In his first poetry collection If You Discover A Fire from Brick Books, Shaun Robinson spins out poems that describe, in precise detail, a faded and fallen world. Larry Levis once said, ”There are places where the eye starves”, but in Robinson’s capable hands even the most mundane or pedestrian of settings feels haunted by his careful attention to the right word and image.
This is seen in the opening poem “Greyhound Depot, Cache Creek” where Robinson describes a desolate bus terminal and a ruined motel as a timeless purgatory:
In ten years of changing
buses here you’ve never seen anything change.
The motel pool’s still closed for repairs.
The same gap-toothed assortment of stale candy
and travel shampoos in the vending machine.
When only the weekly paper marks time
it’s easy to forget that anything happens,
that your parents met here, decades ago,
in the incomprehensible era of Kenny Rogers
and indoor smoking.
Robinson has chosen his details carefully – for example, the gap-toothed assortment of candy and travel shampoos in the vending machine – to illustrate how time works differently here, if at all, but paradoxically, he then leaps to a different time period in his discussion of Kenny Rogers and indoor smoking, which makes readers feel his fastidious consciousness layering itself onto even this barren place devoid of change.
Robinson manipulates time again in another poem called “Carpe Dos and Carpe Don’ts (ft. Panda Bear)” where he tosses the present moment aside and makes us live in an eternal summer past:
The only time
that exists is the Summer of 2013, a time
so dope that Mayan philosophers glimpsed it
in a collective dream and invented
paradise and apocalypse. And as for
those lemons, the ones life gave you once—
the Summer of 2013 saunters into your kitchen
and takes them from your hands, slices them
into sixths, pulling a bottle of Patrón
and a shaker of salt from a pocket.
Out on the porch, between shots, he tells you
things you’ve always known, how the past
and the future are lovers spooning
in bed, and the present is how they don’t
quite fit together.
I like everything about this poem: it’s gritty vernacular, its personification of Summer 2013, and the entwining of past and future even if “they don’t quite fit together”.
Robinson is a young poet, and some poems feel slighter than others, but the best poems in the collection are those whose expansive scaffolding and lyrical breadth unlock his true talents.
Some poems tease out surreal little passages like, “He’s seen his father’s face appear as a cloud / of mosquitos above the North Saskatchewan” or “The sky stripped off its blue negligee” which for me add a wonderful contrast to his up-close, note-perfect descriptions of his lived experience.
In one of the last poems in the book “Ash Wednesday, Kingsgate Mall”, Robinson combines the fluidity of time, a dram of the surreal, and his knack for description. It ends with:
“We all make plans, I guess. Like my friend Bryce,
who’s given up alcohol for Lent, stocking up
on San Pellegrino, jewel-toned sodas
all the sweeter laced with the bitterness of sacrifice.
I know we are contained by vessels, by shoelaces
and short-term leases, the B-Line drifting
down Broadway’s churning traffic.
My wallet contains a cheque, signed and dated
like a bottle of good whiskey. The cheque
contains the last two weeks of my life.
I’m studying the shelves, deciding how much
of my past I’ll give up, which future I want
to carry home under stars as clear as vodka,
a sky as black and sparkling as Coca-Cola.”
The compression of daily life, the confident line breaks, and the poet’s assertion “we are contained by vessels, by shoelaces / and short-term leases” makes readers feel Robinson’s hungry, world-riffing consciousness and his need to channel it into vivid, seamless poems.
If You Discover A Fire by Shaun Robinson is a powerful debut whose signature qualities – a strong sense of description and a powerful guiding intellect – combine to make the poems not just spark, but burst forth into flames.
About the Author: Shaun Robinson’s poetry has appeared in The Puritan, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Poetry is Dead, and The Rusty Toque, and received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine‘s 2018 Poem of the Year contest. Born in 100 Mile House, BC, Robinson has lived in Vancouver since 2006. He studied in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program, where he served as the poetry editor of PRISM international. He is also the author of the chapbook Manmade Clouds and currently works as an editor for the chapbook press Rahila’s Ghost. If You Discover a Fire is his debut collection.
If You Discover a Fire by Shaun Robinson
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