Years ago, when a guest speaker exhorted my MFA class to use family and friends as unique characters in our writing, I was intrigued. So when the speaker in Judith R. Robinson's poem "Child's Play" asks, "Where is Billy Applebee, our tormentor?"— I want to know more. Robinson's new collection, orange fire (Main Street Rag), does its narrative best to divine the artistic and emotional importance of those who've populated her speaker's life.
Pittsburgh-based Robinson's most effective work in the book's 92 pages captures the poetic reality of situations and relationships. Her speaker observes with precise clarity in poems like "At Lanigan's" and "Hawaiian Night," witnessing the rites of funerals and singles parties. The description of food in "Dream Lunch" is spot-on and mouth-watering.
Robinson's speaker is at her strongest when not just observing but including herself in the moment. That's best exemplified by "Dinner Date," in which the speaker and a military vet get to know one another on a first date that turns into an emotional referendum on war.
He'd been the soldier, and his soldiering
had to mean something. You could see
How much in those tight lips and his fist
squeezing the wine-glass stem, hard.
So I gave him that.
Then I told him Danny never came home.
It ends with a crescendo, smug and succinct as a dagger: "It was finally for nothing, I whispered, evilly. / Nothing. Your service, his death. Nothing. / He quit arguing. Shut up. / I felt queasy, like I stepped on something / and made it stop moving."
Still, powerful moments like these, laid bare and without tongue-holding, are rare in orange fire. Robinson's tempered tone relies more on imagery than attitude.
Robinson combines the personal and the pastoral often, with uneven results. A favorite, "Tulips," reminisces about a beloved aunt to contrast blooming perennials and urban decay: "Tulips remind me / of Aunt Lil / who planted them / to relieve the terror / of that crumbling brick duplex / next door to the gas station / where she lived / her long narrow life." The musicality of the line breaks shows good craft, along with a keen eye.
While Robinson sometimes substitutes less-than-taut metaphors for greater narrative focus, there's much in orange fire to keep readers busy pondering their own personal and familial ties.