Tuesday, December 20, 2011


rob mclennan Reviews

Three Novels by Elizabeth Robinson
(Omnidawn, 2011)

Origin Myth

It has been said that the detective story has structural elegance because it begins with a murder and unravels neatly backwards to relate the cause of the murder: a solution. But this was not true of the first detective story. That story entailed no murders, only a loss, various losses.

Eventually a death. In truth, more than one death. And a murder after all. (“Book One: The Moonstone”)

Part of the appeal of U.S.-American poet Elizabeth Robinson's poetry collections, generally, is in the shifts that occur between, not a single one resembling any of the others, in her list of ten collections: In the Sequence of Falling Things (Paradigm, 1990), Bed of Lists (Kelsey Street, 1990), House Made of Silver (Kelsey Street, 2000), Harrow (Omnidawn, 2001), Pure Descent (Sun & Moon, 2003), Apprehend (Fence/Apogee, 2004), Apostrophe (Apogee, 2006), Under That Silky Roof (Burning Deck, 2006), The Orphan and Its Relations (Fence, 2008) and Also Known As (Apogee, 2009). In Three Novels (Omnidawn, 2011), her eleventh trade title, we've had a two year wait between titles, and here, Robinson works a lyric exploration of three different Victorian novels: Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1860) and George Gissing's Eve's Ransom (1895). As Robinson responds in an interview with Rusty Morrison, included with the book’s promotional material:
I wrote these poems shortly after my father's death, so the book is both a tribute to him and his generosity to me, and a way of integrating the material into my life in a new way. As you could imagine, I didn't really understand some of the content of these complex novels when I was a child. Illegitimacy? Victorian inheritance laws? Victorian etiquette? But the three novels are powerful to me as forms of memory, as a primary interaction with language, and particular lenses on the world.

Part reimagining Victorian-era material, part critique, her Three Novels weaves through the original works' intricate plots, weighty morals and social strictures into a blend of lyric movements that focus on a female from each of the three novels. One novel per section, Robinson allows all else to slip away, exploring what each book is left with, perhaps, in not only these three novels, but, specifically, three Victorian portraits of women by male writers. The first two source books for her three sections are by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), both written in epistolary form, featuring shifting narrators, so it becomes even more deliberate how Robinson pulls a particular character from each to set her lyrical gaze upon. As she responds, again, in the promotional interview:
One way that I felt I could make this material new to myself was by looking at the role of women in these books. I first heard them, after all, as the passive listening daughter. Now I was bereft of that role and in a sense that liberated me to a new perspective. As readers of Victorian novels know, much of the plot is built around the obstacles that Victorian etiquette throws in the way of direct action and communication. This seems particularly true of the women characters who are constrained in so many ways. Yet I feel that both Collins and Gissing show real sympathy and insight into the difficulties that their female characters face. In any event, we still live in a world where women earn less than their male counterparts. More often than we acknowledge, or perhaps even register, women's bodies and activities are monitored and hemmed in. Not long ago, a man stopped me to the street to praise me because I was dressed “modestly”!

According to Wikipedia, Wilkie Collins's works “were classified at the time as 'sensation novels', a genre seen nowadays as the precursor to detective and suspense fiction. He also wrote penetratingly on the plight of women and on the social and domestic issues of his time.” Part of what makes the collection interesting is in the formal shifts between sections, each bringing a different approach. For “Book One; The Moonstone,” Robinson rewrites a body and a loss, a descriptive allusion of a woman we might never actually know, from Collins' The Moonstone, considered by many to be the first detective novel, described by poet and critic T. S. Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels […] in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.” In Robinson's second section, the woman, and what exactly the mystery might be, becomes elusive, and perhaps, secondary to the point of the poems. Writing predominantly in prose poems, she blocks out text, each another step to a mystery that may never be solved.
A Danger to Oneself

The first of the fallen is now gone. She is regretted. By many versions she secreted herself, by mny avenues was hidden. A missive. A length of chain. A refusal to make known. The soothsayer, our 'genius,' apparently designated her the villain when the greatest obstacle was her innocense. By which I mean the manner in which she departed the world of firm outline and forced herself into formlessness.

In “Book Two: The Woman in White,” Robinson's lines are instead stretched out, scattered across the field of the page, writing a female character in an open field of the white of the page, leaving us with nearly as little as we arrived with.
           Tissue of consolation

                      on the wan field            wandering

What the narrator thought was a flawless passivity

                                                       was notwithstanding

Her third and final section, “Book Three: Romance (After Eve's Ransom),” is composed, comparatively, in more normative lines, writing out individual lyric accumulative stretches. Taken from the novel Eve's Ransom (1895) by George Gissing (1857-1903), Robinson, in the same interview, says of the poems: “'Romance' works off of Gissing's Eve's Ransom which is a strange little novella; it leaves the reader in a state of irresolution that is unusual for books of its era. The predicament of the heroine causes her to behave in ways that seem equivocal, perhaps not admirable, while the hero is struggling in various ways.” In this final section, Robinson's poems nearly pull themselves apart, trying to keep her unnamed protagonist together, and themselves, perhaps rightly, also provide no sense of resolution, writing:
No gasp, cry, sob, escaped tear, sigh, betrayal of feeling.

Only the loss of color in the heroine's check.

No such word as distress or disappointment permitted.

Neither sorrow.

We negate these, and this is our means of making measurement.

The relative silence of colorlessness, the the way the lack

plumbs a certain depth. Deficiency

sounds the dimensions of this vacant space.

Robinson's Three Novels pulls at particular threads of three Victorian narratives and extracts the lyric strengths, weaknesses and other moments of a particular female character within, written as three individual lyric character studies. Never has study been so evocatively done, all the while exploring the differences and similarities in how women are portrayed, and considered, from there, to here. Is Robinson presenting us with a task of reading, a task of acting or a task of reconsidering? Perhaps, all of the above.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011) and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

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