I can’t help but read Robin Richardson’s latest collection, Sit How You Want, partly as a book of mourning, mourning over how “everything / was about a man trying to get what he wanted,” as she writes in “Stage 4,” a poem about grieving the impending death of an abusive father. These poems are funerals for childhoods lost to predatory fathers and men like the “Turkish potter at the CNE,” whom she describes in “Autobiography as a Child in Second Person” as the one who “first made you bodily aware,” and whose hands were “just big enough to close like rope / around your neck.” Or more generally, as a mourning for what we lose as a result of molding our bodies and behaviours to male desires, an experience she touches on in “The Most Expensive: “as if my diet of carrots and cayenne is ‘cause / nothing taste as good as skinny makes money / makes the bed and stands beside us like a parent / with poor boundaries who just wants us / to be happy.”
These poems are relentless, both in content and structure. Many include run-on sentences full of linguistic somersaults that force us to keep taking in whatever Richardson throws at us—at a pace she decides, as in the poem “Through a Mask”:
Resembling myself in the boots my father fancied
up the calves of girls in women’s bodies. Remember
it is not never was about me not even when it says
my name. A me is not anything. A past is tension,
only loud, and malleable. For instance,
how can anyone be sure it was the earth and not
some deity that shook and sent us praying for the first
and final saying out loud every night now thank you
for my life….
Here is the relentlessness of the world toward women; Richardson makes you feel it.
If I’ve made you think this book is all about victimization, it’s not. Sit How You Want is ruled by a female speaker who continually asserts her power—or, at least, the ways that she has been able to grasp it. Goddesses such as Kali, Bea, Gaia, and Sylvia Plath (yes, she counts) are invoked, as is God, which here seems to be the body—the religion sex. Myth-making is referred to often, mainly the ways in which women and girls are forced to make myths out of themselves in order to survive. In the poem “The Pendulum of Female Survival,” she talks of “making myths” and mentions “her aptitude for hosting projections” in the context of a sexual relationship with a man. In “Woodbine, by the 401,” about a daughter’s relationship with her father, she writes: “At twelve she knows / she’ll pass from charm to trinket.” In “Strike While They’re in Transit,” she describes being “coy-eyed in my Cleopatra guise, an icon going / gold in my old age, soft-focused, slow, low spoken / as the perfect politician.” And in “Come in and Get Lost,” she reveals: “I’m a forgery / so skillfully constructed it outdoes the real thing.”
The ability to make myths that are believed in, even in response to an oppressive system/religion/whatever you want to call it, is a form of power, and making poetry is the ultimate myth-making.
Between poems full of decadent imagery and assertive female sexual power, we get devastating moments of stripped-down vulnerability that show the reader why all this myth-making is essential. In “The Redemption Motif,” Richardson writes: “I made my bruises into stories and the stories / made a currency the Gods had need for.”
In “Sleep No More,” which explores masks, performance, and the emergence and destruction of the speaker’s inner child, she writes:
The thing about drowning with your child self is it’s disarming.
You forget about the man, master. You are one and wonder-
drunk. The thing about drowning with your child self
is she can see things through the thick of incident,
and through her eyes, her barnacle brown eye
you are her only hope. The thing about drowning in a play,
a poem, semi-real thing with your child self is it’s the best death
you will know. The thing is that she makes you whole.
For me, Sit How You Want is ultimately about a woman myth-making in a “wilderness of men,” claiming power by telling her stories and directing the narrative: “Please let me be a blaze,” she writes in “Disembodied at the Botanical Gardens,” and then continues: “I will destroy, / I mean create again this place.”
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.