Reviews - June 2011
A review of 'The Orphan and Its Relations'
As Elizabeth Robinson shows in her collection The Orphan and Its Relations, it is possible to unloose the primal loss of the orphan and apply it to all losses — from a strip of fabric to a tooth to a father to one’s humanness — so that the world becomes a nexus, contrarily, of loss. Although it’s easy to define what it means to lose an object, or perhaps another person, a generalized state of loss is a contradictory and ambiguous entity, one which is difficult to describe or assess — for with the separation intrinsic to loss come benefits, such as individuality and independence, and with them the state of loss dissolves, its sorrows transfigured.
The collection’s opening poem, “Critique of the Orphan,” presents a vivid snapshot of this ambiguous net of loss. A child in a playground calls for her absent mother: “‘Look at me, Mom!’ / The words reverberate across the blank playground” (1). The child “picks up the absence” (of her mother) and, like all children venturing to know the world, “puts it in her mouth.” But mother isn’t absent entirely from the poem or from the child’s consciousness; mother is a kind of double self, and when she, “who does not exist,” speaks she repeats her daughter’s request, “Look at me.” The need for the other extends both ways between child and mother, and in doing so causes the boundaries between the two to slip. At the end of the poem, the child will swallow the mother, thereby swelling and extending “the gap in her throat” — the gap suggesting the absence of the mother, but also reconstructing the child’s throat through which words form and reel out. The child’s ability to speak is enlarged by her loss and through the ingesting of her memory and desire for her mother.
“Brothers” opens a series of poems that use Biblical references but that focus on the familial within those iconic references. The names of the brothers, Cain and Abel, are presented as a vocal merging: “If you put our names together, it spells something like ‘cannibal’” (15), which in turn conjures the word “voracious.” Although one brother is gone, he remains within the survivor: “one inside another inside another inside another inside another.” Their union is multilayered and subterranean. In the course of the poem the brothers morph into Jacob and Esau, twins, one close on the other’s heels in birth, and also locked in a similar struggle for separation and dominance.
In the poem “The Pietà of Cosme Tura” the narrator of the book, whose consistency throughout makes the “I” identifiable with the poet, is struggling with a rotten tooth, which even when pulled out can be felt, so deep is it a part of her body: “A phantom tooth grew in its place and ached as much” (33). Interwoven with this small personal drama is the image of Mary in the Italian early-Renaissance painter Cosme Tura’s Pietà. Mary has become a “she” whose skirts drape unbeautifully: the folds fall awkwardly over her lap like the large-boned body of her son, heavy with death. In her meditation on the painted image, the poet reveals the motivation behind her study of loss: “I believe what I am trying to do is record a history of the scant. / Record what relation beauty has to privation, scarcity, departure” (34). In doing so Robinson reveals her belief in the numinous transformation of what is lost — “In my theology, when one thing is taken away, another thing has the right to come in and replace it” (34). This “right” of replacement describes a yearning for a balanced and moral universe.
The formal equivalent of these replacements is easily discovered in the repetition that occurs within these primarily prose poems and throughout the overall structure of the book. Images appear and reappear as motifs throughout. The lost tooth, the open mouth, the flow of sea water. In the poem “Mermaid” (81), the surfaces of the world and a woman’s body lose their boundaries: “skin absorbs darkness” … “The skin on the water gives way,” and as a consequence the woman, who has lost her humanness, re-forms, metamorphosing into a mermaid, a less-than-human, mythical being: “Her sturdy legs absorb each other, greening.” The boundary between humanness and the surrounding natural world dissolves, but it begins with the dissolution of parts of the physical body. This change isn’t about legs transforming into a tail, rather it’s about losing separation as it is described by the individuality of limbs. Robinson’s imagery, not only in the variability of its repetition but also in the poet’s unusual interpretations, is always startling and inventive.
It is not simply imagery, however, that repeats as motifs throughout the book, but also the structural forms of relationship. As the arc of the book moves through childhood, adolescence, love, and death, modules of relationship repeat, and as they repeat they also change, giving the book’s philosophical argument the action of growth and development. The motifs of the murderous sibling and the ambiguousness of his actions reappear in the poem “Crow & Robin” in the form of the construction worker who asks his coworker, “Have you ever killed a man?” (82) and the three-and-a-half-year-old brother whose play with his sister is enigmatic and perhaps slightly bad: “Griffin running up the empty sidewalk looking back over his shoulder. As though, I think with amusement, there was someone following him” (87).
These repetitions of the motif of the sibling are coupled with Robinson’s thoughts about the struggle between a crow and a robin. The crow “had forced itself on another bird’s home,” and as a usurper takes over the role of Cain and Jacob by assuming another’s life and in the process obliterating that other. This struggle bears resemblance to the condition of the orphan, for in the relationship between parent and child the orphan becomes the synecdoche for survival. Between those in close relationship, in which each individual loses parts of his or her identity to another, the weaker — the least formed as an individual — is required to surrender a larger share of separateness and self. Whether the orphan is responsible or not for his parents’ death, his life has usurped theirs and taken over the future and all its potential. Those are the orphan’s losses and gains.
The relationship the poet wants with the distant “you” of the poem, though, is not the same. For her, merging with the other is not a question of loss of self or individuality but rather a gaining of new understandings of what it is to be human by inhabiting the thoughts and sensations experienced by another, the “you”:
I think about you. Rather I imagine that I am you. What would you make of the ragged peonies, and why hasn’t the neighbor cut them back as they die?
From inside your body, how do peonies smell? I am embarrassed by the limits of imagination. That is, how my desire fails as empathy and settles into voyeurism. (83)
So there is another side to merging with the other, one that enhances understanding rather than demands loss and surrender of the self. In the poet’s world where lost things are constantly replaced, this impulse to take over the other is the basis of human empathy. Our psychological loss as humans is not of our selves merged into each other but, rather, of our selves’ inability to merge in thoughts, emotions, and sensations so that our understanding of each other is complete. In Robinson’s world, the orphan’s relations are legion.
Elizabeth Robinson reading from The Orphan and Its Relations via PennSound: