If you read Kristin Robertson’s debut book once, you really ought to read it again. In the very last poem, one finds oneself circling back to the beginning with a newfound understanding of Robertson’s self-awareness. By trafficking in sarcasm and irony, she reveals that throughout the sincerity and imagination of earlier pieces she has always known that the theme inescapably interacts with a trope: man as angel. As much as she defamiliarizes her subject, she cannot escape the association, until she finally acknowledges it; “Will Humans Ever Have Wings,” the last poem’s title asks, to which Yahoo Answers responds “that will probably NEVER happen. / Evolution produces only what is NECESSARY, / not what is cool.” Robertson’s willingness to engage in a found poem that treats her book’s premise as a ridiculous afterthought lightens the tone but also encourages a fresh understanding of her work. She is tempting us to question her, a fun and rewarding challenge on second read.
This is not to say that there isn’t plenty to reckon with the first time through. Every section begins with a poem titled “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings,” each report from a different day in the trial. The reprises of the poem aren’t aligned chronologically with the sections, a mimicry of the non-linear path of injury and recovery that patients of surgery often suffer. It seems that the patient or patients in this trial are struggling to remain grounded; the poems’ ties to the literal loosening as the wings graft and take root. In the earliest day presented in the trial, day 7 in section two, the patient is conversational: “what’s it like? Not what you’d think.” By day 46 in section one, the patient admits: “I find myself empathizing with bats...I’ve turned manic.” On day 203, section 3, the patient has “crossed into interstellar space.” The untethering is both literal and metaphysical. Because these pieces are out of order, the narrative arc of the book feels confused, an emotional dissonance especially resonant in the last poem, as all of the previous poems have resisted humor in favor of more serious situations coupled with a more haunting or colder tone (a woman jumping out of a window in “Loon,” strangulation in “Hyoid Bone,” and murdered students in “Haint Ceilings”).
Certainly, a book of poetry need not contain a narrative arc, and perhaps the ordering of the pieces of Clinical Trial is meant to push back on the notion that the book should be considered a singular rendering of the title, the disjointed nature of the arrangement reflective of the drastic tonal and emotional changes that the reader faces poem to poem. These dynamics present a struggle for agency, a struggle with the lack of control imposed by injury (emotional or otherwise), and the temptation of escapism attached universally to the concept of wings. In “Blue Herons,” the speaker struggles to save her cousin from an elusive illness, promising “next she’ll paint me with that fresh/water,” willing her to survive. In the very next poem, “Leaving Coins on the Mouths of Cadavers at Emory Hospital, a Defense,” the speaker is the only one with agency, the only adult, a chaperone on a camping trip responsible for the safety of her charges. From an autonomous agent to one peer pressured into submission, the speaker’s agency is again a 180-degree turn away with the arrival of “Alaskan Charter,” where the she is forced to beat a fish to death despite the act placing her “half in [her] dark grave.” Robertson is constantly defying expectation, beginning with clear narration and finishing with pure metaphor in a struggle to find a locus of control: “I told you I made rent/three summers working as the Snake Lady at a county fair...a whole sky I’ll gather by armfuls and climb back down into this life.” From literal to metaphorical, affable to frightening, the overarching gestures feel meant to keep us on our toes.
Robertson’s book, then, is not one that can be read passively. The use of second person, singular or plural, frequently pushes the reader into the often uncomfortable position of the speaker. In “Moon Elegy,” the speaker tells us that “we can’t remember/the bright surgical lamp, nurses above us/exhaling, You almost didn’t wake up” and yet by documenting the event it is implicit that some part of us can remember, that the trauma transcends memory. While on a fishing trip in “Alaskan Charter,” the speaker tells us “they hand you a club/and say, Don’t be a cunt./With a fifth strike, the spinal cord/snaps, slips through your fist.” The urgency in both pieces lies in a primal fear of death accompanied by a primal fear of killing—Robertson forces us as readers to inhabit both positions with her, to stand with each speaker entirely and accept the feeling of being overwhelmed.
In part, Surgical Wing is so absorbing and the direct address is so successful because of form. All of these poems, aside from reprisals of Clinical Trial, are in couplets. As F.M. Warren notes in Modern Philology, couplets have traditionally been a narrative form, deriving from French poetry. Even though each poem contributes an isolated narrative, in their repetitive imagery they call back to the theme and beg consideration with respect to one another. Avian imagery riddles nearly every poem, but Robertson’s subjects of interest change. She writes of a historical figure in “Audubon Ate His Birds,” twisting the traditional tale, and contends with pop-culture in “Letter to Tippi Hendren.” In “Rules of Surgery” and “Emergency Rooms During Thunder Storms,” we are back in hospitals, in the first as a medical trainee and in the second as one of many patients, each a different type of bird. We are “all of us, lost in the wild.” Robertson’s capacity to defamiliarize a poetic image so overwrought as the bird speaks to her creative talent. In Surgical Wing the “milk-white raven brings doom,” “pelicans barrel/toward the widening pupil of glittering ocean,” and “wrens and angels” sit side by side. Previously held associations with every sort of bird are eliminated—she, in essence, re-names them.
Though the narratives are isolated, the couplets are not. when Robertson does choose to enjamb, she does so artfully, making room for surprise (“I left it/on the floor of my closet until the cat crawled in/and died”) and powerful, compelling cascades of sound (“these puffer fish secrete their own apocrypha,/which, young anglers, will become your pillow talk:/taped mouths scream on the slab, skin winces/at the first slice”). The hard Ps of puffer, apocrypha, and pillow make for meaty lines while the sibilance of secrete, scream, slab, skin, and slice quickens the pace. In “Lionfish,” the alliteration also pushes the piece forward: “after sex I say we need a safe word—/not for rope burns or blindfolds—/but for when he wants to kill himself” reaching a climax in the middle: “coolers of ice in her candlelit kitchen,” “greening the glass like a rapid frost,” and resolving in a quiet gesture all the more powerful for its sonic deviation from expectation: “hovering over the cooler, gazing down at a seashell, like the goddess of love.” In this way, Robertson’s use of sound is reminiscent of Claudia Emerson, whose in-rhyme and frequent consonance is largely sculpted by enjambment, allowing her to escape her own patterns at the last second (“I confess that last house was the coldest/I kept. In it, I became formless as fog, crossing/the walls, formless as your breath as it rose/from your mouth to disappear in the air above you”).
Robertson also situates herself among contemporaries in her first book’s construction: a recurrent theme dominates across sections while a variety of speakers use shared imagery to implicitly reference it, even as they tell their own stories. Kaveh Akbar’s “Portrait of the Alcoholic...” series in Calling a Wolf a Wolf and Nicky Beer’s recurrent octopus poems in The Octopus Game come to mind as immediate parallels to “Clinical Trial: Human With Wings,” arising repeatedly throughout the book but varying each time and always contextualizing the poems around them. Alongside these poets, Robertson encourages us to consider what separates a project book, if such a category is to exist, from a book with strong through-lines or transcending questions. Though Robertson doesn’t do as much with white space as the above poets, “Abecedarian for the Death Moment” and “Rules of Surgery” play with form brilliantly. What makes Robertson singular is her uncanny ability to take an age-old idea and present it in an entirely new light. In the very first poem, the first part of “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings,” She asks us “are these ashes? Am I rising in flames?” and over the course of the book, via a painfully sincere yet oblique investigation of man’s endless desire for flight, we are forced to answer her—either she is a phoenix, or she is Icarus, and it is in our hands to decide.
Joey Lew is a MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She holds a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Yale University, where she was a member of WORD: Spoken Word Poetry. An interview that she conducted is forthcoming in Diode.