Adam Robi(n)son and the Evolution of One-Handed Piano Compositions: Matt Jasper on Adam Robinson’s Adam Robison and Other Poems

Adam Robison and other poems, Adam Robinson, Narrow House

When the last ruminants wandered out from Midwestern slaughterhouses to repopulate the scorched fields, one man was there to receive them. That man was Adam Robinson—hymnal slammed shut, eyes fixed to meet any adversary. Half poet, half epistemologist, he seemed to wander in a not-so-plain plain or plane still lonely for the human race that he himself had thought out of existence with the following poem, Rapture:

My childhood home would fall from the blue
Sky with my childhood dog inside it but
My third apartment would just hang there that
Dull apartment would bang poof and fwip away to

My roommates who would leap and free
Fall all their limbs awave afrantic their
Hands smelling like sandwiches their
Milk spilling from glasses corking through that blue

Sky the sentence “Here’s one for the mouth stomach” would
Fall our vacation in China would wind a giddy path down
Into our sad memories of sad memorials and
My inability to say anything in Chinese like

Cesuo, which means toilet
Sezwo, chesoo I cannot say it

When my childhood house fell from the sky my
Childhood dog ran through the rooms yelping my
Mother trilled The William Tell Overture and
We pathed down the sky with grace tumbling

A song emerges when events and places are unmoored from space and time. Essence is stark and threatened yet is also renewed by being ripped from context to tumble into combinations made more precious by their novelty amidst impending demise. Raptured beings (“roommates” etc.) and abyss trinkets (such as “sandwiches”) enter the personal memories of a more relative yet more intimate and compressed (words squashed into neologism and onomatopoeia) truth beyond mere teleology because this is a step out of and then back into time that carries a living end back into life. The alternation between frames of reference within time and a realm outside of time forms a cyclic hum that orders the music of the poem. Entering and leaving time allows the capture and overlay of multiple and/or opposing states that collide like smashing particles to reveal what is left. With the seemingly intentional indecision of a pyrrhonist, Robinson has created a suspension of multiplicity (saying yes to multiple opposing states, reveling in the anxious dizziness of freedom) made one that is still relevant to the living because it has transmuted the incommunicability of rapture into something only partially conveyed and therefore comprehensible because it reflects back toward a perceiver rather than sailing on into the infinite. This rapture lacks vast boiling seas and shockwaves shown in panoramic romps above doomed continents. Most of it is as personal as a childhood home and pet and friends. A bit of bigness in the form of China shows up yet this turn of the squelch knob is tempered by the speaker’s “inability to say anything in Chinese.” Though speech is difficult amidst the reordering, music is not—its rhythms and pitches answer rapture with grace, form a soundtrack to the tumbling.

The above falling balancing act is one of many poems in this collection that celebrate imperfection and the joys of the finite. Yet which finite actions or realia are settled upon honors infinity with a form that contains it–little algorithms of undoing amidst doing, recursion, infinite regression and progression. This approach has emerged in a “disenchantingly meta” world in which expanding information threatens to overwhelm any sense of scale or bearing as a being with boundaries. Yet permeability is the spice of life—as celebrated in poems such as “A Coleen”: “Really give it to her/ Give some girl the leaking dog.”) and “Some Men in My Family” (where pointed verbal insults lead to physical transgression: “A ventricular septale defect I yelled/ Yelling You, Adopted, have a hole in your heart/ Through the locked bathroom door/ And he kicked that in off its hinges”). Permeability, holes, and leaking can lead to perhaps opening the floodgates a bit too wide—as in the poem “I’m going to have sex with these people”—in which an idealized mood of peaceful and vaguely horny benevolence allows an intimate consideration of connection with a busload of people which in turn magnifies the perception of faults (“jowls”, being “repulsed” by smell etc.) so that while the title’s directive appears not to have been followed, the speaker still seems grateful for the ride provided. Perhaps he is thankful to those on the bus for not somehow sensing and taking him up on his momentary impulse to love all. To love all is a form of being raptured. One sails on into dissolution or tertiary syphilis then recoils to build up the bulwarks of individuality again. This balance is not unlike the balance “between not God and God” as sought in “The Skeptic.”

Intentional errors and limits to what can be perceived are woven into the book. Limits and miscommunication are engines powering much of its bold attempt to chart a course through a constant barrage of stimulus. Robinson comes right out and says things such as (in a poem entitled “[Whoa]”) “It seems like a point of maturity to recognize the limits of one’s own/ knowledge.” That particular poem (a tribute to a Liberian freedom fighter) showed the apparent mature honesty of ending up in a violent heap of almost random typographic symbols as its author boldly plunged into mute chaos. One gets the sense of following a tour guide who knows precisely which valves open which floodgates.

