canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

How we play at it: a list
by matt robinson
ECW Press, 2002

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

matt robinson has an undeniable talent. His last book, 2000’s a ruckus of awkward stacking, heralded the arrival of a precocious poet that was able to regard scenes and objects coolly, calmly, and then inject his subjects with a background emotion that pulled close what would otherwise have been a too-clinical detachment. He possessed formal inventiveness, a flair for language, a real ability with wordplay, but it was his semi-detachedness that was his debut’s most important feature. One gets the sense that he wrote those earlier poems of two minds: one professorially, professionally, rationally; the other as if he were Irving Layton in the throes of composition. In this new collection, however, the balance has shifted overwhelmingly to the former; Irving Layton has been locked away in an academic tower and has been permitted no conjugal visits.

A couple of formal elements immediately prove distracting in how we play at it, so distracting that they cripple the book as a whole. Overused are dashed and bracketed clauses that critically detract from flow. Robinson’s poems nicely chug along until an aside is thrown up like an obstacle. Once traversed, the poem picks up momentum only to meet another dash or bracket. If punctuation can be thought of as poetry’s traffic signals, then robinson’s poems are heavily marked roadways. An example is “f(x)- fifth metacarpal; on seeing the x-ray of your broken hand”, the opener of robinson’s sophomore collection:

air outside- not you- that does that
to her nipples. yes. these both and more; other

memories, too, share
something- resemblance, congruency- with it,

the cloudy scaffolding they insist is
simply your hand.

but these, however, are the facts: the knuckle- on
the film, in your hand- is displaced:

fractured and away from its normal metacarpal
syntax. And the twinge, the

dull ache: these are instruments of artifice. All
bits or pieces awash in their

respective museums, fleshy or synaptic; broken or
discarded- adrift- in that

sticky- sometimes sweet, sharp- human cocktail.

In the eight couplets included above, five have offset clauses. Consider another example from the next poem in the book, “consideration, you and newton long dead:”

although you have never seen it, believe
me: the photograph- all black-matted-

is most interesting because of its framing;
because of the inclusion

of (and all the attempted foresight
associated with) the non-glare

glass. but light, that outside the ordered
capture of this piece, however muted

and hazy, still intrudes. It will not behave.
so I see myself and others (given

the day or the time of day) as supernatural,
as beyond the seeming laws of physics…

So the poem continues. The above six-stanza excerpt has three offset clauses, and one of these is enjambed so that it carries over into another stanza! This extraneous clause bonanza is the chief weakness of this collection- robinson telegraphs his poems, cramming in too much verbiage via his dashed and bracketed asides. The poems cannot read smoothly.

Though detachedness was a strength in his last collection, this strength has been overplayed in poems like “f(x): fifth metacarpal” and “consideration, you and Newton long dead,” where excessive detail/observation is offset by syntax, itself a lexical manifestation of being outside the poem. It’s as if these poems are too cerebral, too much the product of a rush of thought, and in order to include everything the poet has to fracture the poem into constituent bits. And in the poems where dashed sections include bracketed sections that themselves include dashed sections, one wonders if robinson was attempting to create the poetic equivalent of a Russian doll.

The other major deficiency comes in the poet’s use of needless phrases like “among other things,” “to an extent,” and “of a kind” which detract from the necessity of poetry’s heightened sensibility; such standard and too-discursive phrases quickly take the wind out of a good poem.

robinson has other typographical idiosyncrasies that are less objectionable. He insists on using the lower case- there is nary a capital to be found. He also insists on non-rhyming couplets as his base stanza. Both of these quirks do not detract from the poetry but they also do not aid it; one wonders, then, if they are necessary.

These criticisms are listed with regret, for how we play at it, though flawed, has many good poems. Straining under additional word-weight, some cannot shake off their lexical chains; other poems do, and the results are quite deft. The major evolutionary step robinson has taken in terms of stylistic vision in this collection is his complicated syntax’s ability to weave together disparate images into a cohesive whole. Though his syntax was by no means simple in his last book, here it has become much more cramped and web-like; it is a nice fit with a multiplicity of image when it does not pause and stop too much. Poems like “pitch; (love poem for the montreal expos) display this facility nicely:

between the wind-up (the elaborate cat’s
cradle tangle- its sinewy

coiling which, among other things, nearly- no, surely-
defines foreshadowing without

the use of any words, any language
other than that joint and

tendon syntax of our flesh), between that and the ashen
crack of bat or dust-echoed snap

of leather (those finalities
or possibilities), this: all of it. the sun. the questions: about

the phone bill, the cable- overdue? the way she
turned in her sleep last night; how

he’ll tell her, or, not tell her…

As a thought monologue for an audience member watching a pitcher’s wind-up, this poem’s verisimilitude is excellent; it closely follows the thought process of a fan randomly musing on the act of pitching, who then fills in all the gossipy details of the players on the field. Here the structure of the poem meets robinson’s preferred form; the reader is prepared for a series of observations meant to build to a climax. Note that the poem isn’t hijacked by syntax, though the “among other things, nearly- no, surely-“ could certainly be cut. robinson then switches to the moment when the baseball approaches a player, batter or fielder he doesn’t say:

there screaming headlong towards him, is nowhere-
everywhere- a million dark spots- all

those shadows- strobe-dancing, cutting across his eyes.

Here a fractured syntax is perfect. The reader is meant to read excitedly, breathlessly; one is meant to savour those pauses before the epiphany. It’s likely that robinson’s chosen form allowed him these poems as much as it left him with collapsed poems like “f(x): broken metacarpal,” the lesser poems being too much of a good thing.

Robinson is good; one gets the sense he’s trying to expand what a poet can do in the free verse form. His technique is never botched, just often overindulgent. When he manages to reign in his complex syntax to accomplishable poetic goals, he’s more than good. He’s on the frontier between pure syntax and pure meaning; it’s a place where every poet wants to be.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







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