The titles of two poems on facing pages, at the midpoint of Ed Roberson’s new collection, Asked What Has Changed, mirror each other in near-perfect symmetry. “Mutable Point of Axis,” about how seemingly fixed perspectives shift and change, is twinned homophonically with “Mutable Point of Access,” which takes openness and receptivity as its subjects. The poems’ pairing typifies Roberson’s skill at linking concepts and phenomena, fashioning connections that might emerge as easily from a coincidence of sound as from likenesses between things. The virtue of poetry itself, as Roberson writes a few pages later, in “Eco Echo Etude” (note again the “echoes” in the title), resides in its gift of “responses to the homologous,” made through its “animal / territorial scratch on the bark of this / plant transformed as it is to paper.”
Just as William Blake was able to descry an entire world in a kernel of sand, Roberson is ever alert to affinities between the small and the vast, the fleeting and the cosmic. (Grains of sand and, analogously, microcosmic water droplets are featured throughout Asked What Has Changed.) “The Universal Ephemeral,” which describes temporal flux in ways to which the pre-Socratics would have assented, unites the reaches of interstellar space with the creaturely body in its figure of “The umbilicate ear-/shaped galaxy listening.”
But Roberson’s intimations of order, complementarity, and grandeur — which the activities of humans often fail to honor, not least through our ecological depredations — are never far removed from chance disturbances or unanticipated arrivals. His poems can transport the reader to places unexpected. “Kingfisher” begins as a nature poem but ends by invoking the Underground Railroad; the eponymous bird and the historical liberated fugitive are fused in the poem’s final word, “free.” “Cascade” starts off with a vision of a flight of starlings, moves through Roberson’s memory of driving through Pennsylvania with his daughter when she was a very young child, then concludes, startlingly, with a bitter lament directed at Chicago, the city where Roberson lives: “one more death / of a child shot by another that reach of the street.”
Roberson can be cast, among various other descriptions, as a city poet, no less urbane in his way than Baudelaire or Gwendolyn Brooks. Yet, because of his insistent environmental consciousness, his Chicago is always enmeshed in larger, epochal structures of time and ecology. Many of his poems take as a point of departure the view from his high-rise apartment, where he can take in Lake Michigan and swathes of the city below.
This sort of high perch, reiterated in poems where he gazes out from the top of the John Hancock Center or muses that “When you live high in the mountains … What you are working on is the sky,” provides an obvious stage for reverie, contemplation, and detachment from the world beyond. “This is city / living,” he writes, “at its most ethereal.” And yet Roberson’s standpoint upon such roosts exerts a paradoxical influence on his poetic self-presentation as an urban poet. He shows himself to be a man apart, in the city but not quite of it, even as Chicago’s presence is incessant, never to be fully banished from the mind.
In several poems we see Roberson on ground level: out walking the streets, the poet finds himself, often with chagrin, attuned to 21st-century changes in the urban fabric, effected through gentrification or simply (in “The Street Knows It’s Changed”) in the way mobile apps for transit schedules have altered the forms of social interaction that takes place at a bus stop.
In these poems, as throughout the collection, we encounter Roberson on an intimate human scale — as a particular African American man of a certain advanced age, who draws a pension (and stuffs sheets from his account statements into cracks around his air-conditioning unit) and is not always at ease during his walks. On the street he is brought face to face with the weight of history and the present moment: “I don’t turn into this street because it can turn on me / it turns on me my government’s police gunshot // when I am unarmed and haven’t done anything.”
Even Roberson’s more speculative or metaphysical flights of poetic perception are always grounded in his “visioning physical body,” a phrase from one of the collection’s untitled poems. This sense of embodied consciousness, of human vision, which entails inherent limits, is occasionally the vehicle of awe or delight: “What could I want?” he asks at the close of “Falling Stars Upon Which to Wish.” But more often Roberson widens the scope of his concern and expresses a troubled awareness of the earth’s exhaustion, casting sober judgment on our current environmental predicament: “we might not be fast enough / to outdistance events // anymore we can go up / in a puff prior to any announcement.” As the poet sees it, we have only ourselves to blame:
it seems to have been our nature to avoid defining ourselves as a running out even though we have death as our exemplar we used that up
Roberson’s 2010 collection was entitled To See the Earth Before the End of the World; there’s no denying an apocalyptic strain in his work. Here, reaching back to the Biblical deluge as his reference point in “Covenant,” he wonders if it is now “our turn . . . to destroy creation … the opposite bank already afire.” In the face of so vast a threat, one potentially so irrevocable, it would be facile to seize only on the more hopeful moments in Asked What Has Changed as some sort of compensation or consolation. And yet there are, within these poems and Roberson’s mode of vision more broadly, glimmers of a possible renewal, which are spoken with conviction, authority, one might even say wisdom. Suggesting the ancient, intimate, and mythic bond between artistic creation and viniculture, he offers us the observation that “we don’t settle very far / ever from our ruin // the soil of the fire / grows the best grapes.”
Asked What Has Changed (2021) by Ed Roberson is published by Wesleyan University Press.
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