Book Review

Few collections of poetry are as inventive, thoughtful, and playful as Katrina Roberts’s gorgeous sixth collection, LIKENESS. This hybrid book pairs seemingly whimsical, colored drawings with single lines in all capital letters beneath them that are not captions, but more like riddles that often refer to other artists and writers. Utilizing the hybrid form, facing pages rhyme or extend into one another, creating micro-narratives based on visual criteria rather than language. The book deftly interrogates the idea of likeness. For instance, nearly all of the figures in the book have heads that have been transformed into some thing or animal, drawing likeness from difference.

LIKENESS is divided into four parts, with a prologue and an afterword. The prologue is a concrete poem shaped like a small house with a small window, but no door, and a roof that seems to float above the body of the house. Fittingly, it begins:

Blunt force
blew the proverbial
roof off everything she knew.
Silence ticked in corners. Mirrors be-
came windows she climbed through giving
birth to self.

The poem continues, “Versions // iterations, semblances . . . Resemblances, echoes. Part dream?” Here is the ars poetica that inspires all that follows. It ends:

Drawn to screens, light, holes,
repoussoir [something that draws the eye into a drawing by framing the image] behind curtains, veils, she found archetype,
gesture, trope, treasure. . . . Pasture, page,
skin, each palimpsest the precise key. Stripping bark
from self, she flourished a wand, like Open Sesame . . .

There is a lot to unpack here, and it’s helpful to consider Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, which he defines in his essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1967) as “sites . . . that have the curious property of being in relation with all other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” Roberts’s work embraces this kind of space as each successive piece releases a burst of connections and conundrums.

In her piece titled “SELF-PORTRAIT as EARLY-MORNING CERBERUS” in section one, Roberts adds a parenthetical reference after her title “(—after Antonio Tempesta, – 1606).”  Tempesta was an Italian printmaker in the 15th century who specialized in pictures of battles and hunts. Roberts’s drawing is of Cerberus standing before a mirror looking somewhat shocked (in Tempesta’s original etching, Cerberus faces Hercules, who wields a club), perhaps because the mirror shows no reflection. Small emblems, reminiscent of the work of Hilma af Klint, an early 20th century artist, float in the upper left-hand corner.

In Greek mythology, Cerberus was a three-head beast and  guardian of the underworld, devouring anyone who attempted to leave. In Roberts’s self-portrait, the beast has human hands and feet, which could be interpreted humorously, or perhaps threateningly. Here, likeness involves art history, mythology, and ambiguity. The mirror contains a reflection that does not exist and a portal that may or may not exist, while time is kept by emblems that are unrelated to conventional timekeeping.

Roberts’s drawings have a strange, almost spooky, generative quality to them: if you try to describe them, your description might read like a poem. For instance, in “BEING TANGIBLE, IMAGES CONVEY TIME in DISSIPATING TONES” an androgynous figure with the head of a gazelle sits on a round bar stool, its hooves transformed into hands that strum a gold harp, tethered to the invisible floor by a thin string and a bit of tape. This image, when described in language, shifts into something that reflects or mirrors the reader’s own imagination, linguistic proficiency, and knowledge.

This piece is in section two, titled “(TANGRAMS),” after a “dissection puzzle” game that creates a new shape out of an existing seven-piece shape. In this case, the shape is the house at the beginning of section two, which significantly contains a door, but no window (rhyming with the concrete poem in the “Prologue” that has a window, but no door). A permutation of the house tangram appears at each section break, but in section two, one appears in every piece. The tangram for “BEING TANGIBLE, IMAGES CONVEY TIME in DISSIPATING TONES,” is a thoroughly deconstructed version of the house that suggests permutations are another kind of likeness.

Roberts’s drawings are steeped in art history. In “FOR WHOM AMONG US HAS NOT FELT HERSELF a CIPHER?” two anthropomorphized bats—one male, the other female—hang upside down from a disembodied tree limb, each with a thought bubble. The female bat thinks a squiggle of indecipherable language, while the male bat thinks the symbol “o” with a line through it, signifying zero. On the facing page, in the piece titled “ASEMIC,” (which means “without meaning”) an androgynous figure (slightly more female than male), with the head of a ferret-like creature, also has a thought balloon filled with a dense mass of scribbles that could be a reference to American artist Cy Twombly’s painting titled “Untitled,” 1969.

In the third section is titled “GRACE, an EKPHRASTIC SEQUENCE,” the subject and style of the drawings shift. A page of quotations begins the section, including one by Seneca from his essay, “On Benefits.” Seneca was a 1st century Roman writer. From him, Roberts quotes: “Why are there three Graces and why are they sisters? Why do they hold hands? Why are they smiling, youthful, virginal, wearing loose and transparent dress?” These questions persist throughout the section. All of the capitalized texts are followed by parenthetical attributions “(—after . . .),” which refer to specific artists who depicted the Graces. The way the Graces are posed in the drawings closely aligns with the originals, but have subtle differences—Roberts’s drawings are in conversation through the process of ekphrastic interpretation.

