by Elizabeth Robinson
-Paperback: 68 pages
-Publisher: Apogee Press, 2009
“If I don’t give you the shirt off my back, / at least I can stand on the street corner and turn it / inside out for you. // You are invited to see the dander of the person who once / lived inside.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. In the vast majority of cases, the theft is economic in nature. In 2009, at least 1 of those 9 million thefts was poetic.
In her latest book of poetry, Also Known As (Apogee Press), Elizabeth Robinson approaches the task of identity theft in the digital age with the meticulous physical treatments of an expert document forger; scratching away and building up surfaces, manipulating the shifting vessels of each line, each stanza, each poem with all the authority of a lonely, hyper-literate, historian. The cumulative result is a seamless (if eerily disjointed) whole in which the individual edges of authorial identity become indistinguishable from the tangible act of each poem’s performance on the page.
That identity can be represented as a surface should come as no surprise to readers of Elizabeth Robinson’s body of work; in which every object, every act, every incident consistently seems possessed of four or more dimensions. Indeed, the poet makes no secret of this particular text’s deceptive intentions, beginning as she does with an invocation of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa followed by a quote from Ricardo Reis, one of Pessoa’s many “heteronyms.”
Finishing this invocation, Robinson claims to “write in the persona of an author who was himself writing under the guise of multiple personae.” And yet, reading and re-reading these pages, one cannot help but sense a poetic depth and range beyond even Pessoa’s varied cast of characters.
With each poem, each oblique investigation, Robinson tugs from another angle at the delicate structures of identity, unraveling and re-arranging their basic threads into something resembling a self (or series of selves) intersecting. The implements of this intersection, however, are anything but delicate.
On the contrary, the poet repeatedly employs the language of abrasion as a means of releasing and revealing the inner substances of identity both overtly with poems like “as if I were getting a rash on my soul” and more subtly with “On the Yellow Stairs” in which the speaker unscrews his or her hands to serve as doorknobs, opening into the poem. This particular piece ends with the lines, “I would scratch / increments toward / a more contiguous flight of stairs / a cleaner amputation,” as if to suggest that these methods of the speaker’s excavation fall short when compared to the poet’s need for precision of language and thought.
Over the course of this series, the forces of textual abrasion are carefully counterbalanced by that same poet’s urge to contain the self within quantifiable boundaries. Just as the speaker in “Alias as Color” asserts, “I measure my own flesh for distortion,” likewise Robinson seems to remind the reader that each deception is painstakingly calculated to reveal only so much surface as is necessary at any given moment.
The result is, as the last line of the title poem “Also Known As” would suggest, “Like a series of trunks stacked one atop another.” Using Pessoa and his heteronyms as a starting point, Elizabeth Robinson has surpassed the master himself to create the poetic equivalent of a Matryoshka, in which every narrative, every surface is nested within another.