By David Roderick
Oh You Robot Saints!, by Rebecca Morgan Frank. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 96 pp., $15.95.
Year of the Dog, by Deborah Paredez. BOA Editions, 122 pp., $17.
Hinge, by Molly Spencer. Southern Illinois University Press, 82 pp., $16.95.
“What hurt you into poetry?” is a common poetry workshop icebreaker. Inspired by W.H. Auden’s elegy to Yeats, “Ireland hurt you into poetry,” the question points toward grievance, anxiety, and trauma as primary sources of poetic inspiration. In post 9/11 America, a period rife with crises that feel intractable and threatening to wide swathes of the population, we shouldn’t be surprised that poetry has drifted toward polemical stances and voices. The concept of “art for art’s sake” has waned as writers in the past two decades have prioritized addressing (and redressing) the atrocities of the past. Though this aesthetic shift was long overdue, it has also narrowed our view of poetry’s function and value.
This review profiles three recent titles determined to shape traumatic experiences into poetry without relying on polemical stances or strident vocalizing. Molly Spencer, Deborah Paredez, and Rebecca Morgan Frank use other methods to approach traumatic experience, especially daring forms and figurations that embody feeling. Their work illustrates instead another one of Auden’s chestnuts, that great poems are “clear expression of mixed feelings.”
Molly Spencer’s Hinge features a speaker damaged by illness and recent divorce. Her ambition is to survive both, and her poems document the loss of domestic stability while also using that stressor as fuel for her poetry. The book feels like a poet’s attempt to remake herself for the sake of her and her children’s fortunes. The first poem, “Self-Portrait as the River Floods,” sets the emotional register for the collection:
From the outset, the very first line constructed as a complete sentence, there’s a gloomy, suffocating force at work. Spencer’s symbolic, symptomatic palette of whiteness somehow feels both cleansing and threatening. Images of walls and winter weather create a stark backdrop against which her anxieties can play out. The source of her anxiety is the pressure of nurturing children while struggling through illness and her own perceived abandonment.
But the poem turns at this point:
Here we learn that the speaker, who is inspired in some magical way by the yard ornate with berries, the crocus “striving” (a key word here) “through snow,” has already survived the threatening circumstances at the poem’s outset. She yearns for the innocence of childhood, perhaps, before the trials of adulthood swept away her ambitions. Though Spencer doesn’t write narrative poems, Hinge develops, from poem to poem, an emotional arc that feels like a story. She gives away the ending in this opening poem: we know that she’ll survive. Instead, she trusts her ability to stimulate our imagination without marching us chronologically along a predictable narrative path—from confusion to clarity, for instance, or from victimization to redemption. Later in “Self-Portrait as the River Floods,” Spencer writes, “I go down / to watch the water’s surge / and spoils—there goes our table, / there, the spare key, there go / the stories I told them.” The reader recognizes trauma’s familiar patterns of resurgence and recession. As the poem draws to a close, Spencer writes, “The children are growing / long and ravenous. / What can I build / that will hold?”
While reading Hinge it’s hard not to draw comparisons with poets like Lucille Clifton or Sylvia Plath—poet-mothers who endured similar circumstances, a chilly room and bareboned existence in which children must be fed. Without the presence of the father/husband, is the house (and by proxy, Spencer’s psyche) sturdy enough to keep them safe when the next flood arrives? Sometimes the house and the speaker’s body entwine symbiotically—the body as house, the house as body. In another poem, titled “Flare,” she artfully straddles the literal and figurative: “Inside, a howling roams / all my hallways, a gale / of footsteps builds in my limbs.” The poem is a meditation on pain and scarring. Some of the emotional residue from the failed marriage has burned off. It’s as if the speaker realizes her own anxiety can’t be rewired, just managed. As an artist, Spencer evokes moods with images instead of rhetoric—one of the main reasons why this book is so arresting.
