rushes from the river disappointment
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020
Part way through her latest book, rushes from the river disappointment, stephanie roberts’ speaker essentializes much of the collection when she says, in “Now I Know,” “that first loss wakes the whole heart to its task / sometimes forever.” In roberts latest book, the river delivers constant disappointment in the form of dashed love and connection, but also disillusioned expectations and hopes for the world around her. In a voice that is wry and wounded, commanding both the colloquial and the sentimental, roberts, a four-time Pushcart nominee, details reactions to a solitude borne of relationships that do not offer fulfillment or requited love. As the river of the title establishes, the intimate letdowns are often couched in nature. The tone is not resigned, though; in fact, it is fiercely determined in the face of relentless loneliness, the speaker unwilling to succumb to an apostasy of faith. In an interview for Montreal Review of Books, roberts said, “In spite of past hurts and future uncertainties, under the weight of doubt, the Beloved must accept into her own life the Lover’s offer of the imperfect self. This belief in `I love you.’” Later, she explains, “You can exercise faith without love, you can have faith without even very much thought, but you can’t love without faith. Many failures of love come not from lack of emotion but lack of faith.” A handful of these poems as explorations of love and faith are dated like journal entries, from 23.3.13 to 11.11.17, suggestive of a diary of letters to the self. Throughout the book, though, her language is engaged with popular and literary culture, referencing Game of Thrones, social media, Thoreau, and Robert Haas.
It doesn’t take long to feel the speaker’s disappointment in a world of elusive relationships. She says, “Little by little your heart // muscle withers when you hope love is happening // and it isn’t” and “don’t fall in love with me, / because we have too late, / like tragedy forming marrow.” Like the most painful descriptions of dating, it’s a world where you must “pray to what immolates you” and where “there are people capable of eating popcorn at the movie of your agony.” The poems are perceptively gendered, too, as in this moment from “Tame”:
take the credit, set the terms,
finger her photos, fake your future,
take her body of evidence, take, take,
take until all candyass fear of loss is
These pages detail a set of experiences that drive even stand-in characters, such as a Snow Owl, inward to silence, where she is “high and far on silent / beats till expire and exhaustion [are] her only friends.” The silencing has her “working her way up to breakdown” until “she learned to orgasm silently.” However, there is much to be said, roiling below, as noted in “Part for Me”:
it’s holding the ocean
back that aches;
it is the way
you don’t want me
what i’m going to say
The speaker often comes back to these terms of volume and quiet, as here in “Off Hours”:
for fuck’s sake
let’s get sick of talk of love
i’m going to love again so quietly
no one will know
It’s a reality wherein “alone, shared memory inflicts // corporal punishment.” A reality whose terms are, “only under a contract of no / privacy limits will you stay demanding.” And it causes the speaker and reader to wonder, “will hope be forsaken as age dismantles optimism?”.
Offsetting the crestfallen outlook is a clever and engaged speaker, reflected in the titles of these poems which are fantastically full: “the opening liturgy of the morning’s first draft is all fucking while the evening makes love as the good poet puts it”; “tinder of the desperate man”; “the week-late answer to that hot-tempered text on my birthday”; and “with soft eyes she learned to see the curvatures of spacetime in the omnipresent grid of hope and then cry accordingly” to name a few. The notes also include a hilarious moment of elucidation, as roberts wants to make clear that “the author is aware that a group of turkeys is not called a gobble.” It’s a speaker reaching out, trying to connect, asking desperately (though she also chides desperation), “who can save me from my own violent vocabulary.” This inner voice is insistently the salvation of the book’s desperate-seeming situation, a Virgil voice that leads her through the dark. Because there is smart and tested hope here, and a metacognitive understanding of the poetic project at hand, humorously detailed in “Something Terrible Is Going To Happen:”
i’m going to write a book called god awful poems
comprised of the most red love poems
my sad glad mad heart can mustard.
i’m going to write a book called a poet’s gotta eat;
it’s going to have a poem about this couple sitting
across the aisle, touching each other religiously,
comprehensively kissing the hollows of their
hope, nuzzling the pulsing plains in their necks,
counting with lips the knuckles they will bruise.
There’s a rally of pep talks, reminders to the self that “i’m going to be in love again” and statements that reach out as aphorisms to the reader, like, “beauty berates cynicism” and “Don’t let a present helplessness spoil any moment” and the gritty, “what has fallen / crooked with abuse may be shored-the-fuck-up.” Moreover, there is frequent use of second person in these meta-self-help poems, as in “are you seeing this?” and “I know you don’t know / what I’m saying, but you will.” This maneuver assures the reader that the hard-won survival mantras of the speaker are shareable wisdom.
The title of the book makes clear the twining of disappointment and nature, which is both the nature of flora/fauna but also the exploration and recognition of what a thing’s essential nature is, and that thread is pursued in the collection. Faith and nature and essence are brought together in Aristotelean reminders like “a thing can forget what it’s made / to do, even a natural thing.” There is both a cold naturalism and a solace—in “The Woods of Perhaps,’ the speaker says, “perchance one day you wake in a tub / of cold blood come warm. Then, will you let / this whole forest of hurt love you?”—even as the language flourishes in its musical description of landscape, like later in the same poem: “And the lime-gold glow of old / and future dangle folded as fresh / cicadas on bracelets of branches.” The speaker is often seemingly positioning herself in a world that teems around her barely noticed, saying, “Pay no mind. The holy life of leaves / dwindle.” But that wry, funny speaker is never far off, pondering as “A gobble of turkeys watch the train / where i–like god–eat a turkey sandwich” [see roberts’ end note].
roberts opens this collection by setting out to say what goes unsaid: “We agree without asking to say nothing about all this strident / confused unbelief.” In what could be a very navel-gazing wallow in wilted chances at love, the poet actually lays out the challenges of loving the self regardless of one’s relationship woes, and in so doing, extends that experience and encouragement to the reader who, she promises, will also be “in the book of god-awul poems.” Somewhere out there, the figures of roberts’ distress roam a tough, lonely landscape, but in here, in the pages of her collection, she and her readers find good company in each other.
Bill Neumire’s second book of poems, #TheNewCrusades, was a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize and will be out in the spring from Unsolicited Press.