Poetry is intimate by nature. Consider how it is consumed: slowly, first with the eyes or ears, then steeped within the body until the language is unraveled and revealed. If prose is drip coffee, poetry is a French press. A poem must make direct, lasting contact with the self who invites it in. However, many levels of intimacy which poetry is capable of producing are frequently overlooked. Poems have a tendency to exist independently of a larger narrative—they shy away from deep character development.
Enter Kathleen Rooney. An already accomplished Chicago poet and professor, her newest collection, “Robinson Alone,” is a brave and extended meditation on a specific character (the titular Robinson) whose life and losses are fully witnessed throughout the book. This is art that stitches itself between the world of poetry and of the novel. Furthermore, the book is an homage to the late Weldon Kees, whose poem “Robinson” (originally published in the New Yorker in 1945) and whose life inspired Rooney’s project. This is a book of remarkable, deliberate poetry:
She used to walk through the house, skirt rustling
like rain. How was he to know she’d end up drunk—
as capable of savagery as they used to be of grace?
Long before the strain of life on the coasts, they
toasted each other after work at night, getting tight
together on gin & 7 Up. When it got too late
for her to read, or him to type, they’d fall asleep,
& share the same dreams, & sometimes wake up
in the middle of a thunderstorm.
The experience of reading “Robinson Alone” is an extraordinary one. No doubt many will find themselves finishing the work in one sitting, quickly immersed in both the language and the study of Robinson as a man, an intellectual, and a deeply introspective, haunted protagonist. And yet the most impressive quality of this collection is its ability to provide us with a compelling narrative while still maintaining a commitment to each individual poem’s substance. “Robinson Alone” is an incredible accomplishment, a wonderful read, and further proof that Kathleen Rooney is a poet of depth, grace and astounding empathy. (Raul Alvarez)
By Kathleen Rooney
Gold Wake Press, 134 pages, $12.95