The presentation of copious references (to Roosevelt, AC/DC, Kierkegaard, Chomsky, Marianne Moore, Kim Deal, William Carlos Williams, etc.) is perhaps more playful and less quote-ridden than the average Arianna Reines book and seems to have a more distant, even philosophical, viewpoint—a very real sense that the author is stepping in and out of having a human perspective even as he collects and stacks biographical sketches in exploration of the ultimate individual and collective human shape. He also steps out of the text with hypertext web page links and sentences such as (in the middle of My Summer Vacation Via Conference Call), “If there are any questions I’ll be glad to address them at the end.”

Here’s a poem (an eponymous poem within an almost eponymous collection covered by a staggeringly great mock-serious portrait of Adam Robinson posing as Adam Robison.) caught playing with the imperfection of sin amidst considerations of scale:

From here the sun is smaller than my thumb
But I am powerless to change my vast mistakes
My mistakes are smaller than the sun
And 7x hotter I feel a tremendous sorrow
Sin big nothing hey wow a little flower

This poem shows personal conscience in play with cosmic scales that shift significance this way and that. One is reminded of Kierkegaard: “My observation of life makes no sense at all. I suppose that an evil spirit has put a pair of glasses on my nose, one lens of which magnifies on an immense scale and the other reduces on the same scale.”

Gathering and/or noticing beautiful (“a little flower”) and intriguingly dissonant things (throughout the book he seems driven to gather up bits of truth and power to slide onto a protective amulet that he occasionally hangs himself with) forms poetic structures that sing and scream with music, humor, and logic set against itself. Robinson also employs spatial and word play that extends into language. Here’s a well-named example, PUKE NUT 3000:

Peanuts have dead fish in them
Dead fish in them made of peanuts
These fish have peanut flippers
That are so small and yet still peanuts
And still fish

After wondering whether to make comparisons to Ron Padgett or Sarah Eaton or Marianne Moore or even Stephen Crane, one is left to wonder about the two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine puke nuts that came before the lucky three thousandth. This three thousandth is like a fraction of what the larger poem becomes once it sets up a repeating pattern of identity knitting into infinite regress (or progress?). One may not eschew the Escher-ish nesting of one within the other as a small hungry pattern is established to fill the page beyond its words. Duality in the aftermath of collision is one way to stagger away from the battlefield and live to fight another day—sort of by finding enough spare parts between blown up self and enemy that one can assemble one whole soldier. This soldier will win the war by internalizing the external conflict and duking it out bloodlessly within an interior space of refuge and reflection. Being comfortable or even intimate with contradiction seems to allow reassembly after an apocalyptic imagination has taken everything apart.

Throughout the mix of poems about philosophers and artists and relatively marginal figures and Robinson’s own family and friends, a trace of Robinson himself emerges, and the poems become almost a memoir of the things half-learned by a fallible, regular but interested dude

It’s hard to say how good of a book ARAOP is, because there are so many mistakes in it. And maybe that’s what’s fun about the book—the reader is granted more authority than the author. And if that’s the case, and it was done intentionally, then Robinson was successful and his Robison book is great. On the other hand, if he simply didn’t know that it was Calvin who wrote the Institutes and not Aquinas, or if he just doesn’t know Brahms’s first name, then who should care?

Well, I did. So I followed up on references to things like Johannes Brahms being, as Robinson claimed, “one-handed.” The article ‘Evolution of One-Handed Piano Compositions’ cites pianist-amputees that included Count Géza Zichy (1849–1924), Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961), and Siegfried Rapp (b. 1915) yet Brahms was not on the list. After this, I found myself sadly questioning that “He drove through toll booths” and “He’d ask the attendant to apply his change/To the fare of the carriage behind him please.”

To confuse matters, Robinson is often reliable, as when he accurately describes Bas Jan Ader’s conceptual art along with his doomed attempt to cross the Atlantic in a 13-foot long modified Guppy boat. The second Ader poem ends with the worst Chris Burden joke ever alongside the best example of carelessly painful honesty ending a relationship. Note the almost unforgivable pun-like origins of how Robinson may be comparing a ship to a relationship in the Ader poems.

