Berton House Writer-in-Resident Oct-Dec 2020
I made my bruises into stories and the stories
made a currency the Gods had need for
Sit How You Want, Canadian poet Robin Richardson’s third and newest full-length book, traverses a painful, troubling landscape – beginning with a child’s neglect and abuse, and continuing into womanhood with men all too glad to repeat the pattern for her. In this excellent collection, she not only survives the gauntlet, but comes through with a sense of newfound power and, even, triumph.
Richardson has a skilled poetic ear. The rhythm is never slack and her deft use of assonance and consonance gives her work a sonic mastery that grants aesthetic value to even the most difficult subject matter. Arresting images, insight, and emotional punch complete the picture. The result is powerful poetry.
Sit How You Want, although not formally divided into sections, contains three loosely distinct parts: the speaker’s memories and interactions with a father who thought of her as his “lucky charm” in his gambling efforts and generally was not emotionally supportive; the inevitable Repetition Compulsion relationships with abusive men who do not have the speakers’ best interests at heart; and poems about the speaker’s survival and resultant strength.
The book starts with a manifesto, a statement of where the poet has come from and where she wants to go:
Spent a year trying to write poems that weren’t about me
came up with carbon monoxide and the sitcom banter
Finding this unsatisfactory, she proceeds to tell how she then tried to write poems “like those who died,” while she “drank the peaty stuff/ back then which kept the best words blurred in blah orders.” The poem rejects this strategy too, and ends with emphasizing her own voice, in the sober present. A book beginning with a poem like this – a statement of purpose – inevitably raises the stakes. And Richardson delivers.
The speaker’s relationship with her father is fraught. “Trigger” describes how he and his infant daughter “scope each other out/ like snipers caught off guard/ at close range.” The father is more concerned about what he can get from the girl, particularly as it involves his gambling interest. In “Woodbine, By the 401,” the speaker tells of how the father would bring her along to the race track, believing she could “dowse a winner.” But this fatherly attention, meager as it is, can’t last, and is in marked contrast to the young girl’s need for him:
Her love is unconditional and lingers long
as mustard gas. At twelve she knows
she’ll pass from charm to trinket: picture
in a wallet, whipped out at casinos for good luck.
The daughter is aware that in a troubled relationship such as this, parent-child roles have been reversed. This sense of abandonment is palpable throughout – the small hand reaching out and no one reaching back. In the end, there’s a sense that the father himself has been abandoned, not by the daughter but by God, by fate. Hospital images abound – the father having contracted cancer. Nothing about this brings a sense of victory or pleasure to the speaker, just sadness.
The effect of the speaker’s relationship with the father reverberates into the future. The various men in her life seem like knockoff versions of him, specializing in abuse and emotional deprivation. In “About the Speaker,” she describes one lover who “wishes [she] had buckled, been [. . .] submissive as a mutt post-beating.” The speaker’s own horizons become more limited, as she is worn down to the point where her expectations become severely narrowed. “The Empathy Conundrum” expresses this prison-like state of mind: “I’m everything he wants because I want for nothing. White/ bread, water and an aptitude for happiness through forfeit.”
Conditioned as she is, though, the speaker is unable to desire safety or warmth: “I’m addicted to discomfort” (“Always End Up Trusting Cary Grant”). References to drug and alcohol abuse are sprinkled throughout. The prison images metastasize into something bodily, corporeal; “So I tell an armed guard how we squeeze each/ other’s words like triggers: tongue to cheek,/ to weekends spent accruing welcome bruises” (“Earthquakes Are My Favorite Way to Make Islands”). Although the relationships are not healthy, the speaker in these poems always recognizes her agency in the toxic duets. The imagery is brutal and effective – mustard gas, cysts, prison, Stockholm Syndrome. But the tumultuous relationships with these men mercifully end, although it’s not always her choice.
In the last several poems, Richardson achieves a hard-won strength. The speaker has lived through the double-barreled paternal/adult relationship hells, has endured, and is painfully wiser for it. A new confidence emerges. She uses her experiences to triumph over her former oppressors:
There is an art to stepping up into your role as ruler.
