Holding On: Ridiculous Light by Valencia Robin
In her 1972 essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”—about the silencing of generations of black women in America, all their lost artwork—Alice Walker writes that the “ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.” The act of holding on, despite systemic racism and family trauma insisting otherwise, permeates Valencia Robin’s Ridiculous Light, winner of the 2018 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry.
In these poems—spanning the 1960s to the present day—we catch glimpses of depression and loneliness: “still somehow we get out of bed, / put on a little lipstick just in case.” We read pages of reasons not to get out of bed, including a recalled warning from the speaker’s mother:
And ask me about the junior high school
she transferred me to, the teachers that refused to call on me,
the students who pretended I wasn’t there, that all she said
before giving her shy, awkward child to those people was,
The world is white so you better get used to it.
As evidenced by the memories in this book—wary and wondering, knowing and hopeful—the speaker has not gotten used to a white world, anything but. In “Milwaukee, 1968,” Robin writes, “I was there the day black stopped / being the worst thing you could call somebody” … “I marched / right up the stairs to our second floor flat / still singing loud and proud.” Rather, the poet has witnessed and mulled over and felt deeply, her blackness and womanhood, turning life into art, making poems that remain always open-minded and questioning, with a masterful tension between joy and pain, delight and despair.
Valencia Robin appears guided by her—to quote Alice Walker again—“heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” Robin holds within these poems a deep reverence for her poetic and familial ancestors (the book is dedicated to her mother), and an abiding awe in the present moment.
The phrase “and yet” appears ten times in this book—that’s in nearly one third of the poems—posing an action or situation that the world expects to knock the speaker down: a father who “isn’t a father but an absence”; “divorced more years, than married”; news of “a father / putting his child back together like a jigsaw puzzle.” And yet, the speaker questions her reactions, allows herself to feel and think through contradictions, complications. “And yet this bright spur / inside of me—specter and marrow, / waves and waves of vanishing light.” And yet, she holds on.
Robin’s speaker shows us that, despite the countless horrors in the world, it remains possible, even necessary to daydream, to stick your head up into the clouds while keeping your feet on firm ground, to be both dreamy and rooted in truth. In the first poem of the book, the speaker sets up the conflict between her “hopeless agnostic self, who foresees endless wars” and the times she has found herself “greeted / by an almost criminal hope.”
Walking often refills the speaker’s reserves of joy. The natural world is too beautiful, too inspiring to go unnoticed in these poems: “even the trees, the trees! / Like giant awestruck afros grown in the laboratory / of a mad brother, the nerdy Nerudian of my dreams.” (That phrase “nerdy Nerudian” has echoed in my head since reading this book—nerdy Nerudian, nerdy Nerudian, nerdy Nerudian—it’s so damn fun to say.) If only we all had the capacity for joy and kindness and goodness as this poet, basking in the dailiness of it all: “Our hearts filling up and spilling over because that’s what they were made to do.”
And yet, even the speaker’s fantasy life is fractured by racism: “And, oh, Cy Twombly, what wouldn’t I do / to know what you thought about Black people and how sad to have to worry / about all my dead crushes’ politics, how Larkin ruined everything.”
Speaking of Twombly: perhaps it’s the poet’s training in the visual arts—the book’s cover image is one of her own paintings—that can account for her fine awareness of space, of how to pack into each poem echoes of personal and political history, slippage in scale, metaphors collapsing together, ecstatic. Or perhaps this quality stems from the speaker’s love affair with words––poetry, the beloved. In one poem, the speaker wakes when a book smacks her in the face; in another poem she appears in bed with books again:
And, oh, books
on the bed, on every table and in every purse,
oh, dull ache and fleeting glimpse of the sublime
in other people’s poetry. Are you the reason
I keep forgetting to look for a nice guy?
Robin’s obsessions and references—poetry, space, music, time—feed into and out of one another. “But nobody knew anything about time travel back then, / Star Trek hadn’t even come out, Lieutenant Uhura / still on Broadway doing Blues for Mr. Charlie.” “Intermezzo” includes an epigraph by singer Phoebe Snow: “Can the thirsty stay sane after what they’ve seen?” When I looked up the song it was satisfying to read its next line: “My baby’s out there in his spacecraft searching for some energy.” Snow’s most famous song? “Poetry Man.”
Valencia Robin, like her poetic kin Lucille Clifton, is infatuated with light. It’s in Clifton’s own etymology, as she tells us in The Book of Light: “woman, i am / lucille, which stands for light.” At times Robin’s in it for beauty, for awe: “early autumn light that makes everything shout”; “the right sunset—one of those freaky light shows/ worthy of its own religion.” And, sure, what poet hasn’t been moved by the way light dances through the window, onto a hardwood floor?
Robin’s light, don’t forget, is ridiculous, both in the sense of ridiculously good—a friend “quit her job, the dark room of her face lit for weeks, / with this ridiculous light”—and, elsewhere, as in “deserving of mockery,” as the poet reminds us valuing light over darkness is ridiculous, in fact wrong, when you consider the racism inferred in our binary of light and dark, good and bad, powerful and powerless. The longest poem in this book recalls summer camping trips from the speaker’s twenties, wondering what about those trips, if anything, she has told her mother: “a bunch of black people out in the middle of nowhere, / not that we ever talked about that.” Robin flips the binary in the poem, making black stand for comfort, for beauty, and white, for terror:
…No idea if I tried
to convince her, say, of the beauty of a dark wood,
of those impossibly dark nights, black times black times black
draping around us like velvet. Did I ever tell
her about the first time I looked up on a night like that,
the sky so jam packed with stars it was terrifying?
Not that I would’ve said terrifying.
I was lucky to study in the MFA program at the University of Virginia at the same time as Valencia Robin, although I was there for fiction, and so I did not read and workshop these poems as the book was forming. Still, I am grateful to lean on the UVA poetry community––who know Robin’s work intimately—as I’ve read Ridiculous Light and worked on this review. I asked poet Bobby Elliott about Robin’s lineage and he said, “The two poets, interestingly enough, that come to mind are Lucille Clifton and Gerald Stern.” Re-reading those poets again, with Robin in mind, was enlightening, and he’s right, especially when it comes to the overlap of the urban and natural worlds, the lived-necessity of writing about racial politics, all alongside the calm, sweet moments of being a human alive and (often alone) in the world. Again we turn to reading, to light.
On lucky afternoons the sun will break through the thick glass
and rest like a hand on my forehead.
I will sit and read in my chair;
I will wave from my window.
And here’s Valencia Robin:
…sometimes I want to peel off my skin
and go from zero to transcendent all by myself, want to slam
the unknown up against the wall and knock the almighty
out of it, want to shake it and shake it until yes
falls out. But not today. Today, I just need to lie here
for as long as I want, the sun tattooing my foot with tiny, tiny dots.
The poems of Ridiculous Light are wary of hope yet keep thrumming toward it. Here is a book that takes on the complex task of expanding our capacity for joy, for mundane pleasures, while also reckoning with systemic racism, large-scale catastrophe, and daily, personal pain. Of this, Robin writes, “I see my black skin and those blue dresses against the Atlantic / and I make the connection, I remember what I should never forget.” Meanwhile, according to the NAACP, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.” Last year, the UN warned we have only twelve years to cut carbon dioxide emissions and save our planet from climate disaster. Or as Robin puts it, more intimately: “It’s fifty degrees / in January in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I’m wondering why / we’re not afraid.” And yet take a look at this “woo woo of weird light,” that “leaf blade unfurling.” Fall asleep with books in your bed. Let one of them be this book.