On Tangled & Cleft:
Gaspereau makes fondle-able books, I must say, textured with letter-press attention, a perfect package for Matt Robinson’s articulated paeans, oppositions, commemorations. Rare, a publisher who will release pieces in broadside or chapbook form first (as with the “Against” poems in this full collection) and then still take the time to shape a trade book, thinner than the typical publication these days and refreshingly so. I am of the mind that if all poetry books were pocket-sized and featured under 50 pages of poems that we’d actually have a higher readership for our beloved genre. No one wants to lug about a stuffed tome for just a regular release (i.e. not a Collected Poems). Poems should be transportable, exquisite, savourable.
The first and last poems in Tangled & Cleft are overtly about grief: “Against the Dog’s Passing” and “Leftovers,” a piece about a smashed casserole dish once owned by a dead parent. Robinson depicts grieving in a language like no other. It’s an “untoward tatter” at the “pang of a leash” or a “tenuous mess” leading to a “barbed intake of breath” as “everything fails/to follow a script.” The accretion piece that seeks to, fumbles toward, any definition of an indefinable entity is Robinson’s forte. A hangover depicted as “Advil-gauzed/ale aphasias that stipple your brain’s stewing meat”? Ow! Rudy of the Beer League described as sporting a “Bud-bloated ab/ through the moldering waist of moist pants”? Ew! Those initial flakes of winter as a “prone/feral tension of icy suggestion, of frigorificly (WHOA?!)/ground, ground teeth” ? Brrrrr! The poems offer a host of lurid Canadiana vignettes delivered in the intricate limnings of a British intellectual, poems that are tangibly, even tortuously present to revelations of wrenching (and on occasion humorous) experience.
A content that is, at times, torqued to possibly excessive extremes by an over-riddling of those ampersands and near-violent hyphens. Maybe Robinson could rein it in on occasion as he does on a few purely lyrical pieces that flow more emotively, less hampered by Hopkinesque tendencies (as much as I adore them). For instance, the sweet “Son,” whose “simple, paired lines” sing with the reversals of paternal feeling and inevitable temporality. Robinson is indubitably a punch-packer, perfectionistic and unyielding. You won’t unsnarl your psyche readily from the word-feasts of Tangled & Cleft.
Tangled & Cleft is a subterfuge of hidden and double and triple meanings paired with a half glass of cool, dark bitter beer on the table beside you.
Matt Robinson’s poems make you stop and ask yourself if you’re sure you know what that word means until you find yourself rummaging for a dictionary. In fact, I strongly suggest it for the first of the collection’s poem against the dog’s passing, where Robinson does his damndest to describe all the different indescribable ways loss can feel after.
I read the poem “Against the New Year’s Day Hangover” shortly after the New Year much to my amusement. The new year does indeed feel weaponized, tenuous rhetoric pugnaciously weighing the pros and cons of the eyes’ newfound, ad hoc focus on what passes for promise.
The verses from Robinson delight me as he finds new ways to describe old things, twisting and turning and subverting meaning until that simple moment in a day contains multitudes, like how a once-connected thumb was dislocated and now aches.
“Cat” made me laugh at how well-described the antics of a feline could be, and how their “zoomies” and bloodthirst produce a lot of organic waste to dispose of.
The magic in these poems is how Robinson takes one moment or one feeling and breaks it down into everything encompassing that moment. In “Marriage”, the scowl on his face when he realizes his partner has left coffee pods on the counter in his way and all he wants is a chicken sandwich while he “forgets” all his own bad habits with keeping things clean and then also somehow yearning for her when she quietly moves from one room to another, yawning and humming.
Some of the poems take you right into the things that you don’t want to examine too much. “Against the Goddamn MCL” made me all too aware of my own sore knee, much more aware of how it would feel to be an athlete done in by poor scaffolding. “[Against] Nostalgia” talks about the taste in the back of your throat when viewing a relationship back in its beginning and what’s still left to ruin.
Many of Robinson’s poems are against something, whether it’s a Zamboni or nostalgia or the AR-15 or the New Years Day hangover, but even in that language, you have to really think if he’s against the moment or if he’s fighting against it, or if he’s leaning against the moment as if leaning into memory and describing what he finds.
“Against Ending” was written for Gord Downie, which the poet remembers as the final concert and encore then eventual silence. I remember Gord Downie swearing loudly, his rage and fear bursting out all at once. The kindest thing Robinson could have given me as a poet is the reminder of the encore sending Downie away.
