Ed Roberson 101
Ed Roberson has led, by any measure, an unusual life: he has explored the Amazon, climbed the Andes, and worked as a steelworker, a diver, and a limnologist—all while writing some of the most innovative verse of the past 40 years. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Roberson, who came of age during the Black Arts movement, writes eco-lyrics with an acute sense of history and racial consciousness. He won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2016, and his books raise questions of the largest possible magnitude, exploring the relationship between word and world—or, as he says in To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010), the world of animal and human endeavor. At once spontaneous and complex, his fluid lines double back and uncurl while recording—with unerring sensitivity—the ever-changing conditions of life.
“Writing for me began with the nature poem,” Roberson recently said in a lecture. Indeed, in his first published poem, Roberson takes care not only with nature but also with the tradition of nature writing. Instead of presenting a postcard of picturesque beauty or unspoiled ruggedness, this lucid sonnet places us in a “gentle wilderness” that is both dynamic and endangered. The verb “jar” is key here: the speaker is wary of being “too wild” with the “fragile mountains,” but he doesn’t want to place them in a jar like a specimen, removed from context and detached from the interconnected vitality of the scene. Like fellow poet Gary Snyder, Roberson searches for an ecological language, one in which buried rhymes and meticulous enjambment [link to glossary term] create paper mountains as real as the “snowcapped” ones.
“Handed the Rain”
Trained as a painter and a scientist, Roberson is deeply invested in the act of seeing, often flexing and bending images in surprising ways to show us just how elastic perception is. Moving between the mythic and the specific, this “balletic” early poem uses one of our most enduring verse subjects—the sky—and makes it new. We “see it turned” again and again: at first, the firmament is a bowl “upside down on the grass,” then our earliest horizon, the inside of the womb. Newness is not an end unto itself, however: dissolving the line between air and water, past and present, Roberson brings us into sea, invoking the Middle Passage and the Atlantic’s “drowned cloud of black / lives.”
“Program for the Dance”
Roberson has a gift for the poetic sequence, often using its enlarged canvas to build texture and forge unexpected connections between otherwise discrete poems. This masterpiece from his 1998 New and Selected book begins in an ekphrastic mode, describing a dance in which the dancer “[beats] himself to death / dancing.” It continues by shifting subjects and genres, inviting us to consider how driving through New Mexico or watching TV with a spouse might also constitute a kind of dance. The choreography of the fourth section is particularly deft: it re-centers the poem’s many subjects—family, racial identity, nonhuman life—on caregiving and the creatures of his aquarium, who—like us—“live in / a timeless solution of their histories.”
Has there ever been a more profound meditation on parking spots than the one that begins this poem? They are presented remarkably as the “metered footprint” of time and death, “our uncurbed circumference.” Like many other poems in Roberson’s City Eclogue (2006), this piece updates the classical pastoral: instead of drawing strict boundaries between city and country, nature and culture, Roberson shows us herons and cormorants fishing in “green garbage runoff” along shorelines that are “corps of engineered.” Such a revision has far-reaching political implications: the book, which elsewhere explores segregation and gentrification, invites readers to not only see the “the grown over dumpsite” but also to consider how our ways of seeing structure our geographies along racial and economic lines.
The term topoi refers to the conventions of a given literary genre and shares a root with the word topography (topos means “place” in ancient Greek), a fact Roberson makes much of in this sequence from To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010). Revising our typical metaphors for time and place, the synesthetic opening measures years in terms of eggs and imagines “the rhythmic static / of cicadas” as the “hiss” of “deep time.” The magisterial title section considers the modernity of a bird’s-eye view, contrasting it with the way hunters must have experienced landscapes on foot. “We have to feel the spatial,” Roberson writes, “in what we see / to see clearly … / as when we kiss, / distance disappears, our eyes close, / and we see bodily.”
“A Low Bank of Cloud”
Quick-changing syntax, hyper-extended metaphors, and sudden inversions of argument—much of what makes Roberson’s work innovative can also make it challenging. The opening of “As at the Far Edge of Circling,” for example, has the philosophical density of Shakespeare’s or Hopkins’s work. But for all his intellect, Roberson never abandons his senses. In poems such as “A Low Bank of Cloud,” his lines unfold with an improvisatory verve that captures the moment-by-moment experience of thinking in a body. His constant movement between the abstract and concrete are like the phase changes he describes here: “from ice, from cloud turning to clear / liquid” expanding “sight’s field … // to insight.”
“May I Ask”
Along with “Aunt Haint,” also published in Poetry in 2015, this timely short poem is an aural artifact, staking its claims on black vernacular and language as a spoken (rather than just written) medium. Talking with a friend about their grandmother’s coloration, Roberson considers how race is something that is done to us or we do to ourselves—through language, lighting, dye—rather than just is. Riffing on the homophony of die and dye, the poem laments how our culture makes space for black pain and black death but not black life: “Black, yes, but if black leads some to pretend / that you have died // except you’re black and alive / who are you?”
“Rosetta Stone Serious Study of Love Song (from the British Museum)”
Even though Roberson often draws on autobiography, the speaker “I” is rarely at the center of his poems. Like the poet George Oppen, Roberson focuses on what it means to be numerous: to be a part of a history, a landscape, a people. Those concerns still deeply inform this recent poem—it takes place in a museum, after all. It’s also, as its title declares, a “love song” and one particularly about black love. An I sees a you, and in the complex play of reflections at the museum, they see them freshly, black but outside the historical “inhibition of letters,” sublimely beautiful and “beyond all description.” It’s a rare moment of inexpressibility for Roberson, whose “one mind” can often “say three ways we say the one thing,” but it’s a precise rendering of his constant aim: to reach beyond the gaze we inherit and see clearly, newly, again.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.