A Vestige Stirred By Light

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The Next SettlementThe Next Settlement has a rock-solid American quality that compares favorably to William Carlos Williams.   Think Plymouth and ocean waves constantly changing, hypnotic in part because of the mysteries beneath.

I often think that ”critic” should be banished when attempting to define what reviewers do. The word is too weighted with unkindness, and too weakly suggests the love of literature and life in letters that “critics” must bring to their task.

Love of literature in its ideal form must banish peevishness, most importantly for the sake of reader and author, but also for the sake of the reviewer. When I push myself to appreciate writing that initially has not appealed to me, I can leave the pages even more energized, strengthened and gratified than I am after engagement with a book more immediately compelling. The Next Settlement, a poetry collection by Michael Robins, did just that for me, and deserves to do it for others.

At first I wanted to pull back, daunted by crystalline rhythms and observations that seemed clearly intentional but oddly wan, especially for a book that tries to define, illuminate and savor passion, dislocation, and the interior wildness that wide-angled observance can inspire. Love of poetry has made me stubborn, and not always in positive ways. In this case, my determination has been worthwhile.

“I reside in the company of considerable shovels,” is the statement that ends “Recurrent Dream,” the first of eight with that title distributed throughout the volume. The lines that precede it are equally straightforward, not especially eloquent on the surface, yet finally, miraculously, riveting when taken as whole:

In a fanciful recess, paraded & pressed by hands,
they came to find a memento I thought I slipped

behind the stand of cottonwoods, a dirge resung.
Into a mirage whose architect is one, decoys glide.

in a vestige stirred by light. My name is ruthless,
I claim I’m without pigment, fingerprints or marks.

The places to hide were few, fewer still the lives
unsnared in the brake of reeds, betrayal’s lure.

Pastless, I feign my dance under deflected skies.
I reside in the company of considerable shovels.

Read this poem aloud and hear it SING. Reread it very slowly a few times, and the music continues to permeate the skin, as does every other “Recurrent Dream.” Robin’s mix of muscle and delicacy is balanced and careful, never forced, and can be uplifting in a way that sometimes feels physical.

“I record my questions instead of breathing,” he declares at the end of another “Recurrent Dream” and again the music is agile, deliberate, without being overdone:

Michael RobinsI travel by horse, weighed by swollen forks
that shift & startle the prowl of hungry dogs.

From the unlit side of the ordinary street,
they emerge on course to an elegant party.

I believe I recognize their attire, wonder why
invitations fall short of the answering machine.

I remember none of these buildings, the city
in which the tree is adorned with cans and string

so we might reach a voice of the never home.
I record my questions instead of breathing.

This brings to mind some of the more haunting passages in Paul La Farge’s brilliant novel, The Artist of the Missing. It makes the painful not just bearable, but inevitable and imperative, as does “Our Homes on the Same Street.”

The shy distance between two points
is distance, yet envious blue veins

when a needle takes the inner arm
to the pumping traction of the heart.

The Next Settlement has a rock-solid American quality that compares favorably to William Carlos Williams. Think Plymouth and ocean waves constantly changing, hypnotic in part because of the mysteries beneath. Think Rushmore, too, rock yielding only to blows, or imperceptibly worn away by countless hours of wind as untamed as wave, just as healing or destructive. Think of a freedom greater than anything carved of seemingly solid matter, except letters, and the alphabet that makes them both arresting and liberating.

Robins’ shapes and sounds thrill, and are more often than not successful in their attempt to expand the offering of American English as it connects to public and private experience. “In Some Midwestern Country” is a fine example :

where the living gather up the food,
ignite the posts & best our house,
pleasure dies in every emptied room.
Glow, we ease debris from the curb,
the engines lead us toward reunion
overhead, celestial, a drifting station
to cross the bright spark of a planet.
Our souvenirs are sold as if spoken,
auctioneers in the bed of their trucks.
The scales zero, we spiral the stair
built by a will of our master’s hands :
overbid, obsessive, miscalculating
how long the news of our departure
takes to reach the farthest visual star.

Attempting such poetry is an occupation mined with pitfalls Robin’s gracefully evades, tedious imagery being among the most detrimental. And so he consistently elevates and delights, as in this excerpt from “Queen of the Adriatic:”

No heaven there, no mirth. Of all the promises
circling Venice, I’m the one bent at my knee

to clear a modern composer’s grave, the notes
harnessed to the earth by garlands & snow.

We’re hungry, the flowers are gray, we beckon
a reprieve from winter. The street is a spiral

leading nowhere. NO. I’ve lied : I’m so happy
that I can take photos to later hold the broken bird.

A friend once said that Venice is one of the best cities to get lost in. Like that multi-layered city of unexpected light-shapes, and sound that can take startling forms, The Next Settlement is richly rewarding, beautifully rendered.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →