Book Review

In Thirst & Surfeit, Elizabeth Robinson pressurizes language’s relationship to time, to history. In her hands, a sentence becomes an archeological wonder warping the supposed linear constraints of thinking. Here, time speaks as a guide and companion. What does it guide us towards? Itself. These poems think the thinking of time’s unfolding by uncovering history in the act of linguistic creation. The great pun of the book is “revolution:”

Learned wanderers

reject this rumor:

that the soil revolves

under firmament’s

rolling heat.
What we know

is to have hunger inside
any revolution.

Revolution is both that insistent return of orbit and an absolute hunger for something different, something better. Prepositions dominate the thinking of these poems, and this wanderers’ lesson feels no different: revolution of either sort moves from inside, not under. A revolutionary return is not underfoot, sedimented beneath dust of ages, but discovered in the desiring acts of the interior.

Thirst & Surfeit moves in seven sections, seven eras—from 1200 B.C.E. to 2023. In spite of formal variations—prose poems, haibun-esque narratives, and lineated lyric—these poems are driven by Robinson’s persistent syntax and sentence-level play: “The script will testify / only by its fine order.”

Robinson, however, would not have us rest on the sentence’s regularity. Fragments, used sparingly, intrude to bewilder and expand the scope of these poems. Their implied completion grasps out into language without ever fully closing; there will always be another possibility to add—another idea buried in the lost half of the fragment. The finder, the reader, the archeologist left to linger and frustrate:

The ruined towers

Now where will I go, as I have completed the task put before me and I am about
to sob from frustration.

Standing alone in white space, the ruined towers force the reader to make an incomplete leap to the next sobbing thought and thus force the reader to return and bring earlier modes of thinking to bear on the present leap. From an earlier passage in the book: “Tower is a term of endearment. That you not disgrace your family by insisting they must be pilgrims with you.” Confronted with a fragment, the mind becomes a wandering thing—revolving around itself so as to center onto some possibility: “the yarn is spun at its own center and then knit together.”

An archeologist’s completed task is always in ruins. Like Keats’s no longer living hand, we can only wish to restore the flowing blood—history reaches to us, but like a book, we cannot talk to it.

Not, perhaps, unless we take up its mode—treat history as imagination’s kin—take its name and let language circulate like blood. The poems in Thief & Surfeit create just such circular channels. While, in teleological progress time, the sentence’s linearity lends itself to revelation at the end, Robinson’s verse allows syntax to mold to a fluid temporality of rhyming and collapsing. Such as this sentence from “Gregorovius at Ninfa,” where the antecedent to “it” is “Perfection”:

Inside it is O

and the circumnavigation
of the world

around the mouth
of the fountain.

Each of the last three lines presents its own possible location and, simultaneously, the joined reality of all three: world collapses to mouth which grows to fountain. The movement of the “O” forms an uneven hourglass.

And yet, as the image moves on, that opening preposition, “inside,” requires the whole gesture to be reversed. The revelation, that anything at all is “inside” perfection, has already happened, and we are left circling a fountain staring deeply into its waters—the whole of perfection at our backs if we can twist our necks to see it.

Rather than growing grander, the image collapses and focuses while the prepositions twist around themselves: this is the fountain’s mouth’s world, each noun referring back to the original “O,” that invocative, oral exclamation.

Often in Thirst & Surfeit, this is not the “O” of the ode, but of elegy as each act of calling forth history serves also as a reminder of loss. Names have become anonymous, love has been lost, and oppression has gone unopposed. The histories that currently have voice, those of dominant, patriarchal “victors,” do not need reclamation; the task Robinson undertakes necessitates a reckoning with history as loss and forgetting. History’s dominant voice has not formed through resilience but silencing and silence: “What we’ve shared in common / has made us sink.”

By engaging with and enacting these less traversed realms of history, Thirst & Surfeit establishes itself firmly as a perpetuation of Robinson’s ongoing poetic project to bring to the fore quiet, unspoken (or silenced) grounds of human union.

About the Reviewer

Adam Ray Wagner is a poet and translator from rural Nebraska. He is grateful to have studied under and worked with many wonderful people at Colorado State University, University of Maine, and, currently, Boise State University.