“The North End: Poems”
By Judith Robbins
North Country Press, Unity, 2016
80 pages, trade paperback, $14.95
Judith Robbins’s first collection of poetry, “The North End,” is kind of a daring book even in an age in when most everything there is to dare in books has been, as it were, dared. There have been a lot of memoirs in the past two or three decades, I mean, in which turbulent family histories have been recounted in detail mostly unheard of before 50 or 60 years ago.
At that time, the phrase “confessional poetry”was coined by M.L. Rosenthal to lasso a subgenre of American poetry appearing in the verse of high-profile poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. These poets were focusing on autobiographical details that previously would have been shielded from public scrutiny. Plath’s poem “Daddy,” an evocation of complicated psychological animosities with respect to her father who died when she was 8, is one of the movement’s landmarks. Since then autobiographical reflection has become more or less a staple of some strands of American poetry, and so the term “confessional” has receded into the background as a literary descriptor.
So Judith Robbins’s collection, which focuses through about its first half on her childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, is not topically unusual. But its directness is, at least in verse that has made its way out of creative writing workshops and into formal print.
Right in your face are her father’s paychecks lost to drink; the brutalities of the neighborhood kids (she’s beaten by a bully; a tortured boy hangs himself at the age of 13; a girl is horribly burned in her yard); and the gritty tenement neighborhood on Poets Hill and its implications:
Our house was not condemned
but the one behind us where Betty lived
A yellow sign nailed to the wall of that house
read: This Building CONDEMNED.
Department of Public Health. I knew
what those heavy black capitals meant,
the stigma attached to anyone living there.
Nobody moved. The city did not evict.
But living under that interdict was the shame
of Hester Prynne.
There’s not a lot of tenderness in this section of the book, but when it appears, it’s usually associated with her mother (whose anger is nonetheless palpably conveyed) and with language, in two forms: the mysterious effects of “Aiden Kieli,” her Finnish mother tongue (“my keel, my rudder, / my compass”), and moments of prayer the suffering girl practiced in secret (“At the altar of Our Lady of the Angels / Church I prayed for myself and a friend / for safety”).
This religious sensibility carries over into Robbins’s next life. She went on to attend Harvard Divinity School and moved to Maine, which we find is the decades-later setting for most of the poems in roughly the second half of the book. These poems are devoted largely to the balm of natural beauty and the complexities of family emotions in surroundings much more salubrious than those of her childhood. “Listen, Look” in its entirety:
Through the window, through branches
of pine, over the lawn to lilac in bloom
beyond, it’s raining. The tin roof a-rattle,
I remove spectacles to allow a blur
of sight and sound. Nothing clear may
open a way for everything clear in a new
way of seeing meaning as green as it is
this early May morning in Maine.
The language is very plain-spoken, and as a result depicts its subject matter, especially in the North End half of “North End,” in strikingly direct terms — to me this directness dares the reader, in an unusual way, both to absorb the factual details of really grueling childhood pain, and to see how they match their own life story. Tricky territory for reader and author alike.
Judith Robbins, of Whitefield, is semi-retired from ministry. “The North End” is available from North Country Press in Unity.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].