Other angles of approach are probably necessary in a book that focuses almost entirely on a family survival story set in one house. Spencer is keen enough to know this, and she includes poems that flirt with Greek mythology or fairy tales as a way to dilute the conventional family drama. For example, in “Girl with House and Lost Boys,” the speaker fantasizes about becoming Peter Pan:
Most of the poems appear to address us, the audience, but in this one, the speaker addresses herself and conjures a hopeless fantasy. The allusion to the children’s story and the shift toward second-person point of view create an opportunity to share a stark autobiographical truth—that the mother is young and inexperienced and perhaps worse-off than we’d originally thought. She must coach herself out of the dream. She can choose a new identity, “lady” or “bird” or “witch,” but none of those figurations are the perfect mother the children rely upon for nourishment and safety.
Spencer’s meditations never pinpoint how or why the marriage failed. Dramatically we’re embedded with the mother and her children, “their faces lined up pale and hungry.” The haunted, cold nature of the house echoes with feelings of resentment and betrayal—unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) related to Plath’s Ariel poems written at Court Green before she died. Unlike Plath, Spencer survived. In “Vernal,” the poem that opens the book’s fifth and final section, the speaker begins to see a way through illness and the white pall of winter. “First morning in years / that feels gradual—the pain / no longer a wall // you slam into upon waking,” she writes to herself. And a few lines later: “Some meadow somewhere quivers / under snow. / It may be inside you. It may // be the stuck hinge / of your body loosening / at last.” If there’s hope for the speaker, it requires leaving the house to rediscover a calm, frail truce with her body and situation in the world. It’s not a childlike state of innocence she’s pursuing after all. It’s a reminder of her own resiliency, which she sees mirrored around her in nature. If she can look outside—or better yet visit it—she can find herself. For Spencer’s readers, Hinge serves as an emotional survival guide pointing toward self-acceptance and renewal.
Poetry studying the dynamics of a complex family history usually demands a multi-faceted approach. In Year of the Dog, Deborah Paredez adopts the strategies of documentary poetics—collage, photographs, news clippings, and found poems, among others—to tell an important story about her family’s emigration from Mexico to the United States and her father’s military service during the Vietnam War.
The book opens with a villanelle. “Wife’s Disaster Manual” begins, “When the forsaken city starts to burn, / after the men and children have fled, / stand still, silent as prey, and slowly turn // back.” Here Paredez, who is often masterful when she chooses a traditional form, uses the villanelle’s obsessive, (re)cyclical qualities to emphasize the vulnerability of a family whose fate is tied to ravaging geopolitical forces. Her entire villanelle is composed in the imperative grammatical mood, beseeching wives to “stay,” “mourn,” “stand still,” “pray,” and “return.” Paredez’s mother’s generation seems to be the subject of the poem’s advice, though the last line (“Stand still and silent. Pray. Return.”) could also be interpreted as a directive for all of us. It’s obvious that each wife has a choice to make: flee or face war and possible genocide. The “forsaken city” is forsaken not by choice, but by necessity.
On a macrocosmic level, Year of the Dog operates like a kind of museum. Some pages exhibit conventional poems. Others collage images and scraps of text borrowed from actual family letters or diaries. In “A Show of Hands” Paredez mixes several expressive modes. On the right page we see a couple of short strips of cursive text (“Here is another shot” and “so you can imagine”) that behave almost like a haiku snipped in two, with the word “shots” echoing as both a keyhole photograph and gunshot. Facing those scraps, on the left page, is a more straightforward poem:
The torrent of language, built associatively around the word “hand,” offers rich interpretive possibilities. Though the father has lived through trauma, first as an immigrant and then as a soldier who survived the Vietnam War, all he can offer his daughter in terms of advice are pithy bromides. The trauma is fully felt at the end of the poem, when Paredez concludes, “…he wasn’t so good / with his hands took his life / into his own blood / on his hands on the one hand / and on the other.” Even the title takes an exhausted common phrase and fills it with a passionate drama involving father and daughter. Both are perpetrators and victims: the war-veteran father with blood on his hands, and the daughter as his witness and proxy, someone who has benefited from his duty even while feeling complicit in his acts of violence.
