This debut collection of poetry from Shaun Robinson generously expands upon his work previously published across Canadian literary magazines and his chapbook Manmade Clouds from Frog Hollow Press (2017). Poems contained in this volume range in tone, from bleak to comic. The mind of each piece is both intelligent and calculated. This is captivating, lyric work.
Common throughout is the adept handling of figurative language. “The Cop-Shop Deer” is a great example, in which the speaker narrates a deer’s journey through a small town, building a rich portrait of place. Robinson is able to operate comfortably in the smallest details, complemented by strong verb work that stands out. The deer “slip / into the trailer park to gum tomatoes / from a wooden trellis they think no more / of their fate than the infant just inside the window, / burbling the night away like a crock-pot.” Here, his similes serve images, extending them in a kind of endogenous voicing to provide a roundness to the larger scene, pulling the reader forward.
Among other poems, like “Sunomono” and “Transactive Memory,” that push more to the surreal, at times, “Where to Find Help When,” is a piece that feels sufficiently literary, quotidian and contemporary, all in the same breath. Robinson breaks down bits of a canonical work (Shakespeare’s Hamlet), from its Elizabethan prosody into clever juxtaposition with a Disney film. The narrator asks his friend, “Would your father’s spirit / really say, I am thy father’s spirit? / Wouldn’t it say, Hi, son?” He claims / he’s never seen the play. / Fine, but he’s seen The Lion King.” This is also one poem of several in the book asking questions of masculinity and patriarchy.
“How Soon, How Likely, How Severe” another standout poem, one of many in the collection dealing in a poetics of place, is anchored in the geography of British Columbia. In this piece the speaker reflects on fighting wildfires, in a kind of exhausted apocalyptic, that feels part-pastoral, part-confessional: “[W]e spend our overtime in the black spires / of burnt fir […] I wake up pawing the motel carpet / for hotspots. A voice on the handheld asks / if I remember my old life. I remember / ground fire creeping root to root, / approaching an interface with the unspoken.”
Robinson’s poems are relatable, in many ways, to the work of poets Curtis LeBlanc and Kayla Czaga. Their poetry often contains the collective themes of small-town life, coming of age, the wanderings of young adulthood and family histories, all delivered in a similar plain-spoken manner. As a reader it can be easy to presume Robinson’s work tends to the autobiographical. In the way that Warren Zevon has talked about songwriting as lacking the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The same lack of boundaries in poetry feel helpful to describe the subtlety of Robinson’s work. He surfs the actual, the fictive and the surreal, in an interesting and imaginative way.
Michael Edwards lives and writes in Vancouver, BC. He is editor of Red Alder Review and a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU. His work can be found in various online journals.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.