Spin the Bottle by Gaslight: Robin Richardson’s Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis

Robin Richardson’s poems are interested in pop culture, eroticized power skirmishes, and point of view. She often concentrates a poem around a lozenge of plot scammed from movies, history, theatre, pulp fiction, or bad TV. As if playing a game of Trivial Pursuit, we get to figure out who the narrator of the poem might be – either by type or actual identity – which is both entertaining and often a wee bit scandalizing, for to unwind the clues you have to step right inside the fictional artifice. Individual poems bring you close to the upper-lip sweat of a blue-lit cast: a gambler dad, vaguely dangerous (“Lucky Numbers”); a half-distributed organ donor still speaking from the gurney (“Donor”); a monarch lasciviously imagining her boy-slave (“Ranavalona,” mid-19th century queen of Madagascar, easily researched at badassoftheweek.com); and several generations of seedily glamorous ancestors including “a chocolate model” and “a mustached Cadillac owner” who was “a crumb cake at the racetrack” with “scars thinning into anecdotes” (“inheritance”). Many of these pieces dart vigourously to my brain centre, and stick.

Any Canadian book that features knife throwing in its title has to pay a tithe to Michael Ondaatje’s There’s A Trick With A Knife I’m Learning To Do. Like early Ondaatje, Richardson uses the poetic image like a tourniquet on the eyes while a self-aware wound is inflicted elsewhere in the imagination. There are allusions and frame-lifts from film noir and porn reels, tautly foleyed with flourishes of consonance and internal rhyme – seductive measures important if you are the blindfolded target. For example, in “Nevernever” references to Wendy and “a boy / so lost” produce instant source-text recognition, which is then sullied up a little too easily by the re-telling:

Wendy huddles snug above, nipples soldier-straight,
chafed where wool is rubbed too tight by the collar.
A thimble’s-worth of semen spotting at the chin. Again
she let him in.

The phonetic action carries the poem as poetry here; the plot retake aims at a frisson of naughtiness.

A similar over-reliance on sexual animation drains fuel from the first group of poems, whose vocabulary includes all of: “secrets,” “whiffs of skin,” “lips,” “kiss,” “blush,” “barefoot,” “Lolita-lipped,” “hot pink way,” “lush,” “pink as nipples,” “slipped you in his mouth,” “naked,” “Thin-limbed,” “fruit perfume,” “mango,” “whores,” “semen,” “naked,” “flesh,” “thigh,” “She’s antsy, licks” – and that’s just to page 19. Here the lines seem to write themselves, to throw knives at an under-aged thigh-highness. There are abiding tropes of retro heterosexuality and tawdriness, mixing up “sexy” with messy, flouncy and the outdoors (“wood and grassy patch,” “stream,” “forest,” “barefoot through the mud,” “whitecaps,” “ocean,” “flora,” “calloused foot on cool grass,” “moss,” and this is just to page 19, as above). Page 20 – “Feral in Killarney” – continues the Susanna Moody-esque pocked-by-nature business: a cat roams, “ears stiff / with dried magenta where black flies bit.” In this case, “She likes to be alone,” but we are watching every adjustment into recline.

Perhaps a re-ordering of the poems or a parsing of some might have strengthened the collection’s notable facility with entirely self-aware allegories playing spin the bottle by gaslight. Richardson’s inclination to tautly render poem-capsules that bring a bluesy dismay to the fore excites me and I look forward to following her work.

Margaret Christakos is the Toronto-based author of a novel and eight collections of poetry, including What Stirs and Excesssive Love Prostheses, facilitator since 2006 of Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon, and Publishing Editor of Influencysalon.ca.


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