In today’s polarizing political climate, it can be difficult to find a voice that is both self-assured and socially-aware without coming across as pushy.
In her third collection of poetry, Sit How You Want, Toronto-based poet Robin Richardson tackles bad dates, relationships, and the daily struggles of the human heart with the conversational tone of a wine and sushi date.
In almost sixty award-winning and widely-published poems, Richardson writes with a prosody that is both accessible and completely immersive.
In the poem “And No, We Don’t Go Easy” Richardson describes the subtle battles that rage day in and day out between the lonely hearts of the world. “I get blue/Dress for battle with your shadow/sleek as a machete in my desert dress/and cinder-tinted bob. I’m biding time./You’re saving face. The wars/are so damn civilized these days.”
With language that seems at first glance to contain all the bamboozling cadences of modern poetry, Richardson shifts seamlessly from Art House obscurity to the pure, clean, conversational tones of a porchlight conversation with a fluidity that seems self-guided.
With the surprising emotional insight of Rupi Kaur and the vividity of Andrea Gibson, Richardson invites the reader into the stories of her life and the lives of those around her, hammering home the universal truths that bind us all together. “You give your all/until you’re all used up and then/you get to say at least that you survived.”
As part of Quebec-based Vehicule Press’ 45th anniversary, Richardson’s latest collection stands as a paean to the inner mind. Beginning the poem entitled “At This Stage of the Journey Our Hero Pauses to Consider a Difficult but Necessary Course of Action,”
Richardson paints the setting with “We were crotch deep in a Himalayan snowdrift/when it occurred to me to kill him,” before drifting quickly into references to both Lolita and The Cremation of Sam Mcgee. Effortlessly blending Canadian ballad with European high fiction, Richardson underlines the universality of the deep and troubling waters of the human psyche with poetry that is both of us and better than us.
For any readers out there wondering if they’ve got the right mind for poetry, wonder no longer. As Richardson puts it in the poem “Eventuality,” “We’re no better than the rest.”
Sit How You Want is Toronto poet Robin Richardson’s third collection. At the level of sound, her poetry is much more pleasingly conventional than Harvey’s. Take, for example, the internal rhymes in a poem about Punchdrunk theatre’s play Sleep No More (also the title of the poem): “I’ve spread wide enough to drop through new. / Arena poised for this impending breakthrough. Act two // opens on a torch-lit hall.” Or the quite beautiful music of “Bright bulimics / holding MFAs like payday loans” (“At the Pub with King Lear’s Daughters”).
Richardson uses end-rhyme very sparingly and sometimes for the purpose of irony, but her ear is closely attuned to the intricacies of what words sound like, and that attention pays off handsomely. These lines from the poem “Sit How You Want, Dear; No One’s Looking” demonstrate an exceptional sensitivity to language:
are prepped for post-apocalypse, crabs
quarrying the sand for your abandoned
cigarettes. This is as pleasant as it gets.
Richardson’s poems often seem to begin in the middle of something unclear and to end abruptly. She tells us many times that her ego is a puzzle to her, although her id is usually operating at full tilt. “I’m a forgery / so skillfully constructed it outdoes the real thing,” she avers in “Come In and Get Lost.” In “About the Speaker,” she says, “I am built of myth and girly bits.” This apparently egoless voice sees the world as highly fallen, one in which relationships are mostly pinchbeck (“I’m biding time. / You’re saving face”) and everything seems to proceed in a measured step toward devastation and empty self-indulgence:
missiles craft a show worth sitting on
the roof to watch,
like Goya with his brush makes execution picturesque.
The cynicism in such lines seems earned rather than rote, however, and so does Richardson’s claim that “I make Bonnie Parker // look like Beaver Cleaver, preening for a photo / shoot in the debris of this old dive.”
Some of the poems in Sit How You Want are almost impenetrable, especially when Richardson lets punctuation be damned and writes unmoored from accessibility (see, for example, “The Redemption Motif”). But if she is willing to end her book on so glum a statement as “Go by Contraries” – “Being / is our birthright, sure, but being piggybacks us / seriously sadly to its edge and shrugs” – she also knows that she’s “here to hone the craft of living.” And of writing, too.
Quill & Quire
Reviewer: Bruce Whiteman
SUCH AN UGLY LITTLE DUCK
This morning’s pink ass. Last night’s sadist.
Suppose he came to know me as he wrote
in Sharpie on my belly: whore, or heroine,
or both. I’m no good at sleeping. High-strung
in a hurricane of public access broadcasts
while the city’s men parade their bulges
on the F train waiting to be licked
back into living. This is how a book begins:
protagonist unburdened by her husband
blunders through the belly of a whale.
One day she’ll emerge dismantled, all decked
out in Swarovski Crystal halos. Imperfect,
picturesque as childhood hallucinations.
There is a sharpness and a confidence to the first person monologues in Toronto writer Robin Richardson’sthird full-length poetry collection, Sit How You Want (Vehicule Press, 2018), even as the poems explore trauma, terror and powerlessness, and the ways in which one might finally emerge. In an interview conducted by Madeleine Wattenberg, posted at So To Speak, Richardson speaks of “unsympathetic poems,” an idea I found quite fascinating:
The sympathetic poem is crafted in service of the author. It makes one look intelligent or innovative, or, in the case of this “universal” notion you put forth, which I can’t get out of my head now, it makes one seem a masculine sort of authority. I think of all these poems written by white men about the strife of the third world and so on. It comes secondhand and from a sense of the author’s own importance and “seriousness.” It puts nothing on the line, offers up no vulnerability, and does nothing to actually portray the truth of its subject matter, because only the subject, speaking for herself, could provide the “truth” of her experience. It’s somewhat colonial to me, and difficult to digest.
In contrast to this, the unsympathetic writer puts herself on the line, risking vulnerability and exposure of the unflattering angles the sympathetic writer dodges with skill and preoccupation with externals. So, in a world where only the flattering photos are posted, and the easy to digest stories shared, it is a crucial service to one’s fellow to expose the ugly, the sad, the unflattering. It’s in this sharing that we begin to feel less alone.
This is where isolation ends, and empathy, solidarity even, begins. I could go on for pages about the illuminating and healing power of sharing true stories but I’ll stop here with the urge to start listening and asking questions; to start sharing the things that make you feel most unlovable.
While Sit How You Want isn’t, specifically, a collection of “unsympathetic poems,” the idea is one not unrelated to the poems at hand, in which the narrator/s speak of love and damage, depression and regret, and fearlessness versus fear. As she writes, both in a kind of mocking self-dismissal as well as declaration of being and purpose, in the poem “ABOUT THE SPEAKER”: “I am built of myth and girly bits.” These are poems pushing to break free from abusive relationships, both familial and romantic; poems composed via a narrator (or narrators) that has survived, although not without scars, such as the gloriously-titled “EARTHQUAKES ARE MY FAVOURITE WAY / TO MAKE ISLANDS,” that begins: “We ignored the cries of the carbon monoxide / detector, coitussed in a pose like Pompeii / corpses while the cabbies grew irate outside. / This is the last day of our lives, until tomorrow. / When I say I’m fine I mean the sky has opened / like an old wound under scurvy [.]”
BLUEBEARD FOR BEGINNERS
It was love at gunpoint. It was cuffed, diamond-studded-ball-gagged,
that I found my strength. You follow? Break to rebuild better
like the hero in a DC comic’s bludgeoned to the point of brilliance.
Blood’s the best incentive, said the dove, slayed, laying in the hooks
of her beloved. Bellevue mid-march making plans with our hallucinations.
We were stylish in our shared delusion; rings were not enough
we went for ink and more. I can’t complain. It is the thrill of ruination
makes us innovative. I do my drugs, my lovers, with the discipline
of Kung-fu film star choreography.
Robin Richardson wields an arsenal of striking turns of phrase in her volcanic third collection of poetry. Richardson, who divides her time between Toronto and New York, comes across as poetry’s answer to the American comedian Sarah Silverman; both women have a barbed wit and a penchant for baring uncomfortable social truths. Richardson alludes sardonically to female stereotypes in pop culture and literature (fairy tales, in particular); “I am built of myth and girly bits,” she writes. She dramatizes male-female relationships as danger zones and battlegrounds, and derides the depiction of romance in film, “where love escapes unscathed:/ fat babe with bow and arrow,/indiscriminate a criminal as some/drunk, disgruntled gunman.” For all its fierceness, Richardson’s poetry is animated by an awareness of female vulnerability. As she puts it devastatingly in one poem, “Remember breakability the lamp that like a bat /came down on all the faces of the girls in women’s bodies.”