Halifax poet Matt Robinson’s latest, after five full-length poetry collections and a small handful of chapbooks, is TANGLED & CLEFT (Gaspereau Press, 2021), a dense collection of lyric around domestic intimacies and daily life, writing a clean language with an impulse to utilize language in direct application to intricate study. Robinson carves poems as rough-hewn shapes; not diamond-in-the-rough or even diamond, but something that allows the edges to remain, offering the poems a particular kind of lyric heft. “The median’s up-bunched,” he writes, to open “DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME,” “glut-hunchy tumult / of just-ruined sod becomes—in this November dusk’s / dun sleight of bland, fading light—a grand drive-by / mistake your eyes make on behalf of your mind’s / baffled racing.” There’s almost a tenor of the complexity and acknowledgment of outdoor daily activities—I see these poems, somehow, akin to chopping wood to supply the wood stove—of the late poet John Thompson, but one utilizing a form and lyric attention closer to that of, say, the poetry of Ottawa Stephen Brockwell or Don McKay. “When the sun hits them right,” he offers, to open “AGAINST THE NEW YEAR’S DAY HANGOVER,” “those empties / extant in their nesting of shards are less / a dull, throbbing reminder of last night’s poor choices / and excess, and more a loosely curated drunk’s / afterglow, a showy blown-glass derangement // resting skew-countered, serrated, all edgily cornered / yet softened somehow by fruit flies’ flittered near / caul.”
There is something curious, also, about a collection this physically slight: at less than forty pages of poems, would this be a collection to even count against Canada Council designations of the “full-length” work? Hardly a complaint: more of an observation, really. Either way, in a trajectory that would include his accumulated work-to-date, Robinson writes in short, self-contained bursts of earnest and considered thinking and experience in a lyric narrative mode on marriage, beer-league hockey, nostalgia, aging parents, hangovers, daylight savings and snow. The collection also opens with the loss of their dog and ends with a poem around their new puppy. “The cat’s token slouches,” Robinson writes, to open “THE NEW PUPPY, IN HINDSIGHT,” “velveteen / and cooling. A cattywampus / composed, disposed // of and forgotten, / the small shrew was dead. / Is, still.”
When I have finished reading a book that I have enjoyed, and when I come back to it, I often look for different reading routes through the text, searching out patches and proximities of words, looking for secret poems. Usually I pick an arbitrary route, the first word of every line for instance, like this intance, and write down every word verbatim, like a diligent amanuensis. Not all books can hold up to such scrutiny, the results can range from complete surrepetition to elaborate and varied strings. Robinson’s book falls into the latter containing unusual phrases, words, and possibly a distorted echo of his book, the resultant text was fairly large because there wasn’t a lot of excess repetition, plus his book has a lot to say, so what follows is a pared down version, that still retains the original order the words as they appear in the text, and that I feel captures something of Tangled & Cleft’s moods and aspects; a book worth reading more than once, a book that yields to alternative reading habits.
Halifax-based poet Matt Robinson has a new collection of poetry, Tangled & Cleft (Gaspereau Press). His poetry focuses on daily life — everything from the perfectly mown lawn to a New Year’s Day hangover.
On Some Nights It’s Entertainment; Some Other Nights Just Work:
In Some Nights It’s Entertainment; Some Other Nights Just Work, Matt Robinson dwells on familiar domestic matters and on reliable pastimes: hockey, baseball, drinking. His poems’ titles indicate a directness of approach—“Dog,” “Bear,” “Harbour,” “Heart,” “Explanation,” “On Doubt,” “Cold Spring Song”—but the poems themselves are dense meditations that sidle up to their nominal subjects. In “Bear,” a fearsome, hungry creature wakes the speaker’s friend: “An animal at her window pawing, lazily, for / a meat; a dank, unseen set of mandibles anxious / for a smatch of god-know’s-what.” (Smatch—an odd, old word meaning “taste.”) Yet the disturbance turns out to have been something else altogether—an earthquake—and Robinson takes the midnight mistake as an illustration of the imagination’s unreliable workings:
Sometimes a bear
is nothing but the earth’s quarrel with itself.
Another way the mind plays tricks, infers. How
time settles, awkwardly aslant; how we fix things
to one another, in error, then partially recant
those bonds. How a logic’s birth is often tremored.
