Robin Ekiss’s debut collection of poems explores the relationship between the past and the present with strength, clarity, and emotional intimacy.
Reading The Mansion of Happiness by Robin Ekiss is like spending the afternoon with an acquaintance whom you’d always hoped would become a friend. As her poems unfold, she quickly establishes that intimacy; their emotional content imparts a universality that makes the reader feel as though she had been brought into the poet’s confidence.
The force of Ekiss’s work comes from her ability to express a depth of emotion that is associated with everyday moments of intellectual wandering. In “The Opposite of the Body,” she writes:
When you’ve been plucking eyes
out of the floorboards as long as I have,
you’ll see this, just as you’d see
the patience it requires
to render an eyebrow, half an hour
and an understanding of architecture.
The examination of the face by overlaying it with images of a house, and later a city, and finally a clock, has the cumulative effect of building an enormous amount of emotional intensity. The speaker addresses the reader directly, emphasizing the urgency of emotion to be imparted.
Visions of childhood provide many of the images in Ekiss’s work—dolls, in particular. This further deepens the intimacy between poet and reader, but Ekiss is too smart to believe that we come to her poetry merely to hear about childhood. We come to find language woven into moments of lyricism that hang in the air before us—just out of reach. We come to find images that slit open and cascade into longings. We come to find emotional clarity that transcends individual experience. Ekiss understands this and delivers, though always insisting that we walk though that emotional landscape alongside her, beckoning us forward with portrayals of desire, longing, and rage.
In a number of poems, Ekiss explores the relationship we have with the past, struggling with the influence of the past upon the present.
For looking into
Not out of—the pastness of the past
Isn’t trapped in glass,
Like some vast Lascauxan cave
On whose walls survive
The outline of a deer,
Or the wasp waist
Of a bottle’s neck
Through which a ship can pass
Unstoppered, its mast
Folded to fit
Through the narrow opening of a day. (“Ships in Bottles”)
Here, she explores how the past, and the memory of the past, invade the present. It’s a frustrating struggle to engage those memories and bring them into the poems.
Let me empty the typeface on the table,
Above which ships
Into open air.
In “The Past Is Another Country,” she discusses the consequences of regret, another way of contending with the past:
I’m no longer in love
with the sand that makes the pearl,
or anything grainy
that hardens its beauty
by passing through pain.
In this poem and others in The Mansion of Happiness, the past is not static but continues to play a dynamic role in our experience of the present. Ekiss’s speakers express their discontentment with this dynamic and try fruitlessly to create barriers between themselves and their memories, even after death.
When I inherit [God’s] palace,
I’ll make my moat everywhere,
Making difficult any crossing.
The inability to control the past, nor to perfectly shape the relationship between our emotions and our intellect, are the consistent threads that bind together Ekiss’s poems. This first book of poetry takes multiple chances. The poems offer clarity and strength in their exposure of the most private emotions. However, it is the poet’s ability to weave vivid, complex images that thrusts them forward, making The Mansion of Happiness a memorable debut that suggests an equally memorable future.