back toJacket2
   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

James Belflower reviews

by Elizabeth Robinson

88pp. Omnidawn Press. Paperback. US$12.00 1890650072 paper

This review is about 5 printed pages long.

The Insubstantial Sacred

paragraph 1

Perhaps it is the remnants of my Southern Baptist upbringing or Claudia Keelan’s use of the word ‘heretical’ to describe Elizabeth Robinson’s book Harrow, but I could not avoid aligning her extremity, fervor and persistent subversion of biblical narrative and tradition with George Bataille’s assault on the religious sacred. He writes:


Christianity has made the sacred substantial, but the nature of the sacred, in which today we recognize the burning existence of religion, is perhaps the most ungraspable thing that has been produced between men: the sacred is only a privileged moment of communal unity, a moment of the convulsive communication of what is ordinarily stifled (Visions of Excess, Minnesota Press, 242).


In Harrow, Robinson grapples with this substantiality, relying on the ‘moment of convulsive communication’ to redirect our attention and render its tenuous periphery. She writes, ‘This is what poetry says: faith is uneasy, an erotic uncertainty’ (35), and Harrow enacts this unease.


Composed of three parts, the central series ‘Betokening,’ was written as Robinson began a seminary degree. Throughout this section, the privileged moment of the sacred is agitated to the surface through juxtaposition and recontextualization. Rather than retell existing narratives, Robinson’s demarcation of their storyline constellates at the far edges of seemingly iconic religious signs and symbols. This, in turn, reforms our gaze: our burgeoning awareness of the series’ now unfamiliar narrative locus. By removing this comforting (and therefore traditional?) context, the periphery borders a space from which recontextualized signs and symbols emerge. Her delicate, deliberate language reforms and then hones our growing recognition, becoming a ‘privileged moment of communal unity.’ On the micro level, syntax is jarred by her deft sleight of hand and, rather than the customary dove from the magician’s sleeve, we are jolted by embryonic pulses:


That has pryingness
Cracking shells.

A beak, nipping.    Remember

a different equanimity —
a spiral bridge,
skipping the guidance line

and wrinkling the shell.

     But this biting of pests
In embryonic pulses.

     She does this still —
to the work, the net

     But this husk cutting back
inattentive with coercion (54).


The initial ambiguity of each bird’s location (inside or outside the shell?) draws our attention to the eggshell, the barrier/boundary between two modes of existence: mother/tradition and newborn/innovation. The poem continues this ambiguity through the mysteriously cruel attitude of the mother bird toward her newborn and/or the newborn’s affliction, ‘But this biting of pests/ in embryonic pulses.’ The mother bird overcomes her aversion and begins to help the young bird in the penultimate stanza. In the final stanza, the acute ambiguity surrounding the shell becomes clearer. It is tradition, an inattentive but coercive husk, which has reoriented our own position to the poem’s examination of this privileged moment.


Robinson knows that the reexamination of, or disobedience to one’s belief system, is not a simple task. Her poem, ‘Experience,’ addresses the difficulty of ‘pryingness’ and the inevitable destruction that follows from this inquiry:


I try to defend the orthodoxy of the icon, of uranos and gaia:
Any sane person can compare. But, heretic,
you move among the forms of illogic while the form speaks
     to you.
Where vision precedes hearing. Can’t the form
of the evangel be reborn alike in eclipse?

Or hypostasis:
What is created, like word, is circumscribed, a man in the
form of the moon
with all his singular deformities —
simultaneous in time, God and God, the word in its state
     of experience
is never spoken.
But we do act, visually, to remember its timelessness.

Then the question: You find a space,
heretic, whose width conveys meaninglessness.
The prod of that glow in memory.
The womb,
like groping the moon, opens to creatures and the son of man has no size.
A desire created by seeing and impiety,
in this case, becomes the object of its own lunar orbit, perhaps,
worthy of veneration (7).


With this question in the last strophe, she, like Bataille, posits a manifold and transient perspective of the sacred, stemming from the ‘illogical’ width required by the new perspective and contrasting with a ‘desire created by seeing and impiety.’ With this wedge comes corporeal freedom: the awareness of the body’s potential in time, rather than its bondage to the empty vessels of ‘timeless’ tradition. ‘Experience’ also conceives the erotic and subtle violence of her project. Her contrast of the masculinized symbol of the moon — its perverse groping and prodding — with the stereotypically feminized moon, illuminates what is at stake in this engagement of the sacred: a reconfiguration of hypostasis and a fresh awareness of the traditional through a reconfigured orbit.


Robinson is highly aware of the inescapable violence of the Christian tradition, yet she does not shirk from engaging with it. She writes, ‘In Harrow I was appropriating and fighting with the stories at the same time’ (Xantippe Review, Vol. 3, 81). Since she is inserting transience into a repressive and static system, certain types of destruction are inevitable; however, in contrast to Bataille’s ultra-violence, Harrow’s violence requires acute attention to become salient, and assumes a variety of forms: syntactical, semiotic, contextual and appropriative. In ‘Entry for Song,’ Robinson avoids a simple censorship or defense of the Christian tradition’s bloody history and instead examines its impact on the sacred moment, through the story of the prophet Deborah.


When I fall


on my knees

Jael brings

with my face

milk to the tent.

What was a sanctuary

is a stake.

Have mercy

on that temple, that is

my forehead

breaking together

with bread (82).


The final stanza’s plea for mercy is the clearest merger of the violent and the sacred. The overlapping plots of murder and fellowship force the reader to consider the transient width of the sacred instant, compelling them to imagine, in the swelling wound, a surging forth of the insubstantial — the razing and positing of a tensile sacred.


In the penultimate poem, ‘Little Book,’ Robinson addresses the challenges of enacting this marginalized relationship to the insubstantial sacred by evoking the story of Moses as he attempts to find water for the Israelites wandering in the desert. In one interpretation of the story God commands him to strike a rock and water will flow from it. After striking it, Moses takes credit for the miracle and at the end of his life is refused entrance to the Promised Land for this transgression.


This periphery tells:

do not be facile.

by clear borders.

Dove in vehement fog.

From the corner of an eye

welling up from this realm of springs.

The reply:

find use.

A gesture over rock in catechesis.
Gesture not to be so simple.

This margin lays itself there
and then returns

to renumber the page.

Wing, to alter the shape of the outermost (87).


Robinson’s version emphasizes the possibility of a marginal faith: ‘[it] returns to renumber the page.’ She finds encouragement and hope in this idea, as it becomes a ‘wing, to alter the shape of the outermost.’ The simplicity of her admonishment, ‘find use,’ makes our project all the more urgent, arguing for meaningful ‘gestures’ to evoke the transience of the sacred.


By surrounding the sacred traditional with a transient periphery, Robinson leaves little room for a reader’s repose, urging, and in some instances prodding us, to reread and therefore reposition our relation to a challenging stasis. She writes, ‘poetry makes faith out of willed attention’ (35), and Harrow enacts this poignant ethic. An ethic crucial to a contemporary, viable poetry: a theological praxis, which can engage our turbulent world and its ceaseless bids for our attention. Harrow carefully avoids the acrid irony usually associated with religious skepticism and instead beautifully articulates potent oppositional gestures towards our present religious culture.