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Robbins' genius surfaces in "or, The Whale"

 
Perhaps the best kept secret of the Buffalo area literary scene over the past three decades has been the soft, beneficent voice of a singularly talented poet whose work was largely unheralded. 
 
It's not as if Sherry Robbins sought anonymity or lived her life as a recluse.  She published two highly regarded collections of poems--Snapshots of Paradise (Just Buffalo Literary Center, 1981) and The Accidental Poet (Palimage, 2005)--as well a chapbook of Herman Melville inspired poems with Mike Boughn's Shuffaloff Press in 1993 that seemed like a sonogram of a miracle in gestation.  She married and raised a daughter, did occasional public readings, owned and ran her own letterpress (Orchard Press), and took her turn at independent publishing as co-owner of Weird Sisters Press.
 
Professionally, she gained recognition as perhaps the most accomplished of the Buffalo area's extraordinarily deep roster of teaching artists and poets-in-the-schools, and was named New York State Teaching Artist of the Year in 2005. Still, Robbins was quietly spoken of in polite circles as the best poet in Buffalo who wasn't already famous.
 
Expect that murmur to change shortly into a full-throated roar, for with her long awaited new full length collection or, The Whale (BlazeVox Books), Robbins delivers a career defining work of epic scope and imagination. Based on her close reading of  the ideas and structure of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick--even borrowing quotes and chapter headings from that classic--Robbins offers a subtle feminist reading of what is perhaps the great American novel of obsession and pursuit of the unfathomable.
 
Beyond this, she weaves her own counter-narrative back onto Melville's tale: not only a "re-conception" of its structure from the standpoint of a contemporary woman, but also an extensive "turning inside-out-of" Melville's central metaphors for the existential threat and predation of whaling to those of the alternative water-born(e) lexicon of pregnancy and birthing.  The results of this "invagination" are often breathtaking.
 
Take this description of morning sickness in "Loomings," the opening poem in the cycle that echoes Melville's chapter titles:   
 
Something fishy.
Something salty.
Infecting me
with the vague dis-
ease that Ishmael
knew so well
and I am all
of a sudden all
at sea
in this town, this time.
 
Just a few pages later, she admonishes herself and--by implication--Melville in "The Sermon":
 
Tell the truth.  No more
disembodied songs.  
 
In "The Quarter Deck," Robbins' begins to limn out her counter-narrative, suggesting--among other things--how a conflation of the hunter and the hunted opens up a whole new register of metaphoric possibility:
 
That inscrutable thing
is chiefly what I love;
the awful rowing
toward it,
unarmed
and dangerous.
It
will not
swallow me.
It wants,
inside.
There's the rub...
 
Balancing the prerogatives of gender is one of the small wonders of Robbins' invention, as in "Brit" where she observes:
 
Men love to talk
about entropy.
"Things fall apart,"
"The sea murders,"
and so on,
as if to be in the know
were to be unduped
by death, though dying.
Women float
across the tops
of tenements,
meadows of nutrients
the city feeds on,
and in our own bodies
float monsters
of recreation. 
 
It's not simply what she takes from Melville that gives these poems their depth and power.  It's also what she brings to her reading of him.  Consider how her skillful interweaving of the Persephone myth adds an "underworld" to Melville's "The Prophet":
 
If you, a man, go down there,
out there, up there, mostly
down there,
and bribe her back
with seeds or tears or petals
the one sure thing is,
having been told
not to look back,
you will turn at the mouth
of the river or the cave
and look.
Then all will be lost.
This prophecy, your quest,
the loss, inevitable.
 
If I, a woman, go
the story changes.
Down there
the Queen of Down There
requires of me
my death and,
more, the corruption
of my flesh, of all
notion of redemption.
And this is a dying
that must be done
over and over,
a living without end.
Small wonder
so many
stay home, though
it cost them
more than their lives.
 
Among the things Robbins dredges up from the depths is an entire alternative canon of oral history: the wisdom literature of pregnancy and birthing, stories no less epic in their heroism and worldly consequence than the men's "big fish" stories. "Our whole race from Eve down has been only too ubiquitous," she writes in the title poem of the collection, "and we waste little water crying about it..."  In "The Advocate" she delivers the message even more explicitly:
 
There are things, mostly blood-
related, we never tell the men.
Some things can't be fit
to words unless people
have sailed the same ocean,
done the same butchery,
hunted the over-sized beast
with the same mix
of lust and dread.
 
No small part of the book's achievement is Robbins' capacity to go toe-to-toe and indeed mano-a mano with Melville in terms of language and reference, even challenging him directly on the allegations that he physically abused his wife Elizabeth Shaw Melville and other female family members:
 
Now, Herman,
I see
I have taken on
not only the man
with the largest
metaphor
but all that temper
temper temper.
How can the same word
moderate and rage?
How can the same man?
 
...Whose book is this
that the Spirit Spout
confines itself to whiffs and whispers
from beyond the Cape
of Good Hope
(Cape Tormentosa rather)
while, daily, rape
and hunger, slaughter
and greed, despair,
swamp the small boats
sent out after it?
I have eaten
faith like corn flakes
since before
the first slap
and I will
make this book
my book
and if I must
I will balance
on one live leg
one dead
in this world-shaking gale
and I will keep
to my purpose...
 
Even as she echoes Melville ("It was the/ whiteness/ of the whale/ that above/all things/ compelled me..."), Robbins constructs a parallel narrative that is part amplification, part resistance, part turning Melville's story on its head as normally happens in a live birth.  In "The Musket," she writes:
 
...In this version
weapons will not
write the ending;
in this version,
so hard to sell,
I will use my body
to write it differently,
use my body
to bear down,
stick around
and feed what comes of it.
 
Of these disparate metaphors and contradictions--to say nothing of the competing orders of symbolism--Robbins crafts a kind of "umbilical" poetics:
 
In this business
no symbol ever sits
discrete, long enough to matter.
Everything is mixed together,
sweet and bitter, comical and grave.
In this body virgin, Mom and hag
pull like yoked cats
in three different directions
and I must make my way,
twitching like a prophet
with whatever dignity
I can muster toward
sun, cave and garden all at once.
 
In "The Fossil Whale," perhaps the closest thing this 173 page volume presents to an Ars Poetica, Robbins writes:
 
I have given birth
to pot roasts, peonies,
trouble and a girl
since I have undertaken
to deliver this leviathan.
These are my credentials.
I use my great grandfather’s dictionary,
my mother’s ink, and paper
made from shed skin.
These are my tools .
Friends, hold my arms.
It is a long fierce labor.
I am, by a flood of broken water,
borne back before time,
for time began with man,
back to when the molten
core of me writhed and heaved
to push out mountains.
Whose womb holds such a pedigree?
Into this first and oldest cradle
I invite you, reader.
If you be born of a woman
you will find a moment’s rest here
before the next contraction.
 
This is easily the finest collection of poems I have read this year, and the most substantial volume of work by a Buffalo-based poet we've seen in the past half-decade.  You can purchase copies of or, The Whale directly from BlazeVox Books (http://www.blazevox.org/) or from your local independent bookseller.
 
--R.D. Pohl
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