Paredez stitches personal tragedy with public history to make Year of the Dog’s essential fabric. Poems about tangentially-related historical events mingle with more personal family stories. “Year of the Dog: Synonyms for Aperture,” inspired by events at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, features the victims of that tragedy, when members of the National Guard shot and killed student demonstrators: “Mary Ann Vecchio is down / on her knees. Jeffrey Miller’s body is face down / beside her. John Filo presses his finger down / and the aperture shudders. There are four down / when the shooting stops.” Each repetition of “down” signals a level of mediation, a seismic ripple that travels from the shot student (Miller) through (Vecchio), through (Filo), through Paredez, to us. The aftershock effect is intentionally destabilizing even though it’s lyrically effective. Every participant, from the victim to the reader, owns a specified version of the event.
“Edgewood Elegy” documents a more specific, personal history. The poem opens with a paragraph:
The Edgewood Independent School District, located in a predominantly lower-income Mexican immigrant and Mexican American west side neighborhood of San Antonio, suffered 54 casualties during the Vietnam War, one of the highest rates for a single school district in the country. My father grew up and attended school in this neighborhood.
Two photographs are set beneath the text. To the left we see the lower half of a woman’s face, her hand holding a cloth to her nose and mouth. The image on the right is more difficult to make out. To me it looks like a pair of dentist’s hands reaching instruments into a patient’s mouth, but the book’s notes reveal that the image is an actual photograph of Paredez’s mother preventing her father from choking on his tongue during a PTSD-induced seizure. “Here is the entrance,” says the scrap of cursive text, also photographed, between the images. Beneath that arranged tableau, Paredez constructs another kind of found poem. We encounter tiny plots of language in this format:
These compressed 5- or 6-line poems work like etched gravestones attempting to frame a whole life by braiding languages, geographies, and cultures. Life becomes immense inside each memorial. In the “Enrique Bernal” poem, is the “Henry” in the final line his nickname or preferred Anglicized name? Is La Crotcha (The Corps) a strained translation? Is Paredez playing around with etymologies as well, punning “Corps” with “corpse”? Further, “Purple Hearts” seems to suggest more than just the honorary medal we’re all familiar with, and “Hostile / Ground” resonates with mysterious meanings. Bernal was one of many Mexican immigrants who grew up between two countries, and then was sent to a third, where he lost his life.
Six “epitaph poems” in, we encounter this more personal memorial:
How neatly this tiny narrative dovetails with what we know about America, its failed promise to those who invest too much in its mythology. Though it doesn’t appear from other poems in the book that Paredez’s father died during the war, it’s very clear that part of him died after being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and we can see collapsed into this text the tragedy of a man naturalized and soon after shipped off to a theater of war. This sequence of fifty-four poems (a whole graveyard) exhibits a meticulous poetic artistry that demands a lot of the reader. And yields many rewards for those of us patient enough to look, and look again. Throughout Year of the Dog, Paredez illustrates that the ways in which we view history are more troubled than we realize.
Whether you’re fretting over or excited about the imminent technological singularity, when machines and Homo Sapiens will merge and produce irreversible changes to the human condition, Rebecca Morgan Frank’s latest title, Oh You Robot Saints! is the book of poems for you. Like Year of the Dog, Frank’s book thrives on perspectival restlessness, though hers is animated by more immediate tragedies—her inability to conceive a child coupled with the recent death of her mother.
