An Analysis of Robinson Alone (2012) by Kathleen Rooney
by Joseph Suglia
“Robinson” was a mask that poet Weldon Kees wore. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature begins where autobiography ends. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature is not confession, but impersonation.
Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, but auto-thanoto-graphy. Literature is not the writing of the self that lives, but the writing of the self that dies.
Weldon Kees wore the mask, the persona, of “Robinson” in all of four poems.
And then he disappeared–literally.
I encourage you to read, if you have not yet done so, Kees’ poem “Robinson.” It begins thus: “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over.”
The poet disappears, and no one cares. Did anyone ever really care?
These are the final verses of the poem:
“Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously. / Where trees are actual and take no holiday.”
The poet dematerializes, but reality? Reality always stays the same. As Lacan said of the real: “The real is what always stays in place.”
It might be tempting to say–and this has been said–that Kees disappeared much like his predecessor, Rimbaud. But Kees’s silence is not Rimbaud’s (alleged) silence. Because Rimbaud was never really silent. Rimbaud never stopped writing. Even when he trafficked in ivory, Rimbaud was a writer. Rimbaud stopped writing “poetry” (as one would ordinarily understand this term) and started writing inventories. Only Rimbaud’s job title changed. He stopped calling himself a “poet” and starting calling himself an “ivory trader.” But even in Rimbaud’s inventories, one can hear the insistent, susurrant, violent rhythms of poetic language.
Kees’s self-vanishing was absolute.
* * * * *
Kathleen Rooney’s 2012 lyrical novel, Robinson Alone, derives its title from the Robinson poems of Weldon Kees.
It would be a mistake to say that these are poems about Weldon Kees. Nor are they merely poems about solitude, even about poetic solitude.
They are poems of solitude, poetologies of solitude, and phenomenologies of solitude, written in verse of lapidary smoothness. They display a total mastery of the English language. One must have mastered the English language to create assonances between “potroast” and “topcoat,” between “crisp” and “perspicuous.”
Though it would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the tropes and flows of this heartbreaking book, let me pause over a few verses.
Robinson is dragged to a Western-themed honky-tonk, though he moved from Nebraska to Missouri in order to escape the West (and to enter a writing program). At the close of the poem:
“Something’s being learned here, but not a lesson” (22).
Robinson walks down Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he passes a museum advertisement that uses the words “camera obscura”:
“Robinson’s not sure what a camera obscura / is for, but he thinks he should have / his portrait done with one… Something used to photograph the obscure” (27-28).
Of course, that isn’t what a “camera obscura” (“dark room”) is. But his musings raise the questions: How does one phenomenalize darkness? Can there be a “negative phenomenology,” as Gerald Bruns once unfortunately phrased it? Is poetry ever a phenomenon?
“Consider consider consider the oyster” (37).
Consider the oyster, not the lobster. The oyster is a solitary creature. An auto-inseminating, auto-sexual, solipsistic creature. The oyster is a hermaphrodite, both female and male at the same time, and requires no sexual partner.
Robinson is staring down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He considers hurtling himself into the abyss. He catches a stranger’s glance and changes his mind:
“There’s something sexy about desolation” (42).
The interesting thing about this thought is that it could be everted and still be accurate: “There’s nothing sexy about desolation.” The word “desolation” co mes from the Latin, de- (“thoroughly”) and solus (“alone”). To be desolate is to be thoroughly alone.
“Sexiness” refers to the possibility of being-with-others (Mitsein, to use Heidegger’s term). Desolation, then, is receptivity to the possibility of being-with-others. Aloneness affords the possibility of a relation to another human being.
* * * * *
Kathleen Rooney’s “Robinson” is a castaway marooned in a debased modernity. Much as the marooning of the main character of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, her Robinson’s marooning is self-imposed. Why is this? Why must this be?
It must be because Robinson is a poet. To poeticize is to withdraw from all significant relations. Every poet must vanish, must withdraw from the world in order for poetry to be possible.