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The New Wing of the Labyrinth
Singing Horse Press. www.singinghorsepress.com. 83 pp Paper. US 15. 978-0-935162-42-4 paper.
Ed Roberson’s newest collection, The New Wing of the Labyrinth, is a haunted and a haunting book, a descent into the complex geography of human consciousness and its relationship to the external world. It is also a meditation on the nature and inevitability of death, as well as the poet’s confrontation of the prospect of non-existence; in short, the very edge of the phenomenal map.
The poems in Roberson’s new collection are obsessed with lines and crossing them, the dissolution of boundaries, and (dis)orientation and confusion with respect to those boundaries. The body ‘is uncrossed line’ (‘My Narcissus’), we ‘think along these lines of our disorder’ (‘Day and Night Don’t Organize Anything’), and the poet ‘should have taken the place with the blue line… my reaction was as always to that line’ (‘Moving to Chicago and Exit from the Bardo’). When Roberson encounters these lines — either physically or metaphorically, the dream state exchanged for the waking state, death for life — he is effectively charting the limits of mental and emotional space, the myriad paths he can travel before reaching the ultimate demarcation between existence and oblivion.
This fascination with lines extends even into the physical and narrative structures of the poems, narratives in which the speaker’s identity is dissolved through various surreal, liminal experiences, most notably through dreaming (the poet has ‘dreamt this / Enough I know it is a dream’; he laments his ‘own head to foot- / board theatre of warnings’). In ‘Three Predicates to the Subject “You Want”’, Roberson pays particular attention to what Claudia Emerson has called ‘the integrity of the line’ — a pronounced tension between the sentence and the line as units of meaning. He writes:
and you feel thankful
for the ceremonial
in this world, you take it to your place
in the line next to friends
Vast wardrobes turn up complete
to keep competitors at arm’s length
Written as prose, it might become: ‘And you feel thankful for the ceremonial in this world, you take your place in the line next to friends. Vast wardrobes turn up, complete legal arguments to keep competitors at arm’s length’. The way the lines are broken, however, reveals a number of secondary, subtler readings of Roberson’s text: for example, ‘in this world, you take it to your place’ and ‘Vast wardrobes turn up complete’. There is something less bureaucratic, less institutionalized about ‘in this world, you take it to your place’ as opposed to ‘you take it to your place / in the line’; ‘Vast wardrobes turn up complete’ evokes a domestic tone not at all present in ‘complete / legal arguments’. These softer undertones in Roberson’s work serve as emotional foils and surprising curvatures to poems that are otherwise overtly uncompromising and angular.
Roberson often works white space into his poems, suggesting lacuna in the text, the blank spots on the map that both complicate and make necessary the construction of a ‘new wing’. They are among the more obvious visual cues Roberson employs to illuminate his labyrinth, which is ‘any number / of doors into an empty apartment’. The labyrinth, whatever it is, exists much closer to home than we at first think; in fact, the image of the abandoned home, the haunted living space, the home of the unnatural — one thinks immediately of the Minotaur — is central to Roberson’s message.
In ‘String Drawer,’ the poet evokes the trail of string used by Theseus to navigate the Minoan labyrinth, writing:
The saved string
drawer of snakes
opens out of the stone
pile at the end of the yard
of daylight reach in
for the scaly rings
and the string of reminders –
Here the deft punning between ‘labyrinthine’ and ‘serpentine’ is solidified in the image of the snake. Roberson’s poems often exhibit this dualistic and self-referential nature, and from a sort of metapoetic standpoint engender a sense of the surreal in the reader; repetition, amphiboly, and integrity of the poetic line are all key to achieving this effect. In the first poem of the collection, ‘..A Man Enters a Labyrinth… ’, we hear ‘the magnified whisper // of memory not finish its sentence / whole, see the line instead dismembered’. This ‘magnified whisper’ not only works to bring the poet’s role as poet to the fore — it also serves as a reminder of the economically and sociopolitically disenfranchised and the growing magnitude of their voices, particularly the voice of the poet as such. Certainly, race and identity politics lie just below the surface of The New Wing of the Labyrinth.
It would be impossible to read Roberson’s work without acknowledging its place in the larger context and genealogy of black writing, specifically with regard to the négritude movement of 1930s France and its contemporaneous American analogue, the Harlem Renaissance — both of which only barely preceded Roberson, who was born in 1939, and served as direct literary antecedents to his own writing. The influence of poets such as Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, and Léopold Sédar Senghor on Roberson’s work are unmistakable: the repetition and starkness of language echoes Hughes’ poetry; the surrealistic contours conjure images of monsters and darkness so ubiquitous in Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land); the sprawling lines and narratives so conscious and conscientious of blackness and black writing reminiscent of Senghor’s poetry.
Indeed, all of these poets established a tradition of black writing in the twentieth century to which Roberson is heir; many of his poems deal explicitly with this relationship to and understanding of African and African-American literature. In ‘The Depths of an Old Wrong’, he ‘wants to be / an unknown un- / known / but not a nobody’, a sentiment reminiscent of that evoked in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He continues: ‘It’s amazing what white folks will say / when used to not even considering you’, and (from ‘Paying Attention’), ‘White people in the office think that / if you’re not around them / you’re not around’. This systematic erasure of ‘the other’, this sense of being lost in the twisting passageways of one’s own homeland, is the heart of Roberson’s collection: the notion that anyone can be a stranger, an alien, in his own country.
To be constantly searching for an exit from a maze that is constantly rebuilding and remodeling itself is a powerful metaphor for suffering diaspora in one’s own native land. Roberson’s poems — relentlessly poignant, emotionally salient, and deeply contemplative — explore this separation, these systems of boundaries and lines, across landscapes that are simultaneously dreamlike and harrowingly real. The essence of this struggle is, fittingly, best summarized in the last few lines of Roberson’s final poem in the collection, ‘The Motorcycle (Nearing St. Louis)’:
But I have broken a toe against a wall throwing myself
Out of the way
Of nothing. I have scars from
Being run down
By nothing even in my bed.
Eric Weinstein’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2009, Colorado Review, and Third Coast. He currently serves as poetry editor at Prick of the Spindle.