“BUT A CAMEL MAY PASS with EASE THROUGH the EYE of A NEEDLE / (—after Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1770-1844),” presents the three Graces in a circle, holding each other’s bodies; the Graces on the right and left are light purple, and the middle Grace is light green. The left Grace has a spool of thread for a head, the middle Grace a button, and the last Grace has a thimble. All of the Graces are nude, but not detailed, so they do not appear naked. A grey cat looks up at the spool-headed Grace with an expression of curiosity. The Grace with the thimble head seems distracted by something she holds, and the button-headed Grace stares straight ahead while her spool-headed sister cocks her head as if listening intently. An object, perhaps wrapped in string, rests on the white space which is both background and floor.

These poses differ from Thorvaldsen’s massive sculpture “The Three Graces.” A child is replaced by a cat, an arrow (Cupid’s?) held by the Grace on the right and pointed at the Grace in the middle (who represents chastity) is replaced by a thin object, possibly a cell phone, and the middle Grace no longer gazes at the Grace to her left, but faces the viewer. The mood remains sisterly and congenial, yet the narrative has shifted. Now, there is a sense of distraction. Perhaps they are asking: where is the needle, the tool needed to pass the string through the buttonholes with the aid of the thimble? The missing needle prevents the Graces from acting together. The drawing ultimately portrays the Graces as women rather than mythical creatures and suggests that they are unable to act together, because something is lacking.

By contrast, on the facing page, the three Graces are in a festive mood. One woman has a bird head, perhaps a quail’s, one has a fox’s head and tail, and one has an insect head and beautiful green and purple wings. Something like confetti or leaves falls over the figures, and the text reads “LET US PAUSE to CONSIDER WHETHER “BYRDS of ON KYNDE & COLOR FLOK & FLYE ALLWAYES TOGETHER / (—after Botticelli, 1445-1510 & William Turner (The Rescuing of Romish Fox, 1545)).” Again, the drawing differs from Botticelli’s painting “Primavera”—the poses are the same, but the Graces all have animal or insect heads, and the flanking Graces have partial animal bodies. Instead of fruit, strange swipes of color hang over their heads. Botticelli’s midair Cupid with his arrow pointed at the Grace of chastity is gone. Turner coined the phrase “birds of a feather flock together,” in his satire, “The Rescuing of Romish Fox,” yet the drawing throws this phrase into question as all the Graces are different animals, including a fox, and only one is a wingless bird. At the same time, the drawing proves the adage since all three Graces are women.

The final section begins with three quotations, one by South African writer Nadine Gordimer: “The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.” There is a sense of urgency in this section, and more of the pieces are political or relate to fraught situations. The drawings return to the style of the first two sections.

The last two drawings depict ungendered naked figures, and the images function as a mico-narrative. “PROOF of GOODWILL’S ARMATURE” depicts a figure held in midair by a bird (possibly a play on the stork), hanging by a string around their waist, the other end clasped in the bird’s beak. The figure has one right arm and three left arms (or possibly a single arm in motion) that seem to flail uselessly. A string dangles from a finger. The head is an unlit lightbulb, and the thought bubble reads “Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum),” meaning, in this case, the argument is complete. Two spirals hang in the air, one an ascension, the other a downward vortex. On the facing page, in “YOU TAKE with YOU EXQUISITE ANSWERS TO EVERY QUESTION UNASKED,” a naked, kneeling figure is depicted with a birdcage for a head. The door to the cage is open and a multicolored bird has just been released into the white space of the page. This is indeed an exquisite answer that could be an imperative to release the animal inside ourselves, or to release our minds from their unnecessary cages and let them freely explore the world.

The crux of the hybrid form is to include, but also to go beyond language. In Roberts’s book, ekphrastic drawings, tangrams, and images, coupled with quotations and citations, create a hybrid reality like a heterotopia. In these disorienting spaces, language, art, people, relationships, and ideas are all called into question. LIKENESS delights our eyes while opening our overly rational minds to new possibilities.

About the Reviewer

Randall Potts is the author of two poetry collections, Trickster (Kohl House Poets Series, University of Iowa Press, 2014) and Collision Center (O Books, 1994), as well as a chapbook, Recant (A Revision) (Leave Books, 1994). Their work has appeared widely in periodicals such as American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Colorado Review, Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Poetry Northwest and the Bennington Review. New work is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Interim:A Journal of Poetry & Poetics. They have taught creative writing at the graduate and undergraduate level at the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts. They are nonbinary and live in Bellingham Washington.