canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking
by Matt Robinson
Insomniac Press, 2000 

Review by Shane Neilson 

Matt Robinson is a poetry phenom. Schooled by the University of New Brunswick's Creative Writing Department, he has won several national and international poetry awards while still a student there, and A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking, his graduate thesis, caps an excellent period of study (one of his poems appeared in The Danforth Review). 

Robinson is a detached poetic observer. His words are written as if at a distance, backgrounding emotion behind a wealth of interesting and often beautiful description. When emotion is present, it is hinted at only, appearing as a ghostly remnant, and thus a paradox. When Robinson drops his intellectual screen and allows some controlled feeling into his complex poems, what results is all the more affecting. 

Robinson's method is best exemplified by "landscape architecture": "it was a forensic undertaking; a structuring,/ an engineering of empty space. and the brick/ walkway we built is now a fingerprint of our loss/ and recovery. there were, of course, the obvious/ constructions: the framing and piecing together;/ the bricks and patterns with their metaphors...." These lines display a rambling syntax that ebbs and flows, and a discursive perspective that switches between topics. A detached Robinson reflects later in the same poem, "it is a dynamic cartography, this clay mapping/ of our loss. Ours is an engineered, interlocking grief." 

Yet his elliptic method is tempered by precision: the most affecting section in Ruckus deals with the terminal illness of his mother. Robinson seems loathe to present the immediate circumstance at hand. Instead, he circumnavigates her coming death with detailed descriptions of buying and drinking coffee at a Halifax hospital, meditations on ward furniture. Weather becomes a metaphor for death: "...people die weather/ or not; whether or/ not it's rain, sun, or/ snow. They go. They go." Simple condiments like dairy creamers with expiration dates are enlisted as metaphysical reflections on the nature of dying. A moment involving a son sitting in a living room, insulated from street-cleaning after a snowstorm, becomes pivotal to his acceptance of his mother's mortality. 

Robinson's poems, so easygoing, are icebergs ramming the hull of the reader's mind. Some poems are clearly the product of graduate-English writing exercises, though none suffer for this. Tradition has been absorbed and usurped by a mind that takes the best from Stevens and Hughes. Other than a misplaced obsession devoted to the alchemic distinction between coffee and tea, Robinson writes with an interesting, distinctive voice.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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