Kathleen Rooney’s wonderful novel-in-poems, Robinson Alone, tells the story of Robinson, Weldon Kees’s quasi-persona, as he—like his progenitor—makes his way to New York City from the Midwest, travels cross country to San Francisco with a wife who is slowly falling into alcoholism, and finally disappears at the age of forty-one. Like Kees, it is unknown if Robinson makes his way to Mexico or if he plunges off the Golden Gate Bridge. Although the lure of the mystery of Weldon Kees is compelling and helps to drive the plot along, the chief delight of the book is, of course, the language. Robinson Alone is loaded with internal rhyme, although you might miss it on the page, and has a capering rhythm that surges along while pretending to hang back—so like the protagonist who knows one should “[n]ever / act like you want the thing / you’re attracting” and yet can’t help but reveal his anxious desire.
Rooney, in a Curbside Splendor interview, says, “Being a writer often means living in an echo chamber.” In the poem, “Robinson’s Friends Have Come Over for His 41rst Birthday,” Robinson parrots this notion: “I’m doing it again, applauding myself in an echoplex.” Both the echo chamber and the echoplex are critical images for understanding much of the intriguing wordplay in the text, are apt keys for decoding some of the interesting circumlocutions in the text that may have had their origin in Kees’s poem “Robinson”: “Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.” I am not sure that Rooney actually had the Echoplex in mind—a tape delay effect guitarists used in the 1960s (although it certainly evokes for me images of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape), but echoplex immediately made me think of Cineplex—not just Robinson hearing echoes of himself but seeing images of himself refracted as in a “mirror facing a mirror” (“Robinson’s Parents Have Come to the City for a Visit”).
The absolute master of the persona is the Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa. His main personas were actually heteronyms—that is, they had independent lives and biographies from their creator and were to some extent self-aware. Like the Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago, who wrote a novel from the perspective of one of Pessoa’s chief heteronyms, Ricardo Reis, Rooney is trying to manage a persona with several antecedents: Kees, Kees’s Robinson, and Rooney herself. Personas are usually, by nature, palimpsests (a word that appears often in this text)—that is, another face keeps peering through the mask—“a man wearing a mask / & pointing to the mask” (“Robinson Hates How He Sometimes Behaves”). Personas have a dual function, of course, allowing their creators a chance to both hide and reveal, but it gets increasingly more complex when the personas are—to some extent—aware of themselves as personas. The stylish and charming Robinson is very self aware—both extremely anxious and highly dismissive about how others perceive him—but there are moments in the poems when it goes much further down the rabbit hole than this. I noticed throughout the text that Rooney employs what seem like tautological structures in the moments when Robinson becomes aware of himself or becomes aware of people watching him. In her most audacious example, “Robinson Buys a Souvenir Postcard,” Rooney creates a Shakespearean sonnet composed entirely of one line—technically two, since the title is a part of the poem itself. Robinson buys a post card “of a lonesome man buying a postcard.” It’s the same desperate, self-referential redounding we expect in an echo chamber or echoplex. These repetitions do not accumulate, do not amplify, but they do not reduce either. Each one is a pinprick, a deflation of the image Robinson has of himself.
This occurs again in “Robinson’s Parents Have Come to the City for a Visit.” This time we have the repetitions being complicated by punning on Robinson’s name. The effect is mesmerizing:
Though his father’s name is not Robin—
Though he is not Robin’s son—
Robinson is still Robinson . . .
Robinson’s son’s son’s son & back & back like a mirror facing a mirror
& on & on
The more details are added to the circular construct, the less we know. The lists are not cumulative, and this is the tricky mire and the fun of persona poetry—the ever-slippery nature of the figure of the persona itself. And for a guy like Kees—who is best known for his disappearance—this seems like an extremely clever way on Rooney’s part of dealing with his complex subject position vis-à-vis his presence/absence. The penultimate line in the last poem of the collection captures this stasis well: “Seven years after a disappearance, a person can be pronounced dead.” They can be pronounced dead, but it isn’t the same thing as actually being dead; the finality isn’t final.
Interestingly, however, the original line from Kees’s “Robinson,” which is mostly likely the source of this circularity, actually comes at the end of a stanza that denies the kind of refraction Rooney so masterfully uses:
The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.
There is no reflection. The mirror is black. This is an image of absence and of exclusivity. Robinson is finally only himself. Rooney’s Robinson, on the other hand, is an irreducible image, existing in poems that circle back on themselves, in letters he wrote but did not write (the fifteen centos based on Kees’s actual letters Rooney includes in the text), and in homage after homage to the man he is and is not, which Rooney herself admits is a strange aftereffect of those who come to the mystery of Weldon Kees—they can’t help writing about him—and now I, too, am caught in the cycle myself to add to poor Robinson’s misery.
Carlo Matos has published four books of poetry and one book of scholarship. His work has appeared in many online and print journals. He is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago.
by Kathleen Rooney
Gold Wake Press, 2012
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 0983700141