Elizabeth Robinson is a poet who, over the span of several books, has created a language that is uniquely her own. Sparse without nearing empty, pared down without ever feeling over-edited or contrived, 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.
In Counterpart, Elizabeth Robinson’s newest collection of poems, the poet uses this language to address directly the sense of a haunting other, the self’s doppelganger, whose presence has been felt in her previous work. Where before this haunting has merely been hinted at, existing as a just-below-the-surface undercurrent of what isn’t being said, in Counterpart Robinson addresses the idea head-on. Here we have poems that are in conversation with the self’s double – and, that, perhaps at the same time, are in conversation with “the self” itself.
Each of the book’s sections is framed with a quote (or two or three), lenses through which the reader might view the following poems. These epigraphs also serve to transition us from one section to the next – the poems in Counterpart were written over a period of several years, and while unified by Robison’s distinctive voice and the ever-present doppelganger, they also cover much ground in subject matter. But whether discussing Hell or Eden, golem or seedling, the poems in Counterpart all have a place in Robinson’s investigation of this double – this counterpart, as it were – and each poem reinforces the reader’s growing awareness of the conversation taking place.
In a universe where “The trees have fingers” and “bit” becomes “bite” becomes “bought” becomes “stolen”, the reader stands alongside Robinson on shifting ground. And yet, the reader is also steadied, and even reassured, by the ample white space that allows for pause after each line or stanza. In these spaces, we can reconsider each development in the conversation before moving forward to the next.
There is, however, no lulling us with pretense of safety. In “Fear” (a poem in the “Golem” segment, the book’s longest section) Robinson writes, “Loss itself can never supplant fear, prodded//as I am to watch them. Together. How they fornicate//with my selves.” Truly, throughout Counterpart there is nothing that can supplant fear. But the fear here is a known and familiar fear, a fear that is called out and thoroughly identified and therefore in the end less frightening than it is troubling or problematic.
“Trickery,” another poem in the Golem portion of Counterpart, opens with this telling stanza:
This all had to with folds –
the word after word
folded in on itself.
Robinson never pretends that the ever-unstable ground beneath the reader’s feet is solid bedrock. Instead, in “Allege or Elegy,” we are told that: “Far before this, there was a body//overlapping with a body, perhaps//itself and perhaps not…” Or, perhaps both itself and not itself at the same time. The problem with what we cannot see is that it still may exist – our double is outside of our field of vision and still always with us, inside of us.
If “Death’s doppelganger/is truth”, as Robinson writes at the close of “Once More (Sleep)”, the larger truth of Counterpart is that we must acknowledge the self’s other in order to complete the self. Whether we can fully understand the other or whether “two same things mated/with each other abolish//mirrors” and therefore the other is continuously destroyed and recreated, too suspicious and fluid to be wholly knowable, still we each exist in conversation with our selves.
Counterpart concludes in Eden, a secret but inevitably recognizable Eden (complete with apple), where the self is still splitting into parts. Instead of leaving us with a false conclusion to the ongoing conversation, which will of course continue past the last page, we are left, literally, at “a fork in the road.” Whether we choose to go left or right is entirely up to us – and to the double that coexists within us.