from “The Open”
In a flattened sea of housing brick rubble,
a catch of broken glass shoots back the light
that lit its flash, a wave’s facet, sudden
ember through full daylight, pierced afternoon
of vacant block after block
whose lighthouse stare no longer gone looking
for work even as sight to see, flounders
for landing left to its address and on
those work commutes is sailed past unseen as
standing in the last building standing,
in a bare window, barely in his shorts;
his as none of the windows is curtained nor show
any sign but him of habitation—
the doors off the building, panes gone from
but him on the upper floor just wakened,
standing there, late foot on the sill as if
balanced on the prow of his ghost ship he
hasn’t even had to take over,
a lone survivor, a squatter keeping it
drifts out into the open
I do not think it would be going too far to call City Eclogue Ed Roberson’s masterpiece. This collection, which reads effectively as a long poem, despite its show of individually titled poems, synthesizes and perfects the poetics Roberson has been working with since he began publishing in 1970. His control of language—or his ability to reveal to us the telling elusiveness of language—has never been stronger, though he draws upon syntactic and metaphoric practices that typify his oeuvre. These poems are lyrical, even in their disjunctive sentences; intimately conversational, even in their determined orientation toward the page. He gives us the opportunity to see the cities that have formed his personal landscape through widening lenses that clarify their beauty and their ugliness, lenses that aren’t so much new as newly polished with the soft, insistent cloth of Roberson’s political and aesthetic sensibilities.
He begins with a poem that gives the nod to the poetic genre announced in the book’s title. The eclogue, commonly known as a form of pastoral poem composed of the dialogue of shepherds about the joys of their rural environment, invokes the muse, typically, as the first order of business. City Eclogue’s “Stand-In Invocation” informs us immediately that we cannot count on having a divine guide through the territory we’ll be traversing in this work. Instead, the figure who appears to the poet at the beginning (and reappears at the end) of his journey “testifies / she is not the mouth of anything you wrote.” She is fully of the city, suffering with and from its millennial transformations, not hovering over it from a goddess’s vantage point; though “[s]he knows the form” the eclogue is supposed to take, “her tongue’s just sharp and short of” the traditional role of the muse. The poet is on his own.
But Roberson shows himself to be up to the challenge. He quickly reasserts a proposition made in many of his earlier poems: that there is no coherent boundary between the world of nature and the world of culture—indeed, that no such different worlds exist. There is only the one world, in which we human animals work with and (too often) against the flora and other fauna, in creating our habitats. In “City Eclogue: Words for It,” he compares the way birds incidentally distribute trees by carrying their seeds from one locale to another with the city’s distribution of seedlings from the back of trucks to be planted according to a blueprint—and denies the difference. “[E]veryone is lying,” he writes, “when it’s said” of the latter:
. . . that this shit is not the flowering,
that shit off the truck, and not the gut
bless of bird and animal dropping isn’t somehow
just as natural a distribution
as the wild bloom.
Once we understand the human patterns of interaction with the earth to be just as organic as those of any other creatures, we are ready to contemplate cities like Roberson’s native Pittsburgh or the two he lived nearest for many years, Newark and New York, from the proper vantage point.
What we are prepared to understand better is the total interdependence of those of us who live in ecosystems such as those cities. Roberson traces this phenomenon in historical and contemporary moments that are often strongly racially inflected. For example, “Sit in What City We’re In” takes on that famous form of civil rights protest that took place at lunch counters in numerous U.S. cities, perhaps most famously in Greensboro and Nashville. Roberson’s interest in interdependence is reflected in his description of the mirrors that surrounded the counters and depicted the segregation-era drama to its participants in “infinite regressions”:
locked together in the mirror’s
march from deep caves of long alike march back
into the necessary together
living we are
reflected in the face to face we are
a nation facing ourselves our back turned
The section called “The Open” meditates on urban renewal and gentrification, inviting us to see the complex relationship between loss and gain that is obscured by the rhetoric of “progress” that usually accompanies such projects of transformation. Though none of these pieces are didactic, other poems are less clearly political in the way they address interdependence, such as “Ornithology,” which describes the sounds of pre-digital train schedules clicking through their rotations interchangeably with those of gulls’ wings flapping as the flock takes off; each image recalls the other, aurally and visually, in Roberson’s work.
These interweavings of lived experience are enacted in the poem’s intense and pleasurable aesthetics. One way we see this is in the pressure he places on prepositions in this work. Frequently, he seems to insist upon a layered locational relationship between one thing and another by doubling the prepositions that connect them. In “Idyll,” for example, a city’s population density enables some of us to rise to a point where we can “look out on the view.” This is a common enough phrase, perhaps, except in light of the syntactic construction Roberson uses, two stanzas later, in contrastingly describing the myriad “lives pooled” in the city as forming a mirror that some of us “seem // to look into inside.” The repetition of such constructions throughout the book becomes a rhetorical gloss on the theme of interdependence.
Further, a second reading of City Eclogue confirms what one only intuits the first time through: that Roberson is recycling vocabulary and images as often as he aptly can. And I do mean recycling, rather than simply “reusing,” because the terms and tropes do different kinds of work in each setting, even as they continue to bear the traces of prior functions. Consider the way the word “shit,” in the first passage I quoted, moves quickly from its abstract sense of describing something of little value to its more literal sense of referring to feces (as manure). Or take a look at the way images of jumping, screaming, and breath move from “Height and Deep Song,” in the second section of the book, to the poems “When the Morning Comes” and “Escape Training: Instructor’s Flying Rappel,” which appear in the book’s final pages. The territory covered is temporal, geographic, and catastrophic.
While “Height and Deep Song” speaks to racism in the context of a single city’s metamorphosis or even a disastrous intra-national (U.S.) system of human relations (there are echoes of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath to be heard in that poem’s section), the latter two poems, we realize, reference the bombing of the Twin Towers and the Hobson’s choice faced by some that morning: between “jumping or adjusting to the fire.” We begin to understand that the network of interdependence Roberson perceives not only includes relationships among cities (such as New Orleans and New York), as well as within them, but points ultimately to an all-encompassing philosophy of global interactions. The book’s final poem, “Eclogue,” an elegy for those huge absences in the New York City skyscape, speaks to a whole (and single) world of changes of various sorts: gradual and overnight, managed and uncontrollable, painful and advantageous. Which sort of changes they appear to be, City Eclogue suggests, depends significantly on where one stands—or, as Roberson might say, on those factors that determine whether the transformations are a view one looks out on or a mirror one looks into inside.
Evie Shockley is the author of a half-red sea (2006) and two chapbooks, The Gorgon Goddess (2001) and 31 words * prose poems (2007). She is currently co-guest-editing jubilat (with Cathy Park Hong). Her poetry and literary criticism have appeared in such publications as African American Review, nocturnes (re)view, Studio, Hambone, Center, Mixed Blood, The Southern Review, PMS: poemmemoirstory, Rainbow Darkness, No Tell Motel, and HOW2. Shockley, a graduate fellow of Cave Canem, teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is currently completing a critical study of the intersection between race and formal innovation in African American poetry, supported by the ACLS and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. You can find two poems from Evie Shockley here.