as communication are central to the collection.
‘art in america’ might read as a response to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, also a free-form chronicle of contemporary life in the Big Apple. Yet where Ginsberg’s war cry begins with ‘the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness’, Robinson starts with:
at dusk each day i like to think
of all my new friends in different parts
of the city jerking off running baths
vaping weed getting sober running their mouths
& reading poetry aloud to one another
There is a softness that comes from beginning the poem at dusk, with the speaker rooted at the centre of a web of friendship. Yet it sounds almost dinky in comparison to Howl; in fact, this point of view is distinctly voyeuristic (‘jerking off’). Not genuinely gentle then, but more a mockery of Instagram sentimentality — ‘all my new friends’! Robinson continually disses our initial perceptions of the external social markers of success or happiness, showing that the glamour that surrounds them is only glamour.
For example, in ‘art in america’, Robinson’s speaker is the ‘only person at the john giorno installation / in hell’s kitchen on a wednesday afternoon’. It is ‘the’ John Giorno exhibition; evidently, this is an event not to be missed (we’ve all heard people talk about ‘the Tracey Emin’ or ‘the Anni Albers’), and, significantly, Robinson chooses to show Giorno’s great importance with the detail that his exhibition includes a ‘twenty foot projection screen’. Alongside this, Robinson quotes Giorno on his success: ‘thanks for nothing america i did it all without you’.
Ironically, the importance of art is only to do with the relative size of the screen – it’s literally superficial. Although America bows down before Giorno (giving him ‘the’ show in central Manhattan), his exhibition is nothing to do with the actual creative work. Robinson makes the point that the importance of art to our society, rather than being an act of communication, is about showing and projecting images on larger and larger scales, to an audience.
Bleak. But the music of ‘art in america’ helps it transcend cynicism and become truly powerful. Jack Underwood has written about how poems are shaped like rollercoasters in terms of structure and pace, giving the example of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’, which teeters us up the rails before plunging us down in a release of tension. ‘art in america’ is definitely one of these rhetorically rollercoastery poems. Taking up five pages, it gives itself the space to play with line lengths and to build to a crescendo that climaxes, visually and aurally, in a block of almost-solid prose, in monotonous, rapid-fire short sentences:
ambition makes me sick. i want to close every door.
i don’t care about kathy acker. i don’t care about anything anymore.
there’s no art in america, its all sugar and war.
i shouldn’t have taken what i took the way i took it but listen:
And at this point, at the visual indent before the conjunction ‘but’ (both breaking and linking), the tirade splutters to a halt before slowly beginning again, more measured, in both literal and figurative senses, and metered out in increasingly shorter lines (‘& somebody / who loves you / for free’) that have the effect of slowing the pace. The metaphors, dreams and social-media imagery that have tortured the speaker over the course of the poem are broken down into a list of harmless fragments:
my devastating weakness
my white rat
my river of gold
& my old
Winding down with increasingly shorter lines, we have come full circle, returning to the gentleness of the opening.
As well as being a culmination of Rabbit’s discussion of artistic celebrity, ‘art in america’ shows one of Robinson’s major strengths as a poet: her skilful use of sound, pace and the music of syntax to give powerful emotional depth, emphasised through the fragmentation and breaking down of sentences. She is a poet of rare range in her ability to manipulate sound, so that across the collection each poem sounds distinct from another, both in terms of overall ‘rollercoaster’ shape, and on the level of individual lines. For example, the poem ‘biggest loser’ is a confessional narrative listing and describing the many, trivialised, sexual assaults the speaker, as an ordinary woman, has suffered in her life:
i’m twenty nine now &
since i was five i have been
sexually assaulted many times.
first time: bad boyfriend
in the woods
The enjambment makes the poem read aloud as though each line is sticking in the throat and must be spat out, emphasising the shame of the confession and the rupture of the experience.
Overall, Rabbit’s powerful effect is through its enactment of rupture in our normal use of language. In poems that explore a speaker’s vulnerability to grief, trauma and shame, Robinson also exploits the reader’s vulnerability to expectations about how language behaves, in terms of vocabulary and register. Our culture is saturated with memes, hyperbolic Internet language and song lyrics and corporate slogans that are dull with overuse. Robinson’s speakers talk in advertisement cliché or dumb joke – ‘i should win an oscar’, ‘barbra streisand called she wants her songs back’ – that are soaked in meaningless irony and avoid the serious issues of life — grief, love, loneliness. Yet Robinson makes us feel these hyperboles anew, while simultaneously bringing us to an awareness of the shallow terms by which we use them, by interweaving them alongside personal confession or the language of the everyday. She shocks us into laughter or real emotion. For example, the poem ‘poetry reading’, about ‘putting on events lest we get defunded’ undercuts its satire of pretentious poetic performance –
by the trains the trains the trains.
by the drowning & the hail.
i should win an oscar.
– with a humourously bathetic ending: ‘even though / everything is disappointing & gross, you are all ok the way you are’. It sounds sincere in contrast to what has come before. The continued parataxis of different registers (one of the only linguistic effects used continuously throughout Rabbit) can occasionally come across as too heavy – especially in the poems that are visually blocks of prose, in which the subtlety of Robinson’s appositional patterns can be lost. Yet, at its best, it can be unexpectedly funny, or raise the emotional stakes, emphasising the brittle shallowness of global culture by placing the latter in apposition with a startling, individual human cry.
‘social fabric’ is a particularly moving example of the way Robinson braids registers in order to heighten the poignant effect of a poem, purely through contrasts in sound. In this case, conversational language is placed alongside consciously poetic language and imagery. The poem, a block of unpunctuated negative statements, begins dramatically:
no birds in the trees no people no weeping no clawing back your hair
no plunging into black lakes no making a sport of yourself no sigh in
the night no photograph of fun
It initially suggests a particular atmosphere, perhaps a narrative, through use of Gothic, cinematic tropes of mourning, but then veers wildly off into denial of everything, both abstract and specific:
no egg no rhino rhinestone
Sometimes there is rhyme, or dark humour: ‘no cowboy no milkmaid no alpine air no toxic shock’. And some of the negatives seem associative in sound or sense (‘no crushing no kissing no anal fisting no welts upon your back’) and, depending on which images stand out from this torrent, it reads like a Rorschach test of a poem, into which you can read whatever backstory you wish. What would result in this tirade? We do not know, but certainly the poem suggests grief, trauma or depression. We have a speaker or speakers, whose existential wish is for everything to be blotted out. Denial is the first stage.
The poem is an expression of how it feels to want to blot out everything that makes up the social fabric of life. The primary linguistic technique functions bluntly, repeatedly hitting the reader with denial. But the poem is woven with more complexity. As we read, we find all is not as random as it might appear; some familiar phrases repeat, creating a thread throughout: the almost-meaningless, ‘nothing on the television’ and ‘nobody picking up the phone’. These conversational rhythms are a contrast in register with the higher-pitched imagery, and with the relentless, Beckettian flow of the poem. Their echo constantly brings the reader back to the everyday, reflecting the dully repetitive experience of such sadness. Grief is not a dramatic one-off like ‘toxic shock’; it is lonely, boring and made of small details. ‘social fabric’ brings home to the reader the feeling of ‘nobody picking up the phone’.
It is important to remember that poetry exists as much in ordinary, personal speech as it does in coining descriptions of nature or synonyms for ‘blue’. Robinson’s use of sound in her braiding of casual, conversational language with vivid poetic imagery reminds us of the power and pain of simply saying something like: ‘i miss you. i guess i’ll see you soon.’
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