I made my bruises into stories and the stories
made a currency the Gods had need for
Sit How You Want, Canadian poet Robin Richardson’s third and newest full-length book, traverses a painful, troubling landscape – beginning with a child’s neglect and abuse, and continuing into womanhood with men all too glad to repeat the pattern for her. In this excellent collection, she not only survives the gauntlet, but comes through with a sense of newfound power and, even, triumph.
Richardson has a skilled poetic ear. The rhythm is never slack and her deft use of assonance and consonance gives her work a sonic mastery that grants aesthetic value to even the most difficult subject matter. Arresting images, insight, and emotional punch complete the picture. The result is powerful poetry.
Sit How You Want, although not formally divided into sections, contains three loosely distinct parts: the speaker’s memories and interactions with a father who thought of her as his “lucky charm” in his gambling efforts and generally was not emotionally supportive; the inevitable Repetition Compulsion relationships with abusive men who do not have the speakers’ best interests at heart; and poems about the speaker’s survival and resultant strength.
The book starts with a manifesto, a statement of where the poet has come from and where she wants to go:
Spent a year trying to write poems that weren’t about me
came up with carbon monoxide and the sitcom banter
Finding this unsatisfactory, she proceeds to tell how she then tried to write poems “like those who died,” while she “drank the peaty stuff/ back then which kept the best words blurred in blah orders.” The poem rejects this strategy too, and ends with emphasizing her own voice, in the sober present. A book beginning with a poem like this – a statement of purpose – inevitably raises the stakes. And Richardson delivers.
The speaker’s relationship with her father is fraught. “Trigger” describes how he and his infant daughter “scope each other out/ like snipers caught off guard/ at close range.” The father is more concerned about what he can get from the girl, particularly as it involves his gambling interest. In “Woodbine, By the 401,” the speaker tells of how the father would bring her along to the race track, believing she could “dowse a winner.” But this fatherly attention, meager as it is, can’t last, and is in marked contrast to the young girl’s need for him:
Her love is unconditional and lingers long
as mustard gas. At twelve she knows
she’ll pass from charm to trinket: picture
in a wallet, whipped out at casinos for good luck.
The daughter is aware that in a troubled relationship such as this, parent-child roles have been reversed. This sense of abandonment is palpable throughout – the small hand reaching out and no one reaching back. In the end, there’s a sense that the father himself has been abandoned, not by the daughter but by God, by fate. Hospital images abound – the father having contracted cancer. Nothing about this brings a sense of victory or pleasure to the speaker, just sadness.
The effect of the speaker’s relationship with the father reverberates into the future. The various men in her life seem like knockoff versions of him, specializing in abuse and emotional deprivation. In “About the Speaker,” she describes one lover who “wishes [she] had buckled, been [. . .] submissive as a mutt post-beating.” The speaker’s own horizons become more limited, as she is worn down to the point where her expectations become severely narrowed. “The Empathy Conundrum” expresses this prison-like state of mind: “I’m everything he wants because I want for nothing. White/ bread, water and an aptitude for happiness through forfeit.”
Conditioned as she is, though, the speaker is unable to desire safety or warmth: “I’m addicted to discomfort” (“Always End Up Trusting Cary Grant”). References to drug and alcohol abuse are sprinkled throughout. The prison images metastasize into something bodily, corporeal; “So I tell an armed guard how we squeeze each/ other’s words like triggers: tongue to cheek,/ to weekends spent accruing welcome bruises” (“Earthquakes Are My Favorite Way to Make Islands”). Although the relationships are not healthy, the speaker in these poems always recognizes her agency in the toxic duets. The imagery is brutal and effective – mustard gas, cysts, prison, Stockholm Syndrome. But the tumultuous relationships with these men mercifully end, although it’s not always her choice.
In the last several poems, Richardson achieves a hard-won strength. The speaker has lived through the double-barreled paternal/adult relationship hells, has endured, and is painfully wiser for it. A new confidence emerges. She uses her experiences to triumph over her former oppressors:
There is an art to stepping up into your role as ruler.
Must have lived, of course, own stories crass
to keep the powers’ pricks up. [. . .]
[. . .] I was born the weakest one.
Come harmless-seeming as a moth—wings rendered
useless by her handlers. Hear me whimper to a roar
and will you to submission.
(“Strike While They’re In Transit”)
In the end, we’re left with a sense that the she has persisted through the fire and can speak her own truths, on her own terms: “You’re free, baby,/ hold your own against the gods/ who thrashed you as a kid” This certainly will not be the last chapter in the speaker’s story, but we get a sense that she won’t seek that out anymore. Progress is rarely linear, and Richardson illustrates that throughout the structure, form, and content of this collection.
This is a brave and personal work. Richardson neither pulls punches, nor flinches from unpleasant truths. She doesn’t seek the uncomfortable, but doesn’t shy from it either. And Richardson has a tremendously skilled poetic voice. I read these two lines from “Eventuality” over and over again for the strength of sound and imagery: “Someone’s buried in the rubble of a burlesque hall/ fallen after two tectonic plates bumped uglies.”
[. . .] The cockroaches
are prepped for post-apocalypse, crabs
quarrying the sand for your abandoned
cigarettes. This is as pleasant as it gets.
(“Sit How You Want, Dear; No One’s Looking”)
Strangely pleasant, indeed. In Sit How You Want, Richardson achieves an impressive marriage of euphonic sound and gut-wrenching emotional insight. In “Disembodied at the Botanical Gardens” she implores, “Please let me be a blaze. I will destroy,/ I mean create again this place.” Which is exactly what Richardson has done with this collection.
Anthony Cappo is the author of the chapbook, “My Bedside Radio” (Deadly Chaps Press, 2016). His poems have appeared in THRUSH, Prelude, Connotation Press – An Online Artifact, Pine Hills Review, Yes Poetry, and other publications. Anthony received his M.F.A in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. He is originally from South Jersey, but now lives in New York City. His work can be found at anthonycappo.com