The Liquefied Highway
Howard W. Robertson's Brakeless Poems
by Howard W. Robertson (Clear Cut Press) $12.95
In this region, a colony seemingly on the periphery that nevertheless senses its own homegrown and nearly secret importance in relation to the rest of this mad continent as the place where the roads run out, we hoist our poets onto our shoulders in the hope that they will speak for us. Nowhere is the call for regional representation so strong, and simultaneously weak in product. Mentioning a cedar bough or giving a nod to the bloody foreclosure of this land will do, for most Northwest poets: the colossally overrated William Stafford, for instance, or the once sublime Gary Snyder, who really needs to stop. Now. Our good poets gravitate to the universities to the south and east. We're looking for someone who'll stay, and a paperweight to keep our emerging regional consciousness from fluttering off thought-by-thought. In (not only) this regard, Howard W. Robertson's debut collection, Ode to certain interstates and Other Poems, is significant. (Full disclosure: I was published along with Robertson in a Clear Cut Future anthology, and curated his reading this Thursday at Hugo House.)
Robertson is not one of those poets who, Dubya-like, ingratiate themselves by never saying anything a third-grader wouldn't understand. He brings several languages, and a lifetime of learning as a former research librarian, into poems written exclusively in what, as far as I know, is a new line: continuous, breakless, and breathless, centered on the page to give even weight to either end of the lines. One has to just come up for air when necessary as Robertson flows easily between the domestic and political, sociological and philosophical, often several times in one page. The titles of the shorter poems (which are several pages each) do something to convey this catholicity: "The sincerity of being awake at 5 a.m."; "Imagining a language with a mood of nil"; "Ode to this small stick."
The book's centerpiece is an 82-page poem based on Robertson's experiences over a year as a long-haul trucker. Here he tells of a horrific accident, without stylistic fireworks or referents, in a passage that gives some sense of his stolid grace: "that pumpkin-orange cab-over… missed the curve by the / Castella exit flying over the narrow dividing strip / like a forty-ton water skier shooting off a ramp onto / the slightly lower northbound lanes, coincidentally / broadsiding an oncoming gasoline tanker to produce / an explosion so intense and a fireball so prolonged / that the surface of the interstate was liquefied for / twenty-five yards, a monumental crash that I myself / chanced to witness in my rear-view mirrors and that / I subsequently honored silently with thoughts in / memoriam every time I passed…"
Robertson avoids the staleness of directly confessional poetry by using doppelgangers for the places and people in his life, giving the poems a compelling semi-fictional aura. Eugene, where he lives, is in the poems as New Geneva; his wife is transformed to a cipher called Hope; he invents a second son. If the book has a flaw, it is that the interjections of Greek, French, Latin, and Russian are untranslated, though like the best referential poetry, it is completely enjoyable to anyone without even a second language or a familiarity with the classics. Ezra Pound said his use of Chinese was intended to create an audience: "I will mate with my free kind on the crags." My free kind is too busy paying the rent to learn Russian, sorry, and future editions of the collection should address this. But readers put off by musty bookishness have nothing to fear from these poems or Robertson's live act. He is possibly the most engaging reader I have ever seen and delivers the 'Ode' like a spellbinding campfire saga.
The finest piece in the book is "With this field-dew dream and consecrate," its four sections too long and seamless to quote in anything less than great length. Here Robertson perfects his unique line, flitting from sublime detail to detail like the bats he describes feeding over a summer Shakespeare performance. From there he moves to slavery, prehistory, divorce, bourgeois property love, ecology, Ovid, Lucretius, the Bhagavad-Gita, the death of parents, and the willful blindness of the vacationer. In this poem Robertson reaches a standard that sometimes seems to no longer exist in the current poetry culture of easy praise and low expectations, and is growing into a poet of consequence.
Howard W. Robertson reads at Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, 322-7030, Thurs Feb 3, 7 pm, $5.