Review of Elizabeth Robinson’s Harrow and Robin Caton’s The Color of Dusk (both from Omnidawn Press, 2001)

Julia Bloch

Claudia Keelan has called Elizabeth Robinson “a heretic in the best company,” a poet whose engagement with language puts her at odds with prescribed forms of discourse and worship. [i] Robinson’s new collection of poems from Omnidawn Press, Harrow, invokes the intersection of faith, will and poetics, with the body and the self a backdrop to or central part of that intersection. But rather than simply destabilizing prescribed notions of discourse and worship, as the work of any good heretic does, Robinson’s spare, precise, and capacious poetry leads us continually toward the possibility inherent in how faith and meaning interact with language.

In an unusual move for such subtle poetry, Robinson includes a declaration of sorts regarding her poetic practice. At the center of Harrow, she includes a ‘Note’ as preface to the long sequence “As Betokening.” This prose block begins with an image of faith and doubt as twin girls, “little hooligans” who shouldn’t, but do, fight, who refuse to see each other as carbon copies of themselves. The self appears, donning tradition “like a daily uniform, unattractive but reasonably comfortable,” only to feel “naked and uncomfortably doubled.” (34)

We then are presented with a descriptive statement about the sequence — “These poems are a story” — in which Robinson traces her entrance into theological education and the particular way in which her journey of faith, skepticism and will led her to poetry: “This poem struggles with that transgressive will, that bullheaded will tethered as it is, on the one hand to a faith and faith’s attendant tenderness for the open door of language and, on the other, with the real but unstable value, the unbearable constraint of tradition’s grammar.” (34) Robinson follows this haunting description of the “open door of language” with a literal door, this one in the Virgin’s abdomen in the Cluny Museum in Paris, behind which we see God himself, “seated in her hips.” This is a poet keenly aware of the ways concerns of language intersect with concerns of the female body; one thinks too of philosophical arguments as to the ways the female body is inscribed by, and inscribes, language.

The ‘Note’frames the ‘As Betokening’ sequence well. Page by page, Harrow enters the open door of language, and as a constantly unfolding text, one in which a poet’s will finds itself drawn both to faith and to “tradition’s grammar,” its words resist straightforward decoding. As with the door in the Virgin’s abdomen, I keep coming across “unexpected hinges” that reveal a “discrepancy,” at which the reader might gape, “mostly in relief” — here, “relief” could describe the reader’s experience or the visual image rendered three-dimensional. Robinson establishes the poet early in the book as an observer of these phenomena, yet by the end, the ‘ I’(the will?) has become “hypothetical.” (In “Appointment,” we have an “I, / hypothetical / cathedral,” no less; and in “Entry for Song,” a supplication, as well as a pun on the body and faith: “Have mercy / on that temple, that is / my forehead.” (82)) After the book has traveled the self through scripture, poems near the end of Harrow offer a sense of the self as not merely grappling with these questions, but configured by them.

In addition to an awareness of the visual body’s resonances with other kinds of structures, I am also struck by the degree to which these poems feel ekphrastic, which perhaps isn’t so unexpected for poetry that makes use of iconography to grapple with questions of worship. These poems’use of the visual field raises questions of empiricism, of the collision between faith and what we observe to be true, as in “Experience,” a poem whose speaker seems to address the heretic: “I try to defend the orthodoxy of the icon, of uranos and gaia: / Any sane person can compare. But, heretic, / you move among the forms of illogic while the form speaks to you. / Where vision precedes hearing. Can’t the form / of the evangel be reborn alike in eclipse?” (7) This issue circles back to questions of the self when Robinson writes in “Entry for Song,” “Streaks, / covenanted / sleepless eye / on this.” (84) In an apparent pun on the “I,” whose covenant with God makes faith possible, the “eye,” an organ whose main function is apprehension, lies sleepless and aware.


Similarly, in The Color of Dusk, Robin Caton uses innovative forms to destabilize notions of line, boundary, the visual, and self in poetry. The book’s organization by color — gray, purple, green, red, orange, white, blue, and black — and individual poems’use of color lend an ekphrastic feel to the collection. More specifically, this employment of discrete elements of color parallels the poems’mindfulness of discrete elements of language, recalling William James’ argument that “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.” [ii]

James would certainly be cheered by Caton’s “Writing Mind” : “in here’s the small / article pinging against itself     the metallic / o     wishing and not making itself / concrete.” (46) Caton’s derangement of syntax and line once or twice borders on the overwrought, as when a poem punctuated without spaces between words is somewhat blandly called “Boundary.” However, her poetic unraveling of Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko’s sentiment that “There’s no such thing as good painting about nothing” in the “Blue” section is utterly inventive, playful, and pleasing to the eye. Using Steinian recurrence and actively engaging with the poem’s visual field, Caton’s poems splash across the page’s canvas in poetic and philosophical strokes, as in “e v e n b l u e e x p a n d s,” a poem that poses an argument about the simple power of color. This attention to the raw materials of poetry also makes for beautifully lyric moments, such as “lines in the body like salt” in “Study for The Color of Dusk.”

Like Robinson, Caton interrogates the I, often removing it altogether from the poem yet acknowledging its centrality to the debate she introduces via Wittgenstein: “We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place.” (39)The I makes its first appearance in The Color of Dusk in apparent opposition to the poems’ other concerns: “I like a housefly / persists” (9); like the “hypothetical I” in Harrow, the I in Caton’s “East Bay Vivarium” is an essential part of the line/boundary question:

The floating I not as angle/line/
angle but as curve/curve/curve
so that all falls back on itself like
eggs in dough.
Fortunate. The in/
flux in/flight. In/
ternal meanings unleashed. Ins
flying in darkness unable
to land and the flux
waiting like a lover on a mountain
for the hopeless ins,
the magnificent ins. (14-15)

Using slashes to indicate literal and suggested line breaks, the poem both investigates how the I is a continual curve and suggests a curve can contain a line, or a discontinuity.

If the self in Harrow is configured by questions of faith and will, the self in The Color of Dusk might be configured by questions of faith, boundary and the visual. “Prelude to Silence,” the last poem in the collection, opens with words from Edmond Jabès: “To be in the book. To figure in the book of questions, to be a part of it. To be responsible for a word or a sentence, a stanza or a chapter.” (80) The quote seems to frame Caton’s poems as ones that, for all their innovation and rule-breaking, refuse to evade the question of accountability, of ownership, of the self. Caton writes, “I am not happy with the page. I will evoke the book and provoke the questions. / What word desires me? / Courage, courage. We are not dreaming. We are not yet dreaming. We are not yet / What word prepares the self for death?” (80) Whether the death is that of the self in the poem or a literal death, Caton’s awareness of how essential the word is to our experience casts a new light on how her poetry challenges boundaries.

The powerful “Prelude” also couples an awareness of the poem, the book, as “objectified” with a reference to Moses’receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai, then destroying them in anger: “Subject/object vying. Each half cracked. Wherein dwells the holy.” (80) Both Robinson and Caton embark on a journey toward how that question of the holy, the possibility of faith, rests in that struggle between text and self, subject and object, the will’s and the word’s destructive and constructive power.

[i] From back cover text.

[ii] William James The Principles of Psychology 246.

Bio: Julia Bloch grew up in Northern California and Sydney, Australia; studied political philosophy at Carleton College; and earned an M.F.A. in poetry from Mills College. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Lodestar Quarterly , On the Page, One zine SF, and elsewhere. She recently became finalist for the Modern Poetry Association’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship and lives in San Francisco, where she works as an editor and teacher.

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