Reviewed by Sarah James
‘Oratory’- a place of prayer, aptly fitting for Robbin’s seventh masterfully crafted poetry collection, which feels like a chapel of the mind, home to poems so focused on humanity; sometimes memory, sometimes personal and community grief. Concerned with earthly sufferings, Robbins has a clear voice throughout, one that is equally methodical and whimsical, in essence he is both artist and preacher. His work- part art, part sermon, most apparent in ‘The Great Litany’, a most apt title for this standout poem. It is in essence our modern-day intercessory prayer including various petitions fitting in contemporary life as it would have in the fifth century in Rome. The imagery is rich and grappling mimicking the incantations led by a deacon. Many poems tip into memories, an array of voices flowing clearly and consciously; at times a father, at times the lover all journeying for insight.
‘The Oratory of all Souls’ is a must read for anyone, seasoned or unfamiliar with Robbin’s work. Calm and thought-provoking, the imagery will both entrance and inspire the flickerings of the human existence, our very essence. Our solo journeys overlapping others around us, just as the heard of elk mould through the whiteness of a woodland. Robbin’s voice, so poignantly resembles poets of old, with a steady iambic beat reminiscent at times of T.S. Elliot. These poems demand to be read out loud, to be shared, to be discussed. They reach out with such fervour it invites us to walk each other home, seeking, longing, breaking and mending towards resurrection.
Broken up into four parts, and peppered with inserts that may act as a rough introduction to the themes upcoming. We are introduced to interchanging voices, some poems a clear snapshot of a time now passed. We journey through both specific places in time, mulling on locations so lushly that time begins to stagnate and individual human journeys, so personal, spring from the pages. We meet the father, the lover, the man in the field, the proverbial ‘I’ and at times feel as though they could interchange seamlessly. Wider concepts are always at play in Robbin’s work, and don’t feel out of place, they take their time, beginning to swell loudly, especially in part three, which stands as the real beating heart of this collection. We begin at ‘The Blue Houses,’ visiting the “oil-skin tarps” of ‘Ocean Going’ on through part two, ‘Disappearances’, the “bed of willow leaves” in ‘Looking for the Man One Morning To Dusk’ and the dearly remembered “hibiscus wallpaper”, “grandmother’s flowered dress” and “peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches” in ‘Kitchen in Los Angeles.” In part three we spend time lingering on ‘The Oratory of all Souls’, the choppy prayer-like structure calling upon clear images. We have “iodine in rib wound”, “spotted handkerchiefs of the insane” and “soldiers birthing boulders in the magnificent, ‘Camp at Karasuli (North Wall)’, before finally washing up on ‘That Beach.’ We are pulled out once again into the ocean, this section flush with sea imagery, ‘Vanquished’ tells us of a new born “greasy with foam”, a beach of “eavesdropping shells” and “kelp like hairlines” whilst ‘San Cristobal Hill’ concerns itself with some heavy religious imagery, “the Mother of All” and the “Immaculate Virgin” Before Robbins once again pulls us out to the beach in ‘Memory Of Water’, with tide and tiny boat, stranded and left merciless and mulling over more than our own grievances .
Robbins seems to be a poet with itchy feet, in both life and personal work. This only works to his credit in his writing, one of his great strengths being the settings he paints us, so tactile at times, we may as well have lived it ourselves. The poems throughout are rich in surroundings, lush references to trout, bear and elk as well as Lake Michigan, Santa Monica and Venice beach. There is a sense of command in both the natural world and the banalities of daily life, trucks, tractors, a cabin smoke pipe. It is truly a collection that is all encompassing, from the first moments of birth to the echo of death. Some particularly moving moments appearing in ‘Before’, as the speaker describes his son’s
first birth, so intimately wanting to linger on “the nearness of salt” and to “smell the ocean of his head.”
Whilst he was raised in Southern California and Montana, Robbins made a name for himself during his thirty-five year stay, living and teaching in Minnesota. Ever the treasure to the town of Mankato, Robbins directed the much-loved Good Thunder Reading series at Minnesota State University from 1986-2014, often credited for bringing the small-scale fixture to eyes all over Minnesota. Before recently retiring in 2021, Robbins was the founding director of the Creative Writing program for many fruitful years. In an almost cyclical fashion, Robbins has, as of late, migrated back west to Oregon.