Although his poems are rarely longer than a page, they have a sprawling quality: Robinson favours lists, digressions, synonyms, and departures. He stacks words upon phrases; precarious sentences wobble with style. His lexicon includes both the recherché (“apologue,” “fibril”) and the everyday (“those frosty tallboys”), and memorable coinages fleck and dapple crackerjack poems: “stark ozoned crackleflash,” “a candycorned indigestion,” “slumptumbled-cum-crumbled.” Robinson’s fifth book, Some Nights It’s Entertainment is the work of a poet assured of his topics and tone.
The lovely poems of Matt Robinson’s Against the Hard Angle feature patience, waiting, exploration of the motive for metaphor, including architecture and the body as a house. Love of all things Haligocian imbues the second part, “Toeing the Slack-roped Narrows.” Clever spacing, a feature of many of his poems, echoes the discordant rhythm of stop and start traffic in “Study: Willow Tree, Traffic,” brilliantly described as a “caesura” that’s also “tachycardiac.”
Love poems, including “Against the Hard Angle,” winner of The Malahat Review’s long poem prize in 2009, comprise the book’s first section, “What the Rest of Us Would Call Falling.” The dailiness of “ii. work bench” propelling its reality of lost love juxtaposes with “iii. (flashback: kitchen sink)” and its fierce imperatives to leave off the domesticity for something else.
Punctuation takes on a semantic role. The colon, sometimes ending poems, reveals the thresholds stated and implied—what will happen if one takes up the offer to slip into thin air: “an eyelid spills just then. gist; then. just:” is a complete poem that ends the sequence “It’s Now, He Thinks, We Lie In It.”
There’s a fierceness to these poems; a confidently wild use of language. The poems pop off the page with the same fervour in which Robinson has written them.
Against the Hard Angle is a testament to the healing power of poetry… like threads of emotion, words are woven into a colourful quilt of love lost and found… robinson masterfully captures and conveys the heart’s crucifixtion and resurrection… one of the country’s finest young wordsmiths.
This fourth collection from Halifax-based Robinson is divided into two sections, “What the Rest of Us Would Call Falling” and “Toeing the Slack-Roped Narrows.” … The metaphors (tools, the kitchen sink, utensils, spoiled milk and so on) hint at a house divided, a measure of a relationship’s end … The second half livens the book with a series of lyric poems on reconciling with home, landmarks such as the bridges, Public Gardens, grain elevators, and particularly the organized chaos we all live with in our city.
In this small edition, there is a sharpness to robinson’s work that comes closer to that essential sharpness that his writing writes up to, closer than he’s ever been before; is this robinson hardening his edge, or is it simply a matter of his poems in smaller packages?
In this collection of nine single-page poems, robinson writes each piece as a single, sweeping gesture. A hockey fan himself, and author of numerous hockey poems, robinson understands the fluid movement of the large gesture, working as tight as it requires, and these poems float along in graceful movements of both deliberate ease and a gravity, working a complex ease that only comes with steady attention and a steel gaze. After everything that has come before, is this robinson coming out of what was good into shades of what might even be great?
rob mclennan on rob mclennan’s Lit Blog
On no cage contains a stare that well:
…an advanced clinic on meter, sound-sense, and consistency of theme. It manages to keep us coming back to a bittersweet kind of pathos. We are at the intersection of sports and language and it is an interesting place to be.
… Robinson’s work doesn’t fall within the realm of Stompin’ Tom at the good old hockey game. His 27 poem tribute to sticks and pucks inhabits a higher intellectual plane, one where the circular life of the Zamboni driver becomes art, and a basement full of old goalie sticks a metaphor for the splintered relationship between father and son.
The National Post
… Every re-reading of Robinson’s verse reveals a new subtext, a new layer of meaning. It demands close reading, attention…[it] deserves to be read and re-read as attentively as one might watch a really close game, play by play, line by line…This stuff is real: it gets you in the eye, but stops short of blinding you, which is a grace, because hopefully there is a lot more to come from this poet.
Matt Robinson is a netminder for an intramural team at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, but he’s no minor leaguer when it comes to poetry.
His colour commentary leans toward analysis rather than simple description, for his goal is to explore the metaphysics of the game. It also tends toward inventive wordplay…and literary polish, even when describing the grittier aspects of the game. [Robinson is] consistently a master of nifty phrasing.
