What is the dividing line between ugly and beautiful, aggressive and resigned? How does one demarcate the fluid boundaries of gender? Between the idiosyncratically local and the universal? In Rumor, Elizabeth Robinson spins out the narrative line of a series of unsolved Victorian murders. Here, what cannot be known, what can only be rumored, emerges as the greatest ethical challenge. These poems undertake the transgression of the irresolvable.
Robinson’s ambition in this short book is enormous—to understand the problem of violence, to understand how power subjugates bodies and souls and turns them to use. In the world these poems inhabit, language itself is a violent power tool, a buzzsaw, precise, ruthless, and often wrong. Yet language’s instability allows Robinson to turn it on itself to question categories such as gender. Through brooding, bloody, clearwater analysis, through delicate, brutally uncertain self-questioning, Robinson’s poems create a frictive warmth that’s not comfortable, but rousing. —Catherine Wagner
Elizabeth Robinson has long been probing the interplay of the personal with the abstract or, as she has put it, “the brick floor from which the/ kingdom of God extends/ or could extend.” In Rumor, the poet-victim (whom “grief evicts” from herself) tries to take on the persona of perpetrator as if it were a sanctuary from which to explore and understand the violence: “she lies a divided pronoun /. . . / knife slicing through softened self/. . . / She/ crouches over/ herself, a difficult/ situation.” The poems worry at boundaries between subject/object, male/female/ transgender, but most of all between “abstract” violence and the physical (“the teacher/ flayed by removal from/ the student”). This process of incarnation, of word made flesh is frightening, nauseating, but must be faced: “we cough up words made of flesh/ and eat them anew.” Here “I myself/ had no face, but took/ to smiling” and “wrapped my hand around my incomprehension.” Rumor is fascinating, daunting, complex. Its exploration remains open, does not pretend to find answers, but instead offers memorable words: “How firmly the answer closes its eyes.” —Rosmarie Waldrop