“a poem of objects that live by magic”: Erin Robinsong’s Rag Cosmology (Toronto, ON: BookThug, 2017, $18.00, 104 pages). Review by Alan Reed.
Rag Cosmology is a meditation on the ecological in personal terms, or the personal in ecological terms. Or it is the work of blurring the distinction between those two statements, presenting the two as mutually imbricated perspectives opening onto a world where the distinction simply does not matter.
The collection opens with leaves falling from a tree, “when the green leaves / have gone back”: the decay of the leaves becomes a reflection on death, their falling and mulching a funerary process, the changing of their colour the words for an unnamed anxiety, which becomes a metaphor that grounds the affective state in an understanding of a broader ecological process.
I would say that this movement between the personal and the ecological, from one to the other and then back again, is emblematic of the work Robinsong is doing with these poems. And with each shift from the one domain to the other she brings something across the distinction between them, knitting the two together in a way where each can offer insight into the working of the other.
Alongside this, or perhaps running beneath it, there are occasional poems in what I would describe as an almost pastoral mode. These are poems about Cortes Island, where Robinsong is from, and her early life experience there. They are about oysters and rocks from a creek, bottled to preserve their lustre, “the knowledge that is around / wrapped in mountains emitting clarity.” They are memories, of a childhood and of growing up with the wild around her. In my reading, these poems are the heart of the collection.
That the scenes they convey are remembered is important. They are past, they are absent, and there is something painful about that absence—“2007 marked the end / I left my home, and could not return / (oh for my bright black sky).” In their absence, however, a trace of them persists. It is a seed unfolding slowly, subtly through these poems: it is the possibility of the ecological perspective the poems work from, and also how personal the ecological is in them. It is, in a sense, the magic animating them:
“What shall I do with my information I’m an animal in an animal in an animal I’m a poem of objects that live by magic I’m every idea I ever had, I’ll just stay here as a person. I have a photographic mouth.”
If Robinsong was a girl who grew up with the wild around her, then in this reading she has become a woman with the wild inside her. And not just inside of her but spilling out of her. She writes: “I was 20, I was a polyrhythmic / rug rat noticing there is nothing that isn’t / moving.” In this I would say there is a sensibility learned in her childhood that has persisted alongside her memory of Cortes Island.
In these poems this sensibility is brought face to face with the contemporary world. From this perspective, Robinsong is able to articulate a subjective space for herself—“Chemist programmer waste management prodigy / structural analyst shamanic kinetic engineer / I’m not. My open palms disorganized dreams / wild chemicals.”
What it is possible to do in this space makes up the greater part of the collection, too much to address here. I want to touch on how she returns to the theme of death. Late in the collection is an elegy to a lost friend. It is bracketed by a pair of meditations on dying. The first is brief – “I read somewhere that we think of death as a taking away of life / but that actually – you die into life”; the second, the poem entitled “Mon. Aft,” unfolds more convolutely and at greater length. It reads, in part: “you accompany / yourself / to what / vast appoint. / without your / face all about / a bond with / the universe / going to / cosmic smith- / ereens.”
Similar to how she treats leaves going to mulch in the beginning of the collection, Robinsong is here concerned with how an understanding of ecological processes can deepen the meaning of personal experience. The ecological perspectives Rag Cosmology grounds itself in offers a way to understand the personal within the context of the broader life processes we cannot but be part of. Reading it offers a way to more richly imagine the natural world and better understand our place within it.
Alan Reed is the author of a collection of poems, For Love of the City (BuschekBooks, 2006), and a novel, Isobel & Emile (Coach House Books, 2010). His short work has appeared in dANDelion, The Coming Envelope, Lemon Hound, and Papirmass. He lives in Montreal.
This review was published in issue 14:2 “Lies and Duplicity.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.
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