Ahsahta Press New Series 50
6″x8″, 112 pp., pbk.
A Shell Halved: Elizabeth Robinson’s Counterpart
It is the dull ubiquitous lurking of the shadow self whom we often name sleep, that taps mysteriously at the shell of Elizabeth Robinson’s collection, Counterpart. Dedicated to her publishing partner and longtime friend, poet Colleen Lookingbill, the counterpart also operates as a probing toward and a serendipitous encounter with a familiar doppelganger, the memory of whom remains only an obscured image afloat in the diaphanous haze of another world. A world, I am wont to say, where one need not be polite. Any friendship or spirituality present has been stripped of sentiment. The poet seems aptly intrigued and annoyed by her counterpart, which serves to tether the uncanniness of her subject matter to the sensations of a body at work in the physical realm, from Studies for Hell: I:
I, a hand, reached into the sea for a piece of the sea.
What I brought out,
piece of liquid, split my hand in two.
And from the gash came an interpolation
fascinated with its own blood.
Devoid of any banal religious imagery, instead Robinson gives us a hell as reflective as the sea, and a golem as innocent as the night we surrender to. Such that her question might be framed, how does one carve a shapeless mass into the creature behind the mirror? Rather than reduce this mystery to a simple binary, Robinson deconstructs the notion of otherness and highlights the nagging presence of that which we label other. Neither side is exalted nor debased for its mystery or morality.
As ambitious and slippery as the questions that guide the book, Robinson’s language follows suit. Words become shadows of themselves; white space heeds to the meditative echo of her lines, from Wander:
I want my own narrative. I fit the flesh legs over my
own, I wear the blue eyes atop my own vision. I double
back my own tongue to let it taste itself….
Interminable and perfect circle. I have said that before;
before that I have said.
Through this commingling of form and content, language is made acutely aware of itself, although rarely reduced to punning. Janus, just one of the mythical figures alluded to in the work, provides the strongest access point for this language-play. Physically represented as a figure with two heads, simultaneously looking forward and backward, so too Robinson’s words fall in on themselves into altered synonyms and auto-antonyms. It is no surprise that after Janus we derive the word January, for here we have language twined in loneliness and hope. It is as if, just beyond reach, something is half-buried in the snow. In the process of attempting to uncover the grand mystery, one can’t help descend into the madness induced by freezing – and, consumed by the illusion of heat, eventually begin removing one’s own clothes.
This paradox is highlighted most poignantly in Sanctuary, wherein the counterpart seeks nourishment and sustenance from language and food, and in a strange transubstantiation asks:
Do you mind if I steal
a bit from you, I murmured
to myself, forgetting she stood by….
I felt her bite the echo from me…
Robinson ends the collection with her Secret Eden, an even stranger invitation to partake of the fruit of knowledge, to “Pronounce pulp and juice. How they divide from each other / as a fork in the road.” Readers are left no closer to believing that a clearer understanding will some day descend upon us. Nor are we left with an instruction manual of how to throw the veil from our eyes to recognize the doppelganger in the mirror. Rather, Robinson subtly, deftly, and in ways one hasn’t yet considered, reminds us that within the body’s phantom are the meat and marrow of our bones.
Holly Simonsen works in poetic collaboration with the Great Salt Lake. Her poems explore the relationship between language and ecologically disrupted environments. She also works off the page with installation art and visual poetry. She earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts (2010). Her work has appeared in several literary journals. Her manuscript, S AL T F LA T, was a finalist for the Yale Younger Poets Prize (2012), among others. She was a recent fellow at the Vermont Studio Center (2012) and at the Djerassi Resident Artists’ Program (2013).