The Chris Burden reference is an example of how deeply resonant some of the tiny cultural references are once researched. Burden—also a conceptual artist—created and launched a crewless, self-navigating “Ghost Ship” yacht in 2005. One begins to think of how a similar invention may have been made by Ader in 1974 by jumping or being washed off of a little Guppy boat that was indeed in charge of its own navigation (or lack thereof) when found later.

A tolerance for being endlessly fucked with builds as the book progresses—though it may lead to endless paranoid examinations of undermined understructures. The red-herrings, mistakes, and teeming cultural references add up to more than just the oddity and humor that drips from every page. Though often geniusly dumb, Robinson is more engaged than that. He does not remain outside of the structure he transgresses. He is not laughing off to the side thinking that he will go unscathed. Yes—he is (as in the page 47 poem “Adam Robinson”) “In charge, in charge – really, really in charge” of this book’s poem world, and is willing to strut through it with a pompadour (as on page 62) but he throws authority away—even underlining how ridiculous and lonely it is to be heroic in poems such “Zach Mayhem Chronicles (Ch. 2)”. Amidst this celebration of endearing human oddity, camaraderie, and communication, an astute reader’s conception of the collective human form will be changed.


Matt Jasper was a frequent contributor to Grand Street and Rollerderby in the Nineties.    His book Moth Moon was published late last year by Blazevox.  It has attracted four serious fans and one person who said it was,”pretty good but kind of autistic.”  He believes that book reviews should be unreadable.   He writes and collects schizophrenic autobiographies in Farmington, New Hampshire.

Bell Hooks and Jabs and Feints and Emerges Victorious, Unbruised, Hairy: Adam Robinson on Matt Bell’s How the Broken Lead the Blind

how the broken lead the blind

Matt Bell, How the Broken Lead the Blind, Willows Wept Press

In high school I read a Zen Koan about finding a horse. This rich guy sees a black stallion or something and hires an old master to retrieve it. He returns with a spotted mare. The rich guy is like, “Wait, what?” and the master says, “Oh no, it’s cool, this is a horse.”

It’s like that with the very short stories in Matt Bell’s collection, How the Broken Lead the Blind. They aren’t just great because of what they are about on the surface, but because of the tension between what’s on the surface and what accumulates behind the words. Bell’s work manifests Susan Sontag’s notion from “On Style,” that “the subject is on the outside; the style is on the inside.”

Accordingly, many of these microfictions work as conventional, plausible narratives, like “Once She’d Been a Brunette.” This one begins with a man shaving his head to support his cancerous lover and ends a year later when, giving his stubbly scalp a rub, she thinks about the springtime she’ll die before seeing. Bell encapsulates that whole drama in the first sentence: “They shave their hair together, before she even starts to lose hers.”

Meanwhile, other stories invert the question of narrative belief admirably. They would probably work as allegories if they had some distinct second meaning, but the second meaning isn’t distinct at all – at least not in what we have come to think of as a meaningful meaning for meaning. Like, take “Player Piano.”

In the first few sentences of this piece, a man who seems like he’s been lifted (masterfully) from a John O’Hara story boasts about his full head of hair. Life is great for him. “My wife and I were blessed all right,” he says, until the piano repairman unfolds the secret to their happiness from a scroll wedged into their upright. Supposedly this will put an end to their luck. But instead of bearing this out, the story ends with their terror at the possibility of unhappiness.

In “The Present,” a wife gifts her hand, severed, to her husband. This one is really absurd. The man is delighted with the gift, especially the surprise of it, but when his wife comes home from the hospital, she’s displeased to find that he’s using it for an ashtray.

Then another straight story, “The Trophy Wife,” begins with a gift too, this one from a man to his married lover. It’s a bowling trophy, representing her alibi and also their infidelity. And bowling represents their dilemma: “There are four hundred and fifty-nine combinations of possible splits. She said, It’s hard to pick up after a split.”

Regardless of the logistical framework of any story, my first judgment of each is simply that it is interesting. This is a rare feat in a genre which prioritizes mood and ingenuity over coherence and occurrence. It’s canny of Bell to tip off his authorial focus early, in “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy.” He writes, “Resist denouement, resist the solving of mysteries and the revealing of truths, because it is in these things that you may be judged.”

The point is almost cynical – don’t try to do much, because you might fail – but Bell is exceptionally good at writing in such a way that nothing ever seems to be lacking. This is what I’m most fond of in Bell’s writing, what continues to strike me each time I read it: in abstraction, it is never alienating. Complete from every first sentence, How the Broken Lead the Blind is always unresolved, always resolving.