Ed Roberson is one of the most important poets who , for mysterious reasons, is not as well known as he deserves to be. He’s not in Norton’s American Hybrid or The Oxford Antholgy of African-American Poetry, two excellent collections with some painful omissions. Though a winner of the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America, which considers “genius and need” as some of its criteria, and nominated for a prize from the Academy of American Poets, his poems are not on the Academy’s popular web site.
The good news is that he won the Iowa Poetry Prize and The National Poetry Series prize for earlier books, and he’s included in Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, which is getting a lot of attention. His peers, including Michael Palmer, Nathanael Mackey, Lyn Hejinian and Yusef Komunyakaa, admire him with perceptive enthusiasm. He’s also in two recent volumes of The Best American Poetry. His ninth book, To See the Earth Before the End of the World, displays him as an ardent, disciplined observer and participator whose efforts continue to suggest his undergraduate studies in freshwater chemistry and his engagement with other scientific processes as well as his travels.
Roberson recently retired after teaching at Northwestern, Rutgers and elsewhere. His literary interests include Edna St Vincent Millay and Edgar Lee Masters, whom he labels “neglected major poets,” and he is an active performer. A Pittsburgh native, he has gone on expeditions with the Pittsburgh Explorer’s Club, and done outdoor research Alaska and Bermuda. He’s climbed mountains in South America, spent time in the Amazon, and crossed the United States on a motorcycle. I’d love to see a list of the printed matter that’s accompanied him on every trip.
The title poem in this collection gets off to a brave, urgent start:
People are grabbing at the chance to see
the earth before the end of the world,
the world’s death piece by piece each longer than we.
Some endings of the world overlap our lived
time, skidding for generations
to the crash scene of species extinction
the five minutes it takes for the plane to fall,
the mile ago it takes to stop the train,
the small bay to coast the liner into the ground
the line of title to a nation until the land dies,
the continent uninhabitable.
That very subtlety of time between
large and small
Media note people chasing glaciers
in retreat up their valleys and the speed…
watched ice was speed made invisible,
now— its days and a few feet further away,
a subtle collapse of time between large
and our small human extinction.
If I have a table
at this event, mine bears an ice sculpture.
“Ice sculpture,” is here as weighty, fragile and devastating as any image on every page. It can hurt to touch, as touch hurts it in natural form, as in glaciers melting from human interference. Everything Roberson writes has an encyclopedic backscope, condensed into impeccable art.
“Nothing New” is the pure music that inspired it:
A hailing violin, its thin arm
raised out of the brawl for the song’s help:
there’s always a fight after the drinking
and singing, there’s always one instrument
that knows our cries for help in some song.
Its animal gut, the hill fiddle off a shelf,
the trumpet’s snatch through the bell, the sax’s sharp gaff—
their whiskey-burnt throat raises the gall.
Music clears out the belly for us and bleeds
the wound clean, we make up with our life.
He makes hearing music new, as he does in all the poems that refer, directly or obliquely, to jazz. This not a writer who will ever irritate by sounding like an Al Young or Kevin Young wannabe. The next piece, “New World Orchestra” is another etching of rhythmic originality:
The definite number of notes in the symphony
to be played each had a jar, fired clay
but in all different shapes, one for each note,
a condor, a lizard, a monkey, a mouse, a woman
with birds for hair, a man with conch feet :
There’s more, and with Roberson, more always answers a need often unimagined until what has just preceded it.
Feeling connects history and the physical in “Of the Earth, ” for Luis J. Rodrigues:
Angel of pelicans, the huge sack
that brings the drowned back unswallowed
coughed to their feet stretches
thin as water; and
as the newborn’s natal skin
that sloughs off it is the water
The ‘sleep pull their wake shirts off over their heads
and drop the inside-out body
of their clothes here on the floor’s beach.
I believe you when you say, Luis,
water is the skin of the earth.
The pull thinnest of that water, the air,
carries in its sack inside-out our lungs.
Angel of the frigate bird, of the puff-fish,
the huge earthen word that emptying out
is world for us,
I believe you when you say
water is the skin of the earth.
Carried in the skin of the earth, the black
blood of The Crossing carries me.
The blood of the Middle Passage still carries him, back to a place where his forebears could not, from inside prison-hulls, see the frigate bird, the puff fish or anything else that was abundant and kind imagination’s eye.
From his experience in the steel mills to his discoveries far afield that gild his particulate mix of exquisite strength and limberness, Roberson’s work is consistently transporting:
That country crossed was what I could imagine,
and that little spit of answer is the shadow—
not the ocean which casts it— that I step next
into to be cleansed of question.
But not of seeking… it as
if simplified for the seeking,
come to its end at this body.
From “As At the Far Edge of Circling,” this is part of a sagacious chant, transformed on the way from his ear to ours. Reading Roberson is a sacramental act, an imperative inhalation. American letters needs everything he’s got.