- The Toronto Star
"Robin Richardson’s poems take no prisoners, have a strange and authentic music all their own, and mark her, with this haunting second book, as one of the best young poets of her generation."
Richardson writes for the ear, eye, and mouth. You will want to read these lush poems out loud.
- Matthea Harvey
Arc Poem of the year judge's comments: I keep returning to this poem because every time I read it it feels new. The movement from moment to moment and image to image create a nightmare logic, and unpunctuated lines fill me with a breathless anxiety. Like a nightmare I can never quite remember what comes next though I always remember how it ends. The horrific is punctuated by moments of wonder. Nina Jane Drystek
Judge's comments: Of the over 350 poems considered, this one particularly stood out for seeming to combine the unlikely elements of eroticism, environmentalism, science and myth, with wit and surprise. Readers in North America will not be surprised - Richardson is a rising star there, and this poem shows why - its contemporary twist on metaphysical poetics is as dark as P. Lockwood's, her self-examination as Algonquin Round Table whip-smart as E. Berry's; there are perhaps a dozen younger women poets now writing in English, vying to be our age's Plath. (Hera L. Bird also comes to mind). Here we have Canada's answer to that seemingly futile, morbidly appealing quest. But this poem is far more than that would imply - its own glamorous volatility, medical weirdness, and brilliance of metaphor, is rather original. - Dr. Todd Swift
This is the kind of collection to keep handy, to read when life doesn't make sense. Robin is the great explainer, the unraveller of mysteries and experiences are magnified, turned inside out and pinned to the wall in a way that you will never forget.
Lisa de Nikolits
Richardson has a talent for disquieting images that amuse and disturb in equal measure... a precise, pristine poet, Richardson always delights"
- Jonathan Ball
"What a strange and wonderful world we find in Robin Richardson’s new book of poems! A world alive with danger and truth. A world much like our own though somehow even more real. Richardson is not just a poet with her own exciting Voice but a poet with an enigmatic Vision. How wonderful to get this chance to see what she sees."
"Galloping ghosts, pooka horses, coin-fed Gods and chocolate models alike pause in the high delight of Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis. Robin Richardson’s amazing second collection zings along with precision turn, heady phrase and tight line. A seducing, inviting collection of poems that simultaneously stands like a gentle breeze and like a bouncer unafraid to put you in a headlock."
- David McGimpsey
Robin Richardson's Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis opens as though Richardson were the tail gunner in a dive-bombing airplane being chased through the sky. She is letting it all fly. These gem like poems are stacked with unthinkably charismatic lines of poetry. Imagine a wood-chipper in reverse, the news, the detritus of the world, all of it spewing at pace towards the mouth of the chipper, these solid oak poems coming out the other end.
- Michael Dennis
Emotive engagement is established by the accretion of sensory details, all attentive to this singular, approachable character. And the end is aurally powerful, capable of stabbing a simple scene in the reader’s psyche in the manner of a Faulkner or O’Connor.
- Catherine Owen
Richardson uses the poetic image like a tourniquet on the eyes while a self-aware wound is inflicted elsewhere in the imagination.
- Margaret Christakos
Robin Richardson’s “Knife Throwing Through Self-hypnosis” was the final book to arrive. This book is explosive in thought. Her mind is truly one of an artist. Each line I read was so creative and perfectly placed within the poem. Robin’s words displayed the same meticulous thought in their arrangement as a chess player would use carefully moving knights and bishops. I was not surprised having read some of her work online and seeing her YouTube clips. She is someone I will read for many years to come. A true artist, fearless with her words of poetry. Check out her work today.
- Jason E. Hodges
Robin Richardson’s poetry is sensually morbid and reaches behind the depths of indifference and longing to reveal the tension of human communication as it twists through the corridors of the places we don’t want to look; like what rots in the shadow of a caress and what stains does innocence leave on beauty? She gargles the half empty glass and savours the dregs while others drink the half full glass and chase it with indifference.
- A Voice for Toronto