ECW Press - April 07, 2006 - 3 Comments
no cage contains a stare that well by matt robinson
Reviewed by Jenn Houle
Matt Robinson’s third full-length collection of poems, no cage contains a stare that well, opens powerfully with “how we keep it together,” a poem I remembered having read in last summer’s edition of Arc magazine. This is significant, because while I read a great many Canadian literary magazines in the run of a year, I’d be hard-pressed to recall many specific poems. “how we keep it together,” a poem about the often hapless and haphazard nature of human resolve, stuck with me, and I was excited to find it opening this collection. Combining incredible alliteration with effective imagery, the poem conveys a sense of not necessarily endurance but enduring, despite oneself:
scrounging: pennies, or dimes in a pinch. a
penknife or flashed tip of some other guy’s lighter. when
the ends start to unravel, you burn: a crucible effect.
Phenomenal poem, but possibly “ending like most/of our endings: badly, nonfunctional, a surprise. never enough” (1). The poem ends by establishing “extremity as closure, as a way of bringing things back” (1). The rest of the book catalogues these extremities, these losses and closures, but by book’s end I wasn’t sure anything had been brought back — yet. The collection’s final poem details the loss of a minor league hockey coach’s finger, meditating on the newspaper story about the accident and concluding:
we rub our own hands together
here, at the table, convincing ourselves that something, once
written down — whatever it is we read — is always a kind of
fiction, escapable, able to be left behind; we grab onto — holding tight
– the fluttering, papery thin weight of our conviction that’s so.
But the story of the lost finger is true: there’s no escape from that. The injuries in Robinson’s book are real, the losses also, and he manages to capture precisely the sensations of confused disbelief and resignation that we all feel when nature one-ups us, or our dreams get not only deferred, but co-opted. Most reviewers agree that Robinson’s vision of hockey is dark — and it is. But it is the same darkness that pervades any pastime or passion that flourishes in the shade of big business or against extreme odds. These poems are just as much about life and art as they are about sports, revealing Robinson’s deep understanding of what it is to persist without any promise, or even likelihood, of conventional triumph — and also, of what it is to persist within a system rife with limitations that inhibit real success, whilst simultaneously failing to prevent devastating loss.
What is accorded, mid-collection, in “the shortest distance, a blue line,” is “transference,” the ability to pass what little knowledge or ability we have managed to achieve on to the next generation. But Robinson warns us this transference is not redemption — there’s no romance in it. It is but the passing of a dim torch — what triumph there is in hockey, in the lives of those who play and follow the minor leagues, is perhaps merely in the effort. The persistence of mediocrity, of tedium, drudgery, failure to make progress or breakthrough, pervades the realities of Robinson’s characters: his Zamboni driver, his old goalie, his morally dubious players. “why we wrap our wrists the same each time” explores the human tendency to repeat history, to stand-by even our worst decisions, and to lie to ourselves about why we do:
you’ll do anything to beat it, the scoreboard’s clockishly
familiar script: this sophomore jinx. that much, you
know. nothing is beyond you and your sweat-desperate,
wet dog’s shaking nonsense — that furious denial of what it is
you’ve leapt the boards for and charged willingly right
There is certainly a fatalism in this collection, the suggestion that all of our efforts may be for naught, that what we yearn for most — connection, with the puck, the net, our acquaintances, loved ones and children — will ultimately elude us. Collision is brief, and the long aftermath of collision seems to be at the heart of these poems. That the world of physical reality cannot survive long in any extreme situation, and that it is wearisome to endure, to do what is necessary and right, is the Zamboni driver’s lament. As a fellow Atlantic Canadian, I recognized a feeling that I and many of my peers have experienced, having stayed on to live and work in the Maritimes: thanklessness, comparatively low wages, getting nowhere, the real triumphs of caring for our families and preserving our histories a bore, nearly impossible to discuss or really articulate. The uncertainty within that tedium is a very difficult nuance to capture, but Robinson has done so here, particularly in the poems “uncertainty as a stance, among other things” and “dressing room religion.”
Not being a hockey fan, I will leave the reviews which focus on the merits of this collection specifically as canonical “Canadian hockey poetry” to those more qualified to comment. What I did pick up from the collection’s back cover, in which Robinson has listed his vital stats, hockey card style, is that he was born on February 24th, which makes him a Pisces, and Pisces, as any astrological prognosticator (similar to sports prognosticators, but usually possessed of far less colorful vocabularies) will tell you, is the sign of the poet. Good star for a writer. It is a dual sign, the last one of the zodiac, the last sign before the Spring Equinox and the noticeable lengthening of days. Thus, in lore, the Piscean is one who deals in extremes—the ends of things, those who run the last leg of the long race, the recipients of the dim torch. They are said to understand instinctively that there is nothing new under the sun and that all effort ends in fatigue, dissolution. But from this dissolution, of course, emerges the new thing– the headlong Ram, flowers, spring. And I do believe this collection is heralding something, although what exactly is not indicated. Pisceans do tend to avoid offering concrete answers, or making any promises, knowing full well that reality is constantly in flux, and that today’s truth is tomorrow’s great big joke. Upon first reading, I was frustrated with Robinson’s almost absolute refusal to conclude any of his poems satisfactorily, or unambiguously, but finally came to understand that this refusal of closure is pivotal to the book’s entire, merciless thrust.
Citing “extremity as closure, a way of bringing things back,” Robinson’s reflections on the weariness and (somehow) simultaneously senseless and necessary acts of violence, the myriad skate-blade nicks, eye injuries, infidelities and self-deceptions might well be calling for the rebirth of our national sport (and/or character) on a far more individual level. If corporatization has in fact destroyed our national game (and/or character), might it not be reclaimed by those who for so long have lived and played in the shadows of big-money players? I believe the challenge, the immense difficulty of this, is there, under the ice, in every poem.
Lastly, it bears noting that Robinson’s technical acuity is almost beyond reproach. His use of alliteration, as mentioned previously, is striking. Reading these poems aloud can make you feel like you’ve got a mouth full of broken teeth, and the hard stops–the slams against the boards — are relentless:
. . . in that
quick slipped instant, the goal line’s rink-rafterward reach
is a one way mirror, an unbroken pane
of glass, reflecting. and this near-transparent
juncture? it is something wholly unspoken and
unseen. a threshold.
The language here is raw, guttural, sometimes even sexy, threateningly, intimidatingly slick: but teeming with metaphor. Full of implication. Every re-reading of Robinson’s verse reveals a new subtext, a new layer of meaning. It demands close reading, attention. It requires focus to read successfully, and deserves to be read and re-read as attentively as one might watch a really close game, play by play, line by line. If you are not careful, these poems will nick you with their rusty blades — the bus will crash — stay alert, they caution, or you’ll miss the whole damn thing — or lose an eye, a finger, or get hit in the head with a puck. This alertness, this consciousness, is exactly the sort of extremity that will bring things back, that will, finally, remind of us of who we are, and where, off the clocks, and heedless of when. Requiring this of the reader, demanding real engagement, without denying realistic speech patterns or straying too far into abstraction, is the ultimate achievement of this collection. This stuff is real: it gets you in the eye, but stops just short of blinding you, which is a grace, because hopefully there is a lot more to come from this poet, regardless of theme.