Must have lived, of course, own stories crass
to keep the powers’ pricks up. [. . .]
[. . .] I was born the weakest one.
Come harmless-seeming as a moth—wings rendered
useless by her handlers. Hear me whimper to a roar
and will you to submission.
(“Strike While They’re In Transit”)
In the end, we’re left with a sense that the she has persisted through the fire and can speak her own truths, on her own terms: “You’re free, baby,/ hold your own against the gods/ who thrashed you as a kid” This certainly will not be the last chapter in the speaker’s story, but we get a sense that she won’t seek that out anymore. Progress is rarely linear, and Richardson illustrates that throughout the structure, form, and content of this collection.
This is a brave and personal work. Richardson neither pulls punches, nor flinches from unpleasant truths. She doesn’t seek the uncomfortable, but doesn’t shy from it either. And Richardson has a tremendously skilled poetic voice. I read these two lines from “Eventuality” over and over again for the strength of sound and imagery: “Someone’s buried in the rubble of a burlesque hall/ fallen after two tectonic plates bumped uglies.”
[. . .] The cockroaches
are prepped for post-apocalypse, crabs
quarrying the sand for your abandoned
cigarettes. This is as pleasant as it gets.
(“Sit How You Want, Dear; No One’s Looking”)
Strangely pleasant, indeed. In Sit How You Want, Richardson achieves an impressive marriage of euphonic sound and gut-wrenching emotional insight. In “Disembodied at the Botanical Gardens” she implores, “Please let me be a blaze. I will destroy,/ I mean create again this place.” Which is exactly what Richardson has done with this collection.
Anthony Cappo is the author of the chapbook, “My Bedside Radio” (Deadly Chaps Press, 2016). His poems have appeared in THRUSH, Prelude, Connotation Press – An Online Artifact, Pine Hills Review, Yes Poetry, and other publications. Anthony received his M.F.A in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. He is originally from South Jersey, but now lives in New York City. His work can be found at anthonycappo.com
Montreal Review of Books
Sit How You Want, Robin Richardson’s third poetry collection, is relentlessly uncompromising in its brutal, often unflattering honesty. By virtue of its stubbornness, the collection captures the complicated facets of womanhood, abuse, and power with a raw vulnerability that is uncomfortable to read yet absolutely absorbing.
The speakers in Sit How You Want are contradictory: they constantly reinvent themselves, often without success:
…………………………………….I have been sculpted
to a crown then found too heavy, and removed
They long to be seen, even when it means facing violence. They frustrate themselves with their inability to subvert their own submission, and in this they mirror the truth of many abusive relationships – violence is easy to get used to when it’s what you know:
old conflict: What pains, what intoxicates.
Robin Richardson strikes me as poetry’s Elena Ferrante, with her presentation of genius women in powerless situations turning the tables on the men in their lives through language. She has an impeccable rhythm with words; these poems have a maximalism that drums masterfully, with meticulous internal rhymes and jaw-dropping, biting poetic disses:
In a Star Wars-themed fever dream
…….I saw him lassoed by a solar flare and held
there in a warmth I couldn’t provide. Blue light
…….clicked as I woke, wishing
caffeine came easy as a boy of twenty
This keen eye extends to the structure of the book; Sit How You Want’s heroines exist in timelessness. They can be both mother and daughter – “She’s a child. My child: Me.” – at one time. Richardson is working with a controlled burn here, a journey from confined, private terror to a loosening of ties. Perhaps there is no freedom from the violence of men, but Richardson presents a freedom in how this violence is absorbed and redistributed. (MH)
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.”
The Toronto Star
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.”
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.
“Sit How You Want by Robin Richardson…This book is such a giant galumphing step forward for a poet who was already good, it's going to I think lead with a reputation for confessionism because of content but it's so consistently perfect at the level of the line, and it contains so many expert sentences, that I hope it has a second life in coming years as prosody manual.”
"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