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and then it was so sad

Em Meller

Sophie Robinson  [1]
Rabbit
Boiler House
2018
pp
£10

 

 

 

 

 

just because you’re sad doesn’t mean you have to show

everyone your sadness like it’s the news

–  ‘lit moments’, Sophie Robinson

 

*

 

“You have sad eyes.”

He leaned in close as he said this, held my right cheek with one hand. We were sitting on his floor, which was covered in ugly carpet that gave the whole room a blue-tinted feeling. I didn’t know it then, but would become my clearest memory of those mornings: the cold light.

“Well, there’s a sadness in them”. This was confusing, because I was happy. I had been since we met two weeks before (but please don’t tell him I said that).

“Okay”, I said. And like that I had accepted his perception of my subjective emotional experience. Together, we had just drawn a blueprint. This is how it looked: I was complicated, sad, prone to irrational feelings and he was warm, comforting, always calm. Soon after, I felt myself performing this sadness for him, a personal show of pain. This went on for some time, but you already know how it plays out.

Hey, maybe it’s best if we just go back to being friends? 🙂

I didn’t want to show you this.

*

Sadness is boring. God, it’s so boring. Everything’s always soaked in it, it’s always dripping down our legs. All it means is a cloudy head and monotony. There is something especially repulsive to us about the experience of female sadness. Its irrationality and formlessness, its refusal to be transmuted into something more productive, like anger.

In much art and poetry (i.e. in opposition to real life experience) female sadness is presented to us as something romantic. Susan Sontag wrote that sadness is what, historically, made women beautiful. “Sadness made one ‘interesting.’ It was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad. That is, to be powerless.” This is the aestheticised version, the acceptable kind of sadness. The kind expressed through beautiful, tortured imagery. Sylvia Plath’s pain, the pain of Hemmingway’s Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, all the women drained in Dracula. As Leslie Jamison writes in ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’“The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars.”

In rabbit, Robinson refuses to pretty up her sadness. She resists placing it on a mantel and making it glitter, like crystal. In her work, sadness is banal. It is everyday: a pen with the lid flicked off, a bumper sticker, a hatch. And in doing this she directly confronts the central paradox of aestheticised sadness: the demand that if you are going to stylise your feelings, make them beautiful and familiar. A failure to do so often results in the following kind of criticisms being levelled against the art or artist: self-indulgent, faux-intimate, zeitgeisty. That it left the reader feeling nothing. That it made the reader dislike the central voice. That it was hard or unbearable to read. Too sad.

In resisting this, Chris Kraus writes that the problem is being afraid of female emotion generally. “No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form.” In Rabbit, part of what Robinson is doing is pursuing sadness as form – creating a stylised version that resonates more closely with actual, lived experience. In her poems, there is no glamour to sadness. There is no frail female figure. She is doing something far more interesting. The result is by turns visceral, intense, and stunning in the realest sense: to read it is to be knocked flat on your back, left dazed.

*

I wish I could say that message was the end of things, that I took my hurt feelings and walked quickly away, retained a level of dignity. But that’s not what happened.

After it ended, I messaged everyone, broadcast my sadness as far as it would go. Why didn’t he have romantic feelings, why didn’t they develop as mine did for him? I threw my phone across the room when he didn’t reply to me after three days, and the screen smashed.

The truth is: I drank in the evenings, masturbated to him in the mornings, and when I couldn’t come I lay down on the floor watching the light stream through the tiny high window, twitching.

Does this all sound familiar? Am I boring you?

*

Part of what makes Rabbit a difficult book is the distance it maintains between the lived experience and poem itself. It can make the central voice of the collection seem aloof, or hard to empathise with, even in moments of extreme pain. But Robinson’s ‘I’ maintains a flat, affected tone in order to make room for subject matter that would otherwise easily veer into the melodramatic: addiction, recovery, queer identity, romantic love, pain, sex.

In particular, ‘Sunshine Belt Machine’ uses space to undercut a depressive episode, allowing it to drift along as an ordinary and banal experience. It opens, “happy valentines i am not / at my jazziest”, which we can guess is an understatement. But it is also how it feels to enter a depressive headspace – anticlimactic, low energy. The poem goes on to enact a kind of collage of voices that borrow phrases from self-help and pop culture discourses, like “i take care of myself okay / like a baby something / like a mama something”. Aestheticised sadness in this poem is something flat and faraway. This culminates in the closing lines:

& it’s fine to be full

of pretty much anything

 just for a while i love life i love being

 alive one day after another

 forever. what’s next.