The poem “Maternal Application” is one of the few to address both of these topics in the same meditative space. The framing here, a lyric poem as a “maternal application” for adoption, pressurizes the tones of melancholy and anguish. Presumably the poem includes all the intimate feelings one wouldn’t share on such an application. Frank writes,
A few lines later Frank reveals that her own recently deceased mother was an adopted baby. The speaker dwells on her mother as an orphaned infant, wondering “…whether the nuns / ever held her or what // happened when she cried.” It’s the most tender moment in the book, in which the bereaved daughter fantasizes about reconnecting with her mother by adopting her. And then Frank steers the poem in another surprising direction. Near the end of this so-called “application,” she addresses her husband:
That’s the more conventional fantasy, more or less the information one assumes an adoption agency wants to read in a maternal application, but addressing the husband again thwarts the intent of the bureaucratic procedure. It’s an odd elegy that transforms into a love poem, the sort of hybrid meditation Frank likely wouldn’t have stumbled upon unless she’d had a form (the “application”) to thwart, deconstruct, write against.
It’s interesting that Frank, her mother, and her husband make relatively few appearances in Oh You Robot Saints! even though the desire to become a mother is the collection’s animating force. The bulk of poems in this book study robots and their inventors. Some of these machines are contemporary, like “aquanauts” designed to explore the deep sea for us. Most spotlight robots and automatons from the past, illuminating the concept that the human yearning to create, and to create images of ourselves, is ancient. Have you ever heard of the monk automaton “fathered by a watchmaker” in 1560, a puppet-like figure that doled out benedictions at church? Or “Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck Automaton,” constructed circa 1739, that “…gurgled / and flapped // its wings, stretched, / played, ate pellets // and passed them,” to a crowd’s delight? These poems accumulate in a variety of voices, forms, and points of view because no singular mode can address the philosophies informing Frank’s subject. Sometimes the speakers are the inventors, sometimes the invented, and sometimes a stand-in for the author (another maker, obviously) dictates the drama from slightly off-stage.
Bridging these two subjects (robots and motherhood) sounds difficult in principle. However, Frank is an obsessive writer who burrows into a topic over the course of years and mines surprising thematic connections that resonate throughout her work. Even when she’s writing an elegy or documenting IVF treatments, a robot might rise to the surface of her consciousness. And there are a few automatons that specifically embody Frank’s desire for a child, particularly “robot saint” Virgin Mary figures, built during the Middle Ages to simulate the Immaculate Conception. One such poem, “Virgen Abridera de Allariz, 13th Century,” begins with a fraught imperative:
The rest of the poem expresses the Virgen’s desire for a real child, for God to transform her mechanical apparatus into human flesh. Poems like this create friction with poems focused on Frank’s desire to become a mother. They’re persona poems that allow her to dream big or to mock herself. The key metaphorical “robot saint” is Mary herself, whose creation is bestowed upon her by an act of God.
The problem with writing about robots is that they don’t yield much other than cool descriptions of soulless mechanisms. The robot poems work best when Frank makes fun of her obsession or finds a surprising mode for a particular topic, like when she regales the arrival of robot bees,
That’s a striking approach given the high-seriousness of eco-poetry published so frequently in literary journals these days. It’s a comical spin on Yeats’s “The Lake Isle at Innisfree” as well. In fact, I prefer the robot poems in which Frank taps into her prodigious lyrical talents as she does in the passage above—or when she addresses that sixteenth century automaton monk: “Looking at you now / is like seeing a god or a king / naked and starving in a field.” Or mocks a humanoid with the lines, “I accessorize your silicone / neck, order your wig styled, your lips / touched up.” Her robot poems are most thrilling when she sings to her subjects, pokes fun at them, or both.
Frank shows us the beauty and horror of our making, for we, too, are “robot saints” caught halfway between the mechanical and the spiritual, between our material selves and God. Her inhabitations and ghosts, her gods, inventors, and robots, create an ambitious, symphonic experience for a reader. That quality alone makes her book a great read.
David Roderick is the Director of Content at Adroit Journal. He co-directs Left Margin LIT, a creative writing center in Berkeley. He was recently awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship from the NEA.