New dark age
(With apologies to Donald Revell)
Ed Roberson, The New Wing of the Labyrinth (Singing Horse Press, 2009), 83 pp. $15.00—The last section — part 4 — of Part One is titled “at the ends of the earth.” I can’t help but think of Roberson’s recent, and magnificent, book, To See the Earth Before the End of the World. The reversal of earth and world in these titles portending absolute limits is, I think, one way to think about the devastation of life after (near) death that suffuses this book from five years ago. Depression, mania and suicide occupy the thoughts of Roberson’s narrators in what has to the darkest book of his I’ve read. As the title poem and cover photo suggests, this is a record of failure, a grounded Daedalus, a rescued Icarus, as noted in, for example, “Deep Song”: “the body left / shocked surprise of / weakened of part of / of different not all / alive but left.” These poems have the somber resignation and world weariness that Tennyson captures in his bleak “Ulysses.” Roberson’s narrators are no “idle” kings but their idylls arrest themselves in the paralysis of utter speech, mere talk. Having survived the mirage of conquest, the “desert of decency” (“none of us got tenure, none of our partners stayed / around, some had to hire police to find their kids.”), the narrators nonetheless survive, perhaps beyond their own “relevance” (it’s important to recall that Roberson began his career during the Black Arts Movement), bewildered by anachronisms other than (just) themselves. In a few early poems in the book a narrator records his sense of paralysis with a phone: “On hold in my hand / my disconnection wants to know / if I just said goodbye / or am I about // to say hello … ” Unable to decide, “The line of / question still open,” the narrator, like the line, “still alive,” is “Janus” incarnated: “future past both go / blind like this: eyes open, with // the head in the middle … ” Yet perhaps no poem records the narrator’s sense of indecision and paralysis better than the single stanza “The Depths of an Old Wrong.” Here are its first few lines: “He doesn’t know why he / doesn’t know what it is / that he doesn’t want who / he doesn’t know … ” Here are narrators, figured as black males, stunned to discover that their tried-and-true demeanor of angry silence is reflected back to them by white indifference (“A small residue from each / of all the crowds / you’ve ever been alone in / has collected in your throat … ”) and hostility (“White people in the office think that / if you’re not around them / you’re not around.”). New Wing of the Labyrinth pulls no punches, offers no false consolations. It is a riveting testimony to the price of not dying, to living on, for a while.