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Tiger Heron, Robin Becker’s eighth collection, tells the “understory” of a constellation of intimates: parents and lovers, friends and animals—what deceives us and what we miss altogether. In “A Last Go,” we find a daughter trying to serve her long sacrificing mother, pleasure by cake in her last days. In “Understory” “the forbidden Caribbean sparkled with sharks,” a meditation on how the natural world (when left to its own devices) makes just the right amount of room for beauty and decay, and why, the speaker wonders, can’t we? In “Her Lies,” she renders her lover’s dishonesty as carpenter bees, “Humming above me they debride/ the gallery, disappear inside,” where they eventually take down the house. One of Becker’s particular talents is an ability to make an anvil of one word the rest of the poem then bends around, as in here with “debride.” In “Dyke” she chronicles her personal history with the word and speaks back into that history, “…first/ I had to hate her;/ then I had to hurt her; the rest of my life,/ I ate from her hand.” In “Rescue Riddle” and “The Dog I Didn’t Want” she explores the relationship between rescue dog and owner—asking who really does the saving in the end.
Becker’s voice is all her own, moving freely from villanelle to longer sectioned pieces as in “Our Best Selves,” where she recounts an annual summer party hosted by a matriarch at a lake cabin. The speaker is a guest in this home, though perhaps a recurrent one. Here the reader can feel time wash in and out with the poem’s short lines— “This year Jules wins/ every game, and when/ she laughs, her red hair/ ripples as it did/ when she was ten/ and wild as her eldest/ awake in his sleeping bag…” She suggests that we are invited to be our best selves in reply to good love, and so she cares for this family by “play[ing] Candyland/ until he went down/ for a nap…”
In these poems we hear too, of public and private losses. The collection opens with “Prairie Dogs,” written in memory of Matthew Shepard, revealing how such national traumas permeate our daily lives: “That day one hung painting on a twist/ of barbed wire; front paws scored the dirt.” The scene is turned into a depiction of Shepard’s death, with a young boy unwinding the limbs of the prairie dog from the chain link, though, in Becker’s scene, the boy plays savior. It seems the speaker could see the tableau no other way—how violence colors forever the way we see the world.
In “The Sounds of Yiddish” she extols the “Middle High German” in her grandmother’s mouth, with a word play possible when working with two languages. “Like the Sami with many words for snow, we have many for fool. Shtunk. Schlepper. Schlemiel. Shmuck…” and “In Montefiore Cemetery” she recounts some tensions and joys of her family life, says, “My dead! I miss you! Won’t you give a sign?/ Make a joke at my expense?” How often have each of us stood in a cemetery and thought these things?
Observant songs of history and elegy, these poems turn our faces to what we can do with love and language, and what we can’t.
by Robin Becker
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 9780822962984, 80 pp.