Nostalgia has long had a place in literature. From Homer to the Romantics, Proust and a host of modernists, yearning for one’s home and childhood is a way of preserving memory. Perhaps poet Robert Browning summed up such longing best when he wrote, “how sad and bad and mad it was — but then, how it was sweet.” This could also characterize local writer Judith Robinson’s latest collection, a retrospective (mostly) of previous work.
In Carousel: New & Selected Poetry & Fiction (Lummox Press), she explores loss in ways that are by turns poetically reflective and narratively straightforward. While Carousel focuses on memory, its 121 pages read best when Robinson shies from the universal and strives for the personal.
In “Now the sadness,” she writes, “of searching for one lost / and not found in memory but / for a static camera image: / …a smile at fourteen / reflecting bright sunlight / a striped bathing suit / the bluegreen Atlantic.” It’s these moments of the mind’s betrayal that she lists as “hoard[ing] a berry scent, / a young baritone, / a mother’s kiss on tender skin … / why this outrage, this thievery?” The tactile moments are presented as empirical gifts, now misplaced and impossible to retrieve.
A favorite, “Hawaiian Night,” deals with dating for the mature, where “singles won’t mingle / quite yet. The used-to-be-boys / cluster in corners / the tall & the short / clutching pina coladas / laugh out loud over nothing / as the ladies, lit up by torches, / chatter & flutter, hens among the palms.” The imagery here, strong and evocative, suggests the difficulty of overcoming bereavement.
While Robinson’s poetics remain solid, her short stories here present a mixed bag. The strongest is “Mercy.” Set in 1971 Miami, the story follows 39-year-old Marilyn handling the aftermath of her husband’s stroke. Marilyn’s loss is palpable as she deals with his sudden deterioration, which seems cruel set against the backdrop of “a fabulous pastel world of palm trees and pink houses … everyone on holiday pursuing pleasure.” Instead, Marilyn is coming to terms with a life she hadn’t bargained for, and isn’t ready for. And like much of Carousel, Robinson asks readers to consider what it means to age and remember, in the face of what’s already gone.