The Toronto Star
When [Robinson] talks about the game he loves, Canada’s game, he takes you to that hometown rink your mind returns most easily to. And in his new book of poems…he places you in the dressing room or the bleachers or, sometimes, on thin ice…
His collection of poems is no Stompin’ Tom sing-along Hockey Song. Mr. Robinson’s hockey vision is dark, sometimes gloomy. His characters are not toothless heroes smiling from a bubble gum card. They are the sorts of flawed characters…that haunt the big arenas and small-town rinks from coast to coast.
The NB Telegraph-Journal
Can one be a fan of both poetry and sports? Matt Robinson’s poetic ode to hockey…[has] a fluid grace. This is a strong book of poems.
Each of the twenty-seven poems is about hockey, expressing the emotions and recurring themes of the sport. He delves into the minute aspects of a sport that is at the forefront of Canadian culture… It is truly the type of poetry that Canadian hockey players should read.
On how we play at it: a list:
Matt Robinson’s poems are intellectually passionate in the tradition of John Donne. He draws metaphors from American sign language and skeletal anatomy as well as hockey and baseball. His poems in couplets unwind with hardly a pause … Robinson’s poems are likely to have staying power.
The Montreal Review of Books
Matt Robinson may entitle his collection how we play at it: a list, but there is no doubt that Robinson’s ‘list’ is poetry. He plays at it by summoning up and juggling its fullest resources … Robinson insists on the whole ‘sticky — sometimes sweet, sharp — human cocktail’ within us, acknowledging in this final metaphor the ineluctable presence of art (‘these are instruments of artifice’) in the human ‘fact.’ Here and throughout how we play at it: a list, he reminds us that poetry’s most essential joy is to make us marvel at what we have inside ourselves. And at what we take in and make part of those selves … These are poems lyrical enough to dance with and subtle enough to inhale.
University of Toronto Quarterly
On A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking:
This debut poetry collection from Robinson is not only stunningly written but Insomniac Press has designed a powerfully dark and disturbing cover… Robinson’s work makes poetry matter again… This collection should be read with a well-trained eye, and read often.
The Antigonish Review
Robinson is brilliantly, obscenely, frenetically, deliriously garrulous, letting words and images go gung-ho, pile up pell mell, in hubbubbing, messy, ruckus-raising poems. Robinson, winner of the Petra Kenney International Poetry Prize, is a fresh, fierce voice. To be spoken, singingly.
The Sunday Herald
Robinson’s poems, so easygoing, are icebergs ramming the hull of the reader’s mind.
The Danforth Review
Robinson covers familiar subject matter for Canadian poetry – the dying mother, the weather, hockey, airport travel (this peculiarly Maritime anxiety about moving just one province over) – but does so with fresh insights and a descriptive power all his own. I love his “zamboni’s liquid absolution”, his “black morning with its pink/ meniscus dawn”, his “importance/ of purple at easter”. Robinson’s strength lies in his employment of the cento (or, at least, the semi-cento) in a number of these poems. The patchwork selections include lines from Michael Ondaatje, John Ashbery, Susan Goyette and Don MacKay. Robinson has a real knack for taking these borrowed lines from other poems and giving them a muscled, kinetic life of their own. Often a poetry collection can be judged a success if it possesses even one poem that makes you stop and read it over and over (and over) again. For me, A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking had this: the Goyette semi-cento entitled “a move to liquid”. Ostensibly about injuring oneself while doing the dishes, this poem is really about the unexpected pain that can erupt from even the most quotidian of moments. It’s about the wear and tear that our everyday comforts endure over time, to the point of stress, to the point of breaking, and how they do break in a not-entirely unexpected way, the “sudden ceremony” of a shattered glass, interrupting the “murky pools of our days” and leaving us cut and hurting. The poem is a masterpiece.
Free Range Reading
The theme of nature runs through Matt Robinson’s outstanding debut as well, but he creates a tension between the natural and the constructed that ultimately blurs the lines … these poems are not just a celebration of life but, more devastatingly, a celebration of the struggle to celebrate life … A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking is precisely what poetry should be: evocative, detailed, and fresh.
Maybe this is why, as matt robinson does, I see my own early hockey years “through something akin to morning-breath fog on hockey rink glass”. Something about the sport, connected with my own memory, makes me compelled to listen to these poems. When robinson talks about “that musty rubber / shuffle down a blade-scarred mat from locker-room to cool, / hard motion” or “the dull thuds: of pucks / on the dead dashers of boards, of early saturday morning trunks,” I find myself nodding and knowing exactly what he means.
Arc Poetry Magazine