“For twenty years Robinson has been making language do new things, and for a wonder she’s never afraid of that shadow of words we call affect. In this new collection her precise ear and sense of line sustain a poignant austerity of gesture. She knows that the real dark is the one we keep inside, and her lines scratch at the shell. Her exuberant imagery is chastened here, focused—image names meaning. She probes macabre spaces, golems and hells and devils, but not the ones our culture knows—these are the proper monsters of her self-encounters. The book is exciting in its silverpoint tracing of the complexity of our ‘dubious desires.’” —Robert Kelly
Do you mind, she asked,
if I steal a bit from you. This
she asked again and again until
I discerned that the mere—
the mere asking
got her what she wanted.
Do you mind if I steal
a bit from you, I murmured
to myself, forgetting she stood by.
Echo like a candle in a cathedral.
Bit as in bite.
As she repeated and then
repeated herself, I felt the uneven
the warm wax, rising,
as heat does, to the face.
I felt her bite the echo from me,
from the great, arcing rose window face of me,
bought and stolen from
with rising warmth.
Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Robinson
“In Robinson's most recent collection, ‘identical merges with identity.’ Written in airy, magnetic language, the poet explores ‘bifurcations of the self,’ layers of self and language that we fear to confront because of their sinister, unpredictable traits. The collection's eight sections are separated by epigraph-like fragments from other voices that reverberate in Robinson's own poems. ‘Sanctuary,’ blurs two selves. The thief and the victim become the same: ‘do you mind, she asked,/ if I steal a bit from you.’ This phrase changes, becomes ‘murmured to myself, and then the meanings of the words shift: ‘bit as in bite,’ pulling the rug of meaning from under our feet. Language, in Robinson's hands, is unstable, warped, and deceptive. Her poems roll over and over in quickly changing permutations: ‘the frail opening from/ ration to rational.’ Like Narcissus crashing into the lake to capture his other self, ‘how better to translate,’ Robinson writes, ‘than to destroy.’”—Publishers Weekly, 08/20/2012
“Map the themes/ground covered between Hell & Heaven . . . whitespace, the all-steady-hand. The copy / the double / the reflection: as the ‘identical merges with identity’ we look inward for/to the self. Robinson’s lyricism functions as guide & delusion; as to find the self is both necessary and unachievable. Must read.” —Ostrich Review, Fifty-Word Saturday
“Despite the desire for ‘pronouns to take on the corporeal,’ to accurately name and give shape to the uncanny, they resist such easy definitions for ‘they are like the static of a sick-dream, / almost amenable and at the same time, / frizzy, off their marks.’ Readers are confronted with an uncanny other, one who is like and unlike us, a macabre Narcissus ‘fascinated with its own blood.’ In exploring this other, the speaker envisions flesh as a possible point of entry: ‘Here’s a fleshy zipper / that opens in my belly, and I unzip and open and then / there I go. Inside and down the path.’” —Aromi Lee, Verse Online
“Robinson’s terse, minimalist idiom recalls the work of Niedecker and Oppen, Barbara Guest and Michael Palmer, but it’s an idiom she has made entirely her own through a subtle and exacting deployment of measure and a provocative confrontation with postmodern theology. The scrupulous and tender inquisitions of her earlier work, from In the Sequence of Falling Things to Pure Descent, place her in a small group of contemporary poets (Pam Rehm, Peter O’Leary, Liz Willis, Andrew Joron, Lissa Wolsak, Joseph Donahue, Claudia Keelan and David Miller are a few names that come to mind) whose engagement with the recovery of a radical ontology marks them as some of the most daring poets now writing. By daring, I don’t mean the kind of typographical quirkiness or archly bloviated theory-sprach associated with so much work currently lauded as vanguard. . . . The kind of daring found in Robinson’s poetry evinces a spiritual courage and moral acuity that recalls Simone Weil and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her deeply informed suspicion of language has not robbed her of an underlying assurance in the hermeneutical circle of meaning. There’s a willingness in her poems to grapple with the aporia of faith and doubt that places her in a line extending from Hadewijch of Brabant and Julian of Norwich to H.D., Robert Duncan and Fanny Howe.” —Patrick Pritchett, writing in Jacket
“In an age when identity theft and the appropriation of personae via the Internet run rampant, Elizabeth Robinson’s poems are surprisingly timely. Janus-like, they manage to attend to our oldest and newest questions and fears, simultaneously looking back at philosophical questions of identity that have long concerned mankind, as well as more modern quandaries pertaining to literary collaboration and appropriation. Are we the same people we were yesterday?” —Eric Weinstein, reviewing Also Known As
“The problem of how we understand the words of others—or of ourselves—is poignantly explored in Robinson’s poetry. And yet, even now I feel that I am over simplifying the case and reducing Robinson’s work to something not altogether accurate either. It is, after all, here, a conversation—Robinson to Robinson—but any attempt to listen through the poem guides her readers toward new possibilities of meaning. —Dale Smith, writing in Bookslut
“Elizabeth Robinson is a poet who, over the span of several books, has created a language that is uniquely her own. Sparse without nearing empty, pared down without ever feeling over-edited or contrived, Robinson’s work belongs to a school of writing all its own. Certainly a part of the lyric tradition but also influenced by a spirit definitively experimental in its nature, Robinson’s poems are both studies in intensely felt human emotion and in the alternatively slippery and concrete ways in which words can function.” —Reviewed by Marisa Siegel in The Rumpus
“Counterpart plays with what the title suggests, composing pieces that explore comparisons as a study of motion, counterparts, counterpoints, doppelgangers, Golem, twins, the repeated binary and what else the mirror holds. . . . Whatever its name, the “other,” her poems suggest, is never as far away as one might hope, and close enough to perhaps have quite an impact. Or, as she writes in the poem “WANDER”: ‘And so all matter is made of words.’ There is such a vibrant energy to Robinson’s lines, composing straight phrases with linebreaks that sparkle and spark across meaning and speed with such an ease as to make any other writer jealous. Elizabeth Robinson is easily becoming one of my favourite American poets.” —Reviewed by Rob McLennan
Elizabeth Robinson was born December 3, 1961 in Denver, Colorado, but grew up mostly in Southern California. She spent her first year of college at UC Davis, where she worked in a crisis counseling center and took poetry workshops with Karl Shapiro. After a year, she transferred to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where she did a double major in creative writing and psychology, writing her psychology thesis on universal sound symbolism. (She has always understood herself as working at the intersection of multiple disciplines.) While at Bard, she studied with poet Robert Kelly, and also with Ed Sanders and Robert Duncan.
