Book Review

MPH and Other Road Poems by Ed Roberson (2021) Verge Books

There’s a line Emerson writes in “The Poet” that has, for thirty some years now, struck me as a kind of truth: “For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and homes are, for homestead.” I hear a Heraclitean flux as part and parcel of the poem’s nature, those symbols that never still into one meaning; I see the poem as a place of momentums on brief delay, a hut for overnight shelter, a place we don’t get to stay in—the poem puts us on the road. This transitive wisdom permeates Ed Roberson’s newest book from the wonderful Verge Books, MPH. It’s a book whose nature needs some describing. In the summer of 1970 Roberson took a motorcycle trip across the country with two friends, only two bikes between them to share, an experience he wrote a short manuscript about, and then lost the poems for over forty years. He found them again cleaning out his house in 2015. MPH brings those lost poems into presence again, and more, gains the company of poems written in those intervening decades—poems that take the vehicular, the motorcycle, the road trip, as their primary engine of being. Being, in some way, feels the most appropriate word. Roberson has become one of this country’s primary poets of cosmos, speaking not only of experience, but the way in which experience comes to be. The road, it seems, is a fundamental ground for such cosmological experiment. In that deep American trope of riding one’s way west, of the freedom of the vehicle, one senses a radically liberatory quality, some freedom from the minor laws of nation and people, and an immersion into Law itself: the oscillation between appearance and essence, the fact of the world, the fragility of the self, the sun’s up and down, the mountain’s height, the field’s green. Semi-trucks become “a Tula stone / temple summit,” the sacred and the profane merge into one, and one enters not epiphany, but realization:

                              Spirit of
The place              the nature

But Roberson also knows the mundane laws one flees follow in mad pursuit. Biker gangs ride up to threaten. Others mock one man riding behind another, derogatory innuendo. History, injustice, Black experience in America writ large and footnoted by the poet’s own experience, all enter—not denying the cosmic, but complicating it. As does Roberson’s own life complicate it, as in “Ice,” the poet now seventy-five, post brain surgery, traveling by train with his companion Patty out to Berkley, two-lane highway by the track,

                                    when a black motorcyclist
swept screaming speed up a curve

across the canyon
heading east of our west from the train
window     Patty said
There’s Ed. . .

In the poem time can surrender its mortal march to wilder horizons, east and west as one, youth and age, life and death, the same. A lifetime ago Ed Roberson rode on a motorcycle cross country. In MPH we understand, as he does, he’s riding still.


Poetries by Georges Schehadé (translated by Austin Carder) (2021) The Song Cave

The Song Cave, as with Verge Books, is a press whose every book I read. Their list strikes me, in the best and oldest sense of the word, as weird. I mean wyrd, wierde, weard—fate, destiny, the old magic of event occurring which could occur in no other way, books of wyrde words that seem in their wild, innocent way, to be absolutely inevitable. The press’s recent title, Poetries by the French-Lebanese playwright and poet Georges Schehadé (translated beautifully by Austin Carder), brings American readers a first glimpse of a too-little-known major poet’s half-century experiment in poetry. For me, the poems read as half-Blake, one-third-Celan, one-third-Dickinson—an amount, I know, that adds up to more than one, a quiet and lovely excess that also marks the poems most uniquely as Schehadé’s own:

Like these aching lakes
When fall covers them and turns them blue
Like flowing water an endless echo
Life won’t rest
The birds fly in chains
Each sleep has its place
And you in this field
Facing so many farewells

I love how likeness is at play here—the whole poem suspended in some form of equivalency we have no access to, just the recognition so deep in the human condition, that what we’ve felt most deeply is wholly unspeakable, and then we must find a way to speak it. Those birds of freedom and prophecy are chained and cannot flee, cannot act out their omens (and remember, too, Homer describes words as winged things). Sleep seems a larger entity than the beings who do the sleeping, as if, in the subtlest of ways, those repeated habits of a life are more us than we ourselves are, identity falls away, and you are only a “you,” facing—as we all do—those farewells. How can such a short poem encapsulate so much of life? I don’t exactly know (but I wish I did). Maybe it has something to do with Schehadé’s willingness to linger in images and symbols too easily deemed trite: flowers, children, birds, waters, moons, mothers. . . . One begins to feel that our most out-worn words are ever-more-so the underground springs of purest intuition. Schehadé helps us return to those selves we’ve left behind—some eternal childhood darkened only by the shadow of our own adult heads looking back to remember—just another “poor schoolboy / At the window.”


the seaweed sd treble clef by Endi Bogue Hartigan (2021) Oxeye Press

Lastly, a press new to me—Oxeye Press of Ames, Iowa—maker of hand-crafted books, chapbooks, and literary ephemera. The beauty of such a venture is that the publication offers itself as a collaboration with the poems, not simply a vehicle by which they arrive in the reader’s hands. Endi Bogue Hartigan’s the seaweed sd treble clef is a stunning demonstration of the ways in which book-arts and poetry mutually reinforce creative investigation. Here, each poem is paired with a photograph, and each photograph is variation of the same thing: seaweed washed ashore. The middle of the chapbook unfolds as if suddenly the reader has more than a book in hand, and instead, finds the page has sprawled open to an ocean’s strand, margin of beach one walks as one reads, learning to see as the poet herself sees. That being on the beach, the poem occurring so near the ocean, brings to mind Wallace Steven’s “The Idea of Order at Key West,” that she who sang “beyond the genius of the sea.” But in Hartigan’s poems the sea is its own reclusive genius, casting to shore some evidence of existence we can only guess at, can only sing if we learn to read the signs. Taking a photograph of the shore-strewn kelp, Hartigan composes poems of mantic prophecy, reading the shape of the seaweed as omen to be interpreted: “treble clef,” “commatip,” “cuneiformish.” This detritus becomes the ur-book to the world’s deeper grammar which, if we could only learn to read, we might ourselves write a poem worth the making:

&what did you make at last
&who did you hear, in making


made an ampersand& made
a swaddle a fiddle made a ladle
the tiniestladle the thinnestmost
made a series
of chances to lift

heard the sand sift itself &

leaknearness not witness it
was a sea take of tangled action
a deduction
from the unmadegolden brink

About the Reviewer

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator. His most recent books include Arrows, and a collection of ancient Greek lyric poems, Stone-Garland. His work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations, and he teaches at Colorado State University, where he is an University Distinguished Teaching Scholar