How We Play At It: A List

By Bert Almon

A review of How We Play At It: A List by Matt Robinson

Published on April 1, 2003

How We Play At It: A List
Matt Robinson

ECW Press
$15.95
paper
84pp
1-555022-551-0

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. One of his wittiest conceptions comes in the sequence “personal mythologies,” a tale of a stressed couple (a contemporary Adam and Eve) moving into a new place. In the first ten poems, their cycle of tension and resolution is structured by terms for poetic expressiveness from The Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: concretization, augmentation, repetition, variation, division, contrast, preparation, combination, concord, and reduction. Part of the fun is seeing how these abstract terms can give form to the details of daily life. Reduction, for example, is illustrated by the cooking of onions. The onions become a vehicle to express the symbolic sweetness, pungency, and (inevitably) bad breath in a human relationship.

Robinson’s signature form, the couplet, occasionally becomes perfunctory, an arbitrary arrangement of words in two-line units without enough modulation of thought by the contrast between end-stopped and run-on pairs. But the form generally serves him well for both narrative and lyric. His most powerful poem is a meditation on a hairbrush belonging to his dead mother, a brush which stilll has strands of hair. THe poem uses the two-line form with absolute lyric tact. After pondering the traces of “stylish cuts” which are easier to think about than “the clatter and rasp of bones and lungs gone weak,” he varies the metaphor: “and in the end, it is the cuts we truly appreciate; the spaces/where the seams have torn that give the coat its staying power.” Robinson’s poems are likely to have staying power. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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