Robinson later did a master’s degree in creative writing at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she studied with Keith Waldrop and was an intern with Burning Deck Press. She also worked with C.D. Wright. Visiting writers at Brown, including Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge were generous to her and had a lasting impact on her work. During the time she lived in Providence, Robinson worked with autistic people, both as a staff person in a learning center and as a respite care provider.
Following her time at Brown, Robinson moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in an inner city intentional community devoted to community building and racial reconciliation. After a year there, she lived in Oklahoma for three years, first as visiting faculty at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and then as an interim university chaplain.
During the 1990s through the early part of the current century, Elizabeth Robinson lived primarily in the Bay Area where she attended the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and earned a master of divinity and an MA in ethics. (Not surprisingly, Robinson’s poetry is preoccupied with mystical/theological/ethical questions.) Her two sons, Wilson and Jonah Morris, were born during this time. Isolated from many literary events because she was busy with her children, Robinson started a summer backyard reading series in Berkeley that she continued for 7 years. She likes to think that this was a spark that generated the proliferation of house readings that one still finds in the Bay Area. With Colleen Lookingbill, Robinson founded EtherDome Press, a chapbook press that has published two chapbooks annually of poetry by women who have not yet published a chapbook or book. Recently they have published a ten-year anniversary anthology of women’s writing, As if It Fell from the Sun. Robinson is also a co-editor of Instance Press with Beth Anderson and Laura Sims. Instance Press publishes work by a wide range of experimental poets, from mature writers like Keith Waldrop, Beverly Dahlen, and Jack Collom to emerging writers like Camille Guthrie, James Belflower, and Keven Varrone.
In 2004, Robinson moved to Boulder, Colorado. She has taught there at the University of Colorado and Naropa University. She has also been a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Hugo Fellow at the University of Montana.
Honors awarded to Robinson include the National Poetry Series for Pure Descent, the Fence Modern Poets Prize for Apprehend, and grants from the Fund for Poetry, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Boomerang Foundation. She has been awarded residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Djerassi Foundation. Currently, along with her poetry projects, she is co-editing, with Jennifer Phelps, Quo Anima, a collection of essays on contemporary women’s poetry in relation to spirituality and formal innovation.
The poems of Counterpart where written over a period of several years. I had long carried around (and finally read) a copy of Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem which is set in Prague in the late 19th century and does not conform to the conventional myth of the golem as a creature made from clay, but represents the golem as a double who haunts the narrator. This resounded with my earlier reading of Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell in which a young woman is haunted by her doppelgänger, and a severe form of redemption transpires when she is willing to confront that double.
Increasingly, I noted in all sorts of literature and art the presence of the double. The manuscript is sprinkled throughout with quotes from my (mostly) contemporaries, and one sees the many iterations of the double—the uncanny presence that one recognizes and yet does not. I wondered if this is how we create a community: through this kind of proliferation—of voices, of presences—which we cannot really identify as true and real, but which pervade our thinking and perception anyway. Maybe that eerie sense (the lurking image in peripheral vision) is the realest real. It lies in the identity of the paradox that cannot be proven or resolved but which persists beyond all reason.
Though many of the poems have a kind of bleakness (and it’s been a very bleak stretch of years for me), I prefer to see this haunting as ultimately fertile. In my personal life, I felt confronted, overwhelmed, with a sense of hellishness that threatened to overwhelm and entrap and so I decided that hell itself should be come a terrain of exploration. It might better be understood as a place where the self locates and reproduces itself; in doing so, it presses back against the constraints of understanding that cycle obsessively through the mind (or at least my mind). In the underworld in which one recognizes this uncanny other, there is no guarantee and little safety, but at least there is the possibility that one’s aloneness is not absolute.