A post-romantic poet not content to wax sentimental on idealized Nature, a la Mallarmé, Andrew Michael Roberts has staked his tent in her decimated domain.
Time, in Andrew Michael Roberts’ first full-length collection something has to happen next, has an actual weight and dimensionality, as does sorrow. A post-romantic poet not content to wax sentimental on idealized Nature, a la Mallarmé, Roberts has staked his tent in her decimated domain. The conversation that ensues in this charged space, like Jacob wrestling with his angel, is at turns tender (in his poems “lamb,” and “swallows build their nest around it”) and antagonistic (“we are not birds,” “you never touched me,” and “prove you wrong.”)
As if determined to measure the impossible (the size and value of the material world) Roberts’ spare, elliptical poems often situate the reader in the oddest of places (the Laundromat, an igloo) and end, after six or so breathtaking lines, in intergalactic realms: outer space, mountain ranges, or hanging upside down, from the ceiling. (Warning: readers prone to vertigo might best be advised to stay away from Roberts’ work.)
The author of two previous chapbooks: Dear Wild Abandon, (winner of the 2007 PSA National Chapbook Award) and Give Up (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006), Roberts has previously worked in the prose poem form; his ability to create narrative situations through the use of negative space and powerful imagery is formidable. The tension in something has to happen next is created, in large part, by the relationship between title and text: “other people’s machines,” in its entirety: “the mustachioed one’s/ childless/ and hard/ on the buses./ when he/ brakes/ they scream.”
While reminiscent of the oddly jarring micro-fiction of Lydia Davis, and the absurdist allegories of James Tate, Roberts differentiates himself from his contemporaries by a near-hypnotic attention to the physicality of the cosmos, as well as a distinctly primitive streak: many of the poems in something has to happen next read as if they were composed on a mountaintop during a camping trip, or from the bottom of one of the Great Lakes. His inclusion of Nature, however, as in the work of Dave Eggers, is never forced or awkward; Nature, for Roberts, is the stage on which not only his writing unfolds, but the book of the world.
Accuracy and precision, the keynotes of Roberts’ sensibility, can also be a source of fear: (from “rehearsal”: “my question is when/ am I perfect, and will you/ be looking the other way.”) His syntactical inversions engender perceptual shifts, and anchor the attention of his reader; his lyric call and response in the wilderness often responds, in the absence of an other voice, and not from within the same poem, to itself: (from “dear catastrophe,”: “the answer: we were not/ thinking anything.”)
In a post-apocalyptic context of Roberts’ work, what is left in the wake of disaster takes on a charged importance, as does the importance of gauging the proximity of one object, or subject, to another. “i am nearly/ the dark space/ between the sun/ and itself.”
The refusal to ironize moments of heartbreak are what distinguish something has to happen next from many other contemporary poetry collections in which grieving is writ large: like Native American elder Black Elk himself, whom Roberts references in his acknowledgments, these poems are willing to wound themselves in the effort to reach out, and, at times, console.
Roberts achieves elliptically what would take a maximalist poet an entire page; while several of his poems are arranged into block stanzas, with a density reminiscent of prose poetics, the majority of the poems gathered here are sparse, and the cumulative effect of his dramatic enjambments, as in “dear man on fire,” is an emotional tension of unexpected potency: “don’t go to soon/ to dark smoke like arms/ flung over the city’s/ face,/ wretched home/ to all our eyes.” Not without humor, Roberts audaciously chides the cosmos itself, in thinking that it could ever be complete without him: (from “world,”: “just where . . . do you think/ you’re going—/ without/ me?”) The collection’s most desperate elegies hurl accusations, not at Nature, but at her children (ourselves); these poems amount to a whispered prayer: “did we love enough,” the speaker of “if nothing else” asks.
The collection’s most searing poem (“the end”) refuses comfort; here, Roberts’ thematic obsession with the “mirrors” and “illusions” of Nature dissolve as he questions not how to accept our mortality, but whether we deserve anything else. In a painstaking act of empathy with Nature, “the end” measures the weight of our collective grief by offering not an explanation or image, but a formula, in which our suffering can be measured by the extent of how much we cared about what we have lost:
“it was the end of something,/ so we grew sad/ according to how much we’d loved it.”