It is not a question: it ends with a period. The next thing will come until it doesn’t. These line oscillate between hopefulness and despair, depending how you read them, which is what it’s like to shift moods. Same input, different outlook.  You can love life for a while, but it might go away. You can be full of happiness or sadness, it’s okay, both will pass. Like there is no central image or metaphor to embody sadness, we understand that the ultimate thing that changes in our subjective experience of the world are our feelings. Even the fullest sadness will probably pass, so it’s a good idea to hold it at a safe distance.

*

I have a confession: the boy from the opening paragraph? He doesn’t exist, I made him up, and I made ‘I’ up too. I did this to try and open you. Turned sadness into an art object and performed it for you. I did it so we could be closer. But now that I’ve opened the hatch, shown you what’s inside, you probably feel tricked. You may dislike me. That’s okay, just pick her up –  feel how soft she is?

*

This is a trick confessional poets know. Plath, Lowell, Sexton – they offer up their pain, struggles with addiction, their sadness in the form of poetry in order to make you feel the weight of their metaphors more effectively. In Rabbit, Sophie Robinson is using sadness in a different way. She is not interested in neat metaphors about pain: Plath’s train to Auschwitz, Lowell’s burning river. These familiar and complete images. In an interview with Jacket2, before the publication of rabbit, she said, “Through my writing I try to foster a sense of intimacy and vulnerability, often using direct address and ruptured forms of the confessional mode”.

We can see these ruptures most clearly in III, where many of the poems take on lines from the language of capitalist realism, corporate culture and art. ‘Fucking up on the rocks’ is a gorgeous poem-cum-eulogy for Frank O’Hara, ‘the greatest homosexual   who ever lived & died’.  

This appropriation of found materials also disrupts any illusion that there is a consistent ‘I’ in the poem, a single person with a unified and logical emotional world. There are multiple versions of ‘I’ that want and feel contradictory things. Robinson is creating a place of articulation, a kind of rupture in the ordinary signifying process. This ‘I’ as a place of articulation, of identity as something to be negotiated forms part of the queer poetics of Robinson’s work. Identity is not stable or complete, but remains open. In ‘lit moments’, lines from text messages are woven with bumper stickers in a refrain that cumulatively undermines the idea that you shouldn’t lay your sadness out and put it on display, ‘like it’s the news.’ In this poem the news and emotional reality have equal weight: they form parts of the same reality and experience:

bumper sticker on my mirror says synthetic sweetness made you sick

bumper sticker on my mirror says hmu if ur dtf

bumper sticker on my driveway says i don’t want to see myself in anybody

else’s art I don’t want to know what they think they know about me I don’t

 want magic I just want silence …

Maybe this is ultimately the point: there is so much synthetic emotion, the only way to feel something real is to keep a distance from it. Or we risk being completely saturated. By rupturing the confessional mode, experimenting with the kinds of language we associate with emotion, Robinson is reappropriating these techniques and making an argument for the fusion of experimental poetics with emotion, sentiment and self-expression.

These are not neat, and they are not singular, a messiness which belies their sophistication and coherence. Some of these poems look simple, but aren’t. They seem disjointed, but are cumulative in effect. Robinson captures the fluidity and tension of emotional life, enacting feelings rather than trying to merely represent them. Throughout the poem are multiple refrains about the rabbit, to who this poem is addressed: “rabbit you’re so sweet / i’m stuck on your beautiful memes”, “rabbit you were born this way / rabbit you’re so drunk / rabbit you’re so drunk go home”, “& then the rabbit was so sad / & then the rabbit was so sad.” It’s never totally clear who the rabbit is – as a figure she remains slippery, sometimes it seems like a lover and other it could be the ‘i’ of the poems. This slippage resists simple symbolism, remains an enigmatic embodiment of something liminal.

Rabbit, ultimately, problematises and recasts sadness as a legitimate poetic mode, though a slippery one. Robinson is reclaiming the experimental landscape with a queer, feminist commitment to break down the separation between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ forms of poetry. That is: take my sadness seriously.  Emotions are the underlying structure of these poems – the bones on which Rabbit hangs. And it’s the moments where she strips the flesh off to reveal the white beneath, picked clean, that are saddest – the most stunning.

Em Meller [2] is a writer and a Gemini. She has recent work in The Lifted Brow, Slippage and Ash.