Phoebe Clarke reviews Sophie Robinson

Rabbit published by Boiler House Press (2018)

Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit is a beautifully designed book. Small, white, and compact, it wears a velvety dust-jacket around its midriff that doesn’t nearly cover its form. The result is that a) it looks half-dressed, and b) you want to continually touch it — but after a while the book becomes very dirty. Stains from your fingers appear before the ink rubs off,  smudging out Robinson’s name. I love the book design by Emily Benton, and the side-effects of handling Rabbit strike me as a happy accident. Robinson’s poetry also features a sort of calculated tenderness, but they are more visceral and psychically unkempt than Rabbit’s untampered exterior lets on.

The poems in this collection explore desire, longing, and trauma, via abstract portrayals of the quotidian —‘the nasty pony of our dailiness’, as Robinson calls it in ‘POETRY READING’.  This isn’t an elevated, precious, high-register poetry. It’s happy to be crass, low-key, cheap, and trite. It’s also fine with being cute, earnest, vulnerable and explicit. Robinson tends to write poems made of long, sparsely punctuated and uncapitalised sentences, which run on & on, and almost always adhere to the left margin. In another mode, she writes narrow poems composed of short, meditative lines that break gently down the page, reminiscent of the poetry of Eileen Myles.

Desire and trauma share a membrane in this poetry: ‘life is dripping down the sides of itself/ imagine your fist in me/ imagine bringing back waterboarding’ (‘LIT MOMENTS’). Happiness, which for Robinson seems synonymous with desire, is underscored by certain ephemerality, like the doom of an impending come-down. There are some disturbing moments in the collection, such as a poem about going out knifing in the city (‘MY BABY LIFE’) and ‘BIGGEST LOOSER’, presumably autobiographical, is a chronological history of sexual assault from age five to the present, and a depressing forecast of the assaults yet to come.

The recurring trope of the Rabbit in the collection somewhat eluded me. It first appears in ‘SWEET SWEET AGENCY’: ‘fwiw/ i would never snap the Rabbit’s neck again/ i would rewind i would keep it every time’. One gets the feeling the Rabbit is something internal to Robinson,  standing for tenderness or innocence, or possibly the poet’s higher self. It’s a fragile, easily violated thing — potentially a thing already lost, and this collection serves to eulogise it.

I appreciate the realism of Robinson’s descriptions of sex, pornography, and notably alcoholism: ‘the white vodka crouching neat/ as a bullet low inside me & burning’ (‘HONEY LAMB’) and ‘i vomit in the kitchen sink/ then the bathroom sink/ then the toilet/ then again in the shower. pink ribbons of bile & wine’ (‘ART IN AMERICA’). There’s a lot of numbing via substance going on in Rabbit: whisky, vodka, mescal, porn, painkillers, valium ‘& diazepam piled up on every surface of my home’.  The poet lives between poles of numbness and thirstiness — another theme, where ‘thirst’ stands for desire, desperation, drunkenness.

‘Fucking Up On The Rocks’ is a gruesomely affecting ode to Frank O’Hara, Robinson’s ‘favourite alcoholic’ and a poet clearly at the core of  her poetic DNA.  Certainly I found it useful to consider O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ in relationship to this collection. One of the minimal aspects of O’Hara’s poetry is “to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem” [i]. 

The ‘you’s addressed in Rabbit all seem to be lovers, and she is self-aware of a propensity to ‘write some awkward long-limbed poem just to remember that/ you have a clit.’. Perhaps poetry for Robinson is another way of mediating affective states, albeit a more elevated mechanism than drugs and alcohol.

As a collection, I found Rabbit somewhat patchy. Certain poems felt uncooked (‘Facebook’ , “Total LOL’), and poems that relied heavily upon repetition as a device (‘Denial’; ‘Social Fabric’) were hard to access or enjoy— my attention drifted and I glazed over. Her lines have a very virtual feel, reading and behaving like they have been composed on a device. One limitation of this kind of writing can be a sort of lyrical shallowness, or impoverishment. At times the material book — it’s physical insistence on the primacy of text, and its objective finitude (page ends, paper gutters) — felt like a strange support.

The syntax and texture of this poetry is faithful to what it means for language and our attention to be almost entirely mediated by technology: ‘& then these days i suck my pen off flick my nips grind against the/ […] desk/ staring at my inbox/ who am i/ where do the days go/ a slice of my life fried in blue light’, she ponders in ‘Lit Moments’. Robinson’s poetry is acutely aware of how our the haptic feedback of our technology has modified both the sense, and the sensorium, of our language.

Perhaps for this reason, Rabbit is not going to be to everyone’s taste. The ambient technological register is occasionally challenging, at worst boring, and her poetry doesn’t always make sense — but these aspects are markers of her contemporaneity, and are integral to her poetics. As Robinson advises in ‘Black Cherry’, ‘don’t mistake my message/ for its content: I’ve got nothing/ to tell you […] I just wanted/ to be in touch’.

A Robinson poem does best when it is charged with the intense emotional freight of her experience — when this is transported successfully through the poem, the result can be flooring. There are some absolute bangers, in the back of the book (‘Fucking Up On The Rocks’; ‘Art In America’) of which make this collection outstanding. The strength of this collection belongs to a few poems singularly, and to the moments of affective force distributed throughout: ‘there’s a hole in my chest like a punched wall’ comes close to how I felt sometimes. I pretty much guarantee Rabbit is bound to make you feel something, and for the thirsty and chronically numb, it comes highly recommended.


i. Frank O’Hara, Personism: A Manifesto

Phoebe Clarke is a co-convenor of Metaxu Books.

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