In Ed Roberson’s latest collection, Asked What Has Changed, we see what he sees—shifting natural borders due to climate change, “horizons look ominously larger”; avian coinhabitants, “the heavy liners of the scheduled / geese in their straightaway”; environmental toxicity, “the poisonous smoke settling back // to the blank ground”; violence, “the one more death / of a child shot by another, that reach of the street”—from the “private peak” of the speaker’s Chicago high-rise window. In the act of viewing, the poet’s “eye is not filled with seeing, with only / seeing, but with understanding the sight,” and it’s this “understanding” that Roberson translates for the reader. In Roberson’s epistemology nothing is certain except the ephemerality of life. Also, he attributes that sense of foreboding that increasingly permeates our contemporary lives, in part, to anthropogenic climate change. Our altered climate reality is palpable throughout the book’s lines, “now, you see the view is turned on us to frame / human agency become transparent.” Nothing will be exempt: “heartbeat of larger elements, the seas, / the air, had mutated, become chimera, / grown wing, and routed ancestral time.”
The high-rise window affords the speaker a view of lake and city from above, among the geese, swallows, hawks, and gulls. The frequent birds in Roberson’s poems are both themselves (the consideration of nonhuman species) and metaphors or symbols for other histories and events. “Kingfisher” begins, “glimpse something drop like fruit from a branch / of trees along the river then fall back / up to its perch.” And continues, “watching brings them into being but for / their own coalescence out of nothing / to do with us any more than us with / them. Interdependence a scribbling / outside the lines of what we know to draw.” He describes the unique hunting behavior and habitat of the kingfisher, and for anyone who has watched a kingfisher fish, there is pleasure in reading Roberson’s interpretation. His line-work, white space, and pacing matches the kingfisher’s activity. He reflects that the kingfisher exists separately from us, yet “Interdependence” asserts itself in the middle of the line after the hard stop of a period.
After exploring the dynamic of kingfisher and observer, animal and human, the poem takes a revolutionary turn in the final stanza. Roberson writes,
the living eye must translate: diamond back
the stripe the spotted light shadow into sight
back from nested camouflage in the whole
of indeterminacy back into flight
inside the lines of time to stay itself
alive. Where to step. An underground
railroad guide’s read. tree or face.
Take Smuggler’s Notch the last leg to Canada.
You can see down the climb for a day who’s behind you and
there are caves to fade into or appear
out of free
The camouflaged “diamond back” kingfisher morphs into an enslaved person navigating the underground railroad to freedom. The surprising transformation makes plain that “interdependence” and “indeterminacy” are key in understanding the more profound implications of this poem. His use of periods increases momentarily, “alive. Where to step. An underground / railroad guide’s read. tree or face.” Then formal punctuation disappears completely, so the final three lines suddenly flow with only white space and line break for pacing as Roberson concludes, “you can see down the climb for a day who’s behind you and / there are caves to fade into or appear / out of free.” Roberson’s blending of limitations and freedom, interdependence and indeterminacy, both thematically and formally, reveals the interconnectedness of human, animal, and history. At times the reader might not be certain of what they’re “seeing,” but knows and senses the larger undercurrents he’s plumbing—interconnectedness shot through with oppression, racism, and violence.
These poems imbued with issues of climate and racial justice bristle with sound, word play, the everyday and the exotic, and numerous moments of beauty. In “Outlook,” Roberson probes fresh water scarcity as a new way to reinforce inequality, like redlining a neighborhood or building a manufacturing facility in a black or brown community: “single source of fresh water to fill their pockets. / Their eyes on this the same as on those neighborhoods / needed out of their way or working for them those / who have all the money.” In “A Drop of Water” Roberson writes “I want to know the larger networks / of answers’ ripple – // flowering the trees the loam they’re loomed from / the earth that pops / free of its drop.” Using white space as punctuation and measurement, we arrive at the arresting description of a flowering tree “loomed” from “loam,” and the multiple implications of “ripple,” as in how a raindrop makes ripples in a pond, how an answer to a question can ripple through understanding, and how a tree root ripples through soil. His lyric—contemplative, revelatory, deftly specific, painfully truthful, and sonically and formally dense—reminded me at times of Gwendolyn Brooks, Arthur Sze, and Susan Tichy.
Similar to his “loomed”-“loam” construction, Roberson, throughout the poems, uses language related to humans to describe nature, “the shawl of rock wrapped tightly around / the emptied shoulder of a river,” and then in relief, describes urban places as wild landscapes, “the line of skyscraper cliffs.” As with the kingfisher/underground railroad, animal/human history melding, he juxtaposes and intermixes the built and the natural, so that they no longer exist as distinct silos. Most people, in fact, live in places that are combinations of the built and the natural, though one may dominate the place more than the other, “an arctic owl this south / to fumble its catch of an American coot and drop it dead / among the Christmas night ice skaters in the park.” The slipperiness of boundaries, the hazy demarcations between things, the constant indeterminacy, is primary in these poems. As is his telescoping from the large to the small to explore permanence and ephemerality: “a cloud / only holds its shape a matter of seconds / The lightness of the transitory gone / with its day is not what we feel / when we contemplate extinction though / their forevers are the same disappearance.” The eye looking out from the high-rise seeks “a way of seeing as deep as the sea” and beseeches the reader to see with this same depth the fluidity among phenomena, our place in the world, and the world’s place in the human.
About the Reviewer
Tracy Zeman's first book, Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly and others. She lives outside Detroit where she hikes and bird watches in all seasons.