Wings Wands Stars Tulle

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These poems have all the instinct and fangs of a canine, and the plush, electric fur of a wolf: the intensity and sheer quality of workmanship in the poems is impressive.

Katrina Roberts’s Underdog is a subtle, yet intense book of poems that uses a range of forms, expressive language, and the approach of a witness to address immigration, family, and social justice. Underdog has plenty of allusions to the canine, and that other underdog, the Chinese immigrant, Dogon tribesman, a laborer, a gold prospector, or a reader of poems.

It begins with a wide poem, a tiered sequence of ten, 13-line “phantom” sonnets called “From Po Tolo to Emma Ya,” an allusion to Dogon astronomy and cosmology. In the style of an Albert Goldbarth poem, but more soulful, the poem is packed—like brown sugar in a cup—full with research, lists, phrases, and worlds. The poem also teaches us how to engage with the book, which makes long strides with long form. Roberts is masterful at weaving scenes of a quiet, domestic family life with wonderful compression: she manages to include cultures, languages, and worlds outside her own in a way that feels thoughtful and significant.

Often this compression is done within Roberts’s local geography of Washington State and the Northwest, and she creates, from the raw material of historical memory, stories of peoples’ lives who inhabited there, either in reality or in fantasy, creating a framework; in this way, her own quiet, domestic family life transcends its locality. Her own life becomes as mythological as those constellations that pivot in the sky around her.

Sometimes, as in “From Po Tolo to Emma Ya,” this is done grandly, with a large form; other times, she employs quieter lights and softer music to get at the same threads. For example, in “Improbable Wings,” the speaker says: “Once upon a time, // one at a time / each of these urchins curled within me. Three / times over I’ve been a woman / with two hearts. / Wings wands stars tulle / ribbons capes sequins. All flash / and approximation.” Expressing the sheer alien nature of a pregnancy, Roberts creates a sensation that is both satisfying and unfamiliar.

Elsewhere, she cites events from past centuries to evoke a hardscrabble existence as technology, industry, and the economy began changing peoples’ relationship to the land and themselves. For example, in “Welshpool, c. 1807,” she evokes prisoners carving miniature guillotines from mutton bones. In “Midway Atoll,” she shows her poems’ best quality: a mix of personal with historic re-imagining of the West. In “Afterlife,” the thinking behind the Chinese emperor’s underground terracotta army becomes a large-scale metaphor for a friend dying of a disease, perhaps cancer. A profound example of this feature of Underdog is in the poem “’Death Taps Quietly…’”, which relates (in the manner of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines) an obituary of a poor Chinese immigrant in Walla Walla in 1957.

I prefer Roberts’s long form methods to make such connections; the few places I felt dissatisfied or bored were moments when a kind of static sentimentality had no long lines or intricate scale to create energy or focus the poet’s obsessions. “HMV,” a poem about Nipper, the dog that served as the model “His Master’s Voice” that later became identified with several brands like HMV and RCA, is too much like a pale imitation of James Merrill’s poem, “The Victor Dog,” on the same topic. I don’t know if there need to be two poems on this, but it’s tough in any case to go head-to-head with James Merrill. Sometimes poems like this appear in a book with themes because it’s “about” a dog—a literal dog—instead of the metaphoric dog vital to the vital poems here.

Roberts’s most exquisite small form expression is “The Arrangement,” a tough and tender reminiscence of a son giving his mother a bouquet of weeds. The tone and gravity of the poem are exactly right: “Someone’s refuse? He’d refuse to believe it anything / but a magnificent gift fit for none other than his lucky // mother. Indeed, no one ever has brought me quite / such an arrangement, nor any bouquets since // I can remember, and summer’s blown garden—a long time / past. And just as these are, they will last.” The form and rhyme are seamless analogues for the poem’s content.

My favorite poem in the book appears towards the end, “Ground Water, Enchanted,” a poem that evokes a sculptor, Buster Simpson. In contrast to the poem I thought imitated James Merrill, this one evokes all the pleasure of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Monument” but is totally original, abstract, particular, and mysterious.

Underdog shows that Theodore Roethke’s comment that “I detest dogs, but adore wolves” was only partially correct. These poems have all the instinct and fangs of a canine, and the plush, electric fur of a wolf: the intensity and sheer quality of workmanship in the poems is impressive. Poets seeking to write poems that tell narratives in a new way, that can be lyrical without being ironic, and can find connections from the past in the personal, would be wise to read this book.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →