Still from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “L’Enfer”.
Poetry is always batting back and forth the issue of sincerity. Is it acceptable for a poem to be direct with what it’s saying? Personally, I want to read poems that have a true emotional entity behind them, but I also don’t want to be told what to feel; I want to arrive at that on my own. Don’t tell me to be elated— elate me. It’s a continuing problem for poets—how can you be straightforward about emotional freight but also give the reader a fresh and authentic experience? These aren’t new questions—issues of legitimacy, authority and honesty have been around as long as poetry, or at least as long as Plato. But there are always new ways to explore the issue, new experiments to try.
Lately I’ve been struck by Adam Robinson’s brief lyric, “Cold Fusion,” which appeared in Sink Review earlier this year. Here’s the poem in full:
If yr yearning heart is clogged up,
simply give me a beautiful call.
I can solve the hurt.
I am the grand master and
I transubstantiate each peculiar wish.
How like a 10 key calculator, when dolphins
keep pasture in a lonesome valley.
I unclogged a galaxy right now,
while you wait,
because I hunt so grand, so heart.
Robinson’s poem hinges on a carefully calibrated balance between the emotionally forthright and the weird. The poem is set up in a pretty direct love-lyric form: there is a speaker, the “I”, addressing a “You” and describing himself with various professions.
But the tone ranges all over the place. First there’s that “yr” in the opening line, a purely informational, text-message abbreviation. That lower register is paired with “yearning heart,” which is highly sentimental; it’s the kind of Hallmark phrase one might not trust in a poem. But then Robinson turns our expectations on their head again with “clogged up,” which hints at less lofty elements like plumbing—not what we usually like to associate with love.
The effect of that first line is one of fullness and disorientation–the heart is clogged but also yearns for more. With the high register, Robinson gives the reader a sense that the poem will follow a clear emotional trajectory. With the low register, he swerves away from our expectations. This, I think, is one of the great strengths of poetry—when a writer creates a totally new and unexpected experience for the reader, upsetting us, taking us just a little away from familiar ground, so that we can feel something fully and truly.
Robinson encourages the addressee to “give me a beautiful call” just after that line, and here begins a new form of disorientation that carries through the rest of the poem. What exactly is a beautiful call? How can a call be beautiful? This is a strange modifier, and it’s hard to pin down or understand. Similarly: can a hurt be “solved,” exactly? How is a wish “transubstantiated”?
The last sentence of the poem builds on this work of disorientation. “I unclogged a galaxy right now, / while you wait” is problematic. Just like the speaker can unclog a yearning heart, he can unclog a galaxy—but hearts and galaxies are not the same thing, and the use of clog is no clearer here than it was before. But what really catches me is the weird (and completely intentional) manipulation of tense: the speaker unclogged a galaxy right now. Sense blurs and syntax erupts again in the final line when what would be adverbs to modify “hunt” turn out to be an adjective (“grand”) and a noun (“heart”).
But his meaning is still clear, if we let it hit us—we can see through the “incorrect” grammatical choices. The author’s decision to manipulate this language has a powerful effect. It loosens the strictures of common, everyday speech, and subsequently frees us from our ingrained, knee-jerk reaction to cliché. Robinson creates a voice too urgent to be troubled by correctness; he peels the scabs off of familiar talk to make the reader hear a fresh, pulsing language. We find ourselves knowing exactly what kind of love would unclog a galaxy for us. This poem is short, and, for the most part, shies away from formal complexity. But it uses disorientation to uncover a place for sincere emotion in a lyric, and it leaves the reader in the presence of a strange, arresting voice.