Letters From Robots by Diana Salier

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I am not impressed with writers who refuse to use punctuation or capitalization; that gimmick has been famously used already, so now it comes across as lazy and unoriginal. Also, I have no patience for unspecific second person singular or plural. Without a clear antecedent, “you” in poetry feels confrontational, like the poet is addressing the reader, and I find this, except in deft hands that have earned trust, insipid and confusing. I do not like poetry that tries to hard to fit into the zeitgeist. Because of my biases, I am not Diana Salier’s ideal reader. Despite all of this, I found quite a bit of strong, insightful, and impactful lyric poetry in Salier’s collection, Letters from Robots.

Disconnection as a theme in any postmodern or contemporary art is not a new idea, but Saliers manages to write to that idea without sounding like she is trying too hard. In “holy shit i have been so lonely,” she writes, “remember when we spent / saturday drinking tea / downloading porn / on the free wifi / at the café / below your apartment” These details are presented with detachment. Two people connect over sex but pornography instead of real person-to-person sex. The literal connection here is internet connection, and can’t be connected at home; it has to be connected for free among strangers.

The collection remains focused on this idea of disconnection, and though all references to it is in a romantic love context. The first poem in Letters from Robots, “this will be a good year, i’m promised,” is also her strongest. The poem establishes the ideas that everything else will center around. The first stanza encapsulates the irony that we now have many means to communicate but almost none to connect. She writes, “we sign off all transmissions / ‘cheers’ / instead of ‘love.’” She follows this idea in the second stanza with,

i’ve been thinking a lot about outerspace
i’ve been thinking about how
everyone is deadandnotdead
at the same time

As evidence, she describes walking in skeleton socks to meet her lover. Later, she asks to meet her lover in a “jungle motel.” To me, a motel, a place designed for transience, is a perfect metaphor for the lack disconnect she is ultimately describing. We are conditioned to move on quickly. Immersion in antithetical to our contemporary existence and mindset, an idea further evidenced by the end of the poem: “i’ve never written a poem / about a girl i loved / while i still love her” The poem is beautifully compressed, lyrically powerful, and a fitting beginning to the collection.

The title poem, which comes ten poems in, is also incredibly strong. In a masochistic twist to the theme of loneliness and disconnect, she writes, “i stay up doing nothing / because it makes me / feel alone”The poem ends,

i think some days
you just want someone
to write home about you
just want someone
to help you with
your oxygen mask
before putting on
their own

This idea is simple and deceptive. Once unpacked, it shows more layers than it first seems, which is what allowed me to forgive an earlier line that uses the poetic cliché of comparing the world to a snow globe. This poem is one of the few that does not specify that the longing for another person is the longing for a romantic partner. But what is the speaker longing for? The directions of putting on your own mask before helping another is aimed at parents and children. But the speaker can’t want a parental figure since the lines before mentioning wanting someone to write home about “you.” Whom else would you write home to if not parents? I can’t tell if these lines are ambiguous or just confused, but they fascinate me nonetheless. Ordinarily, I would want clarification. Muddy poetry is weak poetry. Here, though, the confusion seems to reinforce the content, the struggle of a speaker who wants to connect to someone enough that the person puts the speaker’s safety before her own, yet the speaker also stays awake doing nothing to feel alone. The speaker is conflicted, like the poem, like the human condition she is describing. It all works for me, and I very much appreciate it.

However, if cohesion to her theme of disconnection is the book’s greatest strength, filler poems must be its weakness. Salier can craft a compelling poem. So many poems in Letters from Robots, however, do not live up to the promise of the first poem. Letters from Robots should be an amazing chapbook instead of a full volume with so many less than stellar poems. Sometimes a weak poem can add significant value to a volume since the weak poems add contrast to make the strong poems even more sterling. This is not the case here. For example, the poem “love love” takes a painfully obvious and overused tennis pun and tries to fashion it into poetry. The entire poem reads:

on the tennis court
everyone is a loser
who has

As a young tennis player, I once had a t-shirt that said this same idea with less subtlety. It read, “Love Means Nothing.” I wore it on dates because I was an unbelievable jerk in high school. The point remains, though, that these lines and this idea are not poetry, and Salier proved many times in the collection that she is capable of more finesse and depth. This is beneath her, and it isn’t the only poem in the collection that offers a few lines instead of thought instead of craft. She makes another groan-worth pun in the poem “i lose all my faculties,” which reads in its entirety, “sometimes i’m like a deserted high school / where all the teachers have left for the summer / or gone away on strike.”

In the end, despite the many reasons that I personally should not care for Letters from Robots, I found some of the poems incredibly interesting and impactful. Salier offers a unique voice with timely insight, such as when she uses the Mayan prophesy for the end of the world this December as an excuse to make more love and to party. What elevated this collection above what normally I classify as poetry deal-breakers is Salier’s genuineness. I believe her voice. I believe she is, above all else, sincere. I would remove all but twenty poems in this collection, but those twenty are inspired and brilliant enough to make the entire thing worthwhile.

Joey Connelly teaches English at Kentucky Wesleyan College. He earned his MFA from Ashland University in 2010, and he serves on the editorial board for Floorboard Review. His poetry has appeared in Louisville Review, among other publications, and he has poems forthcoming in Medulla Review and Splinter Generation. More from this author →